I Feel Bad About My Sex

IMG_2627On Words

I feel bad about my sex. I really do. If you saw me, you probably wouldn’t guess it.

Because words are tricky and malleable, I’ll clarify: I’m talking about the sex that was assigned to me as a baby. In January of 1983, a doctor eased me out of an incision in my mother’s lower abdomen, saw a tiny vulva, and told everyone, “It’s a girl!”

I never questioned that assignment, but I’ve never felt great about it either. I remember knowing as a child that I was definitely not a boy. I felt that. But I didn’t feel “girl” in the same way. Or at all. I was a girl by default, because it was the only other option.

My stomach still plummets whenever I fill out a form and there are two checkboxes: Male; Female.

“Well,” reasons my mind, “certainly not Male.”

So I check the Female box, and then I feel weird and confused and ashamed and like maybe I’ve just lied a little bit on this official-looking form, and I have to remind myself that they’re asking about my body. I think.

(Then I feel weird and confused and ashamed all over again. And what does my gender marker have to do with the dentist fixing my broken filling?)

My body looks how society thinks a girl’s body—no, wait, sorry, a woman’s body—looks. I hear “excuse me, ma’am” or “pardon me, miss” in the grocery store if I happen to be standing in front of the cereal another shopper wants. It always takes me a moment to realize who the “ma’am” is supposed to be. But no one has ever called me “sir,” even when I’m dressed in my boxiest shirt and baggiest jeans.

As fraught a needle as this is for me to thread, I assume this means I look feminine. I wouldn’t call myself “pretty”—and that’s not false modesty or dysphoria talking. I’m at a place with my recovery from eating disorders where what serves me best, vis-a-vis my appearance, is neutrality: This is my face. These are my shoulders. This is my chest. And so on.

Still, friends I trust have called me beautiful (and I’m practicing believing the words of people I trust), and I’m “more or less woman-shaped,” to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But none of that really matches my insides. I don’t experience myself as a woman.

My Gender Mindfuck

When I was in high school, I found a copy of My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein in the Women’s Studies section of Dutton’s Brentwood Books. I don’t know if I knew the word “transgender” before reading that book, but I fell instantly head-over-heels in love with Bornstein’s queer lexicon and cheeky quizzes.

The book’s theory seemed to boil down to: Don’t feel like you totally match with the sex you were assigned at birth? Congratulations, you’re transgender!

I was elated to learn words and theories that aligned with my experience. But Bornstein also talks about gender’s connection to power in society, and that scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t ready to go down such a twisty road. For one thing, I already felt pretty powerless. And while I had this book to present gender/queerness as a beautiful, fluid spectrum, all the transgender narratives I had access to seemed rooted in binary gender. This was around the time that Boys Don’t Cry came out; I decided that people like Brandon Teena were actually transgender. I wasn’t exactly the “wrong” sex, or “a man trapped in a woman’s body.” I seemed to oscillate between wanting to be perceived as female and feeling like a fraud for presenting as female. As far as I could tell, I was just really bad at being a woman.

For one thing, I was attracted to women.

A Loss for Words

A few months before reading Bornstein’s book, I came out as having “a crush on a girl in my English class.” That statement wasn’t the whole truth. There was a girl, with whom I had fifth-period English, and who occupied a very special high-school-crush pedestal in my mind. But I’d internalized enough homophobia to be deeply ashamed of this crush—and of my tendency to fall in love with female celebrities and online penpals. I hadn’t thought very much about my sexuality beyond that, other than to feel certain that it was bad and wrong and further evidence of my failure as a human being.

I couldn’t tell the whole truth about my sexual orientation or identity because I didn’t know the whole truth. My therapist brought up my sexual orientation to me; not the other way around. She then pressured me to come out to my parents. At 16, I was still in the habit of deferring to authority figures for the truth in all matters, including matters of my identity. My parents were paying this person; that only reinforced her authority.

This therapist had used the word “lesbian” in our session, but I couldn’t bring myself to say that out loud. I’d been drawn to women for as long as I could remember, but I’d never known how to talk about that or had words that made sense to me. But suddenly, I felt like I had to talk about it.

In addition to my self-erasing deference to authority, I was terrified of keeping secrets. Somehow, even my own mind didn’t feel private or safe. I would’ve liked to keep my crush (and my process) to myself, but I felt like I had to save myself from the inevitable humiliation when someone other than this therapist figured out my whole not-a-real-[straight]-girl situation.

From there, I muddled through four years of feeling like a total imposter everywhere, LGBT spaces included. Being openly “gay” was slightly better (I hadn’t come home to “queer” yet), but I still felt like a fraud. “Real” [cis] womanhood continued to elude me, and I was always terrified of being found out, even though I wasn’t sure what that would look like.

I told exactly one person about my perceived sex failure. I explained that even when I made myself as feminine as I could, I still didn’t feel like a woman, and I was scared that someone would find out that I wasn’t “a real girl.” The scornful dismissal by someone who should have known better still hurts: “What?! What are you talking about?! Of course you’re a real girl!”

I’d all but forgotten about My Gender Workbook. I didn’t have the phrase “non-binary transgender” in my vocabulary. Maybe I was just crazy for feeling this way, and if I got better at looking and acting “like a girl,” I’d start to feel like one.

My Gender Mindfuck, Revisited

I decided that all this identity turmoil was just a product of my inherent brokenness. I made it my mission to redeem myself and made a conscious, deliberate effort to be “normal.” Normalness, I promised myself, would lead to happiness. After all, my happiest (seeming) friends and acquaintances were Christian, feminine girls with boyfriends.

I’d grown up with the belief that marriage equaled success, and motherhood was the key to ultimate bliss. Jesus and a husband and a baby or two would be my tickets out of self-hatred and misery! They would heal my brokenness, resulting in a magical transformation of my very being, and I would finally be happy and whole!

Of course, that’s not what happened. I went from being a depressed, fearful, self-erasing person to being a depressed, fearful, self-erasing person with a husband, two children, and several eating disorders.

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That’s the shortest possible version of a years-long story. There were certainly ups to go the with the downs. But over those months and years, I never stopped feeling at odds with my body and sexuality. (How could I? Nothing makes a person aware of the gender industrial complex quite like enduring a wedding and having babies.)

Fortunately, I also never lost an affinity for queer and trans narratives. Even when I avoided them, they often found me in small, magical ways. Finally, after a decade of holding myself hostage, I turned 30 and started to open back up to myself—somewhat reluctantly at first. I acknowledged my attraction to a wide variety of genders and gender presentations. I posted bits of my true self on social media and my first blog, usually to coincide with National Coming Out Day. I took my little brood to the Family Pride Picnic in Seattle. I engaged with more art, music, and storytelling that resonated with my “misfit” aspects. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to seek out the community and friends I longed for.

As the Kids Say

In summer of 2017, I met Kristina Turner through a mutual friend. Kristina and I bonded over a wide variety of topics, but shortly after we were introduced, it came up that Kristina’s middle child, Ori, is intersex. I was immediately struck by the fierce kindness with which Kristina has advocated for Ori, and prioritized the health of her young family.

This July, Ori and Kristina gave a TEDx talk called “Intersex is Awesome.” I was blown away, watching a grade-schooler stand onstage speak joyfully to an audience about being intersex, identifying as nonbinary, and using they/them pronouns. Ori is a born performer, and their inner light is dazzling. Watching this beautiful little soul shine through a hot pink blazer and “Too Cute to Be Binary” t-shirt lit my queer heart up. I thought, “How cool. I wish I could do that.”

I wish I had the confidence to embrace my identity with that kind of ease, humor, and style.

My true identity: not the box I think I “should” check.

I told Kristina about how affected I was by Ori’s self-knowledge and tremendous confidence in their identity. She smiled, and told me that Ori has always been proudly, vocally themselves. She described an incident where someone at a queer event had claimed that Ori couldn’t identify as trans, and Ori had explained to this person (who was much older than themselves) that actually, because they do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth, they fit under the trans umbrella.

I recalled my insecure 16-year-old self, reading Kate Bornstein, seeing my identity reflected in the words and then doubling back. I’d told myself that I had no right to certain labels because there were other people in the world who were “more valid” than I was. But I would never have denied someone else a label that resonated with them.

And just like that, a fifth-grader’s joy, clarity, and confidence in themselves slammed me up against my 35-year-old internalized queer- and transphobia.

On Words, Again

In one of those “the perfect thing at the perfect time” serendipitous moments, I finally decided to listen to the final episode of Flex Your Heart Radio, which had been sitting in my podcast app forever. Reflections on identity were already kicking around in my mind as I plugged in my headphones. When journalist Molly Woodstock started outlining their gender discovery process, I experienced the audio equivalent of looking in a mirror. Molly described thoughts and fears that I had had for decades: fear of being seen as “extra” for lack of a better word, or as an attention-seeker. (“I hate attention!” Molly says; “Hell yes!” I replied out loud, alone in my car.)

In terms of embracing their identity, Molly says:

“Finally I realized that…I was a nonbinary person. If you believe that nonbinary people exist, which they do, then I am one. And so my choice wasn’t whether to be nonbinary or to be a woman; my choice was whether to live authentically as a nonbinary person, or ignore the fact that I was nonbinary and pretend that I was a cis woman.”

That shook the foundation of my denial with validation and heartache. I felt like I’d been stabbed with the sharp clarity of truth: I am so afraid of living a genderqueer life that I’ve opted instead to live as a gender failure. I would rather exist as a never-good-enough cis woman than a full and complete nonbinary femme.

After weeks of grappling with words and language, talking to friends, reading, writing, listening to interviews (Molly’s Gender Reveal podcast is an absolute treasure), and working on coming to terms with terms—how they apply to me, how they don’t apply to me, what I like about them, what I don’t—I have the deep, profound sense that…I don’t know.

I don’t have a word or words I love—beyond queer. I don’t feel connected to any particular pronouns. (Many folks describe spending time in trans- and nonbinary-normative spaces, hearing others use they/them/theirs, and feeling a deep sense of relief or belonging.) Thinking of myself as a “they” doesn’t feel especially meaningful or right. But recently I referred to myself in the third person as “she,” and that seemed a little wrong. Would “they” have felt more correct? I don’t know.

When I talked through all of this with my closest friends, every one of them was lovely, understanding, and kind. Several asked, unprompted, if I wanted them to use “they/them” pronouns for me. I told them I didn’t know.

IMG_4439That may be what all of this boils down to, more than 2,000 words later: I don’t know.

Knowing is wonderful, but not knowing is also fine. It’s okay to be 11 and know. It’s okay to be 16 and know but not know. It’s okay to be 35 and not know. And so on.

Onwards

Today, I feel like I’m trying on a new-but-familiar nonbinary femininity that has little to do with the sex I was assigned at birth or the shape of my adult body. If folks use they/them pronouns for me, that’s fine; she/her pronouns are also fine.

I still feel some internal(ized) pressure to choose a side, pick a label, check a box—“It’s a girl!” But I also feel tender and tired and cautious with words, after almost twenty years of anxiously juggling terms and identities, trying to form myself into shapes I was never meant to be.

I don’t know exactly how I identify. I just know it doesn’t fit neatly in a checkbox.

The Click

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Yesterday was the first anniversary of “Beautiful in the Moonlight,” the Big Strong Yes episode where things got real. When I go back and listen to BSY #3, I can hear little glimmers of what the show—and its courageous hosts, and Chipperish as a whole—would eventually become.

Yesterday was also the anniversary of my last purge. Today, I am one year purge-free. Or, in the language of the tricky, magical, interconnected Universe:

I am in bulimia recovery because Lani Diane Rich got real personal and real vulnerable on a podcast.

On July 5, 2017, I was listening to this new podcast that my partner had suggested while running on the elliptical. I was doing penance for some caloric sin the night before: I had binged. I was “undoing the damage.”

I lived in this headspace for years, regularly binge-eating large quantities of food in secret, and then exploring all manner of compensatory behaviors—except self-induced vomiting. I made myself throw up water once, when I was a young teenager, but was never able to make myself vomit again. I used to mentally bemoan the fact that I couldn’t purge “for real,” and used this to prove to myself that I wasn’t “that sick.”

But I did purge “for real.” I had a real subtype of bulimia nervosa—somewhat confusingly called “non-purging type.” I hid that fact from myself for years, because I was so invested in remaining relatively thin.

My first eating disorder, as I’m sure I’ve written before, was binge-eating disorder—no purging involved. I was a little kid, and BED wasn’t in the DSM. Mental health professionals weren’t diagnosing people with binge-eating disorder yet (because it “didn’t exist”), but looking back, that’s pretty clearly what was going on with me. As I got older, my ED took on various forms: after I got married, and was totally in charge of my own nutrition, I could do all kinds of unusual and extreme things around food—most of them in the name of being healthy.

Even though my ED has run the gamut, I always think of binge-eating as my “core” eating disorder. As long as I didn’t fit the diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder, I was “good.” As long as I didn’t regain the weight I originally gained from binge-eating, I was “okay”—even though every “slip up” was followed by one compensatory self-punishment or another.

Last year, I thought I was recovered because I wasn’t binge-eating…much. I also looked great, by societal standards: lean and “fit.” I was the picture of “health.” But I was controlling every bite, and every movement, and when you’re dieting hard, or when you’re exercising to compensate for the food you’ve “over”-eaten—because you are absolutely TERRIFIED of gaining weight—your body will send out all kinds of urges to find highly palatable foods and eat as much of them as possible.

I don’t remember what Lani said that was so profound for me in that moment. She was beginning to open up about how it felt to be in an abusive relationship. She talked about lies, and gaslighting, and she was so courageous and beautiful speaking her truth, that something clicked in me. The hard, sharp click of a key turning in a lock.

She didn’t so much connect the dots for me as number them, so I could connect them myself.

This woman with her beautiful voice (and I mean that both in the “perspective on life” sense and the “sound of” sense) described a kind of pain I knew. Except that for her, that pain came from another person. I have never had an abusive, manipulative, cruel partner.

My heart simultaneously broke for Lani and soared for her, but I couldn’t acknowledge her clarity and courage without opening to my own truth: I was in an abusive relationship with myself.

I would never let another person treat me the way I was treating myself—even then. Even at the height of my insecurity, when I was the most eager-to-please-at-any-cost, if someone had screamed at me and forced me to run because I’d eaten half a jar of almond butter mixed with maple syrup… If someone had done that to me, had called me the horrible things I called myself…I might not have fought back, but I would’ve known it was abusive.

Lani’s vulnerability about having been lied to enabled me to see how I’d lied to myself.

I finished my “workout,” but not as ferociously as I’d started. When I stepped off the elliptical, I remember looking down past my swollen belly at my aching feet, and silently telling my body, “I will never lie to you again.”

I don’t know that I’ve made good on that promise. (What does it really mean to tell one’s body the truth?) But I never purged again.

And as grateful as I am for this aspect of my recovery, I’m exponentially more moved by the fact that the openhearted, fiercely kind, badass podcaster who inspired it is now among my closest friends. I’m so grateful that I was able to text Lani on the morning of July 5, and tell her about being purge-free for a year. It’s overwhelming, but not ridiculous to imagine that Lani telling her story saved my life.

Your story matters, whatever experiences it comprises. There is immeasurable power in “me, too”—seeing it, hearing it, saying it.

But in order for that cascade of affirmation and confirmation and connection to occur, someone has to stand up and say, “Me. This happened to me.”

 

Thank you Lani, Kelly, and the entire “Big Strong Yes” community. I love you.

The Trouble With Triggers

A few weeks back. A huge setback.

The trouble with triggers is that they’re fucking everywhere. You can be sitting quietly, writing speech for fictional people, in a self-made protective bubble of recovery—feeling better, feeling better—when a trigger shakes the ground beneath you. A sound, a noise. A text, a phone call. A sensation in your body.

Being triggered feels like the mental-emotional version of my daughter’s mess-making: it takes her about four minutes to completely trash part of the house with an elaborate game, and roughly forty minutes for me to restore order.

To do so much mental and emotional work over the past six months, only to have my room trashed again…

I’m the only one who can clean up this mess. And I feel like I’ll never be done.

In a way, I never will be. I will always be someone who has had my experiences, for the rest of my life. Even if my mind forgets, my body will hold the memories.

But when I’ve had moments of clarity, moments of feeling safe and embodied, working from creativity instead of cowardice, only to have it ripped away from me by triggers beyond my control—the feeling left behind is despair.

Because now I have to start over.

Good At Titles

I’ve thought for a long time about just writing here, without worrying about what, exactly, I’ll say. Just opening up a new post and typing something, anything, without thinking it has to be an essay or a poem or a story or even be particularly interesting. Because writing is about stretching the writing muscles, isn’t it? What if it’s not “about” anything?

I could just write—essentially keep a public, electronic journal—because how could that possibly go wrong?!—but I like feeling like I have Something To Say.

Besides, if I write a post where I have Something To Say, I get to choose a title. And I’m good at titles.

Or maybe I just enjoy titles.


Joy has been elusive lately, and, as usual, I’m blaming my body, because that’s what I know how to do.

I know how to decide that life is miserable because, since a year ago today, I’ve gained half as much as my 5-year-old daughter weighs.

Yes, some roundabout, number-of-pounds-avoidance writing, because I can’t decide how I feel about numbers. I used to think all numbers relating to weight and body size and food and nutrition were triggering, but the trouble with “triggers” is that they’re everywhere. Am I doing myself or anyone else any good when I talk about weight in a roundabout way?

(Should I be talking about weight at all?)

Whatever. I’ve gained some weight. What feels to me like a lot of weight, and it’s fucking with my head. I haven’t been binge-eating, I’ve just been eating, but I still feel this colossal sense of shame at having “lost” the body size and shape I had a year ago. It feels like a failure, and like fitting into exactly none of my favorite clothes is the precise reason I feel sad and detached and overwhelmed and strangled.

“How did you feel a year ago?” a friend asked me today via text. “What changed?”

And as I wrote through the events of last year, beginning in April, when I remember things feeling wonderful, I smacked up against just how much has happened in a year. How many unexpected truths I unearthed when I dove headlong into the frenzied dance with creativity: the history in my body; the challenges in my children; the significance of my friendships; the true shape of my heart.

That last one. That last one. I don’t know what the true shape of my heart is.

How a Heart Gets Broken

I’ve never experienced romantic-love heartbreak. I’m not sure I’ve experienced romantic love. All those movies and TV shows and pop songs are alien to me; flirting and dating and falling in love were never part of my personal narrative. I married the first person I had any sort of “romantic” relationship with, because I was terrified of being alone.

I don’t recommend this tactic, by the way.

Anyway!

I don’t identify with stories of attraction, romance, love, and loss. I understand them intellectually, but those stories don’t align with my life experiences.

It was with much resistance that I acknowledged recently that, despite this, I’ve experienced heartbreak dozens of times. Brené Brown describes it as the thing that’s bigger than disappointment. Disappointment dialed up to 11: that’s heartbreak. And I’ve felt that so deeply, so often. 

Heartbreak is about expectations. If I do X, things will go Y. It’s about “getting your heart set on something.”

I hadn’t thought about that expression until just now: “Getting your heart set on something.” I picture reaching inside my chest, scooping out that hopeful red organ, and placing it gently on a narrow, antique table in the hallway of some beautiful, magical dream. But if you set your heart on something unstable—something old or poorly-constructed—that thing could collapse at any moment.

And if it does, of course the heart will break.

Embody

Last year, I took my first yoga class after a six-year hiatus. I love being not-quite-a-beginner in classes. I love moving with other people. But the thing that has stuck with me for the past seven months was one teacher’s correction:

In downward-facing dog, “bring your ribs back inside your body.

How strange, I thought. My ribcage is trying to escape.

My body was working too hard for the mental snark to stick. And I had a teacher standing over me, which is like catnip for my Obliger nature (shoutout to Gretchen Rubin).

I put my mind in my lowest ribs, and imagined them looking down (up) at my hip bones.

Her tone of voice signaled her approval. “Feel the difference?”

I did, immediately. Not just the position, which felt more down-doggish, but my entire body. It felt familiar, but strange, too, like seeing a picture of your grandmother as a baby.

In that moment, with my ribs back inside my torso, I had the unusual-for-me sensation of being A Whole Body: limbs, trunk, neck, head all connected.

Breaking my body up into parts or trying to escape from it altogether has been my default for as long as I can remember. I was a preschooler when I started zooming in on my belly, my fingernails, my hip creases…and then I’d jerk away (mentally, of course), wishing I could be somewhere else, in some other body.

Running away from your own body is a great way to feel terrible all the time. For one thing, you can’t do it. And life is full of opportunities to re-experience that impossibility: living with chronic pain, experiencing childbirth, and recovering from surgery come to mind.

I still tend to zoom in and get lost in some body part that doesn’t look or feel or act how I think it should. But I’ve felt it now—that whole-body, whole-self sensation. I know it’s possible to feel whole-body embodied, and that I have the power to create that experience for myself.

So I’m practicing. When I wake up in the morning and roll over in bed. When I’m standing in the kitchen, bringing my ribs, my belly, my hips back inside my body. When I dance, of course.

It’s easiest to feel whole when I’m dancing. I must tune into myself as a whole body if I want to stand a chance of jumping, turning, and landing without falling over. My balance is improving. To stay still, suspended on relevé for as long as the musical phrase demands, I draw stability up from my toes, into my ankles, up my calves, checking in with every part of my body as I go, linking up the train cars: thighs, hips, glutes, core, sternum.

When I pull my strength into the center of my chest, connect my whole body to itself through my heart, I can balance forever.

 

What Was Lost

“…60% of your blood volume.”

“…not clotting…”

“…buckets of blood.”

“You really scared us.”

“We almost lost you.”

But I wasn’t there in the first place.

I’m so confused. I knew it was an emergency situation. When the paramedics wheeled me out of my front door, down the front lawn and into the ambulance, I knew it was an emergency. I knew what happened with retained placentas: postpartum hemorrhage. And postpartum hemorrhage can kill a mother. I knew that. It’s why, as they prepared to wheel me out of the house, I looked my partner in the eye and said, with as much strength and conviction as I possess: “I love you.” I didn’t know when I would see him again.

I didn’t think I was going to die, but I knew it was a possibility. In the same way that I know that I’m perfectly healthy on paper, but one of these days my heart could junk out on me, just throw up its hands and say, “I’m done.” And that would be the end of my life.

I’ve always been more than a little morbid. I gravitate toward narratives that examine the darkness. Between a long, drawn out miscarriage and a complicated third pregnancy, I became fascinated by horror stories—both fictional and real. The bloodbath following my daughter’s birth seems fitting.

The bloodbath: I’ve only heard about it, but it can still paralyze me when I think about it. I freeze when I try to wrap my mind around the fact that I almost died.

“We almost lost you.”

And then, in the mind-wrapping, I get angry. Rage floods me: How dare you?

How dare you come into my recovery room and parade your horror story around, for me, the patient. The girl who lived, despite leaving buckets of blood behind in the operating room. What the fuck!?

I can imagine the horror of that scene: a new mother on the table, bleeding and bleeding and bleeding. I can only imagine the feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. To “lose” a patient who’s right there in front of you…

But I didn’t need to hear about it. I didn’t need to know. If the goal was to impress upon me the severity of the situation, a simple, “You lost a lot of of blood in the OR, and you’ll need at least two units of blood before you can go home, though I recommend three” would have been just fine.

Instead, I’ve been carrying this thing that I don’t know how to manage, because it happened to me while I was unconscious and I didn’t fucking do it on purpose! I didn’t want to die. I was bummed about not being home, tucked in bed with my sweet little girl, I was worried about my partner. I was angry about missing out on that lovely post-birth glow, with the biggest surge of oxytocin of my life coursing through me. Instead, my body failed.

That was five and a half years ago, and I still haven’t put the story down completely, because I don’t know how to let it go. It’s all over me, like a greasy film I can’t wipe off.

This is not my bloodbath. This is not my trauma. How dare you try to make what was lost about me?