It looks like I will write two posts for this blog before the year is out. Good on me.
I’m not sure at what point in my transition all my memories of “the beforetimes” were offloaded, taken from one box labeled “mine” and placed into another labeled “not mine.” I am fairly certain that that was not the case in the earliest days of my transition, though, so such a switch must surely have happened at one point or another. Unintentionally, subconsciously. One part of my brain doing all it knew it could do to protect me from another part of my brain, one made nearly entirely of scar tissue.
I have written too much over the years about the absurdity of “the narrative,” that story all trans women were (and even in this, the year of our lord 20 and 21, often still are) supposed to have about how they always “knew” they were actually girls from very early childhood. Stories full of clichés about wanting to play with dolls, having secret crushes on boys, all that jazz. Certainly, there are pieces of that prescribed story that I relate to, but many I do not. I entered transition thinking all the parts about pre-transition memories, all the parts about childhood trauma and adult PTSD belonged, to the latter, but alas—they have since clearly made themselves known as the former.
“Why do you hate yourself? How could you hate yourself?” I was asked, shortly after coming out. “I love you so much.” But they didn’t; they couldn’t have. No one could have, not even me. Because at no point in my first 28 years prior to transition was I ever once myself. I was merely a reflection of what I thought others would love to see, a deep part of me knowing that whatever the “real” me was would surely be rejected. Hated.
Actually, on further reflection that only seems semi-true. The further back you go, the greater the likelihood of your finding at least a piece of that true, uncensored version of authentic me.
It’s weird now, trying to recall those years I allegedly lived back then. I have what are now very, very scrambled images and thoughts of the swimming pools I once swam in, the times spent playing Gameboy Color games beneath a hot-but-dim incandescent bulb, walking in the backyard carrying my favorite stick (which I still own), watching Courage the Cowardly Dog on the couch bed on a Friday night. I remember physically seeing the things I once saw, the sounds and smells and feels of it all. But I very nearly can no longer recall the “me” that saw those things. I’ll often find myself spacing out to replay some memory or another, only to realize afterwards that I was remembering it wrong. I don’t remember [Deadname]. I remember Mila. Even though she hadn’t even really been born yet.
And when I suddenly feel that dissonance between the “me” of now and the person that had those memories, I am forced to recognize that they are two different people. I wasn’t that person, I am simply a weird, aging millennial forced to carry another’s memories in perpetuity. And so many of those memories are so…well, not to overuse the word, but “traumatic.”
The experience of actually remembering “his” mindset within those memories, when in fact I am able to do that, is unbelievably painful now. Even when it’s the memories I have that are by all rights “good.” In fact, those are arguably the most painful of all.
For example, I’ve recently started re-reading Harry Potter, I think for the first time since the last book came out in 2007, when I was a junior in high school.
I’m currently two chapters in so far, and even that took me like a week. And each chapter took me around 45 minutes to read, which is about 10x longer than it once took (or should now take). But then again, the first time I read it I didn’t have to pause to cry three times per paragraph.
I was a massive, massive Harry Potter fan growing up. I started a Harry Potter club with three friends in elementary school (though all I remember doing was singing our “theme song” at the lunch table, which went “Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter…and Ron. Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter…and Hermione” and so forth). I read each book from the third one on as soon as they came out, and waited soo impatiently for the next one to be published once I had finished it. Saw every movie in theaters, and at least the last three premiers with friends of mine, camping out for hours to make sure we had good seats.
I even wrote JK Rowling for a class project in third or fourth grade, and in return received an autographed picture and letter from her where she was talking about being excited to soon finish with the third book. It was my most prized possession for most of my life. Now with her being an unabashed figurehead of transphobia in the UK, it hurts me in ways I struggle to communicate.
More than anything, though, I remember the hope those books gave me. Not “hope” for my life or the “real” world I lived in, but hope for a different life, a different world.
I have written extensively in this blog about my (vast) relationship with escapism. These days, however, I recognize that that story is incomplete without also discussing my relationship with dissociation.
What I loved most of all about Harry Potter is it was the perfect world for me to disappear to in order to survive the “real” one I was forced to occupy. When I read those books back then, it allowed me to drift off and feel as though I were actually there, in Hogwarts. I wasn’t Harry, or Ron, or Hermione, or even Luna Lovegood (my favorite of the students by far): I was me. Maybe not Mila yet, but some version of her. A young witch, learning how to cast spells and brew pollyjuice potions.
And when I read The Sorcerer’s Stone now, I can literally remember the Hogwarts I lived in. I remember the feel of the stones beneath my hands and feet; the hours spent in the library with its long, lush carpets; sneaking onto the grounds at night to look at the stars with my friends.
And reading it and remembering all that now, I have now unlocked another memory: crying myself to sleep each night praying to wake as a girl was only half the story. The other half is wishing to wake in that world I always escaped to, which had felt so very real to me.
And now here I am, fully 31 and riddled with all these false memories of a world that never existed, forced to reconcile with what they actually were and why they were so important to me at the time. And I find myself increasingly longing for them, and the comfort they once brought me.
But I can never actually go back, no matter how I try, and beg, and plead. The way is shut.
I recently read a line reminding me that Harry is 11 years old. I was about that age when I first read that passage. I’m incalculably older now.
In those days, I was aware of so little. Now, I’m aware of too much.
I remember how it felt to be read that book the first time. How much I loved being read to, and now how I’ll never be read to like that again.
I remember not wanting to believe JK Rowling was a TERF, ignoring the obvious for years, until one day she finally removed all doubt.
I remember, fully, who I was the first time I visited those grounds. I am not that person anymore. I never was. That was a different person.
So I read, and I cry, and I cry. Each and every word stabbing me with PTSD, longing, and the very most painful sort of nostalgia.
But I keep reading, because I literally crave the feeling of being deeply sad, especially when I’m already sad, which is always. I don’t know why. I’ve tried Googling “why do I want to feel sad,” but it just brought me to the SAMHSA Helpine. Or was it the Suicide Hotline? My Google queries so often lead to one or another that they have come to blur in my mind.
BTW, Google. I know what you’re trying to do, but I assure you that you aren’t making me feel any better when you make that the top result for every third querie. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Anyway, all that is one triggering experience that inspired this post. Here’s the other.
I recently returned to my hometown for Thanksgiving. This also always forces me to reconcile with my past in visceral and painful ways, and frankly I hate going there with every fiber of my being. There is nothing for me there but trauma, and increasingly, fear of being clocked at a gas station and murdered for it by someone wearing Chinese-made clothes plastered with Trump’s name.
At some point in my life, I began dissociating full-time. Because of that, every memory I have past a certain age feels as unreal now as those memories of my secret, personal Hogwarts do. Someone (likely an AI of some sort) was going through all the motions of living there, playing the sports expected of them and joining the clubs expected of them and attending the churches expected of them. Being exactly who someone else wanted them to be. But that someone was not me.
From the time I got my driver’s license at 16, one of my very favorite ways to spend my time was driving random roads late at night. No intended direction, no GPS, just county backroads for hour after hour, burned CDs with Limewire (and later BitTorrent) MP3s blaring.
I didn’t know then why I did it. I didn’t know five years ago why I did it, though even then I was still doing so.
I know now it was dissociation. I did it to not feel, to exist outside my miserable existence.
When I was home for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, I drove many of those roads again for the first time in years. And immediately, just as with reading Harry Potter, I remembered the “me” that I was five, ten, fifteen years ago. Not “me” now; not “her.” But “him.” That other person who left me with a trunk load of trauma and another person’s memories.
The thing is—the reason I brought “the narrative” up earlier—the expectation is likely for me to say something like “and I remembered that every moment back then was pain, the worst kind of pain imaginable.” That would follow the prescriptive narrative, would even logically follow the Harry Potter anecdote that preceded this one. And it’s dramatic—it’s what the people want to see.
But that’s not what I remember feeling.
What I remember feeling is nothing.
I don’t remember feeling anything.
Just endless moonlit country roads, stretching to infinity. An infinity I “knew like the back of my hand,” as the adage goes. And what I remember feeling in all those many, many hours—driving those windy, windy roads—is an utter lack of feeling. Emptiness. The void of a starless night.
It horrified me.
It hurt me.
Again, I cried so very deeply.
I never knew at that time that I felt nothing, because by that point I had lived so long with the feeling of nothingness that I no longer had anything to compare it to. It’s only now, now that I feel something from allowing myself the happiness of being true to myself, that I have a contrast of experiences sharp enough to see it.
Pain is painful, but nowhere near so painful as the pain of feeling nothing at all.
At what point did that shift happen, that shift between the naïve feeling of impossible hope and pain in Harry Potter and the perfect numbness I felt in those midnight drives?
I hope no one in the future ever has to experience the things I’ve had to experience, that there will come a day when trans youth don’t have to dissociate their entire lives just to deal with the pain of living in a world that hates them. But I know that while the details may differ, there are still so many from younger generations than me whose stories are (or will be) essentially the same.
But maybe in writing things like this, I can contribute to one or two being raised in a better environment than I was. Ultimately, that’s really why I create the things I do.
That, and because I’m very, very sad.
P.S. It’s very late and I should’ve gone to sleep hours ago but I couldn’t until I wrote this. I am now very tired and have no interest in re-reading any of it. I’m sorry for all the errors it’s surely full of. This was a purely stream-of-consciousness exercise.