A life map is a visual representation or walk-through of one’s experiences. It needn’t be linear, though that’s often easiest, and can be an interesting way to access or discover new things about how you (consciously or unconsciously) think about where you’ve come from, where you are, and where you’re going. Here’s part of my life map, done a few weeks ago as an exercise with my director:
And so, a tour of my life map.
The first twenty years of my life map circle around transitioning. Wearily at times, uncertain and unsteady. At others, I ran toward transitioning only to be brought up short by lack of confidence or lack of will.
I grew up on South Blvd, in a house with a large backyard and, out past the alley, a park in the center of the block. The park had a hill, perfect for sledding and rolling down and rolling down inside metal trash cans. (I look back in wonder at how indestructible children are.)
Panic attacks were a regular part of my life. When I was dropped off at preschool, I’d panic. When my parents left my brother and I with a babysitter, I’d panic. When I went on overnight trips or to sleepovers, I’d panic.
King Lab was my elementary school. Martin Luther King, Jr. Experimental Laboratory School. It was a magnet school, drawing kids from all over the district, and it was where my older brother was, three years ahead of me. At one time it was the pride and joy of District 65, but by the time I arrive its test scores were slipping and teachers were leaving. I would pretend to be sick, go to the nurse’s office to escape class, and try to hold the thermometer up to a lamp to fake a temperature. In fifth grade, I started getting picked on by bullies, and often preferred to stay inside at lunch rather than go out to the playground.
In sixth grade, I moved to NCSDS. North Shore Country Day School. From a 80 or 90 fifth graders across multiple classes, at Kind Lab, to one class of 25 or 30 sixth graders at NCSDS. I had to retake DARE, the drug-prevention class, because at King Lab dare was in fifth grade, while at NSCDS it was in sixth. This seemed massively unfair, but my protests fell on deaf ears.
Somewhere in these years we moved from South Blvd to Payne, the house I still find myself in when I’m “home” in my dreams. In retrospect, it was more house than my parents could afford, but it was beautiful, with two fireplaces, two upstairs bathrooms, an even bigger backyard, a garage, a patio. I missed the front porch from the house on South Blvd. But other than that, I came to love the house on Payne.
I went to NSCDS with my best friend from King Lab. Unfortunately, while he drifted toward the ‘cool’ kids, I drifted toward the video game geeks. NSCDS was well-managed (and private) so real bullying never became an issue. I never felt my physical safety threatened as it had been at King Lab. But it was a rich, conformist school full of rich, conformist kids. (I’m embarrassed to say they almost talked me into voting for Bob Dole in the school’s mock 1996 presidential elections. Dole!)
In seventh grade I had my Bar Mitzvah. Only looking back am I aware of how much this enforced, gendered experience has poisoned Judaism for me.
Friends at NSCDS were the first I came out to, though. I remember lying in bed at a sleepover (I was finally able to attend sleepovers, though longer overnight trips still sent me into a panic) saying, “I wish I were a girl. I’ve been thinking about killing myself.” My friends told me it was OK, that I shouldn’t hurt myself. But I don’t know if they even really responded to the whole “want to be a girl” part.
After the seventh grade overnight trip – which I panic attacked myself out of – I decided I would go on the eight grade field trip to DC. The summer before eighth grade, I went into therapy. I’d been in therapy before, for the same panic attacks, but not by choice and always grudgingly. Now, though, I had a mission: Washington, DC.
I worked with my therapist on controlled breathing, bio-feedback techniques, and I ended up making it to DC alright. This was also the first therapist I came out to. He was positive, not judgmental or expressing any desire to “fix” me, but he was also (self-admittedly) clueless about trans issues. He did help me come out to my parents, though, in what I thought would usher in my quick transition and the ability to leave behind boyhood.
I set deadline after deadline after deadline, all self-imposed. “By the end of Freshman year, I’ll have started transitioning.” “By the end of Sophomore year, I’ll have started transitioning.” “By the end of high school, I’ll have started transitioning.” “By the end of college, I’ll have started transitioning.”
I actually managed to hit that last deadline, but it was one of dozens that have littered my life, and made me judge myself for not living up to my own idealized idea of how I should be leading my life.
High school was the first place I was able to explore any real independence, beyond hopping on a bike. I had growing input in what classes I took. I got my drivers license. I got a car. (Sparky, my grandmother’s 1984 Tercel hatchback. I loved that car. The speedometer topped out at 80, and it was teeny-tiny, but it was a great first car.) A computer in my room, the Internet in all its glory.
My first inklings of a queer community. Pride Youth, where I was brought by a friend. For weeks I said I was “bi-curious” with these horrible, awkward air quotes. It wasn’t until we had two trans guest speakers that I was able to say yeah, I was trans.
“Pride Youth, surely, would provide me with the community I needed to transition!” Community, yes. But there was no helpful pushes or nudges in that direction, no real guidance saying “this is what you should do.” I remember one night we broke up into a guys group and a girls group. I was invited with the girls group, which felt simultaneously good and awkward, and I sat there in silence the whole evening.
The Gay-Straight Alliance at high school? No, there I was perceived as one more straight (or possibly closeted) ally.
Looking back, I’m sorry that my friends freshman year all went to college after my sophomore year. I think they could have really helped get me in a place of confidence to start pushing for my own transition. Sophomore year was a dark time, and the dip in my previously high grades reflected it.
Junior year I found a new group of friends, largely stemming from the theatre classes I was doing with Piven. I was happiest there out of all my high school activities and groups. I wish I’d come out to my teachers there, and asked for their help or guidance. They were younger than I am now, so I don’t know what they would have done, but they felt really adult and cool at the time.
Going to Northwestern was my next big step. Moving out of the house, into a dorm, managing my classes and schedule. Living in the boys section of the dorm, though, and using the boys bathroom. Having my friends make fun of me for ‘shedding’ all over my room. I looked at some old pictures recently, and had sort of forgotten (or repressed…) how hairy I used to be. Going to the Gay Straight Alliance and feeling totally out of place.
It was at Northwestern that I took my first big active step toward transitioning, by going to a therapist who specialized in gender issues. She told me I probably wasn’t trans.
That experience threw me into the sharp turns and lost-ness of my gender map and, once again, my sophomore year was unpleasant and forgettable.
Junior year, I started dating the girl who became my long-time girlfriend, and she smoothed my life out unspeakable amounts. She continued to nudge me toward having the confidence to transition, and senior year I tried another therapist, was referred to an endocrinologist, and took that final step in my mind into “transitioning.”
If only it were that simple, though.
I have a tendency to move the goal-posts: transitioning is when I go to a therapist. No, it’s when I go to an endocrinologist. No, it’s when I go on hormones. No, it’s when I come out to X, or to Y, or to Z.
So I realize now that didn’t think of myself as “actually” transitioning until I was already well on my way. My life map reflects both my current understanding of transitioning, and how I viewed it when I was younger. Younger, I saw transitioning as an impenetrable fortress. Foreboding. Surrounded by moats and spikes and terrible dangers. My path was blocked on all sides, and I constantly took steps toward transitioning only to retreat.
Now, as much as I realize transitioning was and is a gradual process – made up of many smaller victories rather than one or two single defining moments – I do realize that going to see my therapist set me on the path to hormones, changing my name, coming out to friends and family and coworkers, living my life as Rebecca.
On the life map image at the beginning of this post, that’s where I literally punched through the paper to continue drawing on another sheet. As a friend put it, that was my ‘through the looking glass” moment, where I fell (or leaped, or tentatively waded) into another world.
This was a world made of small steps interspersed with large accomplishments. Slowly building my female wardrobe wasn’t a monumental occasion, but going through my old clothing and getting rid of 90% of my boy stuff was. Having friends begin to call me Rebecca, one by one, wasn’t monumental. But going to work as Rebecca or seeing my extended family for the first time as Rebecca both were. Slowly, with unnoticeable changes, my confidence grew, my sense of self-worth grew, my comfort in my body grew.
And then I broke up with my girlfriend.
I don’t regret that decision, but I will always regret hurting her. This was one of my big periods of mid-transition self-doubt: Could I do anything differently to make things work? Would we have needed to break up if I’d just transitioned earlier? Why could I be more patient for her? Why couldn’t I take things slower?
Rereading those thoughts, I realize I was (and am) too hard on myself. Life isn’t always simple enough for one person to be at fault, and the other blameless. Sometimes both people didn’t do anything wrong, things just don’t work out. I don’t like the dismissive simplicity of that, but I’m trying to acknowledge its truth.
It has taken me the past year and a half post-breakup (including one brief period of getting back together with my ex) to feel comfortable standing on my own two feet.
And 2010 has been the Year of Change: I finally acknowledged that I’m single, and that that’s OK. I’ve started exploring what it means to date as Rebecca. I quit my job(!!!!!). I’m expanding my art and trying to make it my livelihood.