How I Came Into Madness,Magic, Revolution and Being Trans
My sharpest memory of knowing that something was wrong with my gender takes place when I am about 9 years old. I am on vacation with my family to Kiawah Island, a beach resort in South Carolina, and we have just finished a long day of mucking about in the sand and surf. I have little grains of sand in every part of me, so I must bathe before dinner. After taking my bath, I am drying off in my typical manner: throwing a towel over myself, crouching in a little ball, and waiting.
Smash cut to my mother checking in on what was taking me so long and my tearful confession to her that I do not want to be a boy. I want to be a girl. I believe, looking back, that the incident was precipitated by a consideration of my genitals, and the way they touched the floor while I crouched, but I can’t be certain. What I do remember clearlyis the absolute desperation of my certainty, and the dismissive finality of her response:
“You don’t want to be a girl, girls can’t play video games!”
I would later prove her very, very wrong on that point, (I was inStarcraft II’s gold league for a while and have kept a healthy collection of video games for PC and console going, uninterrupted by my transition), but atthe time, I believe her. Well, I believe her enough – even if I don’t think girls can’t play video games, I know it makes them “weird,” and I have yet to embrace my manifold weirdness, or as I call it now, my “psychosocial esoterica.” So I accept my mother’s admonishments, pick myself off the floor(in more ways than one), and attempt to get on with my life.
That life includes the unshakable feeling that there is something horribly wrong with me, something terribly important, possibly life-altering, and the accompanying feeling of absolute guilt for daring to think so. I hate myself on a frequent basis for imagining there is something worth worrying about in me, for even though I know that something powerful and dark attends my every breath, I know just as surely that I have invented it for the attention, and have surely done so because I am some kind of drama queen. I attempt to explain this to my parents, and do not succeed.They persist in referring to me as a “drama queen” or, better yet, “The Sara Bernhardt Society,” for the rest of my life, and will later use this observation as a justification for their closed-mindedness during the memory I first described. The contradiction of using the womb-based dismissal of “hysterical” for my declaration of femininity will not seem to dawn on them.
But, like most people with dreaded horror lurking in the corners of their lives, I eventually grow numb to it, or at least find a way to accept its omnipresence, and attempt to be happy.Frequently I am met with great success, at least on the surface. By age 12 I am on Welbutrin (an anti-depressant), have a best friend who I see regularly,several close friends, and many activities I enjoy doing; I appear happy to all who ask, save for the occasional resurgence of the aforementioned existential murk, which now my mother sardonically refers to as “Teen Angst.” But never mind that, because I was in the Gifted and Talented program during elementary school and am now beginning to participate in half-day “homeschooling” where I take high school level classes via correspondence. My IQ is tested and I max out the test for my age range. I am cautioned not to tell other people, but I can’t help myself. My intelligence has become my identity, and I am overeager to share it.
I start to make enemies by doing this.
I become the “lonely nerd,” who no one talks to and no one likes, and it becomes harder to shake off the existential crisis still lapping at the edges of my mind. I start to surround myself with other people who are deeply troubled, finding them online with ease, and hoping that by helping them, I can somehow escape my own problems(which are surely imagined anyway, right?)
Two years of this pass, and I sink into deeper despair. By 15, I have begun to contemplate self injury. I develop a strong empathic resonance with the characters in The Prince of Tides (if you aren’t familiar, the imagery of “dead angels hanging from meat hooks” accurately conveys the major sense of it), write poems about oblivion, and accidentally leave my notebook out for my mother to rifle through. I am taken to see new psychiatrists and therapists, with whom I have pleasant conversation and accomplish nothing of use. I am put on new medication, which seems like it may be helping – maybe – and question whether my identity on this medicine is valid. Adults around me assure me that it is,that the medicine simply removes the disorder which is hiding my true identity.
I don’t believe them, but having no other options, again, I accept it. The label “Bipolar” is informally appended to my file, next to the new diagnosis of “Mood Disorder NOS.” I become flatter in some respects, and more prideful, arrogant, and mean-spirited in others. The empathy which has characterized me alongside my intelligence starts to wane a little. I become more masculine. I start having the occasional bald-faced freak out. I am prescribed more medicine to help me control it.
I fall in love with one of the people I thought needed my help online. Then I break her heart, and find a perfect source of fuel for my med-repressed self-hatred. I live in agony and wish for death, but the presences in my mind refuse to allow it, for they relish my pain.
At 17 I try cutting myself just to see what a visit to the hospital psych ward can do. Nothing, it turns out.
I try again at 18, with similar results. Meds are changed, stability improves moderately. I am placed in DBT –Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, an option normally reserved for those diagnosed with “Borderline Personality Disorder.” Every kid in this group has a severe manifest difficulty with most of their family, except for me. I am bizarre even by their standards.
By 19 the dark monstrosity of thought that has plagued me my entire life begins to manifest psychically as a living Shadow which compels me to throw myself down stairs and into walls. I am unable to resist it. I have myself checked in to the hospital once again, this time not an adolescent psych ward, but an adult ward specifically for schizophrenia and related disorders. Neurologists scan my brain repeatedly and find nothing. Psychiatrists insist my problem is neurological. Neurologists again insist I have no problem. Psychiatrists cannot diagnose me as schizophrenic because I am too lucid and too aware of the imaginary nature of my experiences,which never penetrate my optic perception – I never “see” them, I simply imagine them, as one imagines the caress of a lover or a blow from their abusive parent. The label “Temporal Lobe Sub-Ictal Epilepsy” is informally appended to my file by my parents, who are MDs but not neurologists. More meds are prescribed. The phenomenon of the Shadow temporarily abates.
I go to college. It comes back. I don’t tell anyone. I make friends with it. It turns into a beautiful woman who cuts me in my mind and is jealous of my girlfriends. I call her “Karen.” I try to explain Karen to my girlfriend. Things get awkward. I break up in part to avoid having to deal with it.
I experiment with drag for the first time, partially to give Karen something to do other than lurk about and slice my astral arms. I am looked at askance by many, given acceptance by some, and total rejection by one who I thought was a friend. I turn to strangers in a desperation move.
I find my new best friend, the girl who will take my weirdness, see in it the nascent revolutionary, and help it to grow. She still does.
It begins with an exchange of ideologies: I teach her that “mental illness” is a broken paradigm which often leaves people more harmed than healed, regardless of social stigma surrounding the term, and she teaches me that sex is a weapon which is more often than not used as a means of controlling our entire society.
We rebel against each others’ beliefs for years, but inevitably they inform our perception of reality and slowly begin to see the truth in what we have told each other. We teach other many things – I teach her about mad pride, and she teaches me about divination.I start with the Tarot, which forms the basis of my practice, before I throw myself headlong into magic, hoping I may finally discover something which can help me negotiate the complexities of Karen, and other difficult encounters. I embrace Qaballah, and then the Golden Dawn. Then I discover that the GD, along with most other magical organizations, suffers from the same corruption, stubbornness and apathy that virtually all mundane organizations do. In reaction to this we discover our own revolutionary spirits. We do everything we can to change the system, and the entire world.
We reject the normal schools of magic and seek the Left Hand Path, often considered evil for its self-focused teachings. We quickly discover the same problems in this field, and begin to occupy a space of psychosocial esoterica beyond the margins of the margins of the margins. It is very lonely, but we believe we are doing the right thing. I experiment more with femininity; Karen mostly disappears, but is gradually replaced with others. I am certain that they are the ones who require a feminine persona, not me. I cannot possibly be trans - principally because it would be far too inconvenient. I believe being a trans women to be essentially defined by Mrs. Garrison from South Park, and I am busy helping my best friend start a revolution in survivorhood.
We have our spirits crushed by saboteurs and traitors. We move in with a living embodiment of human evil. She leaves us devastated, and we nurse our wounds. We have both graduated college and do not know where our lives our going. I quit taking my meds because I know they are useless to me by now. I do not ever have a manic episode, as my mother fears will surely be the case. I spend a week treating myself as female while online, then discard the identity again, or rather ascribe it to another person– Ana, a member of my burgeoning multiplicity.
I start working at the Khyber Pass Café in St. Paul. I have no idea what else to do with myself – my undergraduate degree is in Theatre, and I find all established Theatres to be far too psychosocially normative. They don’t understand Madness. They don’t understand Magic. They don’t understand me.
My parents recommend grad school for me. With some contemplation, becoming a teacher begins to make a lot of sense.Marginalized as I feel by my identity and my experiences, many of which ar ebeyond typical human comprehension, I believe this uniqueness may help me to understand students, and to nurture them towards success. I also hope to poison their minds with my revolutionary passion. I am accepted to the Hamline School of Education and literally leap for joy.
A week before school begins, I am still plagued by the dark feelings that have haunted me since childhood. They are still associated to questions of gender, as they have been consciously since early college, and always unconsciously before then. I decide, with some help from those closest to me, that it is time to take the plunge.
I introduce myself to my classmates as Lyra. I have never felt more terrified and more ecstatic in my life.
Many of my other difficulties begin to resolve themselves in light of the revelation, and the acceptance, that I am female. New difficulties emerge: dysphoria. Internalized transphobia. Microaggressions.
I tell my parents that I am trans and they do not believe me or understand. They attempt to reconfirm previous failed diagnoses of sub-ictal seizures and schizophrenia. They check my past against a series of benchmarks called “The Standards of Care” and find their recollection of my experience insufficient to qualify me. My own recollection is called into question as an invention to justify my delusional beliefs. My entire life is broken down into little pieces of “fits” and “doesn’t fits” according to a team of medical people who have never met me dictating reality from over 40 years in the past.
A lifetime of medical charts and grids, of preppie-school expectations and white-upper-middle-class aspirations,of TV shows and movies and radio hosts and internet forums telling me that gay is bad and trans is even worse, constrains my own mind as surely as theirs, if less comprehensively, as I hate myself all over again. I hate myself for the way my body is shaped, for the fact that I am mostly incapable of passing, for being a revolting desecration of the feminine ideal which I had spent my entire life envying, hating, worshiping and longing for. Continuing to live as trans despite this hatred, which I gradually wear down against the granite of my own conviction, is a form of revolution in itself. I am finally rebelling against one of the most fundamental oppressions inflicted on me, that my gender identity can be determined at birth by another person purely on the basis of physical characteristics, and ever after by means even more arbitrary. I rebel against this violence, sometimes with wild, self-destructive sex, sometimes with impassioned written arguments, and sometimes just by quietly asserting my right to take up space as exactly who I am.
The world is run by a grid of assumptions and norms. On some level this allows us to function efficiently,but all too frequently this convenience comes at a high ethical price.
My identity as a trans woman is just one facet of a much larger identity which screams, “World, you’ve got it wrong. I reject your very basis for existence.” My identity as female is, at present and in my best estimation, terribly associated with superficial femininity and superficially associated with the terrible feminine. I wouldlike to see that order of priority invert. I wrote a play, while still imagining myself as male, wherein the demon/goddess Lilith is invoked as an agent of knowledge and change, and I embraced myself as female just a few weeks after it was produced.
My femininity matters because it is apart of me, to embody and express however I choose. I am still working out what it means, and probably always will be as I further strive to cultivate my psychosocial esoterica – my existence beyond the grid of all cultivated society.The hope for this exhibit is to present that grid, which defines categories and their criteria, so that it can be shattered by the force of presence that a whole person can create.
In the primary picture of the display I am holding a deck of Tarot cards with the Chariot Arcana held up to see. The Chariot is shrouded by the words “Abrahadabra,” a magical formula which effectively translates to “My Will Be Done.” It is a card of personal transformation and determination – it is the reflection, the meditation, the posture, the poise, the existential circumstances which you harness to move forward. This vehicle for progress can only be created through our own Will,cultivated by whatever means shall suit. I choose it for this project with the expectation that it will lend a powerful air of magical creation to the area,by which we may all be transformed into ever truer manifestations of our Selves.
Ho Drakon, Ho Megas.