Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I've Learned About Mental Health This Year

Copyright: Amanda Jette Knox

Sometimes I like to just sit and watch my 12-year-old bounce around the house with a big smile on her face.

She's not literally bouncing, of course, but her walk is... lighter, like the weight of the world no longer sits on her shoulders. And her steps are more meaningful.

Her reasons for leaving the house - or even just her bedroom - are different. She's no longer simply doing it because we're making her, or because she absolutely has to for some other reason. She actually wants to spend time with people, engage with the world, and experience new things.

This year, for the first time in many, my child is no longer depressed or suffering from severe anxiety.

It has been a wild and unexpected ride to get here.

We went to several different therapists.

I read every book and new study I could get my hands on.

We tried restricted diets, natural sleep aids, and various parenting methods.

We moved to a different province to access better medical services.

She and I sat in emergency rooms during full-on coming apart moments, tears running down both our faces. ("What's wrong, honey?" "I don't know, mom. I don't know why I'm like this. Why am I like this?")

I begged doctors to take us seriously. ("Please help her. I feel like we're losing her and I don't know why.")

Depression. Anxiety. Isolation. OCD. Panic attacks. These were part of her world each and every day. They were part of our family's world. We didn't know why, we just all did the best we could.

Sometimes there is no why; at least not one medical science knows of yet. Sometimes depression is just depression, and anxiety is just anxiety. You treat it, you manage it, and you do the best you can.

But mental illness can also be a symptom of something else, something even you have hidden from yourself for years, bubbling on the surface of you subconscious, irritating your brain and bleeding into your life. In Gutsy's case, it was the denial of who she really was, followed by the fear of revealing that truth to others.  She hid being transgender from herself for years, and then hid it from us until she could finally bring herself to tell her secret.

There are many things I'm grateful for each day. But the one that has stuck out this year above all else has been that our child was brave enough to tell us what was going on. Taking that huge risk has not only improved her life, but also quite possibly saved it.

With her male puberty now suppressed, an army of people who support her living as she, pink streaked hair and an adorable new wardrobe, she is transformed into her authentic self.  She's happy for the first time in years. She still takes a low dose medication for anxiety, but her overall mental health picture is so good. So, so good.

We are not out of the woods. Gutsy faces a lifetime of uphill battles, both physically and emotionally. She will have to stare down a world that sometimes seeks to harm her, to tear her down, to treat her as less than. The rates of depression, suicide and addiction are all higher in the trans community, in large part because of how cruel the world can be. But my child is the bravest and most resilient human being I know. I believe that with love and support, she is going to soar. And the more we talk and educate and learn, the more we improve the lives of all people in the LGBTQ community.

Here's what I've learned this year: When it comes to having family members with mental health issues, the need for connection cannot be overstated. Trust, honesty and support are paramount. Whether there is a detectable reason behind their illness or not, connection with loved ones can be a lifeline. I know that, when I was a suicidal teen, connection saved me.  And while it can't and won't save everyone, I believe it also saved my daughter. 

So, like I said, sometimes I just like to watch her bounce around. I love when she comes into the kitchen and talks my ear off about computers or music production (even if I don't understand half of what she's saying). I love listening to her laugh hysterically with her little brother in the other room. I love seeing her smile finally reaching her eyes.

I love all of it. And I love her.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What I Learned About Myself by Finishing High School at 38

I might have preemptively commemorated it on the calendar

Yesterday afternoon I wrote my final exam for my final high school course in the history of ever. I am done. Finished. Mission accomplie.

After it was over, I went back to my car, sat there for a few minutes, and cried.

Then some dude walked by and looked a little concerned. So I panicked and pretended I was laughing, which actually just made me look a whole lot crazier.

And just when you thought it couldn't get worse, I was at a stoplight on the drive home and realized - truly realized - that I had actually just completed something really important to me. So then I cried again, but this time while yelling "YEAAAAAHHHHH!!" and "WOOOOOOOOOO!" and fist pumping like every suburban mom does on her drive home.

If there is not a newly minted YouTube video entitled "This insane woman in Ottawa traffic, though," I will be shocked. (And grateful.)

As I once shared, I have been to eight different high schools. Eight. Yet, I still entered adulthood a few credits short of a diploma. And there I sat, rather uncomfortably, for two decades.

Just like herpes, the knowledge that I had never finished high school would lay dormant, flaring up at the most inconvenient times, like when I tried to tell myself that I'm smart, or worthy of good things, or in any way accomplished in life.

You didn't even finish high school, Amanda. Everybody finishes high school - well, except you, apparently.

It was a shame that hung off me like a sandbag, weighing me down emotionally my entire life. Despite my best efforts to tell myself I was just as good as anyone else, just as smart and just as accomplished in other ways, I felt like I was walking in other people's shadows. It's one thing to have never gone to university; I know plenty of people who haven't and are quite successful. But not having a high school diploma? Why couldn't I at least do that?

I know, I know. I have a backstory. I had to leave school at 14 to go to rehab for six months. I lived on my own at 16. I got pregnant at 19.

Then again at 26.

Oh, and at 30. My husband and I apparently really like each other.

My days got full and busy and good. In so many ways, I have a great life. I've been a homeowner since the age of 22. I write for a living. I've stayed home to raise three of the best kids I know. I'm still madly in love with the father of my children. I've cultivated some truly amazing friendships. If happiness determines success, then it's been an utterly successful life.

But deep down, there has always been a part of me that felt stuck. I still felt like that girl who never finished something important. And so, in the summer of 2013, I grabbed my transcripts and signed up again.

I don't know what was different about this time, other than the fact that I have great hair now and I'm a little bit fatter. But I walked out of the school after registering, thinking that this was going to be the biggest thing I would accomplish in the next little while.

News flash: In case you haven't been reading my blog regularly, this was NOT the biggest thing I would be accomplishing in the next little while.

In fact, I had no idea what the following year would bring. I didn't know my child is trans. I didn't know she was going to come out to us two days before I was due to write my grade 11 English exam. I didn't know how stressed out and worried I would be, how much advocating I would have to do, or that I would be homeschooling her this year.

If I had known, I never would have signed up. Never, ever, ever. So I suppose it was a really good thing I didn't know.

I almost quit. After Gutsy came out, I felt so overwhelmed that I made the decision to take a hiatus. Some friends convinced me to keep going. I was a little mad at them for a while. I thought they were total jerks for pushing me forward at a time when I felt I couldn't breathe. Didn't they understand how stressed out I was? Jerks.

I decided to take the hiatus anyway, and called guidance to push my final two courses aside for a few months. She must have been talking to my jerk friends, because she also encouraged me to stick it out. What was this conspiracy? I resented the shit out of them all for encouraging the little bit of guilt inside me to finally see this goal through.

Thank you, jerks. You're the best conspirators a girl could ask for. I wouldn't be done if it weren’t for you. I might have never been done.  I owe a lot of this to you.

I also need to thank Ryan, my favourite adult high school teacher. I'm pretty sure he doesn't read my blog, but he still gets a mention.  He is not a jerk like the rest of you guys. Ryan, thanks for your patience, understanding, humour, and for not totally hating on me because I'm a writer in a high school English class. I know how eccentric we can be. Confession time: I despite literary essays and reading Shakespeare. I never told you that. But pretty much everyone on Twitter knows, thanks to my 140 character rants. Those things make me die a little inside, Ryan. But you know, if I had to analyze the thoughts and feelings of King Lear to get a high school diploma, I'm glad it was for you because you're awesome. And totally not a jerk. Please remember that when you're correcting my last few assignments.

Thank you to my husband, who made it entirely possible for me to be a woman of leisure/mature student/homeschooling parent/writer/painting/photographer/not really a woman of leisure after all. But your constant support, both emotionally and financially, made this possible for me. I love you, and can now analyze my feelings for you in a more educated way and even write an essay about it. But I won't.

But I could.

Thank you to my friends and family who cheered me on, including 80 bajillion of you (I did not take any advanced math courses) who congratulated me after I posted this Facebook status. Wow. You're amazing. And internet people I have yet to meet? You're amazing too. How many of you have virtually high-fived me over the last few months? (That's a rhetorical question. I learned about those in school. Please take my excellent retention into account when grading my papers, Ryan. Thanks.)

And a very special thanks to my kids, who met me at the door with hugs while excitedly shouting "congratulations!" (and "merry birthday" and "Happy Hanukkah"... sigh.) as I walked in after my exam. I'll remember that, always. I love you all so much, and I hope you carry this important lesson with you: it's never too late to follow your dreams or meet a goal, even if you're already exceptionally awesome like me, your gorgeous mother.

I feel lighter today. Definitely not physically lighter after binging on celebratory cake last night, but emotionally so. I completed a lifelong goal! And while I know it's not a big deal in terms of overall accomplishment (pretty much everyone finishes high school and most of them far sooner than I did), I'm still so proud of myself. I finished something. Take that, box of scrapbooking supplies in the basement.

I am a high school graduate. I finally did it.

With great hair, even.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Dear Leelah's Parents: What I Wish You Had Known

We had an appointment today at our local children's hospital, and you were on my mind the whole time.

The hospitals' Gender Identity Clinic sees around 100 kids like my daughter - like your daughter. They not only help our child through her transition from male to female, but support her family, too. They answer our questions and listen to our concerns. They always point us in the right direction, should we need more information.

Last year we needed a lot of support because that was when she came out to us. She was eleven at the time, and we were unprepared for the news - probably just like you. There's nothing quite like being told your child's insides don't match their outsides, is there?

I didn't know what to do at first, so I turned to the people in my life that I trusted.  I'm fortunate to know some great therapists and sex educators with experience in gender issues. They gave me sound information, and that's what set us down this path of accepting and embracing our child for who she is.

When I read about Leelah - and yes, I will be using her chosen name and pronouns - my first reaction was to be really angry with you. How could you not support your child? How could you seemingly cut her contact with the outside world, deny her request for much-needed medical services, and send her to "professionals" who psychologically damaged her? What were you thinking?

But then a thought occurred to me: When our child came out to us, we went to the people we trusted. When yours came out to you, you went to the people you trusted. We both did the same thing. Unfortunately for Leelah, those people weren't worthy of your trust. They lead you down the wrong path.

But this does not mean I think you're blameless.

Yes, you have religious beliefs. So what? Many people do, and only some choose to use them as a flimsy shield to deny rights to others. Many of my daughter's biggest supporters are religious, ranging from Catholic to Muslim. How do they do it and maintain their beliefs? They choose love above judgment. It's that simple. There are a million ways to worship, and not all of them involve an anti-LGBT sentiment.

Yes, you likely acted on the advice of "professionals." So what? It clearly wasn't working. She was miserable. At that point, it's time to step out of one's belief-based comfort zone and explore other options. At any point, there was this amazing tool at your disposal called the internet, and it is full of helpful information. If you had done some independent research into the several recent studies on the successes of trans kids who are allowed to transition, it might have raised some questions about the treatment Leelah was being provided. It could have saved her life.

So yes, I believe you are at least partially responsible for the unhappiness Leelah suffered. You chose to stay on the path you were on, and that ultimately lead to her tragic death. I'm heartbroken for all of you that it did.

But I also have to believe that you had her best intentions at heart, no matter how deeply flawed or steeped in ignorance your parenting decisions might have been. She was your child. You loved her.

So today, while I was sitting in the clinic waiting room chatting with another supportive mom of a trans child, I thought of you and all I wish you had known before it was too late.

I wish you had known how much better trans youth fare when their families and communities support them, rather than try to suppress them. The suicide rate drops dramatically, as does the rate of homelessness, poverty and addiction.

I wish you could have seen the happy person you child might have become if you had listened from the beginning and supported her transition. My daughter went from a dangerously depressed and isolated "boy" to a lovely girl I rarely see without a smile on her face. She is joyous for the first time in her life.  Joyous. I don't use that term loosely.

I wish you would have known how damaging conversion therapy is to people in the LGBT community.  I guess now you do know. But I'm so sad you had to find out this way.

I wish you would have known enough to immerse yourself in the trans community. I've learned more about resiliency and authenticity through the trans people I've met than I ever imagined possible. I've learned that transgender people can be happy; they can fall in love, have families and careers and wonderful lives. Being trans is still a challenge, but it's not at all what conversion therapists or rightwing lobbyists make it out to be. I wish you could have embraced Leelah's community. It's a good one.

I wish you could have known what moving from fear to hope feels like. I used to be afraid. But education, time and making the conscious decision to love my daughter unconditionally have reaped some wonderful rewards. I have far more hope for my happy daughter's future than I ever had for my unhappy son's. This is a good place to be.

Let me be clear: I don't, for even a moment, think I'm better than you or that I love my child more than you loved yours. I'm sure you loved her dearly. But for whatever reason - be it upbringing, environment or overall life experience - my husband and I were able to be more open-minded with our child. That's what this world needs more of, because open-mindedness breeds acceptance. It saves lives. It pains me that not all trans people have open-minded parents. I, along with many others, am actively working to change that.

I hope you don't choose to hide behind religion or ignorance in your grief. I hope you decide, in your own time, to do what your daughter wanted: she wanted trans visibility and education. She wanted allies.

You can be those allies. You can, if you choose, use your grief to do some good. You can speak to other parents and say, "We made mistakes. Here's what we would have done differently now that we know better."

You can save lives. You can make it your mission to ensure that no other transgender child feels invisible, and no other parent listens to the wrong people.

In the wake of so much tragedy, I hope you choose to honour your daughter. I hope you choose love.