Thursday, April 20, 2017

Jig-saw puzzles and Therapy


I've already spoken of Janet, my childhood friend from Infant School (Kindergarten).  Two rather lonely children, we used to enjoy sharing jig-saw puzzles in school.  The puzzles were old.  Some had tatty boxes, some were simply a bundle of pieces in a plastic bag. As we struggled to build a complete picture, there were many challenges.  We would share the work, each trying to build little islands of pieces which fit together, giving part of the whole.  If there was a box, we might have some idea of what the puzzle represented.  Sometimes, the pieces were in the wrong box entirely, a picture of a dog might actually turn out to be a cat. When jig-saws were dismantled rapidly they might end up getting mixed: The worst case scenario was to work with two incomplete puzzles in an anonymous bag; a ship and a castle maybe. That was a frantically frustrating experience. Much later, as an Early Years teacher myself, I would stay behind after school trying vainly to sort such messes out!

Building a jig-saw without access to the full picture depends on guesswork. Not knowing what something is supposed to be means you can't pre-judge the outcome.  Working with the wrong picture entirely means you may go frantic trying to make sense of pieces that don't fit. Assembling a mixture of pieces means that there is no satisfying outcome. The result at best is two partial pictures which defy anyone's expectations.  The result can be at times funny or saddening depending on your outlook. Funny because the juxtaposition of two mismatched images looks crazy, saddening because things aren't as you want them to be.

Before my transition, casual acquaintances thought they knew me: an Early Years Teacher, stay at home parent, trainee counsellor, educator, kind, empathic, listening, approachable and without doubt, a man. Some of these described only parts of me, the last didn't describe me at all.

To my mother, my closest friends and partner, I was an anxious, often depressive individual, possibly Gay, maybe bi-sexual, creative, unconventional and easily hurt. To my youngest daughter I was always her Mum and friend, to my eldest I was her inspiration and intellectual sparring partner.  To my father, I was assumed to be his son. There were so many expectations, so many pictures to match the pieces. I grew up with a very confused idea of who I was, torn between who I felt inside and what others expected me to be. Counsellors call those expectations 'conditions of worth': a child strives to meet them in order to receive love. It doesn't help you get to know yourself, if anything it frustrates and confounds that process.

Nobody knows everything about themselves. Counsellors use a familiar illustrative concept to help explore their client's sense of self. The 4 panes of the Johari Window explain how patchy and unreliable our self knowledge can be. For those of us in the trans community, so much can be kept hidden. To complicate matters further, what is open is not always genuine either, much like a jig-saw in the wrong box. As for our blind spots and the murky depths of our unknown, these are difficult areas for most Trans individuals. Many of us have spent years trying to conform and have almost come to believe the illusion ourselves.  I was no exception. 

For transsexual women and others with gender identity issues, the journey toward greater self awareness can be a long one. I spent four years in therapy trying to establish my gender identity. Even exploring that open area was like navigating a minefield.  I had to contend with how others thought they saw me, as male, female, gay, bisexual or non-binary. As I started on my journey, others were very keen to volunteer their opinion on who I was too.  Many were sure that I was transsexual and would soon want hormone therapy and surgery.  Others who had known me longer wanted to claim me as a TV or CD.  Gay friends tried to persuade me that I was simply a Gay guy in denial. Some unkind feminists told me I was mentally ill man who was out to mutilate and destroy myself. Only the first was accurate.

I was lucky to have an excellent help from my psychosexual therapist, Martin Riley.  It was his suggestion that I write this blog in the first place.  The first 70 blogposts encapsulated the content of our therapy sessions and the insights they unearthed. I found myself, for the first time, in a safe space where I could explore my upbringing, my conditions of worth mentioned above and the feelings I had been unwilling to deal with.  It is all there in my blog.  Exploring the past and present, therapy also gives you the tools to continue that journey toward self actualisation.  That is one reason I've kept blogging, even after my transition was complete.

When I began therapy, I was on the run from 3 failed suicide attempts and in a depressed, 'gotta get outa here' state.  Others had successfully convinced me that the only way out was GRS. I was almost obsessive and compulsive in my quest for hormone therapy and surgery. My therapist encouraged me to quietly throw all that aside. From then on, I began to calmly unpick who I really was.  He quite rightly pointed out that if I wasn't a woman now, no amount of surgery would ever make me one.  Surgery is confirming, not reassigning, 'swapping' or changing. Indeed, nobody can make a woman out of a man if she is not already intrinsically female. Surgery in such cases would be a huge mistake and mutilation indeed.

Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning will realise that I've always been a girl whether I chose to admit it or not.  I was brought up by a loving attentive Mum who saw the girl in me but kept her own counsel. Society was unaccepting of Trans individuals and I was protected by well meaning parents from hate they thought I would experience.  I made my own way through childhood with much pain and through my teens with even more.  Small, slight, high voiced, androgynously dressed, I picked my way through life, miserably unconfident and hating the bits of me that didn't fit.  I lived in my head most the time, always a girl. An attempt to fit in with the gay community back in the day failed miserably, as did marrying another girl. Some positives emerged like motherhood and a career as a kindergarten teacher but they were all poisoned by my being perceived as a man.

I'm lucky to be a happily married woman now and mother to four kids.  It's been a long time since all those angst ridden years. I've lived almost 40% of my adult life as the woman I am now Paradoxically, I've been female my whole life.  In the process of understanding that, I've learned an important lesson. It is all too easy to think you know yourself and make to huge mistakes. It is even easier to pontificate about who you believe others are and what their destiny is.  You don't know and can't know.  It is dangerous to suggest that you do, sometimes hurtful and always misleading. People are unique, not all of a piece.  It is dangerous to apply labels like transsexual, gay, TV or CD without thought. With help from a skilled therapist, individuals do have a fighting chance of discovering who they really are.  They can't be 'told', they have to find out in a safe place where they can cope with their discoveries. I'm so lucky I got that chance.

I have said it before, but it is worth repeating.  I am not an inspiration or an icon to be admired and followed. I am simply me. If what I share seems familiar, it may be a pattern to follow.  If so, do it carefully and still take time to discover the real you.  You might be transsexual but on the other hand you might be bi-gender, non-binary, gay, a TV or CD or any combination of these things. Before ever you take hormone therapy, embark on a surgical path or anything irreversible, take counsel, get help and take good care.  

You have one life given to you, live it well.

Huggs, Jane xx

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