This article examines issues related to mental health, suicide and gender identity.
I first wrote this in October last year. It was an angry response to Perth Lord Mayor, Basil Zempilas’s announcement on Radio 6PR that he is a transphobic bigot.
I redrafted it again in January this year when Margaret Court was promoted to Companion of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours. Court also is a transphobic bigot. I was still angry this time, my heart was still broken, but the tone of what I’d written still didn’t sit well with me.
I want to be able to write this with love and respect for self and I want those who read it to receive it with love and respect. I want to be able to express the joy and contentment that I feel now that I am able to be me. I have been hidden for so long, from myself and the world; I don’t want my first public introduction to be clouded with politics. There’s plenty of time for that later.
I want to do the most selfish thing possible for a moment — talk about myself. More specifically about identity and the incongruence between what you’re assigned at birth and through social conditioning, and what you know within yourself to be true. That disparity has defined my whole life and I’m now ready to address it, close the gap and heal wounds within myself and live whatever remains of my life as me.
I am Andrea, and I identify as female.
This is not a matter of choice, it is who I am.
For those haven’t experienced it, no amount of explaining and going through the back story will provide anything close to insight and understanding. For those who have experienced it, you will know all too well that, at some point, often multiple points, it comes down to a decision about whether and how to continue existing.
My most recent moment of considering whether I could continue to exist came around five years ago. A lifetime of repressing myself resulted in a complete breakdown, one from which I realised I could only fully recover if I addressed my internal self-hatred and transphobia and then had the courage to face the same from the world.
Some of my earliest memories are of confusion about how I was expected to behave and who I was expected to be. Some of my earliest happy memories are of making paper dollies at around the age of four and selling them to my somewhat incredulous parents and their friends so I could save up for whatever it was I had my heart set on. If I recall correctly, it was a set of plastic zoo animals.
Not many years later, life became all about survival as, from the age of six, I was sent away to a series of boarding schools, first in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then in England. Everything about these schools felt wrong to me. They were brutal regimes where emotional and physical abuse were par for the course. Later, at the posh English public school I attended, sexual abuse was added to the mix. I’ve only just begun to process, recognise and come to terms with those experiences in recent years.
To survive, I learned not to show any emotion. These were boys’ schools, so we were taught always to be the stoic men we were being groomed to be. I was moderately successful. I played rugby and hockey, revelling in the licence to hurt and, more importantly, be hurt. I remember at the age of 11 being kicked in the head on the rugby pitch and being away for a time thinking, “This is what it feels like to be dead.” It was a pleasant reprieve. I was reasonably good academically, particularly at English, where the opportunity to escape into imagination and create my own worlds was a life saver.
I remember during the long hot English summer of 1976 lying awake in my school dormitory into the small hours wondering where I would be and what I’d be doing in the year 2000. I determined then that I would be a woman by the time I was 40. That was the pact I made with myself. Of course, what the 11-year-old me didn’t know was that everything I needed to be was already inside me. All I needed was my own permission.
When my family’s circumstances changed and I moved at age 13 to an English comprehensive school, I began to experience a more diverse existence. I also began in earnest to use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, something I kept doing until, at the age of 20, I almost died of an overdose. I thought I was having a great time.
After that, I decided I needed to straighten up and fly right, literally. I began a path that led to university, marriage and a proper career. I don’t regret anything about that period in my life, especially as it brought me my son, who I love completely and who taught me through his own being that the only thing you have to do to be successful in this life is be your authentic self.
When my marriage inevitably ended, I spent years pursuing other relationships so that I could keep hiding from myself. If ever I stopped for a moment to contemplate an alternate course, my best and most coercive friends, Guilt, Shame and Anxiety, would pay me a visit. Often Anxiety would long overstay their welcome, in fact they were probably the most enduring emotion I felt from the age of six years to around my 50th year.
Anxiety is a prison from which you fear you will never escape. It induces rituals, appeasement and bargaining along the lines of, “If you let me have a minute, an hour, a day, a week of peace, I will make sure I don’t have a single thought that will make you come back again.” Appeasement works for a while, in my case for a very long while, but there’s only one possible end to that course of action, Anxiety will take you down. One way or another, it will kill you.
Beginning my fifties, I reached a point where I could no longer function and taking my own life felt like my only viable option. Before this time, I had tried to address my gender identity, coming across some well-meaning but pretty ham-fisted doctors and therapists who just didn’t suit who I am. You see, I don’t fit the stereotype. I knew it, they knew it and it was a problem, because at that time I still wasn’t quite ready to deal with my own true self. I told myself I had given it my best shot and that life wasn’t really so bad, I just needed to accentuate the positive; you know that bullshit we tell ourselves when something is deeply wrong, but we don’t have the insight or resources to deal with it.
This time was different. After a few years of addressing the depression and anxiety that were again crippling me, I began to do the hard work of reconstructing my patterns of thinking and interaction with myself and others. During this process, I came across a therapist who was my match, a rare thing, as I’m difficult at the best of times and sometimes too clever for my own good. With her support I reached the conclusion that, If I wanted to continue to live and do more than just hang on to a grim existence, I needed to do it authentically as me, no matter how much that would invoke my own internal prejudice as well as the prejudices of the rest of the world.
It sounds trite, but in that moment, the last of the heavy weight I’d been carrying my whole life lifted from my shoulders. I knew that all I had to do was be me, on my own terms, no stereotypes, no wishing I could be someone or something else, just me.
So, who am I? I am who I’ve always been. I identify as female, and I present to the world however I choose. That changes from time to time and I expect it will continue to do so. Lots of things about me have evolved throughout my life, but my identity has been one constant that I am now proud to acknowledge publicly.
I will to my last breath be all of the things I’ve always been. If you’re reading this and feel inclined to like me a little bit more, or less, as a consequence of knowing more about my journey, please don’t. I’m still the same person I always was, so please just keep loving me, liking me, or hating me. Nothing has changed.
I’m sharing my story now, because it is time to honour myself and my identity by coming out of hiding.
By doing so, I know that I will lose —friends, colleagues, opportunity, my place of privilege in society, among other things. The losses will be outweighed by the gains, though. Self-respect and self-love are the cornerstones of existence. I have learned to my great detriment that, without these foundations, every relationship, every human connection fails. An inauthentic life is no life at all, it is just an existence, an endurance race that you can never complete.
As of today, I stop just existing and start living.
One more thing before I go (although I expect you’ll hear more from me on this subject; I still have to take on Basil and Margaret for starters). I have run this race my whole life. I will continue to run it in my own way and in my own time, so please shelve your stereotypes and expectations. Unfortunately, I’ve found that some of the most woke allies are the biggest barriers to inclusion and equity, although many more people are simply loving and supportive and I’m hoping that will continue to be the case.
Now, back to the music.
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If you or someone you know is experiencing difficulty at this time, please refer to the following resources and helplines.
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636http://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Black Dog Institute www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
Lifeline 13 11 14 https://www.lifeline.org.au/
QLife 1800 184 527 https://qlife.org.au/
Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467 https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au/