The Worst Month
When Muir was five, and it was becoming more and more clear that he might not be a girl as I knew them, I decided to buy some books. Even if it was just a phase, even if I never needed any special knowledge about parenting a transgender or gender non-conforming kid, it was worthwhile information to have. Also, there might have been a secret part of me that hoped that by buying them I would be ironically tricking fate: If I bought and read the books, I wouldn’t need them. I’d chuckle later
I found a few titles on Amazon, but was surprised at how little was out there. I ordered two books, watched a few documentaries, read some articles in medical journals, explored websites. I learned some valuable things, but the biggest takeaway, the main message everything and everyone seemed to be sending was that if my kid was transgender, I should be very afraid. All of the research and anecdotal evidence showed that as a gender non-conforming person, Muir was far more likely to experience depression, isolation, health problems, marginalization, violence and self-harm than others. His life, apparently, would be fraught with misery, or worse.
Suddenly, I remembered the film Boys Don’t Cry, which I’d seen in the late 90s. Was that what life held in store for my child? Heartbreak, sexual violence, and murder? I started to lie awake at night, terrified of the future that lay ahead of us.
But as time went on and Muir did in fact come out as a boy, this didn’t seem to be our reality. Sure, there were some minor issues at school and with a few family members, but everyone we knew or met accepted Muir with warmth and genuine kindness. Teachers were supportive, health care providers attentive and mindful, friends thankfully nonchalant. I felt lucky, even blessed, not only to have the family and community that we did, but to be going through this experience in a time (Obama administration), place (the San Francisco Bay Area) and culture (Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox, Transparent) that was more aware, open and accepting of transgender people than ever before.
Then, last January, just as the holidays were winding down, I got a call from Bryn. “Muir is freaking out,” he said. Bryn is rarely bothered, he’s not a worrier, more of a “walk it off” kind of guy, so I knew that if he was reaching out to me for help, he was truly concerned. “We’re at the art store and I left him alone in the craft aisle for a few minutes, and when I came back he was crying and hyperventilating. I had to leave everything and take him out to the truck, and now we’re sitting here and he’s losing it and he won’t tell me what’s wrong.”
Muir has never been a crier. He’s a highly sensitive kid, but when he cries, it’s usually what he calls “happy tears”, when he’s overcome with the poignancy of an experience or the profundity of an emotion. The sound of him sobbing in the background frightened me. I’d never heard him so hysterical before.
Bryn put me on the car speaker. It took several minutes for Muir to calm down, and several more for him to gain control of his voice so he could whisper what had upset him so. “I was looking at glitter glue,” he gasped through his tears. “They have all these colors, and I couldn’t pick one. I reached out and took one off the rack, and when I looked at it in my hand, I saw that I’d grabbed the pink one without thinking. It was the one my unconscious picked.” His tears began again. “I’m afraid it means I’m a girl.”
Whatever Bryn and I had imagined was behind Muir’s breakdown, it certainly wasn’t glitter glue. What a relief! Obviously, Muir was just worn out and emotional; he’d spent the past three months in a professional theater production that required twelve hour days, and he and Bryn had traveled to visit relatives over the holiday. Clearly, this freak out was just him dealing with overwhelm. We gently reassured him that it was no big deal, that pink is just a color, that he gets to choose whatever he wants and social conventions like blue-for-boys-and-pink-for-girls are ridiculous. “Go home and play with the dog and get some rest,” I said. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
He finally stopped crying, and he did seem better the next day. But then, when I was putting him to bed that night, out of nowhere he said, “I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself.”
In that moment, I learned what people really mean when they say my heart sank. Actually, my heart dropped through the floor, plunging through all the terrifying statistics and Academy Award-winning movies and tragic documentaries that had been trying to warn me on its way down. I was amazed when words came out of my mouth; even more so that they were calm. I fluffed up his pillows. “What do you mean, honey? That you’re scared you might fall or something?” Of course that’s what he means. Please, let that be what he means.
“No,” he whispered, looking away. “The really bad one.”
He didn’t need to explain what he meant. Tears began rolling down his face. Three minutes earlier, we’d been tucking his collection of stuffies into the bed and choosing a book for me to read to him. I had no idea how we’d gotten here, where his head had been in the minutes (hours? days?) leading up to these seconds when he confessed his fear. My mind raced to catch up and fill in the blanks.
“That must feel really scary,” I said. “But you know you won’t do anything like that.”
“I think I might.” He looked at the railing of the loft in our live/work space, where he slept. “ I’m afraid I might jump off the loft.”
“But you won’t. I’m here and I won’t let that happen.” Fuck. Where is this coming from? Jumping off the loft?
But just admitting his fear threw him off an emotional cliff I couldn’t see. He cried and he cried and said over and over, “I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself.” I held him, waiting for it to be over. When it became clear an hour later that he just couldn’t stop sobbing, I went to my default, reserved for Muir situations when he’s panicked and I get swept up in his panic. In the past, I’ve gone there when he’s done things like somehow inhale a pea and get it stuck in his nose, so it seemed more than justified in this case. I said, “Do you want to call Daddy?”
True, Bryn had been rattled by Muir’s breakdown just the day before, but when we put him on speakerphone and I explained what was going on, trying to contain my terror, he was able to take his typical common-sense approach. “Well, that’s silly. Those are just thoughts, and you know you’re not going to do anything like that, and Mom and I won’t let anything happen to you.”
It seemed to comfort Muir, and we managed to get him settled into my bed. I held him and we watched Downton Abbey on my laptop until finally, three hours later, he fell asleep. Even as he slept, he kept a desperate grip on my hand. The sun was coming up before I slept at all.
I was petrified. We weren’t safe, after all. This terrible thing, this potential tragedy that I’d disregarded as impossible since he was six was actually happening. Our kid was suicidal. I had to fix it, to figure out how to bring him back to his curious, funny, happy self. I imagined he’d stay home from school the next day and we’d talk, we’d get to the bottom of it, it would be resolved. But that didn’t happen. Not the next day, or the next, or the next. Instead, he cried, sometimes for hours. Several times an hour, he’d say, “I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself,” or “I’m having bad thoughts.” When we tried to get him to tell us what was wrong, what had brought this on so suddenly, he couldn’t say.
He wasn’t sleeping much. When he was awake, he was frequently hysterical. The few times he was able to go to school, Bryn and I had to take him together, then hand him off to his favorite teacher, who, even though he hadn’t been in her class for years, came out to the car to walk him in and let him stay by her side until the bell rang. We hoped that things would even out, that the darkness would start to lift, but two weeks later, there was no change.
In desperation, we called his therapist, who was out of the country at a conference, and she talked to Muir for a long time. She didn’t think he was in danger of hurting himself, but she also said we should take him to his pediatrician. We ended up doing this twice, the last time when Muir was so distraught that Bryn had to hold him on his lap during the entire visit. The pediatrician and her supervisor thought we should start Muir on Prozac. We didn’t want to take what seemed like a drastic step, giving him a medication that could have unknown effects, and one that wouldn’t even begin to work for weeks, anyway. We wanted help right then. But no one seemed to have any answers.
A month passed. We were all exhausted and growing desperate. Muir and I stayed home together almost every day. I tried to distract him from his grief with British period dramas on PBS and BBC. I lost count of how many times a day he repeated, “I’m thinking the really bad one,” and I replied, “You’re okay. It’s just a thought. Let it go.” Bryn downloaded meditation apps onto Muir’s phone and bought him a stuffed dog to cuddle when he was at my house and couldn’t be with the dog they shared, a fluffy mutt who seemed to be the only thing that was bringing Muir any real comfort.
I struggled to keep my own fear and anxiety at bay, not wanting Muir to see that I was a terrified as he was. My mind swarmed with confusion: How did we get here? How did our kid, who had always been so self-confident and at home in his own skin, who had the genuine love and support of so many people, who just a month before had been overjoyed to be on stage performing in ten shows a week, in a theater full of 1500 people, crash into this sudden turmoil? I couldn’t believe it had just come out of nowhere, that he’d gone from being one of the most peaceful and self-assured people I knew to this sad, desperate child?
I felt like I was losing my mind. One night at bedtime, when we were strategizing yet again about how he might go to school the next day, all of the emotions I’d been holding back finally surged forth. “We can’t keep going on like this, baby,” I said softly. “We don’t know how to help you. You’ve got to tell us something, help us understand what’s wrong. We can’t work this out together if we don’t know what we’re trying to fix.”
Silent tears started to roll down his face. I thought I might have gone to far, that maybe he’d picked up on frustration and impatience that I wasn’t hiding as well as I imagined. But then he began to talk. “When Poppy and I went to Grammy and Papaw’s at Christmas, one day we drove to the store with Auntie Eileen.” His tears gained momentum. “She told me that she thought I was making a choice to be a boy, and to be Muir, and it would be easier for her and the whole family if I went back to being a girl. And I’ve been thinking that since I’ll never really have a boy’s body, maybe I’ll never be a real boy, and she’s right, and I should be a girl again.” Before I could begin to process this, to really hear what he’d just told me, he began wailing and thrashing around on the bed. “But I’m a boy! I know I’m a boy! I know I’m a boy!”
Just like that, it all made sense. Bryn’s sister had planted this seed of doubt, had rejected Muir’s identity. When he came home after the holidays, and reached for the pink glitter glue in the art store that early January day, he immediately thought that Eileen was right, that he really was a girl, since this unconscious desire for pink was clearly somewhere inside him. This sent him into a downward spiral of despair as he began to obsess about the reality that his body was female, and he would never be able to change that.
He wasn’t afraid he was going to kill himself. He was afraid he was going to hurt the boy he knew he was by going back to being a girl.
Some part of my terror ebbed then, immediately followed by a flood of outrage at Eileen and the heartbreak of knowing that Muir had been keeping this experience and his own painful doubts about his identity secret from us. A flicker of optimism also arose. Now that I knew what had been wrong, I at least had a fighting chance at making it better.
At the heart of it all was Muir’s anguish over the reality that he was living in a female body and would never be a “real” physical boy. I reminded him that he wasn’t going to have a girl’s body--that he would soon have a puberty blocker and would never grow breasts or have a period, and that with hormone therapy he’d have muscles and facial hair, and that one day, when he was older (and who knew what miracles of science could happen by then?) he’d be able to have surgery if he wanted to, and have a real penis.
“I know,” he sobbed, “but I need something now. I need to be a boy now.”
My heart was breaking. What could I do, beyond saying, “But you are a boy. Your body is just your body, it’s not who you are. No one’s body is who they are on the inside.” But my words sounded so inadequate, almost patronizing. “What can I do?” I asked. “What would make it better now?”
He thought for a moment before saying, “I think I would feel a lot better if I could just pee standing up. I’ve tried to for so long, and it never really works, but if I could, I think I might feel okay.”
There is was: Something concrete. I had no idea how I’d do it, but I was going to figure out a way for Muir to pee standing up. I knew there had to be solutions. I knew that this was a challenge transgender men had faced and no doubt conquered over the years. I just had to find out how. And, thanks to the Internet, I had an entire history and world to search for answers.
We did find a way for Muir to pee standing up. It took some time, but just knowing that we were working on it, that we were going to make it happen, gave him enough to hold onto that he was able to gain some control over his depression and anxiety, and to go back to school. Each day, “the really bad thoughts” came less and less, scrubbed away not just by the “stand-to-pee” device we ultimately discovered, but by a number of changes at school and with his health care that began to strongly affirm his identity and reassure him that he knows who he is.
The harm that was done by Auntie Eileen...well, that’s a work in progress.
But Muir is confident now that no matter what body he’s in, no matter what color glitter glue he likes or whether or not the penis he pees with is actual flesh and blood, he’s a boy.
And that boy is safe.