Confronting identity and illness in the midst of a chaotic year.
I had just come out of the shower. I was damp, and tired. But I was calm enough that I was able to write a song for the first time in months. And it was good, I think. Maybe not. It didn’t really matter. At that point, I was happy to be doing anything but calling doctors or lying on my couch in pain or running through the same daily cycle of things I could do with my parents.
Having been alone in one place for four months, it was strange to be alone in a different place. It was relieving, actually, to feel like I’d accomplished some sort of movement, which I guess I had. Not only had I survived the five-hour drive from Connecticut to my aunt and uncle’s house in Maine, but also a six-week-long mystery illness, and the months-long process of getting prescribed estrogen. Being trans, and being sick, and being stuck in a house with only my parents for so long meant that any change that wasn’t altogether negative felt… wonderful. It’s a cliché, but, sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed, I genuinely felt like I could breathe for the first time in a long while.
There’s sort of a redefinition of self when you spend time in a new place, even if it’s only for a few days. We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.
Last year, I wrote a piece about being—or, at the time, maybe not being—trans. It was for my creative nonfiction class, so I shouldn’t have been worried about anyone reading it and passing real, personal judgement, but I was. I revealed a lot of what I’d buried for most of my adolescence: cutting up old clothes so they would look like “girls’ clothes,” having several near-crises about my gender in my early years at Oberlin, realizing I was trans (in a planetarium in Montreal, of all places) and then recanting. But I also concealed the important part: that I’d never really felt like a person, like myself. I guess I’d thought that was too heavy to impart to anyone else.
What’s funny is that very soon after writing that essay, I did drop a metaphysical brick on everyone in my life, and in a much more meaningful form than a college nonfiction piece: I came out. First, to my parents, then to my best friend, then to all the myriad people I loved and cared about. I don’t know why I decided to come out when I did, after returning home from the fall semester (although my rash decision to give myself bangs may have contributed). But I did. And things got so much better after that.
I used Winter Term as a bit of a trial period for my transness; I changed my wardrobe a bit, and adapted to my new name. Gosh, did I feel so much more… alive. That feeling carried through the beginning of the spring semester: I was able to go and do things with my friends without being anxious about being perceived. For the first time, I could go to a party and not have a panic attack or melt into the walls. For the first time, it was good to be seen by other people, because I felt like they were validating my existence as the person I actually was even by saying “hi” to me. It was the happiest I’d been in a long while.
And then the pandemic hit, and all that newfound joy in human interaction was dashed. I was to be pretty much locked in a house with my parents for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s not that I don’t love my parents, or that they aren’t supportive; it’s just that two people isn’t enough. Have you ever spent a bit too much time with a few close friends and needed to go have coffee with someone else, just to breathe different air? That was how I felt with my parents, except there wasn’t anyone to have coffee with, and breathing different air was… inadvisable.
I soon realized that this sudden change was going to end up forcing a lack thereof. As I’d learned how to be myself in Oberlin, I’d also been seriously considering starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I’d always felt like my body was an ill-fitting sweater that I couldn’t take off, and HRT seemed like a solution. I was bent on broaching the topic with my parents during spring break, but spring break never happened. When I got home, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to see an endocrinologist for a long time. My entire transition hit an impasse.
After a few days at home, it became clear that I (and everyone else) wouldn’t be returning to Oberlin for the rest of the spring. In addition to reckoning with my suddenly molasses-like transition, I was also going to engage in my studies at home. I had to make a bunch of hurried adaptations to my Connecticut life, because I could see that my routine of waking up at noon and eating two meals a day was going to get dark, and fast. I forced myself to leave my bedroom shades up; I learned how to make myself coffee; and I went on a lot of walks. To return to my earlier pseudo-psychological language, I had to redefine myself against what little positive stimuli I had within the confines of my neighborhood.
One of these stimuli was an album by singer-harpist-bard-of-the-universe Joanna Newsom called Have One On Me. It’s an 18-song, two-hour-long album about codependent relationships (which I’ve, uh, had a few of). It was meaningful to me not only in terms of subject matter, but in terms of its overall emotional depth and complexity—it was something I could really dive into at a time when I felt life’s gravity had paused and left me hanging in midair. I listened to Have One On Me in chunks, and then as a whole, and then in chunks again, over and over and over. I also set off on the project of learning how to play all of the album’s songs, many of which had perplexing harmonies and rhythms. It was almost like a healing process for me, like the music was working me through all the quarantine-based ennui I’d developed.
There are so, so many lines from Have One On Me that came to mean a lot to me, but one sticks in particular: “All my life, I’ve felt as though / I’m inside a beautiful memory / Replaying / With the sound turned down low.” The second I heard this line, I knew it typified a feeling I’d had for most of my life, one that was indescribable until then. I’d always been detached from myself, like I was in someone else’s delicate and muted memory. Hearing Joanna’s words when I did was particularly arresting, because that feeling had intensified in the time I’d been home. I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine.
The school year wound down, and I began to settle into a bit of a groove. Without work, I was free to do what I wanted. I found solace in running, playing and writing music, and editing my poetry. With the pandemic calming somewhat, I was finally able to set the ball rolling on hormones. And I got a new therapist who was, at the very least, another person I could bounce my feelings off of. I was still isolated and disengaged, but I had established a comfortable rhythm.
But in early June that all was disrupted (this is becoming a theme, yes?). I started to have difficulty digesting what I ate. At first I thought, Eh, I just ate bad fish or something, and then, Hm… Do I have salmonella? and then, I don’t know what I have but it is bad. By Independence Day, I was unable to keep anything nutritious in my body. I lost 10 pounds in a month (which is a lot for anyone to lose, but especially not good for normally 120-pound me). There were nights when I’d be greeted at 3:00 AM by intense nausea and dehydration. There were days when I had to lie in bed, not because of my growing exhaustion, but because any sudden movement I made would send me stumbling to the bathroom. And there were moments when I just broke down crying. It wasn’t the pain of being sick; it was the pain of not knowing what was happening to me, of feeling completely and totally out of control. I felt like my body was a blank gray wall, and no matter how loud I screamed, how many times I pleaded for answers, it just stood, disintegrating, silent.
Though I obviously needed a doctor, it took an extreme experience to get me to see one—because of the pandemic, and because I can be needlessly stoic. But after a rough morning when I ran a low fever, I got through to an on-call doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist an hour away. He took about five minutes to listen to my symptoms and suggested I have a colonoscopy, and quick.
So I did. It was honestly not that bad; I counted back from 10 and woke up rather loopy an hour later. (And I got those hospital socks with the grip on the bottom, so that was a plus.) The doctor told me I had a raging case of ulcerative colitis, and prescribed steroids (temporarily) and an anti-inflammatory (permanently). Although it wasn’t a rosy outcome, I was glad to know I wasn’t wasting away for no reason. I was also glad to know I’d get better. At home, I’d already been mentally removed, and being sick took my physical security away as well. I was looking forward to being someone with a functioning mind and body again.
So there I was in late July, four months into my forced experiment in social isolation. I’d just been prescribed a whole bunch of stomach medicine, as well as—finally—estrogen. And the day after I began taking all this in, after I began the process of healing in all the myriad ways I needed to heal, I left my Connecticut hideout for six days, to visit my aunt and uncle. When I got to Maine, I felt like I could breathe normally again. It was certainly a result of everything changing at once for me, but I didn’t realize that. It felt metaphysical. Like I’d stepped over from dusk to dawn.
Through all I’d experienced that spring and summer, I’d been working on a long poem about my first experience realizing I was trans in a Montreal planetarium. Along with Have One On Me, it kept me going. It was one of the first poems I didn’t just pour out all at once; it was a stanza-by-stanza, section-by-section sort of deal. I would spend most of my afternoons, and sometimes the late hours of the night, writing and rewriting, destroying the paper with eraser marks. I did this even when I was at my sickest—I suppose it felt like the only way I could do something productive, despite the fact that few people were likely to see the poem, whenever I ended up finishing it.
When I went to Maine, I was ever so close to finishing the poem, but the first four nights I was there, despite my newfound calm, I could not think of the right way to end it. I don’t know if it was classic writer’s block or if I just wasn’t spending my artistic energy in the right way, but I was stuck.
Then, pretty late into the night before I was set to leave, I was walking out in the semi-cleared woods next to my aunt and uncle’s. Looking up at the sky, I could see the stars clearly. In the opening of the poem, I’d invoked Polaris and Ursa Major, and now they were right in front of me: “asterisms in the stars’ set order,” as Joanna Newsom would say. I had my ending.
I sat in the grass, ignoring a thin layer of mist, and took out my phone and wrote. It was a bookend that also pointed forward, like an arrow sent through a board. I wrote feverishly, and though it ended up only being a few lines, I was satisfied. I got up and started heading back to the house.
The poem closes with the line, “Dear god of the big mistake, / Here deserving of a small thanks.” Essentially, it’s a recognition of having come out of things ok, of having been lucky enough to come out at all. I wrote it with my transness in mind, but I think it came to represent all I’d been through that year: the hundreds of times I’d called doctor’s offices, the sickness, the stress, the isolation. But I’d gotten through that. And I was going to keep getting through it.
As I was walking back, the fog from the lake beside me seemed to rise, but I could still see the stars looking down as I was looking up. With each step, I hit the ground, which was only getting wetter, with a squelch. And somehow, despite all known logic and physics, the wilderness picked up on that sound, reflecting myself back at me across the water.