Christmas

Christmas

My parents sent me a package for Christmas.

I deleted the text my mom sent me telling me about it and tried to forget. It came a few days later. There was a box and a padded envelope. I took them to my apartment. I felt so angry holding them. And at the same time I felt guilty. I felt real shame. That here was a set of parents sending me gifts when I hadn’t sent them anything. Parents who were willing to give me things while I was planning to separate myself from them for good.

I dropped them on the floor and walked away to take off my jacket and boots. I considered leaving them untouched. Seeing that name on the address label—the name they still called me, probably always would—the name I thought I wouldn’t have to think about, the name that shouldn’t have belonged to me anymore if things had gone right. I walked back and ripped open the envelope. Inside was a money pouch decorated with passport photos of other countries. I opened it, thinking that maybe they’d left me some cash inside. But they hadn’t. Of course not.

I opened the box. A bunch of wrapped gifts lay inside. I took the top one out, noticing the tissue paper and ribbons that my favorite gift shop always used. The thought just made me angry. I wasn’t thinking in pictures but feeling in memories when the flashbacks came. All the times I’d gone in there buying things, shopping with my parents. The time I went in with my friend who came to visit me over break because I was panicking in the house for the four weeks I was forced to stay with them. The time years before when I went in with my mom to buy a present for my dad, and when I snapped at her just a little she threw the gift back at me and stormed out the door like a wounded high school mean girl. The times I’d walk in by myself when I was let out of work early to avoid going back to the house.

I put the gifts back in the box and shoved everything into my room, which was already littered with dirty laundry and leftovers from the semester. They stayed there for a while. Thinking about them made me angry. And also guilty. I felt so ashamed that I was begrudging gifts from my family. Didn’t that mean they still thought about me? That they actually did care? How ungrateful was I to want to remove myself from that? I thought back about the things they’d done. And they times it seemed like they might have loved me.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the abuse was all in my head. Maybe I was just an ungrateful, naïve, attention-seeking nobody influenced by a few books and opinions.

A conversation with a friend reminded me of the things my parents would love me to forget.

When they told me not to tell anyone I was gay, and forced me to cut off contact with the support group I was talking with.

When my father berated me for writing a letter to the governor advocating for environmentally friendly policies.

All the times my mother shamed me for embarrassing her in public—scolded me, shunned me, for things like forgetting my phone number when ordering a book and being too busy to help my brother when we were volunteering at a theater. For asking for rides to work and my internship. For asking my little brother if he needed help with his math homework.

I remembered my father standing in the kitchen facing me and my little brother and saying “I can’t believe you would be influenced by the most selfish person I know” and turning to stare me full in the face because that person was me.

All the times my parents locked themselves in their room or the office for hours and hours each day and how many days we went seeing them only at meals.

The passive-aggression surrounding each individual chore in the house, the tension and fear when doing them was wrong and not doing them was worse. How helping without being asked was something to be ashamed of because the smallest thing would be done wrong and nothing was worth being thanked for; but how waiting to be asked just showed how ungrateful, spoiled and entitled we were as children. The genuine anxiety that went into every load of dishes and every basket of laundry.

The hearts pounding because you never knew if the silence from the parents was because of something you did that they’re just not going to mention. The whispered conversations behind slammed doors.

My mom ranting about me to her mother on the phone every Sunday; the unsettling number of times she vented to me about my dad’s parents, pitting me against them and him, even when the family took the thirteen hour drive to visit them. She always found time to pull me away and tell me all the awful things about my dad’s family. How it all rubbed off on him, how much she hated him. And how much I should hate my oldest brother for being like him. And yet despite that demanding I be sweet to his face, thank him for each tiny service as if it wasn’t his obligation as a parent to provide for us. She micro-managed my every interaction, told me who to be at every turn, yet still found reasons to blame me for everything that went wrong.

The tone in my father’s voice when he accused me of using feminism to promote my gay agenda. His refusal to talk about my sexuality or my two relationships with women. His voice when he called me to yell at me about my email telling them I’d started taking medication. Asking about every detail of my life, insisting my illnesses were all in my head, that I was stupid and naïve for believing the doctor when he prescribed the medication. Demanding to know why I never told them anything anymore. I retaliated. “Do you really think I feel safe with you after how you handled my coming out?” He denied saying the things that he did. I remember him saying them. That he didn’t believe I had a right to get married, that if I was gay I could never have my own family. That most gay people were bad and flaunted their sexuality. That night on the phone I threw statistics at him about transgender suicide and homeless LGBTQ youth. “But none of that is you,” he told me. “You’re choosing to be oppressed.”

Throughout the next few days I opened the presents one by one. A jar of coconut oil. A stick of lip balm. A book about opera. A pair of thick striped socks. I left them lying in my room. They were all things I needed or liked. I felt so ashamed. It meant they knew me. They knew what I wanted.

But then I realized they never bothered to ask what I needed.

They sent me a money bag as if that made up for all the times they refused to give me money. They gave me lip balm as if that would heal the wounds left by their words. They sent me coconut oil not knowing I’d bought one earlier that week with the groceries that ate the last of my paycheck. They gave me socks as if that was the only comfort they cared to provide after twenty one years of abuse.

The gifts they gave me were safe gifts. They were the things I always wanted, the things I would never say no to. They came from stock facts about me. That I like to cook, I like opera, I like cool socks. Things they always knew. That almost everyone who knows me knows.

They never bothered to ask me what I wanted. And they keep refusing to give me what I need.

I’m not going to feel ashamed because of that. I’m not ungrateful. I’m not selfish. I’m not naïve.

I’m more of a person than they ever let me be.

I don’t have to like their gifts. I don’t have to be grateful for them. I don’t have to be guilty I didn’t get them anything. I don’t owe them anything for pretending they know me.

In the end the most liberating thing for me is how wrong they both are. My dad said I would never have a family of my own. My mom told me I’d never know what it was like to feel the unconditional love towards a child. But it’s the other way around.

I have a family now that’s more real than mine with them ever was. A family of people who love and support me for real and who know what I need and ask me what I want.

And I know the unconditional love towards a child. I feel that for every kid I’ve ever worked with. The fierce desire to protect. The patience to work through their most trying moments. The energy to see them day after day and always bring a smile to the table no matter how hard my day has been. The sadness when they walk away without saying goodbye. The comfort of knowing that no matter what happens, the love we shared will never, ever go away.

I almost feel sorry for my mom. She doesn’t get the comfort of knowing that. She blew it with me. And she doesn’t get to see the joy in my kids’ faces when they run up to me squealing my name. And she’ll never feel the swell of joy I get when I know how much I mean to them. And they’re not even my own children. I can’t wait until I have some of my own.

My parents didn’t send me those gifts because they cared. They sent them because it was an easy thing to do. They want to reel me back in. A consolation prize. And that’s exactly what abusers do.

It’s been a year since I set foot in that house and I’m never going back.

 

Tiny Smiles

​I saw two kids (siblings) from one of my old groups at the store today. I noticed the older sister first and did a double take when I saw her, which unfortunately drew attention to myself. We made eye contact a few times. She said hello, so I said hello back. She was staring at me pretty hard. I think she was trying to figure out how she knew me. She poked her little brother, who was sitting in the seat on their parent’s shopping cart. She asked him who I was. He looked at me and his happy little face glowed with a warm smile. “Hi Tonie!” he chirped. The sister looked back at me and said “Oh! Tonie!” she ran over to give me a hug. “Hey sweetheart” I whispered before she ran back to her confused looking parent. They left the store, the little boy waving at me from his seat. 
I almost cried–I miss them so much, and it’s amazing to witness their happiness when they see me again. I hope that in my future, as I continue my work with youth, I have many more moments like this.

Conditional Worth

Conditional Worth

We’re put in groups with other random people who wanted to learn, and who want to learn this. We’re expected to take time out of our weeks to join together in a room and listen. We’re expected to participate, to listen to each other and speak up. We’re expected to look at others as humans, with respect, We’re expected to grow ourselves and take chances and make choices.

I get too attached to people because I have never EVER had the loving support I do now before this point. Love was conditional; affection was withheld. In my parents’ house there was a standard that had to be met. If you didn’t reach the threshold of perceived goodness, your worth was in question. Love was a privilege in that house.
I love my professors. They trust me and believe in me. They critique me not to shut me down but because they can see potential in me. They know I can do better. They want to support me. They want me to succeed, not because it somehow benefits them—because they see what I can be, and they want me to be there. For my own sake.

It’s a kind of caring I’d never had before but was fortunate enough to receive as soon as I came to UWGB. Within the first three weeks of classes I had a professor who spotted me as someone she wanted to see succeed. Someone she could challenge.

I was terrified of this and at the same time I was thrilled.

I was learning what it felt like to actually be appreciated. To have someone in my life who believed I was capable of great and important things.

But I was terrified of failing, because I had no idea that there would be any reaction but disappointment and isolation.

I still haven’t quite convinced myself that my professors aren’t going to do that to me.
That my friends will not shun me if I say one stupid thing.

That my real family, the family that’s been built around me in my four years at school, will not isolate and abandon me if I don’t fall in line.

My worth is unconditional. It’s not the tree that falls in a forest when no one’s around.
Love should be unconditional. Affection should not be a prize for perfection.

I still get too attached sometimes. Maybe more often than not. I want people to fill the roles I wished my parents had. I crave the unconditional love and support.

Lately I have seen more of it. When I have the energy to open my eyes. I can feel it. When they ask me. When they talk to me. When they give me that moment to breathe.

I love them too much for it and I don’t know how to give that back. I want to be as good as them. I want to be as strong. I’m building a new me on an old and broken foundation. It’s almost like I have to tear down what was there just to get something solid started.

It feels like a never ending struggle. Maybe it is. But I want to be okay someday. I want to help people the same way I’ve been helped. To see in them what they don’t themselves. To show them. You are worth it. You are strong.

Looking from the Outside

When I look at myself from the outside, I see someone who’s successful. I see someone who’s composed, eager, passionate and grounded. I see someone with a good sense of humor who’s willing to laugh at themself. I see someone who’s face many battles and come out strong. I see someone with boundless energy, who never wants to stop trying. I see someone beautiful. Someone whose expressions change with the mood and whose watchful eyes follow the quiet people, the ones who can’t speak out. Someone whose outsides change with the season, whose thick and vibrant hair pokes out from under cozy hats, whose bright face is punctuated by studs and rings. I see a tiny body vibrating with energy and pain. I see hands rough from a lack of self-care. I see skinny limbs wrapping around a broken heart. I see a spirit worn from what it has seen, a world of people full of pain and love and joy and heartbreak and betrayal and learning and power and gains and fear. I see an open heart willing to take in the greatest burdens in hopes that it will grow enough to help everyone it encounters. I see ears tender from listening to the voices all around it and a mouth well-used defending the rights of those they care about. I see a world of words pouring forth from their brain and an intensity of emotion boiling inside the small figure. I see marks on the pale skin, ridges built from pain too massive to contain. I see ready hands and a comforting smile. I see elegance; I see flaws. I see fear in the watchful eyes. I sense anxiety behind the comforting words. Nervous ticks punctuate their movement. I see sadness hidden behind the colorful attire. I see someone who acts like they know who they are but in reality is struggling and fearful of never knowing. I see someone who’s been trying and is afraid of the day when trying is no longer enough.

False Hope

I’m sorry I’m not good enough. You know I’m trying. I see you accept the help from others you say you don’t need when I offer it. I’m sorry I can’t fulfill the role you somehow thought I could, no matter how many times I told you that isn’t who I am. For once I’m standing up for myself. I though you of all people would be the one to cheer me on. You even said you wouldn’t hurt me like the others. Maybe you don’t know, hurting doesn’t just come from active bullying. It comes from a lack of caring too. I’m sorry I’m not special enough or pushy enough to warrant your love and attention. I’ll stick around because you asked me to, but I can’t share with you my life if I know I’m just going to get blank stares and blanket statements. I thought you were different. I guess my hopes about the world and the people in it were as ridiculous as everyone said before I met you.

Bubble

Bubble

I’m in a bubble. No one can touch me. I can’t get out. I’m suffocating. All I can see are blurry images of what’s outside and pieces of myself and my mistakes reflected in the rounded surface around me, stretched and distorted to look bigger and uglier and repeated in the curves. Everyone’s image is bloated. Everyone’s voice is diluted. I could pop the bubble but it would end in a huge explosion; the residue would remain, splattered on my surface and those around me. And the people outside might not like what they see when the bubble no longer hides the worst of me in sparkling, smooth rainbows.

Tonie

I thought I might start with a bit about myself.

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I have “done gender” in a variety of ways.

I never really liked dresses; even when I was pretty little, I preferred jeans and overalls. The older I got, the more pronounced my preferences became.

My mother continued to buy me “girly” clothes–I was so feminized that, when I finally realized I was non-binary, I swung dramatically to the masculine side. Which was ironic, because up until that point I had been dressing happily androgynous for several months. Loose t-shirts, my iconic denim jacket, jeans, and laced shoes.

When I finally realized that my presentation had nothing to do with my gender, that everything I wore was NB because I was NB–it all seemed to fall into place, and I began to present much more naturally and casually.

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I started feeling truly happy about myself and what people saw when they looked at me.

There was a lot of experimenting along the way. To be fair, there still is.

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And I don’t think I’ll ever stop experimenting–for me, that’s part of what gender is. Being flexible and fluid.Dynamic.

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That’s one of the reasons I love the word queer so much. More than any other term I’ve tried on, it encompasses the variability and nuance of gender and sexuality. It’s personal. It’s a way to use a label without being labelled. To define yourself without being able to put that definition into words.

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Sometimes when I post pictures to the queer social media groups I’m a part of, the others in the group comment that they wouldn’t be able to tell what my assigned gender was. I think that’s amazing, because I’m not even trying.

I love being nonbinary. I love being queer.

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I love being me.

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