A year ago yesterday (January 17, 2017), I got released from the psyche ward for the second time in two months for suicidality, a bipolar crash, and clinical depression, among other things. That same day, a year later, a dear friend’s brother was claimed by suicide. What is the difference between us? Did I make a choice to live? Did he make a choice to die? Does someone who takes their own life have freedom of choice? I argue no. They don’t.
Freedom of choice involves the ability to make conscious, awake choices. It involves clarity of mind and heart. It involves a healthy mental, emotional, spiritual state. People who are claimed by suicide do not have these things. No one, in their right (meaning healthy) mind does such a tragic act willingly. It may look like they made a choice. They may even believe they are making a choice. But they didn’t.
Someone high, someone drunk, someone under siege, someone under attack, someone in extreme pain of any kind cannot make conscious, clear choices. And for some people, the depression, inner pain, outer pain, PTSD, bipolarity, and other mental illnesses are simply too strong to leave someone clear of mind and awake enough to make such a choice. Depression is a monster that speaks lies in your head. Well, sometimes it speaks, sometimes it whispers insidiously, sometimes it screams and drowns out all rationality. And sometimes all it screams over and over is: “I can’t take this anymore. I need to die. This needs to end.” And the disease of depression convinces that person that they are making a free choice—THAT’S part of the symptomology of depression and mental illness—it makes you think you are well. It makes you think everyone else just doesn’t understand. It makes you think you are in your rightful power as an individual to control your actions. And these are all lies, these are symptoms of a disease.
I knew someone once who, when a friend was claimed by suicide, said: “That selfish sonofabitch.” The victim had left two children. To the outsider, this person committed a selfish act. He was essentially an asshole.
Part of the problem with believing suicide is a choice is the definition of the word and the language surrounding it.
Suicide, as defined in most dictionaries goes something like this: the intentional and voluntarily choice to take one’s own life.
The words surrounding this definition are ones like: committed, took their own life, chose to end it all.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “suicide claims the life of a suffering person.” Perhaps words like the following might be more appropriate:
Tyrannicide—which may sound insulting, but a person who becomes ill enough to kill themselves is not killing THEMSELVES, they are attempting to kill the pain, the monster, the tyrant inside. The person claimed by suicide is a victim, and in no way a willing victim. It is analogous to being possessed by a monster. It’s the monster that pulls the trigger, it’s the monster that takes the fatal leap. The person unwillingly and unwittingly hosting such a creature essentially—if untreated (and sometimes even if they are treated)—becomes powerless over the depression.
Some would say this analogy doesn’t work because possession implies a spiritual, demonic force. I am not suggesting that—although, I believe that is possible (there are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual diseases), I am more using the image to help people see that the person claimed by suicide did not make the conscious choice to end their own lives. If the possession analogy doesn’t work for you—try thinking of the person with fatal cancer as being possessed by a monster that eats its host from the inside out.
Fideicide—the killing of faith. Someone overwhelmed by a disease can easily lose faith. Someone claimed by suicide is trying to end their hopelessness, not themselves. The disease has swallowed their faith.
Facticide—the killing of facts. The monster of depression distorts the fact the ill person is worthy of living, is worthy of help, has the ability to choose otherwise.
Claim—the word “claim,” comes from the roots of words meaning, the act of shouting out, to demand, and to take sometimes by force. This seems far more accurate than the deliberate and voluntary choice to take one’s own life.
Cancer claims lives, heart attacks claim lives, strokes claim lives, diabetes claims lives, Alzheimer’s claims lives. Depression is every bit as much an illness as any of these. Bipolarity is, PTSD is, and so on. So is addiction.
Addiction and depression tell lies—it’s part of their symptomology. So does bipolarity. As someone who suffers from several mental illnesses, I know as soon as my head says, “You’re doing better, stop taking your meds,” that that is the disease talking.
Depression (and to be clear, I do not mean sadness, or the blues—I mean clinical depression) and addiction have the ability to smother rationality and the ability to ask for realistic help. Just as Alzheimer’s takes away the memory piece by piece, depression takes away freedom, hope, the ability to seek help piece by piece. Just as cancer little by little eats the body away, so does depression and other mental illnesses eat away at the ability to think clearly and rationally.
Saying someone chose to take their own lives—in addition to being inaccurate, is harmful to everyone involved. It puts us in the power of blame, of judgment, and of the ability to slide into the need to protect ourselves from pain and the reality that depression is real, that depression stalks people, that depression is fatal. Some people would much rather believe suicide is a choice because it separates themselves from the possibility to being devoured by a monster. Lastly, it is crushing to the family of the victim to say they choose such a thing. It implies deep self-centeredness, it implies they loved themselves more than their families and friends. It implies they didn’t care about others. People who die from cancer are not abandoning their loved ones or choosing their own lives over theirs. They are not being selfish by dying.
When someone we love is claimed by suicide, the world collapses for the survivors. It is devastating. And people close to them often say things like: “Well, at least they are not suffering anymore,” which is exactly what one says when a loved one dies of cancer. Inside we know suicide is a disease. And combined with depression can be fatal.
People whose disease compels them to attempt suicide are not crying for help. Attempting suicide is an expression of mental illness—a bursting of a cyst, the manifestation of a sickness. And, also tragic, is the fact that many people cannot afford mental healthcare before its too late.
Suicide is also not a sin just as dying of cancer is not a sin.
Compassion, understanding, and an ability to listen openly and face reality is what we must offer when someone we love dies of suicide. No blame, no judgment.
And what of someone like me who suffers from depression and suicidality and is still alive? Before my symptoms became overwhelming, I was able to seek and accept help. My mental cancer was advancing in strength and severity, but it hadn’t gotten to the point of no return. I was still able to have just enough measure of mental clarity and freedom of choice, to get help.
And that is the only difference between my friend’s brother and myself. I am not better than him, stronger, I am not less selfish, or anything of the sort.
I am lucky. I simply don’t have as severe an illness as him. And that is of no credit to me. Some people survive cancer. Many don’t. I survived depression and suicidality. He was taken—claimed—cut short. He was murdered by a cruel disease.
Being friends with a dragon takes some getting used to. For one thing their digestive systems are always rumbling like an old car. When they burp, which is often, foul smelling smoke comes out of both ends, and little spurts of fire sometimes ignite nearby curtains or sofas. Another thing is that they sometimes eat people which is hard to explain to the authorities when they come looking for said eaten person.
However there are many benefits of being friends with a dragon. For example, they eat people—people who are bullying you or harassing you, which really cuts down on being bullied when word spreads that people who pick on you end up disappearing, leaving only a few bits of hair and sneakers behind. Another benefit is that they burp, and foul-smelling smoke comes out of both ends—which is another good deterrent for bullies—as are the little spurts of flames aimed at particularly sensitive areas on bullies.
You might be wondering why I have so many bullies flocking around me. You see, I am trans—transgender. And I’m a kid. I was born nine years ago and everyone thought I was a boy. And even though I was born with the parts that would make some people assume I was a boy, I am a girl, and I know I’m a girl. My parents know now as well—after years of me insisting on wearing dresses they finally got it. Not that dresses defines being a girl, but my folks are old-fashioned.
I am one of the lucky ones. My parents both accept me. I also have friends who do as well. It wasn’t always that way though, and when I first came out things, shall we say, got ugly. And that’s where being friends with Harbor came in handy. Yes, Harbor is my friend dragon, and he does by ‘he.’ My name is well, we’ll get to that, and this is the beginning of many beginnings and the end of many endings and the beginning of many endings and well, you get the idea.
Zimzir and the Dragon.
As I said, my parents were told I was a boy when I popped out on a cold winter morning in January. My parents named me, “Joseph.” It was an OK name, except it didn’t fit. At first, I didn’t understand why it didn’t fit. It just didn’t. Sort of like accidentally putting both legs into a pair of pants.
My parents were pretty OK though, and so I began to grow up, or, well, as I like to think of it—grow down. You see, I always felt like I was an alien or something. Like I came from up there in space somewhere. I just felt different from the earthlings around me. And so, it took me a few years to come down, so to speak into this body I didn’t want or ask for.
When I was a toddler (which is a really funny word if you think about it) I used to toddle to the laundry basket (my family did do laundry, but always left the clean laundry in a basket in my parent’s room, and I knew this, so I would, as I said, toddle to it, and then, with some effort, toddle over and into it, sort of like a misguided cat). Once in the basket I would do an artistic little dance as I sat there on the clean laundry with quite possibly a stinky diaper, which consisted of me throwing clothes around the room while I sang (the artistic little dance, that is, not my diaper). “Sang” isn’t quite the right description of the vocalizations that came out of my mouth. My singing was more like cows yodeling.
While in the laundry basket I used to fish out the “women’s” clothes and wrap them around my head. Then I would giggle and slobber into them.
And here I want to say that, of course, clothes (and toys, for that matter) (and well, anything for that matter, especially kids) (unless they want to be) should not be gendered. So, I put “women’s” clothes in those little quotation mark thingies just to let you know I think it’s absurd that people think there is such a thing as “women’s” clothing. For the rest of this story, however, I am not going to use quotation marks, mainly because they are annoying. Trust though, whenever I mention women’s clothes or boy’s clothes, I mean (with a big roll of my eyeballs) (eyeballs is also a funny word) that I mean “women’s” clothes and “boy’s” clothes.
As I grew down some more, I used to go into my parent’s room and not only fish out my mom’s clothes, but I try it on and parade around the house. This made my mother laugh and my dad yell.
“Take those off, Joseph. Those are girl’s clothes. You’re a boy,” he would say.
To which mom would say: “Oh, honey he’s just pretending.”
To which I would say to myself: “No, I’m not. These clothes might be too big for me now, but they are the kind of clothes I want to wear forever.” And then I would take them off and treat them as if they were threaded with gold, and fold them up neatly and put them back in the laundry basket.
One day, when I was around seven, I was at my cousin, Annabelle’s house, and I stole one of her dresses and wore it to school the next day. I felt so proud and happy. It felt like I was wearing cool, refreshing sunshine.
Sitting in the principal’s office after getting sent there by my teacher for causing a ruckus in class just because I was wearing a dress, was the first time I remember wishing I had never been born. “This sucks,” I thought, “I just want to be myself and everyone either gets mad or thinks I’m a joke.”
And while waiting for my mom to come bring me a change of clothes, I heard Harbor for the first time.
I say, “heard,” because the first thing I heard was a fart. I looked around the office. No one else was there but me. Upon sniffing however, I knew someone, or something—judging by the intensity of the fart-smell—was with me.
Then I heard a burp and saw a little burst of smoke and flame appear in the middle of the room near the ceiling. I jumped and let out a little scream.
“It’s alright,” said a voice that sounded like gentle thunder. It was a sound that soothed me and resonated through my lungs, “It’s just me, Harbor.”
“Hhh-Hhh,” was all I could manage to say. I sort of sounded like I was practicing dramatic exhales.
“Harbor,” the voice said again, causing a little storm to wave pleasantly through my heart.
“Harbor?” I said, “But, where are you?”
“Right here,” came the voice. And then, there—right there—in Principal-Poopy-Pant’s office (not his real name) (unfortunately), the air in front of me began to shimmer and quiver and take form and color and weight, and as it did, a dragon appeared before me—large, aqua green with purplish markings and wings folded neatly against the ceiling.
“You’re a dragon,” I sputtered, and my mouth, if it could have, would have opened down enough to hit the floor.
“Yup,” he said, “so I am.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I am here for you.”
“For me?” I gulped. “Like, here to eat me?”
“Oh no,” said the dragon. “I am here to be your companion. If you will allow me, that is.”
“Why do you want to be my companion? Do I need one?”
“Because I want to be. I know what it’s like to not be accepted for who you know you really are.”
“Yes. And ‘yes’ to your other question. We all need companions sometimes, and you have an especially challenging journey ahead, and I am offering my services.”
“Services?” I asked.
“I will be your protector; guardian angel, if you will.”
“I see,” I said, “I’m not sure what to say. I mean, here I am, in trouble again, talking to a dragon. I’m not sure how I feel about that or having a protector—let alone a dragon protector. I’ve always had to protect myself. I’m used to it, even when I do a crumby job at it.”
“I see,” said the dragon, “are you saying you would rather me go?”
I hesitated a moment, and then said, “Yes. I have always felt alone and that’s sort of how I like it—or at least, sort of like how I’m used to it.”
“That’s fair,” Harbor said, “I’ll just be going then.” And the dragon began to dissolve into the air.
“Wait,” I said, standing up for the first time since this encounter began, “can I change my mind? You know, if I decide later I want a companion, can you, I mean, will you, still be there?”
“I’m sorry,” the dragon said, pausing in mid-disappearing into thin air, “I may not be here for you. There are many like you who need protecting. However, someone will always be there for you, even it isn’t me.”
And as I stared hard into Harbor’s eyes and saw nothing but oceanic light, and kindness, and wisdom, and a sly sense of humor, I found myself saying: “Wait, please. Stay. Actually, being alone kind of sucks. Well, not all the time. Sometimes I love being alone and need to be alone and wish I could be alone forever, but in general, I have no one who accepts me as me, and you seem to. So, will you stay?”
With that Harbor fully materialized into the office again and lowered its great head down to eye level and said: “It would be an honor. And now, what shall I call you?”
I looked at the ground and shuffled my feet. “Well, my given name is ‘Joseph,’ but that’s not the name I want or call myself.”
“Well,” Little One in the Beautiful Dress, what would you like to be called?”
I looked up at Harbor and couldn’t believe I was about to tell someone the name I had always treasured secretly in my heart.
“It’s OK,” Harbor said, “you can tell me later. On your time. Always on your time.”
His voice rumbled gently through me.
“Besides,” he said, “we have work to do here. We need to get you out of this pickle the limited minds of the grown-ups around you have put you.”
“How?” I said.
“Watch,” Harbor said and winked, and then, shimmered into invisibility, but not before breathing a little puff of fire and placing it on my head where it disappeared into me like warm apple cider. And before I could say a thing, Principal Poopy Pants came out of his office.
“Your dad is here,” he said, “and he’s not happy.”
Just then, the office door opened and in stormed my father, jeans and a t-shirt in hand.
“What were you thinking, young man?” he said, lifting me from the chair by my arm. “Why do you do this? I don’t get it. It’s infuriating. Why do you want to dress like a girl?”
“Because I am a girl,” I found myself shouting, my whole body feeling as if it was filled with some kind of strange, warm power.
“You are not a girl!” my dad and the principal shouted together.
“Yes, she is,” said Harbor appearing suddenly in the room, smoke and ribbons of flame streaming from his flaring nostrils, his voice thundering.
My dad and Principal Poopy Pants leapt into each other’s arms and turned around to look at Harbor. They screamed like frightened sheep.
“Get this into your heads,” Harbor said, lowering his own to meet their terrified eyes, “If you still want to keep your heads. She is a girl. She feels better in dresses. Accept her for the truth of who she knows herself to be, or else.” And he puffed a burst of smoke around their heads. They coughed and tried to wave the smoke aside.
“But,” my dad began.
“But nothing,” Harbor growled.
“But…that’s my son, my son Joseph.”
“That’s not my name!” I shouted, and I felt like my words were smoke and fire.
Harbor puffed out a little flame that came inches from my dad’s nose. “Don’t,” said Harbor, pausing before growling the rest of his sentence, “Ever. Call. Her. That. Again.”
“But,” my dad attempted.
And then Harbor roared a roar that shook the furniture in the room. “No buts!” He bellowed.
“OK…OK,” my dad said. And then he looked at me, “This is going to take some getting used to.”
“Then get used to it,” Harbor said.
“Yeah,” I said, “Get used to it.”
I had never sassed my dad before, but instead of getting mad, he bent down and looked at me, gently putting his hands on my shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I think somehow I’ve always known, but I was afraid of what others would think, what people at church would say, what your friends or grandparents would say. But, if this is who you are, then I accept you, and will do everything I can to help you feel accepted. I never want you to feel wrong about being who you are. I’m so sorry.”
It was the first time I ever saw tears in my father’s eyes. I teared up too, and so did Harbor, who sniffled out a little fart scenting the room with, well, dragon fart smell, which was a lot like burnt toast, not altogether unpleasant, like the smell of horse poop that smells like mowed grass and straw.
“Now,” my father said, still holding my shoulders and wiping a tear from my eye, “what would you like to be called?”
I bowed my head and then lifted it up proudly and looked first at Harbor and then at my father. “My name,” I said, with all the power of a phoenix rising from the flames, “is Zimzir.”
My dad smiled and stood up and turned to Principal Poopy-Pants. “Mr. Poopy Pants,” he said (and I burst out laughing), “This is my daughter Zimzir. She likes this dress and she is going to stay in it and you and your school are going to everything in your power to help her feel accepted. Educate the students, teachers, parents. That’s your job. So, do it.”
“Yes,” added Harbor, breathing fire tinged smoke around the principal’s head, “Do it.”
Principal Poopy Pants shook his head like a bobble head in a car on a bumpy road.
And so, my father walked me back to my classroom, opened the door, looked at the teacher and then the other students seated at their desks.
“People,” he said like a warrior announcing the arrival of a princess, “this is may daughter, Zimzir. Whatever you may have thought of her before, this is who she is and if any of you have a problem with that you will have to deal with me.”
“And me,” said Harbor snaking his great, scaly head into the room.
The class and teacher screamed and Harbor winked at me and then disappeared.
The other kids shook their heads not knowing if what they just saw or heard was real.
My dad looked down at me and said: “You want to stay here…Zimzir, or would you like to go for some ice cream?”
“I want to stay,” I said, looking up at him and smiling, “let’s get ice cream after school.”
“You got it,” he said and turned to go pointing his finger at the teacher and class. “Remember what I said,” he warned.
And as I walked proudly to my desk, I looked out the window and saw Harbor. He looked like he was about to fart. The classroom windows were open. He got up real close to the window and winked at me. I plugged my nose. I knew what was coming. I sat down, smiled at him and knew I was me. Zimzir. And I, Princess Zimzir had a protector forever.
We may not all have a dragon as a friend, or parents who accept us. We can dream though, and we can do our best to be ourselves in however form that takes, and in however time that takes—even if it takes a lifetime. We need to do what is best and safest for us. And since not all of us have dragons, may we all be Harbors for one another—safe places we can go when we need understanding, support, love, laughter, and a place we can burp and fart with wild abandon. May we all be dragons and protectors for one another. May we lift each other up and take care of one another. And if you’re reading this and you’re not trans, then accept your kid, accept your friend, accept your relative. Or else. I know someone hungry just waiting for you to make the wrong move. Live your faith. Be a parent. Be a friend. Be an ally. Be a Harbor and breathe fire for the sake of people like me.
All donations for this post will be given to TransLifeLine.
Reflections on the Past Calendar Year, 2017, and Looking Ahead to 2018
Jennifer Angelina Petro
Last year, at this time, I was in the psych ward begging the nurses to kill me. Luckily, they said they didn’t do that sort of thing in the hospital. I spent 9 days there. My second time in the 2 months. I spent my 49th birthday there. The staff brought me a cupcake, which they said was against the rules. It was yummy. You really haven’t lived until you hear a room full of psychologically ill people singing you happy birthday.
And here I am. As far as I know, alive.
You are an integral part of my being here. You supported me 100%, and even though most of this saga was chronicled on my now lost, Radiance Moo-Cow Facebook page, you know the story. I have no secrets.
I have been criticized for sharing so intimately about mental illness. You know I do it to destigmatize it all. You know I do it to help people see someone can exist and function productively and positively—some days better than others—with a chronic, and at this point, incurable, mental illness.
Anywho, things began to lift, not so coiendentally in the spring, with your support, therapy, and a long, struggling, scary, frustrating search for the right combination of meds.
And, of course, there was the unwavering love and support of Mandy, Sam, Ben, and Daniel.
Around late winter, early spring I found Love in Action UCC. I cannot emphasize enough how important that was, and is, to my recovery. The accepting, supportive community, the aliveness of service, the many new friends, and the purpose I feel and truly have there working with lgbtqia youth, and watching those programs grow, is so healing.
Then there are the adopted kids I have taken under my wing and have helped get through some rough times. They too have helped me perhaps more than they know. They are not just adopted kids—they are friends.
Then too, there was my journey into realizing my meds did not take away, as I so deeply feared, my creativity. They have helped hone things, focus things, but the creative forces are still there, and for that I am more grateful than I can say.
Yes, there was, and is, all the ongoing shit with trump and his terroristic regime. Yes, there was, and is, all the ongoing shit from the far-right terrorist extremists. Yes, there is still the transphobia and the daily challenges I face simply existing in the world—the public world. And yes, there are still bouts of deep self-hatred and dysphoria. These have, thankfully, lessened lately though, and for that I am relieved beyond measure. Yes, I am still living under mountains of debt and the fear of being taken to court for those debts. Yes, I still cannot help support my family the way I would like financially. Yes, I truly believe I am not yet ready to handle a full-time job in any field. Yes, I still have my obsessions, magical thinking, paranoid thinking (and I do not use that last word lightly), and my anxieties, fears, throttling storms of PTSD, and the like.
And I am here, and yes, I still talk with much hyperbole and drama. I’m Italian.
Looking ahead, I see my role as a mother changing and growing more and more into being a friend.
Looking ahead, I see a future of growing and living into my role as a mentor of lgbtqia youth. I see myself exploring the possibilities of taking a stab at stand-up comedy and performance poetry, and to return to storytelling, and perhaps even giving concerts/kirtans. I see myself making a CD of my music and publishing another book(s) of poetry. I see continued discoveries into myself as a transwoman, as a woman, as an aging woman, as someone exploring the wonders of their sexuality and the on and off desire to be in a romantic/intimate relationship with someone. Yes, I am still a budding pansexual.
Looking ahead, I see more poems.
Looking ahead, I see reconciliation for those in my life who still do not accept me or want me around their families.
Looking ahead, I see new friends weaving their way into my life, and I in theirs.
Looking ahead, I see doing my best to tend to the medical conditions that are gradually developing in this body of mine.
Looking ahead, I see more prayer, more devotion, more deepening, more diving into, more blossoming, more treasuring, more sharing, more joyous my spiritual journey, which, of course, encompasses everything in my life, my every breath.
Looking ahead, I see more healing in our world, and me doing my little part in that healing.
Looking ahead, I see things in the world perhaps getting worse before they get better.
Looking ahead, I see more taking care of myself and setting boundaries for my safety.
Looking ahead, I see more ways to give, in both secret and out in the open.
Looking ahead, I see less shame.
Looking ahead, I continue to see the goodness, resilience, compassion, wisdom, and power of everyday people.
Looking ahead, I continue to notice the little things, the big things around me that are beautiful, mysterious, wondrous, and important. I continue to actively look for and see/experience gratitude for these things and more.
Looking ahead, I know there will be days when I want to die, when I will be unable to leave my bed, my house, or to eat. No, I am not calling this to myself. I am ill, and I live with that illness every day, and while I am doing OK, I know this disease of mental illness is relentless and reminds me everyday that it is there, lurking, hungry. I am not in delusion about that. At some point it will drag me under again– hopefully not into the suicidality I walked with everyday for months. The writing of suicide notes, the making plans of where, when, and how, the carrying of knives and box cutters, the taking them to my wrists.
Looking ahead, I also see healing and the right support to get me through those times. And while I am afraid, everyday at some point, that the beast is just up ahead behind the next happy, good moment, I am comforted that I can get through it with you and my ability to ask for, and to receive, love and help.
In short, because, yes, I am still short, and likely will remain so, and perhaps I may even grow shorter as the years go by (by-with), looking ahead, I see positive possiblities. I see you. I see me, and today I see me with some measure of self-acceptance and even, I daresay, love.
And it’s still winter. The local world is wrapped in biting cold and sparkling snow. And I see its beauty and dangers. I also, looking ahead, see spring.
Looking ahead I see more glitter, unicorns, stuffed animals, and hippy skirts.
I see this moment, looking inwards, outwards, here, now. And looking ahead, for the first time in years, I see more here and now’s. More moments, each one unpredictable—no matter what I envision—each one full of possibilities and unexpected joy and hardship, each one full of me, you, the Divine, and a world full of people who care, who take care of one another no matter what the media says.