Remembering the Storm
And Putting the Box Cutter Down
By Jennifer Angelina Petro
Two years ago today, I stood at the threshold of the doorway to my basement apartment with a box cutter held to my wrist. I paced. I shook. I wept. I was filled with fear. It was cold. A light snow was falling. I felt utterly alone. It was the first fall I wasn’t teaching after twenty years. Other loses as a result of coming out as trans weighed heavily on my chest. The last school year I taught was devastating—aside from the most amazing and accepting students ever. The rest of it was traumatic. Now, I couldn’t find a job, and I missed teaching with all my heart and knew I would likely never teach elementary school again.
I stepped out into the snow. It drifted down gently on my shoulders. I was in my pajamas. No coat. No shoes. My socks were wet. My feet freezing. I pressed the blade against my wrist daring myself to end my life. Visions of collapsing right there in front of my door seeped into my mind—a mind broken—cracked—frantic. I stood there wondering who would find me. I feared for their hearts. I hoped the Divine would have mercy on my soul. Ending my life wasn’t a conscious choice. I was compelled by searing pain, depression, and the terror of a dark, uncertain future.
And then it happened. I closed the blade back into the box cutter. I went in and got my keys. I was drenched with snow, shivering. I put the box cutter down on my unmade bed. I looked around at the piles of dishes in the sink, the clothes strewn upon the floor, the plants unwatered, and, weeping even harder, reaching down for the box cutter again, only to drop it back on the bed. I forced my wet feet into my slippers, and went back outside.
The wind was wishing me onward. The snow slanting at an angle gesturing to my car. And I followed. Angry and frightened, disappointed in myself for ruining my life, for allowing myself to get this sick, wiping the snow from the windshield with my bare hands, unable to see what a courageous step I was taking. Unable to see the unseen forces of strength that were being obeyed by some part of my spirit that wasn’t sick—that deeply wanted to live—caught in a blizzard of mental illness. And I drove myself to the hospital.
When I got there, I gave my keys to a valet parking attendant—they stared at me. I must have looked wild—a scared animal—unshaven, sopping wet, snow-soaked. I walked into the emergency room and up to the counter.
“How can I help you Hun?” the nurse asked.
And I found myself, still weeping, snot falling, saying: “I’m going to kill myself.”
“Step around here,” she said, and they immediately brought me into a private room. Nurses gathered around me. They called a doctor. They gave me a gown and a warm blanket. They stationed someone outside my room to watch over me. The nurses were like angels—quiet, soothing, present, efficient.
I would spend the next ten days in the psych ward, missing Thanksgiving with my family. But I was alive. Somehow, I had survived a wave of mental illness.
The storm wouldn’t end there. I had more hospital stays and worse bouts of suicidality a month after leaving. For that moment though, I was safe from the sickness. I was surrounded by care.
The last thing I remember thinking as they injected tranquilizers into my IV, was: “Help me.”
Today, two years later—much more stable, and yet still struggling daily with passive suicidal thoughts and other forms of mental illness, those memories are falling like the snow, blanketing my heart. I watch the snow covering the trees with meticulous attention. I remember standing out in the snow holding the box cutter. I remember the depth of pain, fear, and depression—the echoing hopelessness. I remember feeling completely alone. I remember turning back, putting the box cutter down, picking up my keys, and walking, unsure, terrified at how sick I had become, out to my car.
All donations from this post go to Trans Lifeline.
On My Third Birthday of Coming Out as Transgender
Jennifer Angelina Petro
Last year I wrote about the fears I had of the upcoming winter. Fall and winter are often the worst times of year for me mentally. Two years ago, I went to the hospital twice in the span of two months for suicidality. Last year, with medicine, a wonderful therapist, Kellie Brunton of Ambler, PA, friends, a loving community at Love in Action UCC in Hatboro, PA, my poetry, and spiritual life, I had the best winter I have yet to have as far as mental stability is concerned. I am so grateful.
This fall is more foreboding. I know I need an adjustment in my meds. I feel myself sliding backwards (deeper?) into my mental illness. Fleeting thoughts of suicide and self-harm travel through my mind on a daily basis. And while they are passive thoughts—they are there more than they’ve been in a long time.
I begin this annual update on my trans-journey because it is, for me, part and parcel of my experience. By that I do not mean to suggest that I am mentally ill as a result of being trans. No. Being transgender IS NOT a mental illness, and while coming out three years ago blew up my life and that certainly didn’t help my mental illnesses, bring trans is a gift—-it is not, in any way, a mental illness.
My mental illnesses are part and parcel of my trans experience because they exist side-by-side, or, better put, are interwoven. So, to read this update on my Coming-Out-Birthday is to read also about my mental health, or lack thereof.
All that said, it’s been an exciting year with regards to trans-activism. I’m fortunate to have been featured on an episode on the Internationally famous, Liz Plank’s, Divided States of Women. The episode also featured my faith community, Love in Action UCC (LIA). I was also featured in a front-page article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that also celebrated the wonderful work being done by LIA. Most importantly, LIA and myself helped Hatboro, PA, pass a human rights ordinance to help protect people of the LGBTQIA community. It was an honor to be able to speak before the major (the incredibly badass, Nancy Guenst) and the City Council. I have also led LGBTQIA support groups at LIA, local libraries, marched in marches, written to political figures, given workshops on what it is to be trans, and will be performing in October for the important revue of This is My Brave—a national organization for helping end the stigma of mental illness. I was also honored to be the first ever representative of the LGBTQIA community at Glenside Elementary School’s Diversity Festival.
These many opportunities for activism in both trans-causes and helping to end the stigma of mental illness, have been rewarding and hopeful. And I need to be careful.
The more I do, the more I run the risk of careening into mania and then depression. It is still an evolving process of learning to navigate feeling joy and being manic. At least I am aware that this is a danger. That said, I am missing more of the signs of mental health relapse, which is why I know I need an adjustment in meds. In addition to transient thoughts of self-harm, mania has been slowly encroaching on my life and I am struggling with some of the symptoms of my mania—compulsive spending, eating, grandiose thoughts, plans, and ideas, racing thoughts, sleepless nights, the struggle to try and slow down both mentally and physically—the drive to plough through life is intense, as well as a myriad of other manifestations. All of this impacts my trans-experience by making dysphoria worse, by making the anxiety to leave my apartment even to just go shopping worse—alongside, paradoxically, the increased amount of publicity I am both seeking and being sought after for trans activism.
I don’t know where it’s all leading. I am still unemployed. I came close to getting a couple teaching jobs, but they both fell through. I continue to joyously volunteer at LIA helping direct an LGBTQIA Center at LIA, and that goes a long way towards helping keep my mental illness in check.
My finances, thanks to being bipolar and being unemployed, are worse than ever. I have to appear in debtors court in a couple weeks. I am close to filing for bankruptcy, and I have no savings of any kind.
I’ve had to move yet again, and although I am now living in the most adorable apartment, it was a huge stress to move for the third time in two years. I am hopeful this new space will be long-term. I love it here.
I continue to have the love and support of my ex, and the kids. We went on a family vacation for the first time in probably six years this summer. We went to the Redwoods and Sequoias, and was the funnest time, for me, our family has ever had together.
Poetry is still my beloved friend. Music too.
I continue to do healing where my sexual abuse traumas are concerned, and while that work is gut-wrenching, it is, of course, crucial, and ultimately transforming and liberating.
My father passed away last spring and that brought many challenges with family and the coming to terms with his not speaking with me the last nine months of his life. I sent him pictures of myself and after that, all communication ceased. I wasn’t permitted to go to his funeral because I’m trans, which was incredibly painful. My brother, however, arranged a private viewing for me, and for that I am deeply grateful. In addition, when he wrote the obituary, he referred to me as Jennifer. I wept when I saw that. He calls me Jennifer all the time now, and that means the world to me.
All-in-all, it’s been a challenging, rewarding, and busy year, and I am so glad I’m alive. Being transgender—being a woman—is an evolution of transformation, wonder, and gratitude. My transition has shifted a bit in my gender expression—I am comfortable now with some days not shaving, and I am presenting a little more non-binary, which is fine with me. My definition of what it means to be “feminine,” is broadening, and that too, is fine with me—and important as well. I have given up on dating–and by that I mean the complete lack thereof. I am gradually accepting that a long-term relationship is simply not in the cards for me. Lastly, with regards to my physical transitioning, I am grateful to have had an orchiectomy, and that has gone a long way in being comfortable my own body. Full gender affirmation surgery is probably not going to happen due to finances, and I am gradually surrendering to that.
Thank you for your continued support, encouragement, love, and care. I am so blessed with so many wonderful friends. I humbly request your prayers for where my mental health is concerned, and I ask you to continue writing to politicians, schools, places of worship advocating for the rights of LGBTQIA people, to coming with us to marches and protests, to keep sharing with your families, friends, and communities that LGBTQIA people are as deserving of human rights as anyone else.
Peace, my friends, I love you all.
Suicide and the Illusion of Choice
Jennifer Angelina Petro
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.
Trans LifeLine: US: (877) 565-8860 CANADA: (877) 330-6366
Jennifer Angelina Petro
Gnosis. A knowing
Of mysteries, wind-whispers,
And scrolls written on bone.
Dia: to be thorough, and yes,
To be thorough twice.
Know yourself Thales
Admonishes. We are water
And stars. We are living, breathing
Wind-walkers, and so much
More. Faces tell surface truths.
Eyes tell more. The timber of the voice still more,
And how one walks and breathes
Betrays it all; every step
And breath unfolds your revelation
Into the world. Pause
Every now and again,
And again, and look into the water
Reflection of those around you–
What is it about you that makes you
One of a kind, a kind of galaxy of discoveries
And wonder among a sea
Of other galaxies? What is it you really
Perceive when you pass the mirror,
When you tell someone your name?
Know this: No matter what label you are given,
Or choose to give yourself,
No matter the name of the illness ascribed
To the story of your life, you are
Thoroughly known twice—
Once by your very own dreaming soul,
And once, over and over, unending,
By the one who pours water
Into your cells, and knows the stars
By name, ever blossoming the song of all
Into the wind.