Way back when, when I was anonymous, I wrote a post entitled “What I needed” for Youth Trans Critical Professionals.I wrote a piece for them because I think the rise in pediatric transition is going to result in long term harm to a lot gnc kids. I wrote that piece back when I was using my pseudonym, but I have always pushed myself to be honest regardless of whether I was writing under Maria Catt or Carey Callahan. But there is one aspect of that piece that I have since longed to clarify.
I said in that piece I grew up in a home with “daily violence.” I think that’s a fair characterization of the chaotic conflict that was my household growing up, which often turned into physical conflict. I did have a couple of incidences when I was young where I thought it was a real possibility a sibling of mine was going to die or a sibling of mine would kill me. We fought so intensely I once stood on the kitchen counter with a knife pointed at my older sister screaming at the top of my lungs for her to leave me alone and someone to call the cops. Some of you are like, whoa, that’s nuts. Some of you are like, that’s completely normal kid stuff, how did you pick up a tendency to depersonalize from that boring shit? In my neighborhood growing up it was totally normal for people to scream and threaten their loved ones while standing in the middle of the street. People would start fighting in their homes and then take it outside into the public space so everyone else could witness it. I think this style of fighting- screaming, physical, over the top- is more of the norm than we think it as. Of course, just because something is a norm doesn’t mean it’s good for people.
Now, little kids are not the best at judging the lethality of situations. In my little kid head I thought death was a possibility, especially that time I was on the kitchen counter, and that does matter. It matters what kids believe could happen, because our bodies respond with trauma reactions, like dissociation, based on what we believe could happen.
I did not say “abusive.” I did not say abusive because I think that word is over-applied and can unfairly tarnish families which are fundamentally loving but really need some big time help with their family dynamics. I apply the word “abuse” to a pretty small circle of harmful behaviors. I don’t think that word is fair to characterize the behaviors of anyone in my immediate family. My parents were in a very high stress situation once they started their family. There wasn’t enough money. My dad’s job was really a lifestyle, not the kind of job you could just leave at the office. My mom went to nursing school after she had her kids because the family needed her to be making some real money. And we were living in a neighborhood with so many problems- poor people problems, the kinds of problems you would expect with people who go to the middle of the street to fight.
I partly don’t call what happened in my home abuse because I was a very mean older sister to my younger brother, and wailed on him all the time until he got taller then me. So if we’re slinging the “abuse” accusation around, I definitely should get the label. And yes, I do think how I treated my brother back then has had long term detrimental effects on him. Do I think I’m a monster? No. Do I think regular people have the capacity to do kind of a lot of harm to the people around them just because they don’t know any better? Hell yes.
I think I picked up the depersonalization habit from being stressed out in my home as a little kid. I also would never choose to grow up in any other family that exists. I’ve met other people’s families, and they’re boring, and not smart. My parents have heard from us adult kids over and over every way they failed us, and through all that negative feedback they have steadfastly given me and my siblings all the help they could give. Money is not a thing we have much of to give in my family. But my parents have been hugely generous over and over with letting us boomerang back into their home and supporting our ambitions. I locked my keys in the truck when I went to Target today. I texted my dad and he came right over with a wire hanger to save me. You can’t tell me my dad isn’t the best father I could’ve gotten. My mom lights candles for me like you wouldn’t believe. I would not want to be anyone else’s daughter.
I think when I was little we needed family therapy. That’s the one adjustment to the equation I would make. I think if my mom had someone kind and on her side to analyze how our conflicts escalated, and hold her hand while encouraging her to try out some other approaches to conflict it would have saved all of us a lot of grief. My mom has had to hear all these accusations from us about what she did wrong when we were little, but now I look at where she was at in her life and what she was balancing and I think she accomplished a herculean task by us all still being alive. Yes, I’m obviously not a role model. Yes, obviously I’ve gotten way off track in my time. But my parents taught us we can do great things, that we gotta live by another set of values then just chasing material rewards, to be cynical AF about politics, and to always try to understand and forgive other people. I just really would not have made any of the decisions that got my life back on track if I hadn’t had specifically my mom and specifically my dad as my parents. They weren’t so hot at teaching me daily self-care. They both are pretty bad at daily self-care for themselves- they’re kind of classic Catholic martyr do-gooder types. I feel like the other stuff they passed on to me is harder to wrap your head around then self-care, so I feel good about learning the self-care stuff as an adult.
I am a 100% believer in family therapy. I think it works, I think all kinds of families need it, and I do think there’s a modern phenomenon of emotional cutoff between family members that ends up contributing to a lot of mental illness. The process of picking apart the depersonalization and obsessive fixation on gender that constitutes my gender dysphoria has only made me a more fervent believer in family therapy. I think if me and my mom had had access to a family therapist when I was going through puberty, who could help us find a way to share our internal experiences and affirm them for each other, so much about my life would have been different. I don’t blame my mom for not knowing how to create that kind of communication pattern with teenage me. I think it’s really tricky with the setup of modern life- the kids spend their days at this terrible, stressful, hierachical lowkey prison called school, the parents knock themselves out all day to keep food on the table, then we’re supposed to go home and have deep talks to connect with each other’s souls? Come on. Everything about the structure of modern life encourages us to aim our hostility and aggression at the people close to us, and save the better versions of ourselves for the outsiders we gotta impress.
Way back last fall when Dirt decided to do her post outing me as someone who had a lot of jobs and identity issues, the one thing that got to me about her post was that picture of me and my Grandma drinking Yuengling. That day at my Grandma’s nursing home was a great day. It meant so much to me to get to do that with my mom and my Grandma, and that picture where we both look so happy means a lot to me. Yuengling is my Grandma’s favorite beer, because the polish side of my family settled in Philadelphia, where the textile mill jobs were. When I was little trips to visit Grandma meant Philadelphia hoagies and playing with her slide guitar. (My Grandma could play both the accordion and the slide guitar, and also attended mass polish every sunday until she had to be put in a home.) My family has big, major, dysfunctional issues going back to generations. But my family is also just really neat people. They’ve got neat experiences and neat talents, and they’re interesting and weird, and they all try really hard to be good people. That’s a privilege, to grow up in a family like that. Lots of people are related to actual monsters who don’t care at all who they hurt. I’d rather have to deal with the fallout from a lots of stressful fighting, with name-calling, laying hands on each other, screaming in the street kind of family then the fallout from growing up in a family that fights through passive aggressive slights in Christmas letters. I learned some bad habits, but I appreciate having these specific bad habits to unlearn.
So yeah, I think I learned to depersonalize when I was little and I was growing up with a family with lots of conflict, sometimes physical, that used to scare little young me. And yeah, that depersonalization habit kicked in hardcore after my college rape. And yeah, if I wanted to list all the sins of my family it would be quite a list, and if they wanted to tell you about me that list of sins would be CRAZY it would make you weep and laugh and give me such a massive side eye you would get a migraine. When my sister writes a tell-all about me it will be a doozy. But my family was never abusive. And every single one of my family members is someone I’m grateful to be related to and proud of who they are and what they strive for in the world. And they deal with having my crazy ass as a relative, and I am legitimately a very strange and often embarrassing person to be related to.
People have too high standards for what life is supposed to be like. Life is messed up, and it messes you up and then since you’re an adult you fix what life messed up in you. And knowing angelic people isn’t going to help you figure out you’re supposed to fix what life messed up, but for sure knowing imperfect people who are trying their best will teach you that. I think we choose our families before we’re born and I think we choose our struggles too. I would choose mine again.