Amber Leventry | Longreads | August 2019 | 15 minutes (3,796 words)
“No one is standing in your way anymore. Not even yourself.” — Maryam Hasnaa, clairsentient and spiritual healer.
Once upon a time, not long ago, I presented as someone else. Like so many people, I’d received discouraging information about who I was supposed to be — from my family and from our culture — and I constructed a false identity, held loosely together by shame, alcohol, and obligation. The longer I perpetuated the lie of who I was, the harder life became, and the more I suffered. I was desperate to change; I knew something was missing, but I didn’t yet know what. I was terrified of making even one new choice because of all that was attached to the false ones. Just as one lie leads to the creation of many others in order to maintain your cover, deconstructing just one will inevitably lead to the unraveling of the rest of them.
The truth kept intruding on the false quiet I tried to maintain in my mind. I kept drowning out the sound of it with gin, until it got so loud I had no choice but to listen.
In the space of two short years, after a lifetime of uncertainty and denying what was true, I became committed to being real. I became sober; I came out as nonbinary; I left my female partner of nearly 20 years. I examined everything in my life that I thought defined me and realized in my rush to find myself I had never really been lost, just hidden.
I am often told my pace is fast. Not my physical pace — though a busy brain does keep me in constant motion — but the pace at which I expect people to keep up with my intellectual and emotional ideas of how I want the world to work.
I constructed a false identity, held loosely together by shame, alcohol, and obligation. The longer I perpetuated the lie of who I was, the harder life became, and the more I suffered.
I have been running from something my whole life. My childhood was one of poverty and abuse. Until I left home and went to college, I escaped through art, academics, and athletics. But to physically escape, to get the scholarships and produce stand-out college applications, I needed to demand perfection of myself. Teachers and coaches often told me I was teachable, coachable. I was respectful, persistent, reliable, and took criticism without being defensive. I worked hard to get better results, not simply to get straight A’s or win a game. I pushed myself to improve for the sake of being my best, not the best. I knew I needed to get away.
Becoming the first of my family to go to college would be an act of both defiance and honor. I would be betraying the cycle by breaking it, and I knew leaving town was something I had to achieve on my own. There was no money to spare and no external push from family members for me to leave. Leaving didn’t make sense to them. I was the one pushing the external limits of what they believed was possible, and I was deserving of. I was not yet trying to pull them along, but I was pulling at something. My intuition screamed at me to go. Staying while trying to advance within the restrictions of the people around me and their inability to change felt like sprinting on a treadmill. I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown, to go to college, and to get away from the place I knew I didn’t belong. But my urgency was a hurry-up-and-go-nowhere-fast feeling until I graduated from high school. I harnessed that urgency and knew if I kept going, kept striving for perfection, that I would get somewhere.
Arriving anywhere was lonely. As a child, I hid my most internal thoughts and truest sense of self. I knew even back then that the way I see myself and the way I fall in love is different from those around me.
I was assigned female at birth, but that alone felt incomplete. Being a girl wasn’t enough, but since it was all I understood I tried to become myself within that box. I was a girl who liked boy stuff and boy clothes. I was a girl who liked other girls. I learned it was okay to be a tomboy, but it was not okay to be gay. And it would never be okay to tell anyone I sometimes wished I was a boy. My mind and heart knew what others could not be taught; my gut told me to stay silent. You can’t teach the unteachable.
I made it through college and afterward, and the flipbook of life unfolded in a way I thought it was supposed to: I graduated, got married, bought a house, found work, and had kids. Flip, flip, flip, flip, flip. It all played out like in one of those old-timey movies, and then the credits rolled by faster than I could read them. I was on the treadmill again. I was doing the work. I was sweating it out. But the pace that had taken me out of my unhealthy situation as a child and teenager had put me in a new one, and I found myself feeling, even as a settled adult, as if I was always looking for something. Something was missing.
I was in a hurry to heal and to learn. I wanted to rush past the damage of my abusive childhood; I wanted to grow into who I was meant to be. Secrets and shame were growing faster than actual growth was occuring, though. Hurry up and be better. Hurry up and be happy. In the rush of life, with my please-just-let-me-get-there-already mentality, there were moments when my pace was inadvertently slowed down.
My fear of the pain associated with coming out paralyzed me and halted my forward movement. When I told a few friends about my sexuality at 17, I was rejected more than accepted. When my mother forced me out of the closet when I was 21, she did so because she was dating a man who claimed he was a former homosexual. He said he knew I was a homosexual too, and what I needed was prayer. That, he claimed, is what had worked for him. Jesus cured his love of dick and meth. He saw I was on the same path and told my mother I needed an intervention. His own internalized homophobia fed into my mother’s. If he didn’t get to remain gay, there was no reason I should have such freedom.
On a dilapidated porch of the apartment she was renting, while I grilled chicken wings and thighs, my mother forced the subject of my dating habits. She felt the pressure of my pace. She felt the speed at which I was moving away from her, and her reality. She told me how badly she wanted me to find a good Christian man who would take care of me. She really wanted me to find a husband. She wanted me to find a man better than my father. She knew I didn’t have the best example of what makes a marriage work. She kept at it, kept pushing me, kept imposing her fears on me.
I knew I had no desire for a man, a husband, or anyone to take care of me. I had been taking care of myself just fine. I couldn’t take her battering anymore and told her, “I’m gay.” She finally stopped harassing me long enough to cry. She had known all along too. She would pray. I told her not to. Dick wasn’t going to save me and neither was Jesus.
Sometimes becoming yourself means losing who you are in relation to others, and it can take a long time to make new connections, within yourself, and between yourself and new people trying to find their way in.
Depression and anxiety continuously pump the breaks on my productivity; in tandem, they eat away at my sense of what I should be doing. They erode whatever self-worth and confidence I have gained. They threaten to sabotage my relationships with insecurity and the need for validation. With the return of each dark cycle, I am convinced I will never heal. I will never know how to do this. What am I supposed to know about healing from childhood trauma that doesn’t seem to intuitively present itself? Tell me. Tell me how. I am teachable.
I turned to alcohol to escape. I drank like I was sure I would get to the bottom of something once I got to the bottom of another bottle. I was a fast drinker, a drink-you-under-the-table drinker. But alcoholism slowed down any real growth. I know this now. How could I really become myself, be happy, and, yes, heal, if I was drinking away the feelings that would lead me there? I was in a hurry to be better, though. I was in a rush to find something I couldn’t define.
Two years ago, I looked in the mirror and hated myself and everything around me. My breathing was labored. I was nauseated and my face was shiny with sweat. I was bloated and out of shape. I hated my body and the alcohol I used to survive hating it. I was in a cycle of trying to drink away emotions, which only became worse with what I thought was the remedy. Drink to feel better, wind up feeling worse. Drink to forget. Drink to avoid. I knew I had to stop.
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Getting and staying sober has been the hardest thing I have done. It’s not just the act of not drinking that feels impossible, it’s the onslaught of sobriety’s lessons, because it turns out I knew very little. The ability to learn doesn’t mean we always do. The people around me hadn’t learned either. Their fear of confrontation, their blissful ignorance, and my ability to hide, and to keep the pace while keeping secrets, kept my addiction in the dark.
So I had to come out again. I had to reveal I wasn’t who people thought I was. Coming clean meant getting messy.
Once I got through several months of sobriety, the sheer panic of surviving a day without alcohol turned to the sheer panic of figuring out who I really was. I have always tried to lead an honest life, but I still had so many secrets. Sobriety has a very painful way of showing me just how many. Sobriety shows you and others, if they are willing to get dirty too, who you really are. Mixed in with the pain is purpose. Without the blinders of shame and numbness, I started to feel anger, sadness, blame, need, desire, and more. I finally felt glimpses of deserving more. I started to understand what I needed.
The alcohol had kept me from seeing myself, but I also wasn’t being seen in my marriage; I didn’t feel the pressure to deal with the problems in our relationship until I stopped drinking. And then everything stopped. I hit rock bottom in a hurry after getting sober, but living an authentic life has provided much of the healing I had been seeking.
Healing didn’t occur along a straight line, though. It was messy. What looked like progress masked other fears. Even though I was ready for sobriety, I relapsed a few times. And once I had a year of sobriety in the books, I knew I was still avoiding coming out as nonbinary. I was scared to tell my friends and family I wanted them to use they/them pronouns. I was afraid of the work that would come with explaining my gender identity. While I was sober, I knew I was still avoiding.
What looked like joy belied sadness. With sobriety, I came to realize my marriage was not what I needed or wanted anymore. I wasn’t in love. I didn’t feel an emotional or intimate connection that I could pull from to gain what it would take to stay. It felt like an obligation, not love and commitment.
What looked like wellness had the underpinnings of disease. I was losing weight and getting fit. But my body dysphoria was getting worse. Old habits of food and exercise obsession surfaced. I was getting physically lighter and emotionally darker.
I was still keeping myself from myself. Before I got sober, when the feelings became too uncomfortable, I drank. When the truth surfaced I swallowed it with gin. I refused to cycle through more than anger, contentment, and numbness. I was on pace to self-destruct and no one seemed to notice. Was my pace too fast to keep up with, or were people finally getting used to it?
Just as one lie leads to the creation of many others in order to maintain your cover, deconstructing just one will inevitably lead to the unraveling of the rest of them.
Now in recovery, I had to learn how to hold on while feeling uncomfortable.
That inkling I had as a kid that told me being a girl wasn’t enough for me stayed with me through high school, college, and adulthood. Being a girl was also too much. I am also male, and my story is not complete without this recognition. My gender identity is both male and female. I am nonbinary. I am neither one nor the other. While this feels about as right and good as any identity I have ever owned, it is the most complicated for others to understand. How can one truly express what it means to be one gender? How can one express the knowledge of being two?
Being gay is still not universally accepted; being transgender is even less so, and is barely understood; to many people, being nonbinary is as good as being a two-headed freak no one wants to respect, never mind understand and accept. Ask people to use they/them pronouns and the world seems to come to a grinding “WTF did you just say?” halt.
How do I teach the unteachable?
I started with the people closest to me. Some seemed to already know. I was being seen without having to explain myself. Some just had the ability within themselves to see both my feminine and masculine sides in an overlapping way. There was little to explain; maybe they were born with this ability; maybe who I have been since birth just made sense to them since I was born into their lives.
Others struggled and still do. They see me as my qualities, my actions, and what they knew of me as female. Something in their brain can’t make the leap to see my masculine side as being the gender expression of my maleness. They can’t see me as neither or both, male and female. These people still love me, as they should, but using my requested pronouns of they/them is something they don’t bother to do. Or they do so with discomfort and the obvious mistakes of someone who needs more dedicated practice.
At times, the closer I stand to someone, the harder I am to see. This was true with my ex-partner, some family members, and a few friends.There is a sense they no longer know me. I can understand that to a point. Familiarity and habit fight against what seems like an explosion of change in the space of a very short time. While I thought my identity had been there all along, it seemed as if I had to prove its existence. Labels, pronouns, plans of gender affirming surgery, all provided tools for education but they also provided points of resistance. I had hoped these labels would make sense; instead they made loved ones uncomfortable.
They wanted more time.
These people had been witness to the emotional equivalent of me sitting up, crawling, and then walking. My progress had taken time and had been hard to see until suddenly I was not the same. The speed of my transformation should not have been a surprise. Alcoholic. Sober. Transgender. Single. Flip, flip, flip, flip. That was my natural procession of change. I ran and they asked me to slow down. I felt like I was just getting started. I was finally getting somewhere. I didn’t want to slow down.
Considering how long it took me to fully know myself, was I wrong to be surprised when some of the people closest to me didn’t know me either? It took years to find the language necessary to claim my nonbinary identity. It took almost as long to find the clarity to do so.
While I was scared to tell the adults in my life, I was not worried about coming out to my kids as nonbinary. I have a transgender daughter and part of advocating for myself came from the work I had been doing to advocate for her. I realized I was valuing other transgender lives over my own; I wasn’t giving my gender identity the worth it needed. I wasn’t valuing myself or my right to happiness. My kids — the oldest is 8 and my twins are 6 — respected my new pronouns but it took practice to get them right and still does.
The queer piece of me has never been an issue. The transgender piece of me makes sense to them. I was most afraid of their reaction to the news their parents were divorcing. While same-sex marriage seemed like such an act of defiance and what set my kids’ family structure apart from most people we know, divorce felt like a very heteronormative concept they understood from their friends who had divorced cis-het parents.
I knew the news would hurt them, and it did. But they are resilient and my ex-partner and I are providing a solid parenting team while meeting their needs and wants in a way they are used to. My kids continue to feel the love of our family unit. I am confident they will eventually know I am a better parent for the hard decisions I’ve made.
The risks of staying in an identity and marriage because I “should” or because it would avoid hurting others were too high. I was angry, resentful, and not present. My unhappiness was spilling into my interactions with my kids; I wanted to be better — for myself and for them. I wanted to show them the importance of being true to yourself. I chose to be an example of truth, not regret.
People in my life have asked for time. They have asked for clarification, education, and patience. They have asked me to slow down. My body and brain feel like they are on fire and the only thing that can extinguish the pain is honesty. It’s hard to stop running once you have hit your stride. It’s hard to stop telling once you get started.
At what point should my expectation to be seen be justified? How patient should I be and for how long? What pace should I keep so that I can feel validated and affirmed while not leaving too many behind? I am now involved in advocating for myself as well as others in the LGBTQ community through writing, public speaking, and maintaining a vulnerability that keeps my fears and wounds open for all to poke. I have finally learned who I am well enough to provide lessons. I have gone from student to teacher. I am teaching the teachable, while also trying to teach those who don’t want to learn.
Sometimes becoming yourself means losing who you are in relation to others, and it can take a long time to make new connections, within yourself, and between yourself and new people trying to find their way in.
Teachers themselves and school district administrators struggle to find the value of people like me. They tell me LGBTQ inclusivity in classrooms and curriculum requires time and “systematic change.”
Bigots tell me I am wrong, that I need to get my facts straight, that I need to better understand the way things work. They tell me to forget my lived experiences and, despite knowing exactly what I need and deserve, they tell me to stop and learn about Jesus.
Politicians, medical providers, and places of business all have the right to deny my existence based on their beliefs. Discrimination can slow me down, but it will not stop me. Perhaps it’s not that my pace is too fast, but that the pace of others is not fast enough. We are all capable of learning. I believe we are all born with this ability. But at what pace does the world make sense to you? At what pace are you willing to push yourself to see your truth so you can see the truth in those around you? My world made sense early on, but I couldn’t accept what I knew. It took me a long time to accept it, but the urgency to get here felt like fire in my soul. Flames flickered and smoked, even weakened, but that burning desire kept me moving.
And then like the little calf in the children’s book Otis, by Loren Long, I got lonely. I got too hot. I went to dark places to try to cool off. I went to shame and booze. Little calf went to Mud Pond.
“When she waded into the muddy water, her feet sank. With every step, she sank deeper and deeper and deeper. The little calf was stuck!”
I, too, was stuck. I was no longer sprinting on a treadmill; I was sinking to the bottom.
The farmhands tried to tug the calf out, but she got more scared and sank deeper. A loud and noisy tractor tried to pull her out, but she kept sinking. The sight of the firetruck terrified her and she sank deeper.
No one saw me. I was scared. No one tried to pull me out. I kept sinking.
And then the little calf’s friend showed up and instead of pushing and pulling the calf, Otis, the little red tractor, took the rope and gently led the calf in circles around the pond. The calf stopped fighting and began to walk. With each step the calf took, she became free. The calf needed someone to see her fear. She needed a new way out.
I told my abuser no. I left home. I cut toxic family members out of my life. I stopped drinking. I acknowledged the end of my marriage and began to unravel 20 years of running next to someone to ultimately realize my strides were always too long. To stop sinking I had to see myself. With each step I take, I am becoming free. I am finding my way out.
I know there are people who see me. They have gently led me out of the muck. And now that I am on solid ground again, I am returning to old habits. I am running. But I am no longer running from something; I am running toward the rope someone is holding. I am not running because of fear; I am running with fear. My pace is fast. But my gut tells me this pace is getting me to where I want to be, and too fast is not fast enough.
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Amber Leventry is a queer, nonbinary writer and advocate. They live in Vermont and have three kids, including twins and a transgender daughter. Amber’s writing appears Ravishly, Grown and Flown, Longreads, The Next Family, Romper, and The Temper. They are a staff writer for Scary Mommy. They also run Family Rhetoric by Amber Leventry, a Facebook page devoted to advocating for LGBTQ families one story at a time.
Editor: Sari Botton