If I had to name the god of being Separated, I would name it Higher Power.
IN THE OTHER HAND
We were watching a Brene Brown video in Group Therapy one day. If you’ve never seen/read her stuff, I’d recommend this TED Talk, her book Daring Greatly, and this cute cartoon on Empathy. She’s been a massive influence on my writing, at least as far as my vulnerability with you is concerned. As we were watching the video, Brene told us her definition of “love.” I remember it being something like this: two people, facing each other, holding in one hand their strengths, and in the other hand their weaknesses.
It dawned on me as I watched that video that Carrie wasn’t capable of loving me. Not because she was a bad person. Just because my weaknesses were such a heavy burden to carry. She had carried the weight of me being Transgender for two years before her arms gave out. I made an intellectual leap that day in my grieving process. Logically, I was able to let Carrie off of the hook.
Emotionally, I wasn’t even close. I cried almost every day. Most thoughts in my head finished with “and I was happy.” For example, I would remember sitting in my backyard with my Great Harvest coworkers, my kids playing in the yard, and suddenly the stain of Carrie leaving me would color the picture. The darkness of the present would flood in and I would think of that memory again, remembering that I used to be happy.
I wasn’t happy any more.
Life was suffering, and loneliness.
I returned Everything Belongs and the therapist did his “magic finger” thing again as he looked for another book for me. I had one week left in his program. (Insurance declared us healed after six weeks and stopped paying. Visions IOP/PHP agreed with them and declared us ready to enter the G Pop at that same time.) His finger shot almost straight to one book.
Dry by Augusten Burroughs is a dark roller coaster ride through his attempts at getting sober. I laughed out loud multiple times while reading the first chapter… the guy is an absolutely brilliant writer. I was given the book on a Friday and returned it on a Monday. I couldn’t put it down.
As I handed the book back to the therapist, he asked me what I thought of it.
“It scared the shit out of me” was my response.
“That’s what I hoped it would do,” was his response to mine.
I told the group during Morning Check In/Intentions that I needed to find a Sobriety Program of some kind. I didn’t want to relapse and the book showed me how easy it could be if I didn’t have any support. Considering my recent experiences within Christianity, groups like Celebrate Recovery were out, so that left me with the more Agnostic/Secular Groups to choose from.
THE COFFEE WAS EQUALLY BAD
To explain it to those of you that are Evangelical, the first sobriety meeting I walked into felt like a house church married a revival service. Except there was no singing. And no one fell out from the Holy Spirit. And these people cursed like motherfucking sailors. The coffee was just as bad as any church in America. People shared just like at church: some of them were legalistic, rigid assholes, some were scared out of their minds and would cry over the fear of drinking/using again, and some were wise and would bring a sense of perspective, hope, and peace to the entire meeting with a few words.
There was a shit ton of clapping, laughing, and the entire group saying certain things in unison at unpredictable times. As someone would read off of a card, everyone would mumble, not looking up from their phones as they finished saying the sentence the person was reading. It was random phrases like “we think not” or “if he were sought.”
I didn’t understand the procedures. I passed a list of names and phone numbers forward that was intended for me… it eventually circled back to me, after I had written my name and number on it. I didn’t understand why the woman hugged me when I picked up my One Month Sober coin nor why I had to tell everyone my name and that I was an alcoholic when I had told them that, like, five minutes prior.
From my decades in the evangelical church and its statistics on what makes an organization grow, everything about this group was wrong. The room was way too small and our body heat was enough to keep everyone at a constant 78 degrees. The seats were all full and you were touching people on both sides of you (80% seating capacity is when something is supposed to stop growing in America). There wasn’t enough parking and some of us would have to walk across the block. That only meant one thing from where I sat: this group was the Real Deal and all of us were desperate enough to push past the discomfort in order to be a part of the Higher Power that kept us sane and sober.
All the money Evangelical churches wasted (My opinion. Feel free to disagree.) on advertising, pointless Sunday programming, and childcare stood in stark contrast to this group. They didn’t advertise. As a matter of fact, I can’t even tell you their name, so they’re, like, the opposite of advertising. They were volunteer-run, with the only expense being coffee and, even then, we all supported the group by dropping dollar bills in a basket to pay for the cups and creamers we used. They understood that a parent who acts and lives differently is going to convert and change a kid more than a silly song and a jungle themed Kid’s Building.
These people were schooling the former minister on what group spirituality was supposed to look like.
WE LOVE YOU
I sat down with the Thomas, the owner of The Lab, and his manager, Caroline. Thomas offered me a job with very few strings attached. He told me one simple sentence as we concluded negotiations for me to come back on board with his crew:
“We love you.”
At the time that I was being branded a leper in the Body of Christ, a coffee shop was taking me in and telling me that they would be my home. They would accept me for who I was.
The first time I left my house with my fingernails painted was to go to work at The Lab. The same two guys who talked shit about Caitlyn Jenner started giving me shit for having my nails painted. I walked into the back to do some dishes and, when I came out, they were gone. Thomas had lit into them on my behalf.
Most of my regulars treated me with respect and compassion. They all knew I had a mental breakdown. They all knew I was a hot mess. They all knew I was wrestling with my gender identity and publicly expressing it. Not only did they pay me to make their coffee but they gave me their emotional energy and support, too. Those were worth so much more to me than the tips in the mason jar.
My coworkers still treated me like the Dallas that had worked with them six months prior. That normalcy was what I craved more than anything else. It was the only consistent thing I had.
I NEVER SPOKE
After every meeting with the Sobriety Group, I would start my car, put on my sunglasses, and cry as I drove away. I never spoke up in the meetings. I showed up, talked to a few people before the meetings, sat in the back, and then ducked out as quickly as I could when the meetings ended. It took me a few weeks to figure out why I was crying every time I left: It was their hope. I had none and theirs reflected my emptiness back to me.
As a result of my ongoing hopelessness, my psychiatrist switched my meds. I was done with Prozac and moving on to Effexor.
A VERY SPECIAL LADY
Every time I had to explain that I was attracted to women (which was every time I told someone I was transgender), the person I was talking to would say the exact same phrase: “It’s going to take a very special lady to love you.”
The first time I heard it I was like, “Maybe I’ll be ready to date again at some point.”
The second time I heard it I was like, “Wow, someone else told me that exact same phrase.”
The third time I heard it I was like, “Oh, so you’re telling me I’m going to die alone.”
My psychiatrist could see that I was sinking lower, so she upped my dosage of Effexor and threw in Abilify.
OWNING YOUR SHIT
I finally found the right mentor in my Sobriety Program. He was a gay man who came out at around 40 (but was older now). He had kids. He was a former evangelical. His mentor was a gay man who also came out around 40 (but was much older now). He also had kids. He was also a former evangelical. These guys were amazing. I never doubted their love for me.
And they reminded me to own my shit every time I saw them.
I feel like most Sobriety Programs can be summed up with this string of sentences: It’s your fault you drank. It’s your fault your life fell apart. It’s your fault you’re an asshole. Own it. Own all that shit and then you will probably be less of an asshole and a lot more sober.
It’s hard owning your shit.
I had to own my side of the divorce when I was with them. They reminded me that I was the one who told Carrie I was transgender and started the ball rolling. I wanted to tell them to fuck off every time they reminded me of that fact but another part of the program was basically, we know more than you, so shut the fuck up, listen, and do what we say without even thinking about it. So, I did that.
Every time I wanted to rip Carrie a new one, I turned that hate inward. I was the fucking idiot who told the truth. I was the fucking idiot who ruined everything. I deserved all of the miserable bullshit that was happening in my life right now.
I’m pretty sure self-loathing wasn’t a part of the program but I needed someone to hate so I figured I’d just hate on myself. It was all my fucking fault anyway.
I didn’t drink while I dealt with all of that hate, sadness, and regret.
TO DREAM OF A LIFE
I had gotten used to life in the RV. I only took baths because of the small amount of hot water in the tank. Plus, I had to shave my entire body, so I needed all the warm soaking I could get to help me remove the Chewbacca-like coating of body hair I was cursed with.
In the winter I always had a blanket on me because the floorboard heaters were broken. I started leaving the oven open to heat my home. The thermostat was broken so, in the summer, I had to manually turn the A/C on and off. I would run it until the RV was bone-chillingly cold, turn it off as my sleeping pill kicked in, and then wake up covered in sweat at about 4am. It’s amazing what you’ll do for your kids.
I learned how to sob silently in that RV. The farm workers congregated right outside of it and I knew that, if I could listen to their conversations, they could easily hear what happened in my home. As a result, on the days that the grief was too heavy to hold in, I let out silent sobs until I ran out of breath and did my best to suck in a raspy breath as quietly as possible before sobbing again.
This was also the space in which I got to dream of a life in which I could be myself.
I learned the basics of applying makeup in that RV. Blend in a base of orangeish lipstick to balance the blue/black tint of my facial hair, apply a layer of oil-based foundation, lipstick (counterintuitively, a lighter tint for thin lips), eyeshadow & eyeliner, fix eyeshadow and eyeliner, reapply eyeshadow and eyeliner, curse at eyeshadow for existing in the first place, apply mascara, and finish with a little blush.
I would slip my breast forms into my bra, put on my blouse… making sure not to ruin my makeup in the process, and slip on my favorite wig, a shoulder length black wig that faded to bright blue. On my days off of work that I didn’t have custody of the kids, I would often hide in my RV and revel in the ability to be myself. It was the only time that everything about me felt right.
Sometimes I would make the mistake of taking a few selfies and then reality would come crashing down as I looked at them because the camera didn’t lie. I didn’t look like a woman. I looked like a man in women’s clothing. Testosterone had left its mark on my bone structure and no amount of makeup would ever hide that.
I had to make a list of all of my regrets, shortcomings, and fears for my Sobriety Mentors. It wasn’t easy to make that list. I owned my shit, as they had told me to do. When I finished confessing everything I had done wrong and every regret in my life, my mentor laughed and said, “That’s it?!”
His mentor started laughing, too.
“We’ve done everything that you’ve felt guilty for thinking about! I kept waiting for something juicy… and you gave us nothing! This was totally boring!”
I finally loosened up and chuckled a little. I had totally been a Boy Scout my whole life and my list of regrets really did reflect that fact. It was a pretty boring list, other than me being an asshole to a few people… and even then, they gave me a pass for all but one. They told me I owed her an apology.
We then moved on to look at my fears. Everything I feared in life came down to two simple fears that ruled my life. They drove me to drink and dictated to me how I lived.
I feared being rejected and I feared that I wasn’t good enough.
The thing I loved/hated about my mentors having me do those exercises was that they didn’t pull any punches. They told me both of my fears were true. I would be rejected and I wasn’t good enough for everyone.
Zeroing in on my fear, my mentor kept pushing me to express my gender the way I truly felt inside. I told him ‘no’ every time, growing more and more firm in my answer. Now he and I both knew why… I was terrified of the people who would reject me, mock me, and dismiss me. I was terrified of the people who would brand me as Less Than. I wasn’t in the closet any more in word. However, in deed, I was still hiding. In plain sight.
Another thing I had to come to grips with was that I had let people dictate to me how to live my life. Over and over again, I sold away a part of myself in order to be accepted. My mantra was something like “do whatever it takes to belong.”
Around the time I was doing this exercise, someone asked me who I really was, I smiled and asked them who I needed to be to make them happy.Saint? Sinner? Man? Woman? Failure? Work in process? I had no idea who I was any more. There was no identity within me to hold on to. It had all crumbled on the day my Ex-Wife told me she wanted out of our marriage.
My mentor told me that, if I did the work he kept giving me, I would be free from these two fears that ruled my life. So, as hard as this was, I kept at it. I didn’t want to live as someone who wasn’t really myself anymore and, hopefully, somewhere along the way, I would bring all of myself together.
I faced my fears, as much as they really did scare the shit out of me, and I didn’t drink.
ALIVE FOR FIVE REASONS
Carrie texted me, telling me she wanted to talk to me. I put my phone down and let the anger subside before I responded. From my perspective, the only time she ever wanted to talk to me was to ask something of me that would make my life harder. The reality was that our Separation needed to keep progressing, whether I wanted it to or not. I took a deep breath and responded to her text, telling her to come over to the RV whenever she put the kids to bed. If she was going to rip the scab off of my wound, she was going to have to do it in the epicenter of my misery.
She told me it was time for me to move off of her family’s farm. I told her I couldn’t afford to do that. She told me that it didn’t need to happen that month. I just needed to come up with an exit strategy and be gone within nine months. I told her again that I couldn’t afford to do that and nine months wasn’t going to change that.
As we talked, I grew sadder and she grew more frustrated. This became our pattern. She was two years ahead of me in the grieving process and had little patience for where I was in it… to be fair, why should she, she wasn’t my wife any more. My grief wasn’t her responsibility.
At the end of her rope, she finally asked me in frustration when I planned on leaving the RV. I shrugged and told her when our youngest graduated. What I wanted to say was that I didn’t plan on living long enough to make it out of the RV. Carrie rolled her eyes, growled in anger, got up and left. I started sobbing once I thought she was out of earshot.
I had done more research into better ways of killing myself (alcohol poising isn’t foolproof which is why I was comfortable telling you the details of that plan) and found one method that was painless and guaranteed to work. (I don’t want to plant this seed in your mind, so I’m gonna keep this one to myself, ok?) It also didn’t require any extra purchases of any kind. That night, as the thought of losing daily interaction with my kids became a tangible reality, I enacted my suicide plan. It was only at literally the last minute —as I thought of my kids and my parents– that I backed out.
I told my Sobriety Mentors the next day. They threw out one of the millions of clichés that the program uses: Suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem. The whole time I was getting texts full of clichés from my mentors, I was thinking, “Motherfucker, this is a permanent problem. My life is over. There’s nothing to rebuild because there’s nothing to rebuild on.”
I was staying alive for five reasons: My parents and my sons. What I was finding was that external reasons to stay alive weren’t enough. There was nothing inside of me to live for.
I quit taking Effexor and Abilify. My psychiatrist gave me a script for Wellbutrin the next time I saw her.
WATER TO CONCRETE
When I listen to new music, I start with the bass line and drum beat. I then move on to the piano and guitar pieces. Lastly, I pay attention to the vocal rhythms and cadences. Eventually, I might get around to what the lyrics to a song are. I might not, though. I have songs that have been on my Spotify favorites playlist for years and I have no idea what the lyrics are.
I was in the tub in the RV, listening to my Spotify playlist, when the song #88 by Lo Fang came on. As I shaved my arms, fighting the war of attrition against my body hair, I listened to the lyrics to the song for the first time.
Give it up
If nothing matters
Give it up
If nothing matters
Give it up
It will get better
Turn and run
This time I’m certain
Turn and run
Turn and run
I know it’s hurting
Can’t run away
Oh I won’t turn back
I need to know
Will it ever change?
Will it ever grow?
The thing that I felt before
This paradise has disappeared
Now it’s crystal clear
Wow it’s crystal clear
I started sobbing uncontrollably as I heard the lyrics for the first time. They became a bonding agent for the despair in my mind, like adding water to concrete mix. The hopelessness set into an unbreakable, immovable reality.
I opened my phone and started looking at dates to kill myself. I had made the right decision the previous September and it was time to follow through. It wasn’t getting better. The pain was still as raw as it had been six months prior.
I PRAYED ALOUD
Because the RV was paper thin, my car became the place I let my emotion out. I can’t tell you how many times I drove Lafayette’s streets with tears blurring my eyes. I don’t know how many times I pounded my steering wheel and screamed at the top of my lungs.
I remember driving down T’Frere Road one day, heading back to my nightmare of a life in the RV. Tears blurred the road. I prayed aloud, referencing the book of Job and his wife telling him to curse God and die.
“God, I want you to hold up your end of the deal. I curse you. You need to do your part and kill me, now.”
I was done with life.
But I didn’t drink.
AN EMOTIONAL MINEFIELD
Every time I saw someone from what I had begun to call My Old Life, I went into a tailspin.
Running into people from my old church was a nightmare. I had nothing to say to them. They had told me everything I feared they would and those wounds were still open and bleeding. Their genuine, caring smiles were the worst. I refused to drive down the road my church was on. The pain of that spiritual divorce was just as raw as Carrie telling me she wanted out of our marriage.
It wasn’t just the Evangelicals, though. I started to hate the whole city. Downtown? So many great memories of walking around Festival International with Carrie. Social? I ate there with Carrie and friends from My Old Life. That preschool? That’s where my kids went, back when I used to know happiness. Pretty much every restaurant, business, and road in Lafayette had a memory from My Old Life attached to it.
The entire city had become an emotional minefield. The RV was the only safe place in my life. I hated its walls that closed in on me yet I loved its embrace at the exact same time.
MELT INTO PITY
I discovered that, when you’re Legally Separated and poor, you don’t qualify for Insurance Subsidies, Medicare, or anything else that you might qualify for if you were single and poor. Carrie made too much money and it was still being counted against me as my income. I’d had two surgeries the previous year and finally understood the importance of insurance, even though I thought it was a racket that embodied the absolute worst parts of Capitalism. As a result, the only way for me to get off of Carrie’s insurance was through finding my own employer-based policy. So, I started job hunting.
(To be totally honest, I didn’t “get” my millennial coworkers at The Lab. They almost all had Bachelors degrees, some were working on Masters, and they seemed completely content to just half-ass their careers. I learned quickly once I got out into the Wonderful World of Job Searching that this narrative is bullshit. There just aren’t jobs anymore like there were when I graduated from college. I completely understood my coworkers for the first time… why take a bullshit job framing a house, driving for Uber as a contract worker, or dealing with the assholes of the world at Walmart when you can make just as much at a coffee shop where you’ll at least enjoy working?)
My friend, Lindsey, came through for me and got me a job at Whole Foods. I found out later that she had spread her protective wings for me and made sure the whole team would be OK with me being Trans. I stepped into a team ready to accept me as myself. Whole Foods was a relatively safe space for me because I never shopped there during My Old Life as well as their progressive work culture.
It was a blessing and a curse to not know many people at Whole Foods. It was a blessing because it allowed me to settle into a new rhythm of life and enjoy not be tied to a prior history. It was a curse because, boom, out of nowhere, someone I knew would pop in, see me, and come over to say hi. Sometimes I lied to them and acted like everything in my life was fine. I even let one woman believe that I was still married. She was so happy for Carrie and me now that Carrie was done with Nursing School.
Other times I had nothing to say and would watch their smiles melt into pity… like when my friend Jane told me she had named her second son after my oldest boy. It was supposed to be something that made me happy but all I felt was emptiness. Jane knew me during My Old Life. Those days were behind me now.
DIVORCE GETS UGLY
One morning, as I was leaving the RV to go work, my headlights hit my old house and I saw that Carrie’s car wasn’t there. In my mind, she was sleeping with someone (she wasn’t). I started hyperventilating as I sat in my car, with the headlights shining on the spot her car was supposed to be. I drove to work, smiled through seven hours of hell on earth, and, on my lunch break, I let all of my frustrations pour out through my thumbs. I sent her text message after text message after text message.
Most of what I said was shit I had been holding in for six months and never should have held in. However, some of it was deeply personal in its attacks. I put all of my pain into text form and shot it through the air to explode on her phone.
Every divorce gets ugly.
Mine did on that day.
Wellbutrin did nothing for me. Absolutely nothing. My psychiatrist reached deeper into her arsenal and prescribed me Cymbalta.
I THOUGHT TWO THINGS
I left my sobriety group around the same time that I conducted my Shock & Awe campaign on Carrie.
I was writing a list of personal defects that I needed to surrender to a Higher Power that I was really starting to question the existence of. In the middle of making that list, I thought two things:
1 – I already hated myself so why the fuck was I doing this?
2 – I’d spent my entire life having other people tell me how to live… so why was I going down this road again with these people?
I quit the Sobriety Group.
AS BAD AS I HAD WORRIED
I had a nagging thought concerning the diagnosis of Major Depression that I had received while I was Vermilion Hospital. Someone had told me that the Psychiatrists have to put something on the form in order for insurance to pay. I had never had a proper evaluation, so I set up an appointment with a Psychologist to be assessed. I spent an entire paycheck on the evaluation but I needed to know the truth. Our first meeting was a typical intake session, followed by a questionnaire.
The next week, when I sat down with this woman for the results of my testing, tears started rolling down my cheeks as she read me the results: Major Depressive Disorder, Severe, Long-Term, without Psychosis & Dependent Personality Disorder.
She emphasized the severe and long-term parts of my depression. It was just as bad as I had feared. The song lyrics from #88 echoed in my head. This was fucking hopeless.
She then explained Dependent Personality Disorder to me. I never formed a Sense of Self in my childhood nor adulthood. I guess constantly expending energy on not looking at who you really are takes a toll on you. As a result of never forming this identity, I took my identity from people and organizations around me. I was Carrie’s husband. I was a member of the Body of Christ. But I wasn’t any of those things anymore. I wasn’t anything at all… and she confirmed it for me.
I could tell that she was on the verge of involuntarily committing me to a Mental Hospital because I was so low, so I did the best that I could to hide my suicidal thoughts from her. She did the best that she could to show me that there was a blue sky behind the clouds. Then, being an athlete who mostly deals with athletes, she used the phrase “we’ve got work to do here.” I’m sure that’s a phrase that guys with pecs and women who slay marathons love to hear. Not so much for me.
I checked out at that point and told her as much. I was done working. I was fucking tired. Anything that required more work than baking muffins and wearing a smile for my customers was too much for me.
I sobbed in my car on the way home.
But I didn’t drink.
Read the next part: An Interlude