As 2022 drew to a close, I looked toward a bright future in 2023. I was a writer. I was seeing myself for the first time. I was a woman. I was uncertain what the year would bring, but I had little doubt it would be wonderful.
Today, as 2023 comes to a close, I look back and see the brightest spots of my entire life. My best work to date happened this year: I completed my social gender transition, established my voice as a writer, and began inspiring others to look at identity in a new way.
But when I look back, I also see the blackest spots of my entire life. My worst despair to date happened this year: I walked away from my house - twice - never intending to return.
Feeling emotions, it turns out, is a double-edged sword. The confidence I discovered was uncharacteristic, as was the unflinching commitment to end it all.
This year has been wonderful, literally - it was filled with wonders I never believed existed as an ordinary part of life. Writing these words, I am happy to be alive.
But my new commitment to life grew out of three very difficult lessons - experiences I hoped therapy would obviate. I understand now - in retrospect - therapy for mental health is but a glimmer of healing.
Our vital part in healing
I wish I could trumpet having conquered my mental health challenges, but I'd be fooling myself along with my readers. Instead, I sat down last week to consider what therapy I wanted to pursue in 2024.
What could help me reach my mental health goal? Am I working toward a better future? If so, what does that future look like?
This year, I wanted to try EMDR therapy - a modality I viewed almost as magical in its capability. The books I read appeared to confirm my belief. EMDR was a miracle cure for some very messed up people. I wanted a miracle cure.
Sadly, I never reached a point where EMDR was administered. My mental health history is too...complicated...to approach quickly. My dream of two months of EMDR washing clean 52 years of pain was shattered.
I don't blame mental health professionals: the problem is me. I looked to medicine for a quick fix. I did not intend to understand and heal my problems. But in that sense, no modality for treatment can be "healing." What heals is the work we do to address why symptoms appeared in the first place.
Now I understand I can't get better unless I am the person in charge of my healing. That understanding alone is a major turning point in my mental health. It allows me to approach the three blackest spots of this year and learn, not despair.
All we have is what we started with
The first black spot of the year still feels ridiculous to me. One discussion - one innocent comment - set me on a very dark path. The comment itself was not harmful or malicious. It was my long look back at the past that hurt so badly.
I looked back to my childhood, my adolescence, my early adulthood. I looked at my undergraduate experience, how I blossomed in graduate school. I looked at life with my wife, the birth of our son, the commitments I made to ensure my family's survival.
The hard realization I had is that I will never be Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB). In retrospect, the conclusion is obvious. I cannot go back and relive my birth or my life no matter what changes I make today. The past is done.
It hurt to realize all the work I do to transition gender will never be enough to realize my goal - foolish as the goal may be. The experience taught me my first valuable lesson.
Identity - including gender - is ongoing. Identity must be plucked from inside every day to manifest in our lives as who we are. Our identity is not only genetics, not only upbringing, not only social status. I make the person I am.
The only way to go is down
As harsh as reality felt, I took the pain and transmuted it. I developed a theory of gender as the ongoing negotiation of the person we know we are and the level of safety we feel in context of our social environment. From lemons, I baked a lemon cream pie. I was healed.
But coming to terms with what gender dysphoria meant to me was only a beginning. Another innocent comment sent me down another dark path - this time to confront my own sense of safety in the world. After beating the gender dysphoria that had plagued me for decades, I uncovered pain underneath: my early childhood trauma.
Once again, I was mired in my own misunderstanding of life - and myself. I wanted to cry "no fair" to the Universe. I had suffered enough for one life, thank you very much.
Against my will, I learned I can always dig deeper into myself. There is no bottom to hit, no final pain to heal, no end to introspection. There will always be more to learn about myself and more work necessary to address the pain inside when I find it. Healing is lifelong. There is no panacea, no magic cure, and no substitute for introspection.
This is a bleak realization - that pain is our due as humans.
But that is not all I believe. I also believe I can heal. I believe finding the meaning and purpose of our pain is what we're supposed to do as humans. It is our gift to the Universe.
Sitting with myself
The year taught two major lessons: I won't ever achieve perfection, and I must find my own path forward into being able to deal with that...over and over. Once again, I was healed.
Unfortunately - to use my gift for understatement - I had a bad week. I fell into what I've named "an episode" and intended to sob in bed for a weekend until I felt better.
But then...I fought back. I sat with my pain and my remorse and felt it. I listened to it.
Honestly, this one act surprised me the most in 2023. I fought my defense mechanisms and I won. It was an unexpected triumph. It brought with it the simplest lesson of life.
I learned I cannot run from the things that hurt me. If I run, they will chase me. My only viable strategy is to confront what hurts, let it hurt...and let it go.
Frankly, I do not claim to know all the answers. All I have is a process by which I can continue to live. I know I must build my own identity. I know my pain - and healing - will never stop. But in order to live free, I must live through the pain and joy and honor its source.
No fate but what we make
Above, I asked what my mental health future looked like. Reading back over my retrospective, I didn't answer my own question.
What I know is simple: mental health is not a matter of luck. Mental health is derived from acknowledging we must heal, then allowing the process to happen. In the end, the secret to mental health is inside me. I don't need a magic cure even if it existed. I can do this.
I admit...I am both excited and frightened by the lessons I learned in 2024. I am frightened of screwing up yet again, falling down the dark hole, and needing to claw my way back out of depression and dissociation.
Yet I am glad to learn the level of my own empowerment. Simple changes to my life improve my sense of control. I suppress notifications on my computer as I work. I turned off the "ding" my phone made when social media attempts to seduce me. (Besides, I have enough dings in my head already!)
I am empowered. And that's a lesson I needed to learn long ago.
I am not a victim of my mental health. I am the architect.