If you know anything about me, you'll know I'm open about the fact that I suffer from clinical depression and have for over twenty years. My illness has forced me into hospital many, many times, and it was during one of those stays that I met John* (name has been changed).
I hadn't been published yet but by the end of the year my first book, Finally Home, would be sailing through the webisphere. It was several months before that when I made a friend in the hospital - yes, on the psychiatric ward. I'll call him John for now. If you've ever been in a psych ward, you'll understand it's usually not the most comfortable of places, there can be little to occupy your mind, and there are some people who scare the hell out of you while others you might just leave a lasting impression on you.
John was in his late 20's early, had been admitted into the unit before me, and at first we merely said hello in the dining room and maybe watched television together just to get out of our rooms...until we found the stash of puzzles. We started out slow, easier ones to just get our brains accustomed to being used again between bouts of changing meds and emotional stress. You never want to bite off more than you can chew after all, and I'm pretty confident that neither one us wanted to get stuck on our first time out.
In the beginning, we had helpers. Patients and even staff who would wander by and add the odd piece or just give an opinion on what and how we should put it together. But that puzzle and all the ones following belonged to John and I. Eventually, we tried bigger and more difficult ones. We had even arranged a special table with two chairs facing across from one another, and we spent more than just puzzle time together. We were usually the nighthawks of the unit, just sitting with each other, sorting the puzzles into at first edges/border pieces then sectioned off groups of colours or recognizable objects. I'd found someone with the same organizing-OCD as myself and I was ecstatic to have also made a friend who I really, really liked.
Our conversations began as light and casual, two people trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation and environment. I felt like I could tell John anything and I did. I starting talking about what books interested me and how I read and wrote fan fiction that was a little out of the norm. I told him how compassionate I was about all things related to gay rights. I talked about a roommate I briefly had in college who was more flamboyant than not, about how he had to stay as butch or manly as possible because of the redneck, Alberta town we lived in.
Revelation happened one night as John and I sat across a puzzle from one another, snacking, drinking pop, chatting, laughing, and basically just basking in the friendship we'd been lucky enough to forge in a place that could be less than friendly. We both had our heads down, carefully inspecting puzzle pieces as we neared the end of a very difficult puzzle. It was a comfortable silence but suddenly, John whispered something. His voice was low and barely audible, plus he kept his head down so I had trouble hearing him.
"Did you say something?"
"I said I have something to tell you."
I instinctually froze, my mind whirling into many different possibilities for his statement. And being the person that I am, I immediately thought I'd done something wrong, something to upset him.
"I'm sorry. Did I do something wrong?"
"I'm a trans-man."
John kept his eyes glued to the puzzle but his breathing became audible to me, his knee shaking a bit under the table where it touched mine.
"I don't want to sound stupid...and I don't want to offend you, but does that mean you are transitioning male to female?"
He shook his head, finally looking me in the eye. "No. I'm female to male. I used to be girl."
Now please understand that I'm not a naive or uninformed person with regards to what John shared, but I will admit it freaked me out a little. Except not for the reasons most people might think. His sexuality or gender wasn't an issue for me. He was my friend. What surprised me though was that I honestly couldn't tell and had no clue whatsoever, and maybe that just showed my arrogance or naiviety.
Let me tell you about John. He wasn't tall, around 5'6" maybe. His frame was average but not slight. He walked with a confidence and swagger, and to be honest, I'd admired how nicely his butt filled out his jeans. I'd seen him in a hospital gown which definitely didn't hide whether the wearer had breasts or not. He was good-looking, none of his features screamed female, but he did have the most beautiful, wide green eyes and gentle smile. I'd even witnessed his five o'clock shadow.
We were silent for a while and I could see the nervousness in John's face. I reached across the puzzle, took his hand and held it for a few moments.
"Are you freaked out?"
I shook my head. "Just a little surprised that I didn't know."
He laughed, squeezed my hand and said, "I guess the hormones are doing a good job then."
After that, I found myself checking him out whenever we were together, looking for little hints that this man I'd become attached to had at one time been a woman. I never found any. I also did a little politically incorrect questioning - did he prefer to date men or women?
"Women," he replied with a smirk. "I guess I'm sort of a lesbian in a man's body." You can probably see that despite John's tumultuous time in the outside world, he was a very giving and gentle person.
Then something happened that made John panic. He had been switched to another room, one that housed a patient that was a little more intrusive and ill than the others. He had become violent on more than one occasion, been strapped to his bed. I believe he had some brain damage because he just really never knew where he was. He was also known to have no sense of privacy and would barge in the bathroom door in the room he was in.
You see, John had traveled to the US to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, but he hadn't yet decided whether to have genital reassignment surgery. In other words, he didn't urinate standing up and he was terrified that his new roommate would walk into the bathroom when he was in there. And that had been known to happen.
During the same week something else stressful happened to John. A new nurse appeared on the unit and when John saw her, he practically bolted from our little puzzle oasis and into his room. John had gone to nursing school as a woman and this new nurse had been one of his friends. Can you imagine the circumstances of him seeing her again after everything that had happened? Add that to the fact, John had been admitted to hospital after trying to hang himself and the whole situation was almost surreal
At one point, he was in a state of complete anxiety and panic. I took him into one of the private family rooms and we sat there a long time. It was obvious that his reason for being certified (forced to stay in hospital) was on his chart, as well as all the other information he'd only shared with a handful of people - his male to female transition. Together we decided it might be best for him to take the bull by the horns and speak to the nurse. He asked me to sit with them, and I did. It went well and I was so proud of my friend for speaking about his fears and anxiety.
Another week past and John was moved to a different room again, one that was far more stable for him. The calm was short lived though as John received a phone call that his parents were in town and would be up to see him. The anxiety returned, the panic visible in his eyes as he sat across from me again. John grew up in a small town, a farming community, and had moved to the big city for nursing school. He'd gone through his transitioning there with minimal contact with his parents. Minimal contact until John finally came out to them.
They traveled to the city then, too, and John admitted the horrific way they treated him, the things they said, the names they called him, the understanding that he wasn't part of their family anymore. These things had been the catalyst for John trying to hang himself. Of course, his parents were listed as his personal contacts when he was admitted to hospital and it took them 5 weeks to finally make the trip.
John was mere weeks away from being discharged. He'd been networking with a social worker to join a transgender group amongst other things to help support him once he was out. But the day his family visited, I saw a change in John. I saw him crawl into a shell I hadn't witnessed before. I watched him become insecure in talking to anyone, his eyes directed at the floor, his stance nervous and unstable. I listened to him breakdown when his family would call him. You have to understand that there isn't much in the the way of privacy in a psychiatric unit, especially if you're using the phone in the dining room.
He never talked much about what happened with his parents and I didn't ask anything to make him relive it. I do remember him saying his life had been easier without them in it and that he thought he'd never get what he truly wanted. We talked about that, about how he just wanted to live as a man, do his own thing, be his own person, but the shadow of his parents was always hanging over him. He'd tried to cut them out on more than one occasion but their hold was tight. And let's face it, your family is supposed to be there for you over your entire life. That's hard to just throw away.
A week after his family had been there, John started being allowed to take day passes to leave the hospital for a few hours at a time. He did really well at first, coming back at his assigned time and seeming to be at peace with leaving the hospital for good. He'd been back to his apartment where his suicide attempt had occurred and that was something we both worried about. His parents had cleaned it up, made the rope and other things associated with that fateful day disappear. John had succumbed to the depression he'd suffered since their rejection. He said the place still creeped him out a bit, still held a little of his old insecurity inside its walls, but that he was getting treatment to overcome that and looking for a new place as well.
One day John was late getting back from his day pass and several hours after he was supposed to be there, he called on dining room phone to speak to me. He was crying, despondent, barely able to speak but what I did manage to understand was that his parents had shown up during the day without warning. I told him to get in a taxi and come back. I'd pay for it when he got there even if I had to break out of the damn unit myself.
He said he had a way to get back so I shouldn't worry. He asked me to not tell the nurses I'd talked to him, said he'd get himself under control then be back to finish the puzzle with me. I sat there for another hour, my mind twisting this way and that - should I tell, should I wait a little longer, what the hell was the right answer? I chose to tell the one nurse I trusted implicitly on the unit. She tried calling John's phone, then with my information and the fact John had missed his curfew so to speak, a crisis team was sent to his apartment along with the police.
I wish I could say this story ends like the ones I write - with a happy ending. But I can't and I apologize if revealing the truth upsets anyone who reads this post. John died that day, his apartment not quite as clean and clear of his previous suicide attempt as his parents had thought. He used the same rope.
I'm not entirely sure what to write about this now. I suffered a bit of a breakdown when I was told and had to be sedated. I asked the nurse to take the puzzle we'd been working on away because I couldn't bear to see it. I'm pretty sure I woke up every day after that expecting to see John in the dining room, having saved a place for me if I was late. But that never happened, and as far as I'm concerned John became another notch in the strangling belt of homophobia/transphobia.
He became another casualty to the disgust, disrespect, and lack of understanding that takes the lives of so many in this fight for simple acceptance. He became one of the reasons I was so passionate about starting this blog hop, one of the reasons I write the books that I do.
This is the fourth year of this event and until now I haven't been able to share John's story. I hope you understand why I've been so blunt and also why I've shared the sweet moments along with the tragic ones.
I barely knew John for 5 weeks but I know he changed my life. He made me become even more aware and compassionate towards those who don't have a support system like they should be blessed with. John was strong. He was trying to get on with his life, but going against everything his family believed in, hearing them say they'd never accept him for what he was, beat him down to the point he couldn't get back up.
It's my wish that promoting awareness about these issues, about all the suffering the Johns in the world go through, will help other Johns who are still questioning themselves. I just want them to know there is help and support and love that they don't need to get only from their families. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not saying all families are bad because I know that's not anywhere near the truth, but I believe the following quote is something we can all try to remember.
"Family isn't always blood. It's the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile, and love you no matter what." ~~Anonymous
John will always be part of my life and he's definitely one of the reasons the Hop Against Homophobia, Bi- & Transphobia is so important. It's like the picture I've posted here says...
"With more visibility comes more understanding."
Tomorrow I'll have an interview with actor, model, and up-coming author Jared Allman (from the movies Scenes from a Gay Marriage & More Scenes from a Gay Marriage) about homophobia as he grew up Southern, Mormon, & gay. Make sure you hop by. Peace
Keep on hoppin'