Sunday, March 29, 2009

We're In For A Long Suicide Season In Trans America

"...It looks like the end.
And you're back out on the street.
And you're tryin' to remember.
How will you start it over?" — Wasted Time, Eagles

We could be in for a long, torturous suicide season.

I'd been really lucky of late. Other than talking a couple folks down after the IFGE board announcement a couple months ago (very minor, comparatively), I haven't had a serious watch in about five years now. The stuff on my plate – organizing things in New York, Washington, Cape Cod and Houston, and monitoring bills in Austin – sorta had my full focus. Focus is good.

But there is a bad side of focus: you lose sight of the periphery. And as we know, those little overlooked details can devastate you. And as I well know, suicides are like tornados and come up suddenly with little or no warning. They hit, you react.

My friend C called me up Friday night to chat, hadn't heard from me in a while and asked what I was up to. After I went through a brief description of all I had working, she blurted out the bombshell: she'd attempted to end it all Monday night. After my initial harping, she ripped me right back for not calling or writing.

She's right. It had been well over a month, and regardless of my schedule, I'm also acutely aware of her situation.

She's been very long-term unemployed and at best minimally employed. It's hard enough in the Great Lakes area for anyone, exponentially worse if your trans at the cusp of transition with no degree and a resume with gaps in it. To keep her mind off of her tanking personal life, she sinks herself into volunteer work in activism (she's a high level board member with a state trans advocacy group and a local group leader, as well as assisting on production for one, and sometimes two national trans conferences. Meanwhile her personal finances sink and she's been perilously close to foreclosure for months.

From the outside, she's in good spirits: happy-go-lucky, a party animal, self-deprecating and humorous, and unfailingly honest. She compartmentalizes well. Even though her personal life is disintegrating before her eyes, she most always averts the eyes to focus on community work in order to keep a sense of something positive – even if it's not her own.

It's a defense mechanism I know well as I'm a similar situation and do the same thing. Apparently that's the reason she opens up to me as we're heading to hell in the same bucket.

"I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe
But at least I'm enjoying the ride!" — Hell In A Bucket, the Grateful Dead

In C's case, she fears the foreclosure may be very close to being real soon. Even without it, she'll lose her utilities once the winter cold disappears (and her bills are all way overdue). Desperation days are upon her very shortly. So what does she do with ten years worth of accumulated stuff? She certainly can't pack it in her mid-sized car.

And even if she does leave, where does she go? We all know the difficulties of homeless life for trans people where options are extremely scarce. As a rule, most shelters are one gender or the other and prohibit anyone who's crossed from one gender to the other.

Living semi-homeless in a car as a bio male isn't as bad as you don't have the automatic "prey" sign flashing above your head. You can do things like change in the back of your car or taking a bath in front of a gas station using the water hose with much less fear. The fear of living in a car as trans is something I can fully appreciate.

Even tent cities or campground living still puts trans people at risks a bit greater than the rest of society.

So where does one go? And what do you say to them when you're powerless to help? There've been a few other trans folks I've had to talk down from similar situations of abject loss of everything. Two of them hung on, and at least one (if not both) are doing quite well today and landed on their feet eventually.

"Where do you run when it's too much to bear?
Who do you turn to in need, when nobody's there?" — Hold On, Kansas

The third girl I talked back away from the edge (and who lived in a very crime-ridden area in Houston) ended up being broken into for a third time after our talk, whereupon they stole her computer – her only means of communication. Between the safety fears and joblessness – and now the loss of communication with people, she ended it about two weeks later. Adding insult to injury, her evangelical family buried her as a male. Both me and my mom had talked her back to living, so this news hit both of us hard.

Hopefully my mom got a chance to feel the powerlessness, and what that stuff did to me growing up when she went through her big bouts. You don't forget those. Then again, I'm glad I learned to talk folks through this stuff at an early age as you need it periodically – even for yourself!

When C initially called, it was more of a social chat (even though she was a little tipsy) but grew more serious as the conversation continued, partly thanks to six tequila shots. Her anger, frustration and fear were bleeding through the phone. She returned numerous times to the hopelessness of the situation, and especially focusing on her worthlessness. And as the 'worthless' talk crescendoed, I could sense the move back into that mindset of taking an immediate solution.

"Just a bad situation
Got me low, feelin' down I'm wonderin' why.
Caught me unawares, no one knows and no one cares.
They put you down no matter how you try." — Just Another Suicide, U.F.O.

Yes, even people who are very highly active in their community can end up with such desperation and no avenues out that they end up feeling the self-worth has been stripped away. In this society, where jobs identify a person and display that self-worth, it's easy to see how being unemployed and trans – regardless of their level of volunteer activity in the community – ends up feeling less than zero.

So as the Bush "economic recovery" morphs seamlessly into this "recession or depression" with such large numbers of everyday Americans falling through the cracks and losing it all, what happens to trans people like C? Jobs are still disappearing in large numbers with good reason: there is no expendable income, so producing products that virtually nobody will buy is pointless. what is there to be done when there is virtually no urgency in putting trans people to work and getting them back on their feet?

What do you say to them? You can't feed them lies about how "everything's going to work out fine," as that eventually becomes discovered and only compounds the situation. Depressed people aren't ignorant. You must be real with them, and do a lot of listening to their verbal clues.

"Just a cold realization,
Gotta go. I wanna turn and run away.
Got me in a spin, I'm gonna lose and never win.
They put you down no matter what you say.
Another night, it's another shakedown
Lookin' for a place to hide.
This could be a nervous breakdown." — Just Another Suicide, U.F.O.

Psychologist Karl Menninger once said: "Hope is a necessity for normal life and the major weapon against the suicide impulse." Personally I'm of a different mind. Hope dies for most people, so telling them to keep their "hope alive" ends up ringing hollow and mocking them. Reminding them of what they may have been working on and how that will be not seeing that finished is a one step – it brings back some of that fighting spirit and most importantly gives them something to look forward to.

Reminding them of their self-worth – counter to their arguments otherwise – is another step if they happen to be active in the community.

Mostly impress upon them the fact that none of us know what tomorrow will end up like, and that there's always a chance it could improve. Get them to see that stopping at that particular point only removes what could've potentially been – the unforeseen.

The biggest assistance though is to just keep them talking, subtly easing them from the edge and do a lot of listening. Don't try to over-suggest or direct them to a solution for every point as that becomes less about listening and more about telling.

So the delicate little dance away from the edge helped – for the moment. I'm not stupid enough to believe the situation is solved. Anything but! And what do you suggest to someone outspoken, as I am, who may well face the prospect of having nowhere to go in a frigid, unforgiving climate?

One thing she kept repeating was how she'd told herself her move into her current home was her "last move. The next move [she makes] will be leaving in a pine box." One thing history's taught me is that when people do intend to go through with this, they'll find a way go off without telling anyone and at least attempt it.

All the conditions are ripe, and I'm fearing this may well be a very tragic few years for our community.

"Look in the mirror and tell me just what you see?
What have the years of your life taught you to be?
Innocence dyin' in so many ways.
Things that you dream of are lost ... lost in the haze.
Baby hold on,
'Cause there's something on the way.
Your tomorrow's not the same as today." — Hold On, Kansas


Anonymous said...

I'm not in a depression it's just a bad recession. Well hope is what people need even when they feel there isn't any. But you're right when I think and analyze it I don't see much hope ahead. I do have a lot of unfinished business and things I want to do to before checking out. I may never accomplish my lofty goals or achieve those wonderful dreams of final gender congruity but there's lots of little ones I know I can reach. Such little things as wanting to eventually try something I've never experienced have helped me move forward.

Getting through the overwhelming sadness that comes with a sense of failure and hopelessness is tough though. I think a lot of us have been there where we just want it all to end. Sometimes I blame my transness on my difficulties and think if I could only get back to that old gender I might have a better chance.

But there's real difficulty in de-transitioning because the perceived failure of expressing our inner most has to devastating.

I'm fairly certain my ability to find work as my old male self would be far easier and pay better if I were willing and able to cut my hair and play that old role. With this many people looking for employment being middle aged and trans are real liabilities.

So how do I give up being me and go back without feeling suicidal? I haven't figured that out yet. But I trying to look at my past with pride and say "that wasn't so bad". Maybe i can do it. Of course it just may be my age is my liability interviewers don't know I am trans.

But this is going to be a bad year for many trans people and I agree we may see a tragic rise in suicide. I hope not.

Vanessa E. Foster said...

Hey Teri, I posted a comment to your personal Email linked to your blog instead of responding on here.

tgcyndi said...

The ironic parallels between the trans-community and the "suicide community" (ie: those who have attempted but not completed suicide, as well as friends and family of those who have taken their own lives) are breathtaking.

The primary connection is evident in that all-too-familiar "closet" that we tend to hide in.

Those who have either a trans-person or a suicide victim in their immediate circle rarely want to disclose that fact to others due to societal stigma based on misunderstanding the FACTS surrounding both of these complex personal conditions.

To the point regarding an unlikely but potentially strong alliance between these two communities: it is plainly obvious that relying on the G & L to speak on behalf of the best interests of the T has produced less-than satisfying results thusfar.

Trans-people are better served by summoning up enough courage and self-confidence to stand up for themselves and speak from the heart, while simultaneously keeping their minds open.

Statistically speaking (numbers don't lie), those trans-folk who can and will take a stand for equality will find many more potential allies by focusing on commonalities, as opposed to differences.

While suicide, writ large, is an "equal opportunity" affliction of the human spirit, due to a number of reasons it seems to affect trans-people disproportionately when compared to either the collective LGBT community or mainstream society.

However, the pain still hurts the same, regardless of who is stricken. Showing others how we are the same as them will go a long way towards gaining understanding of our condition.

Anonymous said...

As you know Nessie, ten or twelve years ago I was concerned about this problem, eight years ago when I became disabled myself I took everything I had and sank it into Gallae Central House which was originally set up as a safety net for newly transitioned women.

After zero support from the community, zero even acknowledgment and constant vilification by the trans community that resource is no longer available just when it might be needed the most. Will anyone else attempt it? Somehow I doubt that.

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