CW: Suicide. This article contains some descriptions of suicidal thoughts.
Samantha Jane is a scientist and GenderGP community member living in Sweden. She writes on transgender topics to raise awareness of issues affecting the community, and the science behind sex and gender. Here, she shares her very personal experience of shame and explores why it can be such a barrier to acceptance.
Standing on the platform
The man stood on the edge of the Metropolitan line platform contemplating what it would be like to simply cease to exist. Day after day he stood waiting for the train, ready to jump under the next one, with the hope that the pain would end. Every day he said to himself: “today is going to be the day.” The train approached and, as usual, he stood rooted to the spot, in tears.
That was my experience some years ago and at the time I had no idea why I felt so disconnected; to the world and to myself. Through much of my life I have had a continual feeling of hatred, directed at myself. I would find myself so full of loathing that I would literally hit my head on the wall in the hope of somehow dislodging the terrible feelings I had inside. The feelings I had were those of shame; shame at being who I was, shame at not living up to the expectations of family and friends, and shame for feeling like I was born in the wrong body. It was these feelings that led me to contemplate ending my life as I stood on the train platform.
Shame is an emotion designed to help social interaction and stop us being self-obsessed. In many situations, shame drives us to “fix ourselves” but in extreme cases, it can cause us to actively avoid change – making us want to hide and escape instead. So like many, I spent many years running. I ran from place to place trying to find the right job in the right town, never realising that what I was running from was inescapable – I was running from myself and who I was.
It turns out that I am not alone and that many trans people go through cycles of shame throughout their life. How many of us go through brave periods of letting out our feminine persona only to hide it away again in an attempt to appear “normal?” This feeling of shame is really important because shame, unlike guilt, is highly correlated to depression and suicide. Is it any wonder that the rate of depression and suicide is high among trans people?
So where does this shame come from?
As you grow up you know that you feel different from everyone else. These differences are commented on by peers and parents and in most cases pressure, some subtle, some not, is used to make you conform. After all everyone wants their child to grow up “normal”, don’t they? The internal shame grows as you realise that the world is not “your world”; it’s the world of everyone else but conforming to it is better that being openly abused.
Such oppression is buried deep in society – it’s in the language we use, everyday behaviour and in the media. Of course it’s not just aimed at trans people – women, people of colour, immigrants, the disabled – all bear the brunt of society’s oppression of those who do not conform to or agree with the faceless “them”. The continual, cumulative effect of this perceived non-conformity on these groups is catastrophic. Some choose to joke and laugh about the “guy in a frock,” and “hey, where is your sense of humour? It’s only a joke!” But for those on the receiving end, it’s the millionth time it’s been said and it’s one of a million jokes, told by a million people in a million settings.
You are not alone
So why I am writing about something that is so obvious in retrospect? Well, many of us feel isolated and believe we are somehow going through something unique. However, while we all have different circumstances, these feelings are not unusual and, in fact, seem to be normal for most trans people. We need to tell those who feel isolated and those trying to come to terms with their feelings, that they are not abnormal.
Secondly, it’s all about getting support; we need to reach out to those who are on the periphery and include them – tell them how we felt, and still feel. Encourage them to seek support, see doctors, go to counselling. Tell them not be put off by the walls that are put up, that many will erect to keep them from getting what they need. As someone once wrote, “all the gates in society are controlled by white cisgendered men”.
I realise that forgiving oneself is extremely difficult and, for me, it’s still a work in progress. I am not in complete control of my shame, it’s still there, festering away but I will win with the help and support from family, friends and the community. I no longer stand on train platforms thinking about jumping, instead when I wait for the train I wonder: “why is it late again?”. Perhaps I am “normal” after all.
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