Learning to Be on My Own Side

Written Friday, November 11, 2022

I spend a lot of time thinking. About everything.

Sometimes, that includes thinking about myself - who I am, how I wound up where I am in life, and where I want to go next. This is a story about myself, and how much things have changed because of how I've chosen to think about me.

I'm in an interesting moment right now. I have basically nothing but time, for a little while at least… and, true to form, I'm spending most of that time pondering.

I'm watching an interesting sequence of events play out in the realm of social media technologies. As I write this, the once-towering "social" empire of Twitter seems poised to disintegrate (or, at least, change profoundly) in the near future. I've recently left behind an impressive career in software development due to systemic abuse and oppression in the field, and chosen not to return largely as a matter of conscience.

And I'm watching larger, longer-term things as well. The shift of online interaction, in the wake of Twitter's situation, has prompted a lot of exploration of alternatives in the world. It's also cast a glaring light on the realities that our world is rife with all manner of oppression and other problems.

Systemic racism, in particular, has flared up on my own radar time and again. Ever since I was a small child, I remember periodically hearing stories about racial violence, about police brutality and murders, about bigotry and hatred, about the literal centuries of horrific and inexcusable violence and oppression inflicted on Black people and Indigenous people, especially in the country I was supposed to think of as my "home", the United States.

I've had to learn how to cope with oppression myself. I am white - neither Black, nor Indigenous, nor racially oppressed in any way as a person of color. But that is only one facet of who I am.

I am also trans. I live in a place and a time where I am fortunate and privileged enough to be able to say that aloud, but I also have to be careful about when and where I bring attention to it. The oppressions born of transphobia are well-known to me, by first-hand experience; I was 33 years old before I dared whisper aloud to anyone a truth I'd known of myself since I was very young.

I am a femme - not a "woman" in a binary, female way, but very closely aligned; and while I don't particularly care for the term "non-binary" because of the way it frames me in opposition to a supposed "default", it is not an inaccurate description of me. Most people treat me like a woman anyways - which means the attendant oppressions of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy are known to me as well, again by first-hand experience.

I am a lesbian; perhaps more generally, I am Sapphic, in that I don't tie my notions or experiences of attraction to specific framings (usually binarist ones) of gender. Moreover, I'm not inclined to monogamy; I describe my personal mode of relationship as queerelational (a separate - and quite lengthy - exploration for another time). This has led to a number of struggles with the way I want to relate to other people being incongruous with the ways society deems acceptable. As such, the oppressions of both homophobia and mononormativity are known to me.

I am autistic. My brain does not function in the same way as many others' brains do. Unfortunately, I'm also very good at specific forms of social camouflaging - hiding those differences under an extremely well-practiced veneer of conformity to neurotypical normative expectations and pressures. While this affords me a fair bit of privilege in terms of navigating the world, I call it "unfortunate" because when I inevitably reveal that I'm not, in fact, conforming to those expectations and pressures perfectly, the backlash is often all the more severe. And thus, I've grown all too familiar with the oppressions of existing in a world that frequently can't (or won't) even recognize that I am different.

I am also invisibly disabled - perhaps the truth I still struggle the most to understand about myself. I've barely even begun to settle into accepting it as a reality, despite beginning to recognize it a couple of years ago. My disability is not - as some may leap to conclude - related to my being autistic, although the profound mistreatment and abuse I've experienced as an autistic person (particularly in childhood) certainly have compounded and exacerbated that disability.

I grew up in a profoundly hostile environment, subjected to almost non-stop verbal and emotional abuse and violence, as well as routine physical violence. Paradoxically, it was also an environment deeply saturated in pervasive neglect. The trauma of that experience, which lasted for just shy of two decades, left me with an enduring struggle with anxiety and a very deeply shattered sense of self-worth. And like most children who come of age in loveless, hateful environments, I wandered out into adulthood unequipped to break free of the only patterns of relationship and interaction I'd ever known. I left one crucible of awful treatment and violence, only to spend another decade inadvertently surrounding myself with other people who continued to abuse, exploit, violate, and neglect me in any number of ways - some new, some old.

So the experience of oppression is all too familiar to me.

The lenses of intersectionality also play a crucial role here. Through that perspective, I've been able to develop and understanding of how each of those factors about who I am affects the others, and contributes to the overall struggle of simply being who I am as a person.

This post, though, isn't titled "all the shit I've had to deal with." It's titled Learning to Be on My Own Side. And that's the thing I really want to explore, here - my journey of learning to wield an incredible, radical, powerful idea: the notion that it is impossible for me to be my own enemy.

Why bury such a lede under many paragraphs of exposition?

Because the notion seemed ludicrous, even absurd, to me, for most of my life. Because without knowing the context of how I got to that notion, it would be trivially easy to dismiss the idea itself as the privileged, ignorant, inexperienced naivete and optimism of some random white girl who don't know shit about shit.

The truth, though, is that my understanding is hard-won. It comes not from my own innate wisdom or strength, nor from my propensity for prolonged navel-gazing (although self-awareness and introspection have been undeniably powerful tools for me in life).

It's a notion I largely learned from other people. Most notably, I've learned it from stories of Black resistance. I've learned it from wisdom preserved - and still shared generously - by Indigenous cultures across the globe and across time. I've learned it from intersectional feminists, from anti-capitalists, from disability advocates… any number of sources of insight, experience, and guidance in any number of ongoing struggles against oppression in our world.

It is also an idea that I've found to be at the heart of all of the most profound and transformative healing I've experienced as a person.

It is an idea I want to share - complete with the context, the appropriate respect paid to its lineage from other thinkers, and with the caveat that I can only recount my own story and do not pretend to hold something that will be universally true to everyone. I want to share it because I believe that it may offer a similar opportunity of healing to others in the world - and because I am firmly convinced that, unless we collectively know how to pursue healing, we will never be truly successful in our efforts to dismantle oppression and replace it with something better.

I've described some elements of my personal history; this is important background information to help lend shape and heft to the specific tale of me grappling with this radical, powerful, almost-magical notion.

Sometime in the waning months of 2018, I began realizing that there were two major elements of my life I needed to confront: unresolved trauma, and what felt at the time like some kind of weirdly insistent question regarding the concept of gender.

Those days were fraught beyond what I can summarize here; indeed, it sometimes feels that there may be a nearly endless supply of things to explore just from my experiences in the year 2019 alone. I've written about some of them, at great length even; but what matters, for the purposes of this exercise, is that I felt like my own enemy most of the way through. In terms of gender, in particular, I felt overwhelmed with inner conflict.

I struggled with feelings of guilt and self-abandonment; how else could I feel, as a non-stop surge of memories started to break loose from my mind, a tidal wave of recollection about truths I'd seen in myself for my entire life and yet somehow carefully hidden away? I was living a lie - projecting an image of a person who had never existed and was never meant to exist. How could I have spent so long refusing to listen to myself?

It wasn't until I was quite a ways into the process of confronting the other big thing - trauma - that I stumbled across a possible answer.

Through exploring trauma therapy, I learned an incredibly powerful skill: reframing ideas.

It started as a recipe of two major ingredients: awareness, and replacement. I needed little help recognizing the relentless, vicious stream of criticism, negativity, and disappointment that I seemed to constantly be leveling at myself; it was familiar, constant, as ever-present to my day-to-day lived experience as breathing air. The trick was… what else do I think, instead? How else am I supposed to feel?

Trauma work gave me the first handful of ideas I'd never heard before - the seeds of possible replacements for the concepts and emotions that had defined my understanding of myself (and, really, of everything in my life) for so long. What if all these ideas that I considered to be my own were, in fact, not coming from me?

What if all this awful, painful stuff being leveled at me in first-person language wasn't actually me thinking about or feeling things about myself? What if it was just the remnants of someone else's ideas that had taken up residence in my brain, like some kind of evil symbiotic creature? What if "my" understanding of myself wasn't ever actually my own?

It seemed a reasonable prospect. After all, I was in the midst of unraveling an entire identity that was never my own, through the lens of gender; why not throw this self-loathing on the list and dismantle it, too? Why couldn't my self-doubt, self-disappointment, and self-criticism be external ideas that I'd carried around as if they belonged to me?

I lived in a facade of a physical body and presence that wasn't really me, and it was easy to go along with the assumptions of everyone around me that it was me, because I met their expectations - I fit into the idea of what a typical "straight white guy" would look like, sound like, and dress like. But I was neither straight, nor a guy. It didn't take much of a stretch to imagine that there were other aspects of how I thought of myself that simply weren't my truth.

At the time, it felt more like a recipe for despair than for hope. If I could go over thirty years so thoroughly misconstruing myself, what chance did I ever have to actually "figure myself out"? How could I trust my own ideas and thoughts if my brain could be colonized so easily by invasive beliefs and patterns?

And so I found myself, in the summer of 2019, in a profound conundrum. I couldn't stand the idea of continuing to try to live as I had been; but I also had no idea who I was trying to become. In the end, I knew I'd have to try a few things and see what felt like it was working - and be prepared to continue experimenting, adapting, and changing for perhaps years to come.

I had no idea how to "feel" things. I'd been crushed by decades of conditioning under toxic masculinity; I was medicated beyond any form of emotional clarity by doctors unable to recognize the possibility that my turmoil was not, in fact, some kind of disease or illness, but rather a perfectly reasonable response to a lifetime of suppression, repression, violence, and pain; and I'd been punished, over and over again, by any number of other people in my life, for probing my own feelings to any significant degree.

But I'd heard stories - accounts of people in similar places, beginning to experiment with hormone therapy, and suddenly finding access to clarity, depth, and richness of emotion that they'd never imagined possible. I knew that no matter who I was about to become, I wanted to at least try that as one of my experiments.

So on August 17th, 2019, I started taking hormones. Even if I couldn't ever manage to figure out my own brain, maybe I had a chance at reclaiming my own heart.

Yet again, there is far more to tell about that experience than I can possibly justify trying to wedge into this particular story. It's gotten quite long enough as it is. But that decision - to seek a part of myself to try to grow, to connect with, to heal, as a distinct and separate process from whatever was happening inside my skull - proved immensely fateful.

After a while, I ran into limits of that concept - of seeing myself as a duality between thought and feeling. There was something else going wrong, even as my life dramatically improved around me. Something kept hauling me back, like an evil bungee cord, yanking me out of the ever-brightening present into the darkness and fear and despair of my past.

In trying to understand that phenomenon, I began to learn of the physiology of trauma - the way that the body itself maintains a sort of timeless imprisonment of deep harm. I learned that the pain I wished I could evade with my brain and heart was not just contained there. And I encountered a phrase - a book title, in fact - that has stuck with me ever since: the body never lies.

So it was that I wound up spending the vast bulk of the year 2021 learning to listen to a third part of me - my body.

It was ironic, to me, in hindsight. I'd spent so much of 2019 and 2020 building up to the decision to start hormone therapy, and then riding the roller-coaster of incredible physical changes that came from doing so. It hadn't quite occurred to me that those changes were only the beginning. Indeed, as it turned out, they were necessary; without them, I never would have been comfortable spending enough time listening to my own body to realize all the things she had spent years trying to say.

As I got more and more comfortable with that strange, triumvirate balance - brain, heart, and body - I leaned ever-harder into an idea that I'd enjoyed thinking about for a long time: the idea of self or identity as not being a fixed unit, an atomic quantity, an irreducible thing per se.

I've long bristled at the term "individual" for referring to people. I don't believe that we are. I've heard plenty of objection to this term, grounded in the sense that we are inherently interdependent on each other and our entire surroundings in our world. I share that objection. But what I hear much less of is the examination of how false that word really is as it applies within us.

Truly, we can be divided inside ourselves; we speak of "part of me" wanting something while we choose to do the opposite. We speak of wrestling with ourselves. We even use - at least in English - the colloquialism of being "our own worst enemy."

I could see the ways in which the person I thought of as "myself" was more of a harmony of multiple parts - and indeed, I'd had brushes with the experience of feeling like more than one person worth of "self" was somehow emerging from that dancing maelstrom of facets, especially early in the process of trying to sort out my own sense of who I am.

I'd been hungrily soaking up literature and wisdom - Black feminism, Indigenous anti-colonialist theory, radical ways to heal from a legacy of patriarchy and the relentless demonization of "emotion" as if it is somehow inferior to or less reliable than "logic." And it occurred to me: if it's true that my body never lies… what if my heart doesn't, either?

What if all the messy, complicated things I still felt were not reflections of feelings about myself directly? What if my emotions did in fact all make sense, but just in a different framework of sense and logic than my brain was accustomed to using?

I'm a math and programming nerd. I am no stranger to adopting various frameworks of logic that - while incompatible with each other - are inherently and internally beautiful, useful, and meaningful.

If my body isn't lying, and my heart isn't lying… and if my brain can be host to ideas that I don't actually necessarily believe… well… I don't know! Then what?

I almost didn't dare to ask the question, but it surged out of me anyways.

What if it is, in fact, impossible to actually be my own enemy?

What does that imply about the world around me? What does that suggest about oppression, about systemic issues in our shared reality? Where do I find confidence and surety and comfort in that? Does it lead to any contradictions or paradoxes? Does it have implications I'm unwilling to accept? How do I leave room for myself to learn and grow and change in this paradigm?

I knew, almost immediately, that it was the kind of question I couldn't answer just by noodling on it in my head for a few weeks, or even a few years.

The only way to know the answer was to take it on, like a kind of experiment. To try it out, truly commit to the assumption of the hypothesis, and follow it - trusting that if it didn't work out to my liking, I could always blow it up and try something different. After all, I'd just spent two years recreating almost every facet of my own life from scratch. It seemed like a risk worth taking.

I don't remember, for sure, when I chose to commit to taking that plunge. I don't even know for certain that it was a singular, specific moment in time; it rather feels more like a series of steps that became a bit of an avalanche of internal change.

But I do know that it has led, directly, to some of the most important choices I've made in the past year.

I've chosen to live a life of pursuing my own joy in defiance of oppression - and the construct of being on my own side has given me the confidence and hope that I can figure out how to do so, and the patience to let it take as long as it takes.

It's given me a certainty about what is and is not good for me that has helped me disentangle from a rather heart-wrenchingly long list of problematic relationships, circumstances, and even memories. It's helped me make peace with the decisions I made, for all those long years, that I needed in order to survive - to protect myself long enough to find something better. It's offered me clarity and healing around pain and events from my past that once seemed impossible to resolve and reconcile.

Perhaps most compellingly of all, it's become a cornerstone of how I make my decisions, of who I seek to connect with - and to what extent. And that has led, directly, to other questions: if I'm not against me, what is?

That has given rise to a rapidly-expanding notion of how oppression works, why it persists, and what can be done about it. More importantly, it's given me a guiding principle for the process of trying to imagine what we need to cultivate in our world in order to replace oppression instead of merely reconfiguring it.

And all along the way, it's a central element of why I continue to get up every day. Why I continue to insist on learning and growing. Why I'm able to face the oppressions that affect every waking moment of my existence - and often also haunt my dreams.

I can tell it is only one ingredient, in a much larger mixture, for really being able to help heal and change the world for the better; but I can also feel that it is a deeply vital one.