The Work, The Cost

I was talking with the bereavement counsellor yesterday about the challenges I have faced in my family.

“How do you maintain your relationship with your family?” she asked.

“It’s easy,” I replied.  “I do all the work.”

I explained that I have the capacity to understand what someone else thinks, feels and believes, that I can get into their world.  I know what they need, how to take care of them.  I have that skill.

But I haven’t found that other people can do the same with me.  Entering my world, then acting on that understanding, well, not something I expect.

I told stories about this effect, like how people liked me at Kripalu because I could help them get a bit of what they need, bu they couldn’t do the same for me.  How I had a challenge with a friend’s partner, so I offered to write a piece from her point of view, so she would feel heard, know she was understood, if she would write a piece from mine.  My friend told me that would never work, not because I couldn’t do what I offered, but because the partner could not.  It was an unreasonable request for them to be considerate to me.

The same pattern happens in my family.  I had to prove that I understood my sister-in-law’s concerns even as I was dealing with two sick parents, but she had no ability to hold my concerns.  My sister worked to support me, and I asked her to feedback to me what she heard from me, to assure me I was being heard, but that never happened.

It was explained to me when I was very young that it was the obligation of the one who was different to do the work.  Conventional people had no obligation to understand freaks, but freaks had an obligation to consider the normative and expected in every action.  That’s how stigma works, demanding the impossible.   The most difficult thing for me about being transgender is negotiating people’s fears, as I wrote ten years ago.  And not being seen and valued for my own unique gifts has always been hard, even as I try to explain.

For me, in a family laced with Aspberger’s Syndrome, where emotional intelligence was often scarce even if intelligence was valued, the requirement to understand others without being understood has always been a challenge.  My nickname in the family was “Stupid” until I was about 12 and the therapist told them to stop, “Stupid” because I was incomprehensible to my parents, not doing what they wanted and expected.

I learned early that I had to understand my mother’s moods to keep on her good side, had to manage and take care of her from a very young age.  And I had to reach out to help my father when he got slammed by her, had to support him though her moods.

Or, as TBB said about her Christmas with family, “I put in nine years of work, and they put in four days.”

“Isn’t that hard?” the bereavement counsellor asked.

“No.” I replied.  “I have been doing the work of understanding and taking care of others without being understood for years.  I know how to do it.”

“But,” she asked, looking for the words

“Yes,” I agreed.  “There is and has been an enormous cost to always feel the obligation to take care of others without them taking care of me.  There has been an enormous cost in giving what other people need without getting what I need.  There has been an enormous cost in having to stay small to consider others without them considering me.  An enormous cost.”

“I suspect there would have been,” she answered, not understanding the cost of living with stigma, living queer in the world.  She had asked me if people really had trouble with transpeople earlier, and while I said that it was easier today, all it took was someone who felt indignant that their conventional borders were broken, who felt offended and threatened to really make trouble for a transperson.  I reminded her how much that women’s culture depended on the bonding of being able to know they weren’t like those stupid men, and she understood, recognizing that as both as a price of admission and as a challenge that transpeople offered as they reminded us of our continuous common humanity beyond the imaginary borders between us and them that keep people feeling safe, snug and smug.

The cost, at least for me, to walk in the world as queer, smart and challenging to assumptions that give comfort has been enormous.  The obligation to understand without being understood, to value without being valued, to consider without being considered, to care without being care for, to offer unconditional love without being loved unconditionally has been enormously costly to me in my life, taking so much of the life force I could have spent on flourishing.

And I don’t really see how to change that pattern.