A little light reading

on complex trauma and compartmentalization

As I write, the PTHC is midway through its fifteenth run. Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to be a part of it. I’d love nothing more than to be there right now with the hundreds of amazing, brilliant, and tenacious #folkslikeus who bring all of it to life with learning and levity. There’s nothing else like it anywhere.

The last couple of years have been challenging personally, and I regret not being a part of more people’s lives; being a part of necessary conversations; sharing in the grief of those taken from us; celebrating the joy of individual milestones; giving forward more than I’ve been given; and elevating more of our brightest voices. I am thankful and humbled by everyone who’s tried to check in with me since late 2014. I apologize to everyone who’s never heard back. It isn’t you. It’s me.

For the few of you who have heard back, I apologize for having you face such a defeated and rattled woman. You found me after I realized the core dreams and aspirations I’d put my life toward for two decades were pushed beyond my reach. Nothing has felt the same since I lost that hope, ambition, and sense of purpose.

For a bit over a year, I’ve been working through intensive sessions to detangle, mend, and heal symptoms ascribed to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (which is what this post will be talking about). Depression, something I’ve had for most of my life, is a giant symptom. To her credit, my trauma therapist is adept at what she does. For PTSD recovery, she specializes in a technique called EMDR. The work is difficult, slow, and all-consuming. There’s no coda in sight. Trauma recovery, for which I find there are often no words, is lonely. The healing is painful. Were trauma recovery a hotel, the room service would be total crap.

(I’m mindful of the stigma around discussing brain health, and I also know how muting the topic isolates people who struggle privately. It has become clearer that the person who admonishes or mocks others for speaking to their own brain’s health does so because they themselves may not be prepared to examine the state of their own brain, who argues instead that all brains are infallible — until they’re not. And if not, then by gosh, there’s no undo for the broken. The person who tells a trauma victim to “suck it up” and to get all bootstrappy doesn’t know trauma on an intimate basis — or if they do, then they’ve buried it deep in their own coping place.)

From this EMDR work, what is clearer is how I’ve survived complex trauma for so long: by dissociating and compartmentalizing. What’s also clearer is during my life, I’ve survived two discrete clusters of complex traumas: for lack of a more precise way to describe it, there’s the “childhood stuff” and the “adult stuff”. At their root, they are different creatures, yet they interleave into how I respond to signs of social behaviour which echo the prologues of past traumatic events. Together, these clusters can complicate things in a hurry.

My understanding is that it is staggeringly common for people to survive at least one major trauma during their lives — whether it’s surviving sexual assault, surviving a violent injury, surviving as a witness to traumas befalling others, and so on. It may be less common, but still frequent enough that PTSD survivors may be recovering from a cluster of traumas — perhaps from many years of being in the company of an abusive elder, partner, or locale. To survive two discrete clusters, however, with no assurance that similar traumas won’t emerge during the future, makes healing from what’s already happened into something unwieldy.

Surviving is no way to live. Compartmentalization, at least for a long while, can make it possible to experience windows of actual living in between the spikes of trauma. Compartmentalization is what helped me to stay alive for nearly 25 years. The downside is compartmentalization amounts to a kind of “buy now, pay later” scheme, where it ends up being more like, “so, you’re terrible and you have no choice except to buy this horrible crap now, and you’ll have to pay for it no matter what at a later date not of your choosing.” None of the trauma was remotely wanted in the first place (seriously, no one asks to endure rape, withstand torture, subject themselves to structural exclusion, or be gaslighted, beaten, and/or injured grievously), but you’re still on your own with its ballooning interest. PTSD is basically a vigorish on your life chances. Complex PTSD means having several vigs on your head.

Over the years, I’ve learnt ways to be more forthcoming about the “childhood stuff” I survived and to not be as afraid to talk about it. I’ve spoken on being a teen runaway from a mother who presented extreme narcissism, traces of an antisocial personality disorder, and a steady (if well hidden) substance abuse problem. All of this was manifest as physical violence toward others and seconded only by her incredible psychic violence. I’ve spoken on how, with no warning, my parents whisked me into a psychiatric institution at age 13, less than one week after they clued in that I was trans — how it wasn’t until my thirties before I figured out that that was the reason I was sent away. I’ve spoken of my one attempt to end my life (and failing) about a week after that institutionalization — how what my body was doing to me during first puberty pushed me to self-harm. Several years ago, I chronicled around fifty patterns of violence she unleashed on all of us (me, my sibs, and my dad), and I’ve shared some of these with people I trust. While she and Midas both could change everything they touched, Midas turned all to gold while she destroyed lives.

Her chronic abuse, however, wasn’t what trained my mind to compartmentalize trauma for what lie ahead. My brain learnt to compartmentalize the day I was raped by an older neighbour across the street.

I was about six years old. Although the domestic maternal violence was well underway, it was the oblivious consent of following my babysitter’s younger sister, several years my elder and twice my size, to her house, then to her bedroom, for what I thought would be an afternoon of ordinary pastime stuff — like a board game or playing house. I guess my guard was down with her in ways it wasn’t, ironically, with the person who was supposed to protect, nurture, and lift us up after we left her womb.

The cluster of “adult stuff” I’m working through in therapy, meanwhile, is far more malevolent. Its violent root is systemic and not confined to one person. It’s also impossible to predict when it might happen again. While I’m able to pinpoint a couple of constants, it has almost always blindsided me whenever a new point of trauma emerged. Some of the people behind that traumatization acted on the conviction of wilful malice — to impose control by singularly regulating my welfare. Some followed their lizard reflex — a place where fear, objectification, and the inclination for tokenism originate. For others, actions which precipitated the trauma were the by-product of a negligence aided by the blinders of their own structural and positional advantages. Whatever the case, the “adult stuff” comprises those traumatic experiences which have destroyed my sense of worth as a labourer, as a peer, and as a person.

Certain particulars from the “adult stuff” are not ready to be detailed, partly because the healing is still very early and the words probably do not exist to describe them just yet. What does matter is that each and every one of the people who did the blindsiding sipped from the same toxic well of cisnormativity. This is one of those constants. It is this systemic cisnormativity that continues to mould, regulate, and limit life chances for a great many of us who are trans. What this cluster of traumatic experiences also shares in common was my inability to dodge, escape, or avert them — much like that afternoon when I was held down by someone more powerful.

The “adult stuff” I’ve survived has pulled away so much of what I’ve worked toward to a place which is now beyond my reach. These are things which have carried the most personal meaning for why I live. Like cultivating a civic participation and volunteerism to give back to a city I’ve loved for a long time. Like learning how to mentor others well (since there was so little of it during my own coming of age and even to this day). Like having the opportunity to start an urban planning career I trained for (despite there being no others on the continent that I’m aware of who’ve trained for it after transitioning). Like unifying my experiential knowledge and being able to teach others. Like being employed without categorical conditions placed on my employment from which all other co-workers are exempted. Like working to dismantle the need for being vigilant in advance of the next blindside which could usher more harm (because maybe there will come a time during what’s left of my life when cisnormative blindsides will become a grim, but faded relic of history for #folkslikeus).

I know of nine incidents from the cluster of “adult stuff” which were a function of cisnormative bias within the realm of labour — arising as either exclusion, intimidation, and/or reprimand. Each seared unique lessons which altered how I’ve coped with specific stimuli and settings ever since. For example, the conventional job interview format is something I can no longer do without flashing back to a particular morning in 2003. Ever since, the very notion of being called to interview ignites abject, paralyzing panic, and I do not know how to make that go away.

One incident from the “adult stuff”, the third in sequence, literally wrote history. As survived trauma goes, “the third” — which was horrible — wasn’t even the worst of the nine (it shares a second place tie with “the eighth”). It is, however, the most thoroughly documented. For most, “the third” is better known as Goins v. West Group[1][2] [2001].

What with all the recent animus from Houston, North Carolina, Virginia, and the twelve states digging in hard to land themselves on the ignominious side of American civil history, these actions have had me re-living “the third” in isolation — as if what happened back then occurred just a few months or perhaps a couple of years ago. I may not do it as much as I used to, but I do still blame myself for what happened, even though logically I know I did absolutely nothing wrong. And yet, having to re-live the experience leaves me feeling as alone now as it did then. As trauma relates to my relationship with this history, a “couple of years ago” means “1997”; a “few months ago” means “2001”. Trauma has this terrible way of branding time into a scar, of keeping the memory of a living hell alive and looped in perpetuity — a kind of Groundhog Day without the Bill Murray, the Andie MacDowell, or even the dumb groundhog.

Nineteen years ago, my employer — the first and (still) only time I was hired as a permanent employee anywhere — forcibly disclosed, sanctioned, and engineered a constructive termination in a state (then the only state) where it was supposed to be illegal to do that. It had everything to do with depriving and regulating my access to washrooms whilst at work. Before the planned ambush, which is what it amounted to, they wanted me to work diligently for them. As court discovery revealed, I most certainly did, both before and during their wilful commission of discrimination. Fifteen years ago, their wrongdoing, untried by trial, was validated by seven Minnesota Supreme Court justices who, like the dozen states involved with this lawsuit against the federal government, now find themselves (those still alive, anyway) slouching toward the wrong side of history. In Canada, meanwhile, we are trying to move forward with the introduction of Bill C-16, but until that bill gets through three parliamentary readings and Ottawa passes it, then it won’t mean much, just as it didn’t for its failed predecessors, Bill C-279 and C-389.

The challenge of surviving Goins v. West Group has been the inability to forget how I was the first in North America to be subjected to the scrutiny of jurisprudence relating not only to washroom access, but also to legislation intended to protect #folkslikeus from discrimination; how there really wasn’t anyone to talk to who’d been through the same beforehand; and how the kind of backlash I got from cis people is now being taken out on other #folkslikeus. (I’ma call it the “get ur hang-ups outta ur system already, cis ppl” phase.) This time, backlash from cis people gets aimed toward a lot of kids who are trans under the belief that Title IX, as well as Title VII, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are wholly inapplicable to people who are trans. The backlash is completely about cis people — namely, cis people who get apoplectic and foam at the very suggestion of being on par with a trans person in the eyes of law.

Jurisprudence conditions in 2001 were arguably more inhospitable than they are right now. Reception of our existence was at a nadir when cis people were well aware that we existed but wanted to pretend that we didn’t (or would laugh sadistically at our expense and at every turn). It was a time when most cis people (and even a sizeable number of trans people!) still subscribed to the destructive, fatuous myth that being trans was an institutional pathology or a mental illness (a contention, dispelled partly as of 2012, by the American Psychiatric Association — the same professional body which pathologized cis homosexuality until 1973; the APA, however, have kept in place “gender dysphoria”, a state of unease associated with a trans person not transitioning, meaning a complete de-institutionalization of all trans people is yet to be realized and our stigma won’t die already). The absence of community advocacy back then made getting through it a bit tougher than those who have to endure it presently. Social media didn’t really exist as we know it, so the constant co-surveillance of each other wasn’t what it is now, making things tougher in ways it wasn’t back then. Also, legislatures which didn’t even think about this stuff in 2001 are showing much hostility these days. (idk, tbh. Maybe it all counterbalances itself.)

That said, having to put up with this legal static at all sucks, and my empathy goes out to many people I’m not liable to ever meet — folks like Gavin, Coy, Nicole, AJ, and so many more who’ve had to put up with the cisnormative hand-wringing and concern trolling in the years since Goins v. West Group ended.

The only other person going through something similar at the time, a cop who like me was also in his twenties, was dealing with the same bias treatment in his workplace. His counsel filed the legal complaint as a “John Doe”. This was a wise move. (In Doe v. Clenchy [2014], anonymizing was a given because the plaintiff, a trans girl, was still a minor.) The fate of my peer’s case, however, was at the mercy of my case’s fate. That is: he lost. His loss was when my guilt began.

What made “the third” a unique trauma was I did something different: I fought back. I defended myself against a much larger assailant (namely, a cis man named Lew Freeman who was a proxy for not only our employer, but also for Rena Valenty Rose, a cis woman from another department whom I never met — both refusing to accept or tolerate that I was a woman who was trans, thus positioning a corporation to also refuse accepting or tolerating that I was a woman who was trans). I fought back because even then I could see the path they were taking was illegal, that the rule of legislative law was on my side. Still, I never got reassurance that defending myself was OK or even a healthy response — merely a “defiant” one. I internalized the belief, however ridiculous, that standing up for myself was what damaged the welfare of our community for at least a generation. I also knew (and would be affected by) the negative association of my then-name with said precedent of jurisprudence, as it would erode critical paths toward being hired again: Google was already a thing by then. The eighth of the nine traumatic events from that cluster of “adult stuff” was facilitated in great part by Google’s presence.

Although I’ve managed to walk through it verbally for the first time since EMDR made doing so possible, “the eighth” is still too raw for writing. I am not ready, and I don’t know whether I ever will be. Until “the ninth” happened about two years ago (also too raw and too soon), “the eighth” struck at my core like nothing since that sunny afternoon I was held against my will as a kindergartener. “The eighth” marked when cisnormative bias became tougher to prove definitively (even as my every intuition knew it was the real deal). Except for Twin Citians whom I never updated, “the eighth” is why I am no longer named Juli.

Part of EMDR has involved trying to decouple what happened with Goins v. West Group from the deep-rooted belief that what was done to me was somehow my fault (because guilt around ruining it for a generation wasn’t enough, I guess?). My heart still swears, however irrationally, that I brought what happened onto myself. I’m also mindful that other folks have survived far, far greater traumas than this. It is this perspective that humbles my footing, even if it doesn’t assuage my sense of guilt.

In 2013, I was disclosed forcibly in one of my local community peer groups (which has several connections to other local peer groups). The stinging irony was I had posted several months earlier (under a locally-focussed nom de plume, Ententa’s Magic) about why it is never, ever OK for anyone to forcibly disclose a trans person under any circumstance — how forcible disclosure is engineered to accomplish one thing: control over the person being forcibly disclosed. For people who are trans, there is an affirmation of coming out, much as there is for cis people coming out as lesbian or gay (and much as there is for trans people coming out as lesbian or gay); unlike cis queer people, anything after coming out and transitioning becomes a question of disclosure — whether disclosure is voluntary, coerced, or forced.

Where that queer-oriented culture of “outing” originated, of course, was from white cis gay dudes during the late ’80s and ’90s. It was orchestrated in part by efforts to “smoke out” closeted, (mostly) white gay men who by day were using their political might to morally condemn their own people while by night getting their MSM on the DL. That a contemporary “outing culture” emerged from that place and time speaks to a wider culture of “game of life” settings which translate intersectionally as “beginner” for the white cis gay dude (just a smidge up from the “demo” setting which no small sum of white cis straight dudes swears is “rly rly tough, you guise”).

To my surprise, the person responsible for forcibly disclosing me wasn’t a cis person, nor was it someone I knew. It was a white trans woman at least a dozen years my elder. She was without a history of womanhood, without a history of community-based consciousness, and without the capacity to reflect on her historical elders’ experiences (including folks much younger than her who had been around our community a lot, lot longer). She submitted herself as a token for cis people soon after she began to transition during the early ’10s.

At first, I wanted to believe that her forcible disclosure emerged from a clumsy negligence of being a newbie after a long, competitive career in hard sales (something she tends to boast about, I learnt later on). But where and how she produced my forcible disclosure was planned and executed masterfully. It is indisputable (by everyone who is familiar with the details) that she knew what she was doing, even if some of what she relied on to disclose me forcibly was well beyond her grasp of reflective comprehension (and by every count, it’s probably still beyond her grasp). Her cluelessness, because it touched on what I knew probably better than anyone else on the planet (stuff which touched indirectly on — wait for it — Goins v. West Group), would never have ceased to amuse me had it not been used for such destructive ends against someone she wanted to harm.

What she did was destructive. Privately, I panicked. I kept it mostly away from social media (although I alluded to it in a third-person capacity at some point). Everything with my life that I had worked toward for nearly a decade — after the homelessness, after the supreme court ruling, after everything — was about to come completely undone. The month after learning what this trans woman did, I spoke of it with my friend, Janet Mock. It visibly upset her. She was ardently clear about the violent nature of forcible disclosure, having been victimized by it several times before her voluntary disclosure in 2011: in short, Janet said to anyone thinking about forcibly disclosing someone: don’t. ever.

To this day, I remain afraid of the person who forcibly disclosed me. I remain afraid to say the person’s name publicly. I remain afraid of what this person could do to me. I consider her dangerous.

What terrified me during the fallout of this forcible disclosure was that the activities I’ve described as instrumental to realizing an everyday citizenship would be retracted by cis people within my locality once they came to learn of it. An everyday citizenship (which I’ve sometimes described as a “citizenship of being”) enables and empowers one to participate in civic conversations. An everyday citizenship makes it possible to engage with heterogeneous peers as equals with a common interest in the welfare of wherever we live (including online). An everyday citizenship means being valued as an equitable social counterpart in the public realm of civic conversations. Most of all, an everyday citizenship means being valued for the quality of content one shares with others — not only when that content is informed by one’s life experiences, but also in spite of them. With faith in an everyday citizenship comes a negotiated accord of respect for one another, even as we have our own perfectly valid world views on how to make our world a better place for all of us.

In so many ways, the feeling of entrapment by that forcible disclosure and being unable to escape someone who used their power to harm me (aside from every other time I’ve survived trauma), reminded me of something I jotted on my chalkboard wall in late 2012: a quote from Lana Wachowski’s speech given to an audience at an HRC gala in her honour:

We became acutely aware of the preciousness of anonymity — understanding it as a form of virginity, something you only lose once. Anonymity allows you access to civic space, to a form of participation in public life, to an egalitarian invisibility that neither of us [n.b. both Lana and Lilly] was prepared to give up.

Lana said this around the same time a growing number of civic peers were nudging me to run for Toronto city council someday — mostly to counter the likes of the Brothers Ford and their voting bloc at “The Clamshell”. The encouragement was flattering, but I tacitly discouraged the possibility of ever being a public servant for co-constituents (I would, however, be OK with serving as a councillor’s assistant). I discouraged it mostly because I was aware that people who are placed as trans are not, writ large, recognized by cis people as fellow citizens in a cisnormative culture. I know where the sentiment originates — the culture of institutionalization — yet knowing it provides no solace. In her speech, Lana added:

Invisibility is indivisible from visibility: for the transgender [person], this is not simply a philosophical conundrum. It can be the difference between life and death.

While I’ve neither met nor spoken with Lana (at least not knowingly) — and despite borrowing pretty heavily from The Matrix as a working analogy for describing the omnipresent language of gender, as proposed at the Cisnormativity Project (@cisnormativity) — I did find it reassuring to hear another trans person speaking to the critical imperative of an everyday citizenship, the way it is deprived systemically from people who are trans, and how swiftly an everyday citizenship can be deprived from someone once they are placed as trans. To be deprived from an everyday citizenship is to be deprived of livelihood, lifeblood, and even life itself.

I cavil at one little detail from her speech: it is possible (however difficult it may be) to reclaim one’s anonymity should it ever be stolen. This is what I was able to do after Goins v. West Group: it allowed me a second chance to flourish anonymously. (I was afforded that privilege for a mess of reasons — my being placed as white, despite being Melungeon, was high on that list). Anonymity is also a conditional privilege. As well as I could, flourishing was what I strove to do. It enabled me to enrol at an excellent school, to volunteer, to get involved with my communities, to work, and to have an impact (hopefully a positive one!) on a city I loved.

But then, for the second time, that preciousness of anonymity was deprived by someone who felt it was within their right to invoke a forcible disclosure. That wasn’t something I’d planned.

My plan was to follow in the footsteps of my possibility models. My plan was to face impossibilities and then shatter those impossibilities. My plan was to gain a foothold doing the work I trained for. My plan was to show how it is possible to be trans and to work in areas where our passions have taken us — not just areas where cis people have long expected or wanted #folkslikeus to work. My plan was to settle permanently in Canada and to galvanize my everyday citizenship with a legal one. Much as my possibility models had shown by example, once those footholds were in place, I could find the means to unify and de-compartmentalize my life into one place, to volunteer to live more visibly, and to know that if one day I could be a possibility model for someone else, then all of the isolating trauma and setbacks which came before would make it worth the hassle.

And once more, I’ve fallen shy of getting there. This is where the defeat and brokenness comes from. It’s also why I’m no longer sure where I belong or whether I still have a sense of belonging anywhere. That’s why I gather it would have been healthy and regenerating to join everyone at the PTHC. Unfortunately, the means to do so weren’t possible. I fear my extended stretch of muteness has burnt, if not (through my own neglect) crumbled a lot of social bridges within my community and within my city. I’m not sure what else there is to add.

PTSD therapy will continue because it must. De-compartmentalizing everything is slow and messy, but it has to keep happening. I miss everyone, I wish everyone the very best, and I owe many, many emails. In the meanwhile, some historical research I never got to have published back in 2008 will be making its unpublished début this week. That series, “Hostile Homewood”, will appear here in five daily parts from later today.