©2019 Johanna Wilder
For most all of my childhood, and quite a bit of my young adulthood, I was bullied. Growing up in rural Indiana in the ’70s and ’80s was a challenge that required a child be either rugged brute or resilient target. Target I was, but I was neither resilient, nor rugged, nor brutal.
While I was being hunted down by my menacing peers, I was scoping out alleyways for safer routes to school. I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to be left alone so I could focus on what was important to me at the time: reading fantasy and science fiction, orchestral symphonies, track and field, the neighbor girl with the pretty brown hair who seemed to like me, and the Doctor Demento radio show. All of these apparently anarchistic thought-crimes that would bring about the demise of the heretofore incorruptible moral traditions of Terre Haute, Indiana.
I was a twelve-year-old enemy of the state that needed to be dealt with extrajudicially, so as not to sully the impressionable.
At the time, I had no idea why I was such an attractive target. In my mind, I was trying to lay low, be cool, avoid notice. But I was tall and (for rural Indiana) feminine: which made me an enigma. Hoosiers aren’t big fans of enigma. Memorizing NCAA basketball statistics and zingers from The Bible chapter of Leviticus is their highest intellectual pursuit.
That I was quite tall, of able body, and eschewed basketball made me practically a traitor to the American Way.
I had my first psychotic break in middle school. I had an invisible friend, an “Annalope” that walked with me in the halls between classes. We would talk about cool stuff from biology class together, tell each other jokes, generally being the best of pals. The name “Anna” came from a neighbor girl I was attracted to and whom I got along with okay, but I was told by the neighbor boy who was also attracted to her (but whom she wasn’t attracted to) that if she showed a liking for me he would be sure to beat the shit out of me. Each of his points why I should avoid her, he punctuated with a stone thrown at my head. He was a pretty good shot. So, I surmise that I conjured an invisible friend that would remind me of her, but who wouldn’t cause my neighbor to continue to threaten me.
Instead, undissuaded by tattled-to authority figures, it emboldened him to continue to threaten my safety and well-being.
We moved quite a lot when I was a kid and because of that, I went to five different high schools. Being able to move so often both saved me from quite a few beatings, but also deepened my isolation. I was always, “the weird new kid” because I was never around long enough for people to become accustomed to my many virtues. Because of the bullying and ostracization, I never learned what it was like to have a friendship. The few friendships I had were marked with dysfunctional behavior. I had no idea what was normal behavior, so my behavior with friends was erratic and justifiably seen as insane.
I threw my passions into religion because only through religion could I understand my suffering. The Christian Bible is chock full of stories of traumatized people who found solace and succor in the love of a God that intimately knew the meaning of sacrifice and anguish. I had a very myopic view of Christianity because I was focused very tightly on the parts that empowered me to survive my youth. As I grew older, it became more clear just how much Christianity itself was part of the social system that had inflicted so much pain on me and people like me. But I also credit it with keeping me from completely losing my mind: which may just be a reminiscence of nostalgia, since I arguably did lose my mind and my religiosity was a big part of that as well.
What religion did give me that was worth holding onto was a capacity for forgiveness and a model for kindness toward enemies. My first real girlfriend was another traumatized person who had alchemized her distress into loving kindness. She was a dear person and still is.
By the time I was a senior in high school, my ability to manage my emotions was in tatters. Because my emotional life was overflowing — as it is for most at that point in our lives — but also because I was completely overwhelmed by a sexual identity I couldn’t comprehend. In addition, I now had a few friends, yet didn’t have any of the foundational understanding of people other than as sources of pain to be avoided.
I had numerous psychotic breaks in my senior year that led me to being suspended and nearly being kept from graduating. I was very lucky that the incidents were so close to graduation, the severity so great, and my scholastic intellect keen enough; everyone involved agreed that it would be better to matriculate me elsewhere than it would be to have me back for another year at a school where I was now unwelcome.
What I am most grateful for is that in the late ’70s and early ’80s, there wasn’t a culture of chemically restraining children who were difficult to manage. Difficult to manage being defined as requiring any kind of emotional support at all really. I can’t imagine that I would have survived today’s pharmacopeia-industrial complex, being experimented on with psychotropic nostroms of dubious benefit, furnished mostly for their palliative effect on the prescribers consciences.
I look back at it all and boggle at the fact that not only did I survive it, but I managed to thrive despite it. I went on to help found two, very successful, alternative weekly newspapers. I was able to do great work in stressful environments that kept other people from performing at all. I wasn’t unflappable, but I did the work of two or three other people, for years on end, because that’s what’s required to build those kinds of institutions.
I certainly failed at the end, because no one can keep up that kind of sustained effort without a break. My greatest mistake was trusting my friends — who benefited quite well financially from my effort — would be there to help pick up the pieces.
But commercial success doesn’t negate the pain of the past, nor can the traumatic stress of a innocent childhood denied teach us how to be functional adults. And that damned sexual identity thing wore and tore at me like a pair of bad shoes on tender feet.
So, at the peak of my success, publishing a newspaper that gleefully advocated queer people to “come out” to their friends and families — that freedom from the closet was the only path to liberation — I came out as a transsexual woman and informed my friends and colleagues that I’d be transitioning and would eventually change my sex from male to female.
That was, apparently, not the kind of liberation that they meant.
The 1990s were a strange time to be transsexual. People who don’t fit into easily categorizable conventions of sex and gender have been around since the dawn of humanity. Indeed the animal kingdom is chock full of sex-organ shenanigans, and human gender-roles have been as flexible through time as the borders of European countries circa World War II.
But in the 1990s, transsexuals were still considered anti-feminist: both trans women and trans men were examples of just how oppressive patriarchy was that it broke the indomitable spirit of mighty butch woman, causing them to throw up their hands and shout, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. That the patriarchy was so oppressively deceitful and nasty, it would recruit especially vulnerable men into service as infiltrators attempting to destroy the dreaded feminism from the inside.
That anti-trans sentiment in those days was so vigorously hateful was unsurprising. We were a relatively unknown sexual minority asking for inclusion in traditionally “Gay and Lesbian” events. Anti-sex feminism was at its zenith and a heady mixture of homophobia, self-hatred, a dash of misogyny, a pinch of misandry, all combined to make trans people a convenient punching bag for folks of good character and standing in the burgeoning social-justice movement of the time.
Bullied people are more likely to become bullies than those who haven’t been bullied. The queer community is filled with people who were raised in less-than supportive environments. White queer people bully queer people of color, gay men bullied lesbians, lesbian and gay people alike bullied bisexual people, and trans people got bullied by the whole dysfunctional family to the point of asking why even include them, since Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual people were about sexual attraction, not identification.
Why wouldn’t trans people go start their own social justice movement if they really want one so badly. The fact that they already haven’t proves they’re oppressors anyway, right? Ignoring the fact that trans people had been advocating for their rights all along and had been, unsurprisingly, ignored.
Thankfully, the inclusion of intersectional analysis into feminism later on in the decade pulled that whole, hot, stinking mess out of the fire. That work is still ongoing, because convincing people to be decent to each other is apparently extremely difficult, time-consuming work, best left for someone who actually gives a shit to deal with.
When I came out to my friends, lovers and ex-lovers, colleagues, and business partners (one of whom was a nationally-known sex-advice columnist), I was rewarded with their derision, denunciation, a death threat, and eventual expulsion from the community.
It was not the spiritual fulfilment of queer liberation I had been told to expect.
In the intervening years, I circled the drain of the vast basin of my trauma. Psych meds were de rigeur in the ’90s, so of course I ended up taking them; some to no effect, others to ill effect.
Gravely ill effect.
Give a human a new hammer, and they will go looking for nails. And if some of those nails prove difficult to drive, the most obvious solution that comes to mind is a bigger hammer.
It was benzodiazepines and opiates that nearly felled me, though not in the typical way. It turns out that even when taken as directed, long-term, they can make people sicker, as they did to me.
I’ve spent the last four and a half years recovering from the damage of a lifetime of trauma: emotional, physical, chemical. It has not been easy.
In that time, I’ve crossed paths with folks from my past. I regularly correspond with my first girlfriend; who has become, if anything, even more kind and warmhearted than she was thirty-five years ago.
I’ve contacted and told some of my past business partners and colleagues that I’ve forgiven them for how they treated me. I wish I could say they asked for that forgiveness, but we can’t have everything. Perhaps that’s what makes it difficult for me to commit to that forgiveness.
Because forgiveness isn’t something that’s done and then it’s done. Forgiveness is an activity that I have to perform every day. Because the pain doesn’t go away, not easily. I may not have a great memory for NCAA basketball statistics, but I remember every forehead rock, every hilarious tranny joke, every “you’ll never be a real woman”.
My body has a eidetic memory for trauma.
As it turns out, most of my old friends remember me as being bitter and angry, but have little memory for why I might have been so. Part of that is my fault. I learned to hide my pain because I had to. The only way I could see to win the war they started was to rob them of the satisfaction of seeing me cry.
Those businesses I helped found, those dream jobs I once held, I’m not welcome at any of them anymore. Because I couldn’t handle the stress of the job and the stress of my past and the stress of my emotional needs going unfulfilled. Because emotions had to be put on hold so I could get through the day. So every time I collapsed in on myself, I became an undesirable business partner, or an undesirable employee. Because that’s always what happens: not because I’m bad at handling stress, but because the load was too much to bear and asking for help just caused more trauma.
It’s very tiring to constantly be the villain in everyone else’s heroic tale.
But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to break the cycle. I’ve been in therapy for over twenty years and not one therapist could help me. The best diagnosis they can offer is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which describes traumatic stress that cannot be escaped: a constant re-traumatization. It’s a kind of emotional drowning, where every gasping breath I take just fills my lungs with more seawater.
But that old bigotry still lingers, just below the surface: That I am really a straight, white, man; that I am the oppressor, that I am the enemy of all that is good and decent in the world. And because of that, I deserve it all, because justice demands that someone pay for the injustice. Maybe we can’t make the guilty parties pay, but as long as someone pays, it’s good enough.
That the lords of commerce and business and the communities that sustain them erect enormous walls to protect their assets, and that the morality of ancient cultures mandated reproduction and productivity because it was necessary for their survival: these things are the actual source of injustice which goes unquestioned because to address them is to call into question the foundation of modern society itself.
We can’t press pause of the world for long enough to diagnose and solve the real structural problems. Everything must be done “on the fly”, and the solutions must meet the requirements that they don’t disrupt the status quo. Which means they aren’t really solutions at all.
Populists are rightly ridiculed for believing immigration to be a pandora’s box from which all trouble springs. People who are fearful want to be relieved of that fear. When we are offered two solutions, one of which solves the problem but is difficult to implement, and another that doesn’t solve the problem but which is easy to implement, we will pick the easy-to-implement “solution” every time. It’s an inherent fault in the human psyche.
Bullying is not a problem that can be easily solved. For many, many reasons; but the most important one is that dealing with adversity makes us stronger. Removing less harmful sources of adversity leaves us weak. Some aspects of bullying are actually beneficial, and are less harmful than other sources of adversity, and are therefore a benefit to us individually and as a society.
We don’t like to look at social ills and find out that they aren’t black and white issues. It’s not just a matter of bullies going on to become more successful citizens, it’s a difficult issue because the bullied go on to become more successful citizens. We haven’t figured out how, as a society, to fix a problem that sometimes isn’t a problem; sometimes it’s a benefit.
As for me, I am still an exceptionally strong person, capable of great things. I create gorgeous illustrations, I compose beautiful literature, and I write amazing code, after ten years in a wheelchair I taught myself how to walk again. I’m also a perennially traumatized wreck of a person who struggles to make it through a day with their sanity barely intact. I am large, I contain multitudes. Those contradicting aspects of my personality are yet another feature that makes me even more capable of greatness.
All of this, but for the fact, that it’s far too easy for people to overlook what is wonderful about me for all that is undesirable and sickly. My resume ends in 1996, contains a twenty-year elipses that no one bothers to read past. That twenty-year elipses, though, that is my greatest triumph you would appreciate if you would just take a moment and listen to my tale.
We say we value perseverance, we say we value those who’ve overcome adversity; we say we value these things, but when we are confronted with them, we shrink away in fear. If we truly valued those things then queer and trans people, people of color, women of all backgrounds, disabled people, and men who don’t fit the ancient tradition of toxic masculinity; all would be disproportionately represented among our leaders, but instead it is the inverse that is typical. All minorities have token representations, who despite the differences, share a few classic bully behaviors.
Our leaders of government and business continue to be drawn from the class of bullies who aren’t providing any benefit to others. Instead, financial mastery over others, social prowess with manipulation, and raw applied physical force are what determines who the people will follow.
“The poor will always be with us,” and so also will the bullies. Not because it’s their belligerent will, but because it’s our collective desire.
If we truly want change, we must stop worshiping power and learn to value fragility as well.