CC image courtesy of Flickr, torbakhopper.
I don’t know when I started trying to ignore everything about myself.
It must have been early in my childhood, but the further I look back, the blurrier the memories get.
I’m Alex, and I spent twenty years being raised in a radical Roman Catholic homeschool community.
My parents raised me to “die to self”, to deny my own wants and unnecessary needs, in order to show my love to God. Love, after all, was an action, not a feeling. If you loved God without giving your body and soul to Him, without “bleeding yourself dry”, that wasn’t real love. It would not save you from everlasting fire.
I was designated female at birth, and as such, my mother warned me against vanity. I got to listen to my mother shaming women for wearing too much makeup, or for dressing immodestly. Their prideful, lustful skin exposure would cause men to think impure thoughts. It would send their souls to Hell.
So, I stopped looking at myself in the mirror, except for the occasional spare glance.
I didn’t have to. My mother insisted upon fixing my hair, long after I reached the age when I could do it myself. I didn’t know better at the time; after all, my siblings and I were isolated from the world, to protect our fragile innocence.
Me and my siblings never had any real privacy. Any time she felt we were being particularly disobedient, or were having “impure thoughts”, she would look through our belongings. Journals and sketchbooks included. Anything she found that she didn’t approve of would send her into a screaming rage. To give you an idea of how picky she was: once she found a drawing I had made of a flying snake, and called it blasphemous.
My mother got harsher with me as I grew, especially after I hit puberty.
She’d tear me down for every error. I don’t like to talk about it, but to summarize, I wound up with a very negative self image. The things she called me: lazy, selfish, bossy, and worse- became my self-image. There was no one whose word I trusted more than hers, so there was no one to tell me otherwise. I learned to hate myself. The only way I knew to cope with that was to be always lost in thought, daydreaming. The stories in my head helped me to ignore my own existence.
Inside and out, I was blind to myself.
Since all sex before marriage was sinful, and even thinking about sex was a grave sin, I never questioned my sexuality. Even the word “sexuality” was just a “liberal” word, and never used. I had strange ideas about love. Because I had never been taught otherwise, I had thought no sexual attraction or romance was even necessary in a relationship. “True love is not like a love song,” my mother had told me. “Feelings come and go; you should marry your best friend.”
My first relationship, as a result, was a catastrophe.
I dated a boy, the son of one of my mom’s friends. We got along well and could have long conversations. Marriage would mean freedom from the tedious world I was stuck in, so I decided to begin a relationship. He was very in love with me, but I did not feel a thing aside from friendship. Why should I? Friendship, I had been told, was all that was necessary. Feelings were unnecessary, and dangerous, as they might lead to the sin of premarital sex.
We fought more often then we got along. Neither of us knew the first thing about a healthy relationship; neither of us had ever been shown an example of one. We’d both come from emotionally abusive parents, after all. Excitement quickly turned to stress; our parents put a lot of pressure on us. Preparing for marriage was a big deal, and dating without intending to marry- that was unthinkable!
The worst part was being pushed ever harder into a feminine gender role. My boyfriend would tell me of a dream he had where I was wearing a “lovely dress”, and that he couldn’t wait for me to care for him and his children one day. He always wanted to be a gentleman; to hold doors open for me, defend my honor, the whole nine yards. Perhaps there should have been nothing wrong with it, but it made me very uneasy.
Finally I cracked under the stress.
He wanted to join a non-Catholic Bible study, and my parents feared it would draw him away from the faith. I tried to control him. We had our most painful fight yet, and then he left me.
The depression I’d had since my pre-teen years escalated after that. I felt like a failure. Some days, I lacked the strength to even leave my bed. I was forced to look at myself for the very first time, if only to find out what went wrong. For once in my life, I had to stare myself straight in the eye.
Not long after the breakup, my parents started to ease up on their previously-elaborate Internet censorship systems. Distracted by other hobbies and projects, they left me to myself more often. I opened my eyes to other people’s opinions, and through sharing my art, made some friends from very different backgrounds. I learned a lot.
Yes, a romantic relationship DOES need feelings. Even if they ebb and flow, they should always exist. I read up on what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like- and in the meantime, found out that the relationship my boyfriend and I had was NOT one. And- love was not a gory sacrifice. It was supposed to be built on mutual kindness and respect. My own emotional health was important too!
Someone who truly loves you would not want you to suffer.
I found, to my surprise, that LGBT people were not the soulless degenerates I’d been taught they were. I also let go of my fear of letting myself be attracted to others. And, lo and behold, girls were so lovely! The emotions they stirred up in my heart felt new and exciting. I’d never let that happen to myself before.
Then, perhaps most importantly of all, I learned that gender did not depend on genitals.
I’d never felt connected to being female. I felt like an outsider, especially among the other highly-feminine homeschooled girls in my circle. Puberty had been hell, not just for the struggle against sexual feelings, but because my body was changing in ways that made me uncomfortable.
For so long I’d distracted myself from this, even when the tomboys around me were more feminine than I! I couldn’t look like a girl without being uncomfortable, so I didn’t want to be noticed at all. When guests would arrive, I might spend a little time among them, talking. But then the discomfort would sink in, and I’d hide myself away. Hearing my own birth name always was, and still is, disorienting.
Another reason I ignored what I now know to be dysphoria is that I didn’t want to be a boy, either. I’d been taught the angels were neither male nor female, and from a very young age, I’d wished I could be one of them.
Often I’d cried, wishing I had no body at all.
When I started looking in the mirror, I came face to face with things about myself that I’d always known, deep down inside. I don’t feel ashamed of my sexuality. Any shame I once felt has been erased by my parents’ behavior when I finally broke free. The way they’ve treated me since has broken my heart a thousand times over. I looked back and saw the sourness in their prejudices, and that the abuse and isolation wasn’t normal after all.
I’m Alex, and now I’m free to look in the mirror.
I don’t have to be a girl, or a boy. I am free to love girls and other nonbinary people, to love the world I was sheltered from, and love myself.