A story of abuse, identity and how we deal with each.
“The toughest times and darkest days of my life offered lessons hard won. The past has shaped me in ways that I now see as gifts. I am tougher-skinned, more compassionate, self-reliant and am capable of loving others fiercely. This journey has chosen me and I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have learned how to love, to forgive and value the person who is me- and no one can ever take that away.”
By: Dylan Foxe
There we are in the car, my mother and I cruising along the Florida turnpike after a long and grueling day of shopping at Boca Raton’s Town Center mall. It was an endless day of my mother holding up outfits, cutesy girly outfits inspiring me to want to be boiled alive in oil, rather than wear. It was my senior year of high school, I’m about to turn 18 and yet she still didn’t have a clue as to what clothes made me feel confident, instead she parades an endless array of hideous, frilly feminine blouses with oh so pretty prints and flowers, or worse skirts that showed my embarrassing Venusian shape. It was an exercise in futility: my oblivious mother holds up 1,013th dress, and I roll my eyes.“I’m starving. Mom I need to eat.”“Okay in a little while.”Which always turns into never or giving me some cash to run to the food court while she shops for me, hoping to find the perfect outfit I will comply with and successfully force-feminize me. She’s frustrated and I am frustrated. This never-ending swan song refuses to die. The embarrassment of it all makes me want to curl up and disappear, or be famous already, anything other than my mother’s personal Barbie doll.Driving back on the way home from shopping, coming up empty handed but full of frustration, my mother is on-edge and warns me that it is easy to miss the turnoff and not to. I of course miss the proverbial turn which takes us an additional four lousy miles out of the way, causing her to fly into the stratosphere and as fate would have it, changes the course of my life.Mom goes completely ballistic. While I’m attempting to drive, she’s calling me names, cursing me out and worst of all, pointing and jabbing her infamous acrylic nails at me. My mother makes short work of letting me know what an incompetent idiot I am. How stupid I am that I could have missed the turn and how dinner will now be late for Bill, my stepfather. It’s as if I had done it all deliberately so of course I deserve to be screamed at. This was the de rigueur in my home, there was no room for error, and no forgiveness should I mess up. The rules were hard and fast and learned that way, in great leaps and bounds but with great big gaps.I try to be patient at first because I know it will only make things worse. Plus I am driving. I like to drive. It gives me that feeling of being in control and competent while I am potentially going to be killed at any moment by some idiot on the road. I am a good driver even though I am new at this. But she keeps wailing into me. And in spite of my concentration she is getting to me. And I am driving fast.Jabbing at me, she clips me on the upper lip with her artificial fingernail. That’s when I start to snap back at her. Then quickly with the gale force of a tornado, it feels like there is enough energy in the car, enough frustration, to generate power for a small city. I fight the undertow of rage threatening to suck me over into the dark side, afraid of what might happen if I allow myself to believe her.As we approach the tollbooth it gets worse. She demands that I pay the toll- since it was ‘my mistake.’ I tell her I don’t have any money. She simply keeps insisting and not hearing me. I see no solution and my mother is not backing down so as we near the toll booth I pull over, my anger rising as she whips herself into a froth-“You little bitch, what are doing ?! You’re gonna pay that toll! Now we’re really late for Bill!”I try to explain,“I have no money, mom.” Fighting to keep myself calm“Well find some!” She screams, this time jabbing those acrylic nails at the vicinity of my eyeballs.It’s hard to de-escalate my mother when she doesn’t get her way and today there is no reasoning with her.Right now it’s the month of March. On September 1st , the second day of my senior year of high school, my father died of leukemia. She has been impossibly insensitive since. According to my mother’s logic: because my dad and I had a troubled relationship, I had nothing to grieve about and have been milking it ever since.It is no coincidence that I had come out to my mom about three weeks before as bisexual. In a desperate attempt to ease the tensions in my mind and in the hopes that my disclosure might help her to understand me and what I’ve been going through, I choose to tell her the truth about myself. I thought if I told her it might A) help her to understand that I have been tortured and moody from holding this inside B) destroy our relationship altogether C) bring us closer. So I wrote her a letter. While she read it snot poured out of me, copious tears and the terror, too, that I might loose my mother, as real as if she too had a terminal disease.My mother and I have had an incredibly difficult two years, a constant power struggle ensued between us as I tried desperately to become my own person and she tried desperately to live through me, casting me in a mould of her hyper-feminine image that was guaranteed to ensure my success in a dog-eat-dog world. This was my chance to once and for all unburden the secret I had been keeping from her. I realized I couldn’t live up to her expectations anymore. Maybe this would get her off my case, maybe she would accept me, maybe I wouldn’t have to perform the role she wanted me to play….maybe she’d stop refusing to leave the house with me “looking that way”….maybe I could just be me and that would be okay.After she finished reading the letter I tentatively asked her, ‘Well what do you think?’ To my great relief she told me it was, “Normal ….. a typical phase that girls go through.” Failing to glom onto her denial and lack of validation, I instead embraced the feeling that a great weight was being lifted off my heart. She didn’t freak and the whole thing was anticlimactic in a weird way. Three weeks later though, hoping to have enlightened my mother to my dykey ways, she was still getting all excited over the 14 fab miniskirts she wanted me to try on at Bloomies.Back to the highway.Sanity is hanging on like that little kitty in the poster and letting go would be so much easier. I remind myself that she is my mother, for better or for worse. I also remember the vow of non-violence I made as child, inspired by watching my father viciously abuse my brother. I am so close to going over the edge and crossing a line with her. And I know that if I do what I feel like doing, even though it would feel like a huge release, I can never take it back.I need to get out of that little Camry which is growing even smaller by the second. It feels like the car is an empty soda can about to explode into a thousand tiny shards, or maybe that’s just my brain. As she keeps screaming I calmly and carefully pull over, right before the toll booth, and get out if the car. My mother is speechless for a second then begins to howl after me to get back in the car. I start to walk away from the car and then she begins to weaken, now pleading with me to get back inside. It’s pathetic and makes me feel sad and triumphant simultaneously.I figure we are about 25 miles from home which is an ideal distance for me to calm down. She pays the toll then stops the car on the other side of the booth where I am walking on the shoulder of the road. She pleads with me to get back in but I ignore her. She drives away. She comes back about four minutes later to try once more to get me to come with her. I silently refuse and, strangely, she drives off in the opposite direction I am walking in.So I just keep walking…. and walking…..and walking….Dusk comes and as I walk past a honky-tonk bar on an uncommonly quiet road, a pickup truck full of drunken cholos slows down and someone fires off a shotgun blast. I pretend I’m not totally freaked, show no fear and keep on walking.I’ve been walking for hours, it’s long dark and I have many miles to go and have no idea what the next moment will bring. My feet moving forward brings me a strange solace. Several hours into my sojourn a cop car slowly rolls up beside me. The cop asks if I am such and such, mangling my name horribly. I deadpan to the cop, correcting him and calmly get into the car, half relieved to not have to walk anymore and dreading the next part of this ‘adventure’. He is very nice explaining that my parents will have to pick me up at the county line. I make friends with the cop knowing this is a smart move. When he and my step-father meet for the hand-over-of-juvie-delinquent his demeanor betrays me as a nice kid and not to go too hard on me.Once my stepfather has me in his car I can feel the steam rolling off his skin, as if is going to whack my face at any second. I am afraid of him but I don’t show it because I wouldn’t dare give him the satisfaction. Bill is my mother’s ally and not to be trusted. He manages not to kill us on the way home from driving under the influence of rage. He explains that I am entitled to pack a bag since I am now going to be living with my uncle. When I am dropped off on my uncle’s doorstep they apparently haven’t informed him that I will be his new roommate. They thought they would punish him too, make the coup even more unpleasant for the full effect.My uncle it turns out is no bouquet of roses either. After our two week honeymoon period is over he informs me that I need a job because I need to start buying my own groceries. I have no idea how I am going to do this because my folks have taken my car. I even had to drop out of the musical I had been working on for six weeks, one week before it opens, because I have no way of getting to rehearsal which is 50 minutes away in Davie. I walk to school in the mornings dripping in sweat by the time I get there. I have only one good friend but don’t want to burden her, eventually I swallow my pride, accept her help, and let her drive me to school.Seeing no way out and having no hope for things ever getting better I come up with a plan to off myself. I remember hearing about a cleaning lady who had accidentally been overtaken by combining ammonia and bleach. Thinking this would be a very accessible way to off myself, I search the cabinets for the right ingredients, mix them in the toilet and get a partial result. It’s not enough to kill me but enough to irritate my throat. I flush the toilet, feeling like a wretched failure at life and my lame suicide attempt. I am also aware of this little nagging voice inside that held out for the best, consoling me with the words, ‘it’s going to get better.’The next afternoon, I decide to call the suicide helpline. Bawling on the phone is tremendously helpful. And as it turns out I find a supportive and understanding therapist who takes my parents insurance. He reassures me that we could work out the payments later. The voice on the phone over the next few weeks keeps me alive and sane.Eventually I moved back in with my parents. It was a very tough summer but I was about to achieve my childhood dream of moving to New York city to studying acting at NYU, Tisch School of the Arts.At NYU I learned the craft from some of the most gifted and accomplished artists working in theater today. But in spite of learning how to tell the truth onstage, the roles I was playing still gave me the squeamish feeling I was putting something on. The summer of ‘94 I moved to San Francisco and began a long and often confusing journey filled with a lot of introspection and exploration. They were years that brought tremendous change and times of transition. I was often perceived of indeterminate gender, was forsaken and misunderstood by my family for ‘giving up’ my acting career and terribly underemployed. I experienced homelessness again, this time living in the infamous Baldwin House, AKA a ‘crack hotel’, for 6 weeks during the housing crisis of the dot com boom.In the midst of often being in crisis myself, I stayed together by focusing my energy on community events and volunteer work. Volunteering allowed me to develop new skills while finding my niche in life. The summer I completed my MA in Psychology I was ready to make the biggest decision of my life. At age 34 I began my physical transition from female to male and haven’t regretted it for one second.For my first full-time job as a counselor I worked at Sylvia’s Place, a shelter for homeless LGBT identified youth. The young people there truly inspired me, each one of ‘my kids’ a special and wonderful human being reaching to achieve their dreams. It was a rewarding and sometimes profound experience to work with the young people. In spite of their street cred, their tough exterior, I understood that many of the youth had also experienced the suffering and isolation from being cast out and forsaken by their families. That they feel the sting of harsh words said by their families who refuse to accept them. It healed me too to be able to nurture them and create a safe place where they were accepted.When looking back on that day almost twenty years ago, in the car with my mom, I know now it was a turning point. I chose the path of non-violence even though the consequences weren’t going to be easy. The commitment to transition from female to male took the same resolve, requiring me to move past my fears so I could live an authentic life.I never gave up on my mom and the two of us having a better relationship. And after years of working things out, my mother and I are closer than ever before.The toughest times and darkest days of my life offered lessons hard won. The past has shaped me in ways that I now see as gifts. I am tougher-skinned, more compassionate, self-reliant and am capable of loving others fiercely. This journey has chosen me and I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have learned how to love, to forgive and value the person who is me- and no one can ever take that away.