I have been off work now pretty much since November 30th. I had surgery (total hysterectomy) which despite being a much anticipated step in my journey proceeded to jolt my mind, body, and soul into a very sudden biological crisis that I was not at all prepared for. I will talk about this in more depth in a later post, but the short story is that as a transgender man whose entire biology and existence remains somewhat of a guessing game for most in the medical profession, no one told me that I was going to be thrown into instant menopause or what that was going to feel like. This sudden change in my body chemistry has rocked me to the foundation. The instant insomnia, hot flashes (thank Creator I’ve been off work and able to rip my shirt off whenever this happens!!), and other physical changes were paled by the effect that the surgery had on my mental health. If you’ve been following my posts for a while now, you will know that I’ve already been struggling with anxiety. Well, with the addition of an invasive surgery and the subsequent load of trauma that healing has put on my already tender mental state, I was suddenly left with no strength or emotional resources to draw from. I was raw, empty, and completely vulnerable. And these developments have led to some very interesting opportunities for learning and growth. As I’ve come to learn, it is only once we start to fall apart can we begin to rebuild ourselves in new and better ways.
I will never fail to thank Creator every single day for the team of dedicated, caring, and unbelievably amazing medical and mental health professionals I have on my side. When I tried to go back to work after Christmas holidays, I knew very quickly that I was not ready to be there yet. One trip to my psychiatrist allowed me to take another month off work and some medication to help ease the anxiety I’ve been battling. I’m happy to report that since starting my new medication, things have been better. I no longer go into full panic when in the shower or immediately upon waking or while trying to fall asleep at night. The insomnia is still present, but I’ve managed to figure out some good habits that help me fall asleep faster. Things seem to be slowly settling down now. And that’s very good because as life tends to go, it’s never just one thing at a time. I now feel like I have some reserve back, a little bit of strength in my back pocket and a bit of brightness on the horizon.
One thing that being off work has done is given me the opportunity to really focus on myself. For years I have been pushing through burn-out, anxiety, unresolved pain and a lot of feelings that I just didn’t understand or have the “time” to worry about. My doc told me that I was to use this time to rest, drink my water, and do things that I love to do. I have been drawing, watching fun TV, playing video games, and also focusing on writing, which has been healthy and cathartic for me. But I’ve also found that I’ve been taking time to feel. Like, really feel. Feel things that I thought were gone but had just been laying dormant under the surface. And this is where the blessings have begun to arise. Because I realized that for a very long time I have been denying myself the ability to feel anything short of immediate reactions in my day to day life, and not taking time to actually allow myself to experience my feelings. I had been stuck, especially since Covid hit, in a really unhealthy cycle of comparative suffering. If you are like me, then you’ve probably caught yourself thinking things like, “I have no reason to feel anxious right now, at least I still have a job. There are so many people out there who have lost theirs.” Or, “I have no right to feel upset about not being able to leave the house, there are homeless people out there with nowhere to go. At least I have a house.” But I was listening to Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us the other day, and one of the episodes slapped me right in the face.
If you’ve heard of Brene Brown but you don’t know anything about her, this podcast would be a good place to start. She is a celebrated and highly acclaimed research professor and author who studies shame and how it affects our ability to become authentic, loving people. This particular episode was focused on collective exhaustion (due to the pandemic and political situations) and the dangers of comparative suffering. In the episode, Brene explains that so many people seem to think that empathy/love is a finite resource, and that we only have so much empathy to give. Many of us tend to deny ourselves our own pain, suffering, and emotions because others may have it so much worse than us. We feel as though denying our own experiences will somehow preserve our ability to care about others. But Brene explains that when we do that, when we deny ourselves our own emotions and experiences, what happens is that we actually inhibit our ability to feel empathy. This happens because we begin to feel guilty, which turns into shame, which in turn actually disables our ability to think outwardly and empathize with others’ experiences. Shame is the root of disconnection and is what keeps us from love and truly living an authentic life. The only way we are able to become empathic, loving people is to first allow ourselves to feel our own feelings and treat ourselves with loving kindness. As Brene says in the podcast, “Putting ourselves down because we are struggling but have it so much better than others right now can kill our empathy for others.”
The last 2 and a half months for me have been a trial-by-fire of self love. I have never been forced to sit with myself and be so utterly aware of what is going on inside of me. And let me tell ya, self-love is not all bubble baths and pedicures and massages (although those things do help!). Self-love is truly about leaning into the hard stuff, peeling back those tender, painful layers of armour, and giving yourself permission and freedom to feel everything. Good, bad, and otherwise. In the words of my beloved nephew, we have big “feelers” sometimes, and the only way we can grow from these is to actually allow ourselves to feel them without comparing them to anyone else. That’s the only way we can turn shame into love. So if you’re like me and sometimes wander through the comment sections of news articles (knowing full well you shouldn’t cuz it’s bad for your mental health) and see people saying things like, “I wish they would focus on actual problems instead of *insert topic of article here*,” or “There are so many more important things to worry about than *insert important issue here*” or the ever-popular “How can we address *important issue in another part of the world* when we have so much *important issue here at home*?” you start to recognize that there are a lot of people in the world who are choosing to ration their empathy. And this indicates that there is a lot of shame and sadness and disconnection in the world, which is surely due to the fact that we as a collective species have neglected to recognize, address, and validate our own emotions.
It’s hard work. But it does get easier. And having a community of people in your life with whom it is safe to share your feelings and process them makes it even easier. Sharing your feelings literally kills shame. I am and always will be ever grateful for the people in my life who have sat and held me in a space of sacred non-judgement and allowed me to complain, vent, process, and release my emotions in order to work through them. There have been a LOT of emotions to work through during my time of recovery. And I want to make it clear to anyone out there who is searching for a safe place to do that, that I could be a safe place for you, as well (insofar as respecting my own capacity and resources at the time). This post-surgery time has been a crucible of situation, a perfect storm of timing and opportunity that has forced me to identify, name, and feel a great deal of things that I have been pushing aside and ignoring for a long time; it has absolutely been the best thing that has happened to me in a very long time. My shoulders feel lighter, my heart feels fuller, and my capacity to care and become integrated back into my “regular” life is steadily increasing. As Brene says in her light Texan accent, “When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we create more empathy. Love, y’all, is the LAST thing we need to ration in this world.”
You can listen to Brene’s full podcast for free on Spotify. This is the link to the episode I reference in this post: