Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hubble Goes Up, I Go Down -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 7)

Through most of the 1980s I thought I had cured myself through hard work and love, but I never could drown out the white TG noise of my life completely.  It was always there, a block to intimacy.  When I went to the Soviet Union on my IREX grant in 1987, I was relieved to be alone.  I briefly started cross-dressing surreptitiously when the opportunity presented itself, but I stopped almost before I began.  The dormitory where I was living was most likely equipped with listening and video devices, I thought.  I could almost see the headline in Pravda:  "U.S. Sends Sexual Deviant on Academic Grant."

When my spouse joined me at the end of the year, we had the first full-fledged war of our marriage.  I was suspected of an affair with a young woman I had befriended in Armenia.  Even in the heat of the fighting, I could not bring myself to say that the issue was something very different.  It was easier to be accused of a non-existent affair than it was to say, "Dear, I have something difficult to tell you."  Impossible.

We patched ourselves back together, and in March 1988 we returned to the U.S.  Two months after that we learned that my spouse was pregnant, and our one and only son was born that November.

What conflicted feelings I had on the day of my son's birth!  I was ecstatic to be a parent.  I loved every moment of being with my spouse in the delivery room.  I also felt devastated at the thought that I would need to keep something serious hidden away for decades to come.

I couldn't do it.  The contradictions were too great.  When the moment came, it came unexpectedly.

By the spring of 1990 I was reaping the fruits of my research on the purge of Soviet astronomers.  A major journal article was about to appear, and I was frequently invited to conferences and meetings.  The science section of Newsday wrote about my work, and when Sky and Telescope magazine published my popular article, it did so with a press release.

Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990.  I was at the pinnacle of my career.  I still remember with goose bumps the feeling of being in the control center at Goddard Space Flight Center, watching as Hubble's solar arrays unfurled, my fingers deftly working the algorithm that would allow the Fixed Head Star Trackers to identify star patterns and determine Hubble's orientation.

Less than three months later I was in a psychiatric ward.

I have no clear memory of the events between April and August 1990.  I believe it's my own mind's way of protecting me from memories that are still too hard to bear.

What I do remember was that I had a one week research grant at the University of Illinois.  I went there to complete my journal article for the Slavic Review, but I found I was unable to work.  At the time of some of my greatest successes at work and joy at being a parent, the contradictions inside me were yelling, "Enough, this can't go on!"  I looked up the unit at Johns Hopkins that dealt with gender issues and called long distance to make an appointment  On the train back to Washington, DC, I knew I had to talk with my spouse.

I don't remember how many days later the conversation came.  I don't even remember the circumstances or the words that were said.  I just know it was a long night.  It may have been the beginning of several long nights.  Finally one day I found myself a persona non grata, not knowing where I would spend the next night.  My world had collapsed.  The secret was out, and the result was more devastating than I had feared in my worst nightmares.  I stood one late afternoon on a Metro platform thinking not entirely frivolously that it might be better for everyone if I were just to disappear. . . .

I didn't jump in front of a moving Metro, but I had reached my nadir, the bottom of the pit.  Out of the Metro, I called my sister, who from the sound of my voice knew something was very wrong.  She came to pick me up, and the sight of me must have scared her even more than my voice.

I told her.  Now two people, my spouse and my sister, knew.  My sister's reaction was, "I think you need help."  She had never heard a story such as the one I told her, but she understood I was in trouble.

That night I slept in the psychiatric ward of one of our local hospitals to which my sister had delivered me.  In the emergency room my story elicited nothing but odd stares.  I didn't know what to expect when I woke up the next morning.  In three short months I had gone from respected engineer and historian to psychiatric patient.  I remember spending several hours in a common room, reading a copy of John LeCarre's A Perfect Spy that I had found.  What a story, I thought, as I got further into the book.  Magnus Pym, the main character, spends his entire life being what other people want him to me, always a cypher.  I felt a oneness with him and a comfort at being behind closed doors with the world fading away.

This was my first encounter with psychiatry.  It was not a pleasant one, and it was not a good one.  I don't remember the name of the psychiatrist assigned to my case.  I do remember recounting to him my earliest and continuing memories of feeling a tremendous mistake had been made, that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life.  He sat there with a stony face, never commenting.  We met daily for a week.  Only at the last session did he pronounce his verdict.  "What you are is overworked and depressed."  That's what he said, or something very much like it.  He continued that from his reading, he was convinced there is no such thing as gender dysphoria.  He prescribed an antidepressant.  I was released to the care of my spouse, who was assured that I would be fine.  I went back to work without telling anyone the truth of why I had missed a week of work.  It was as though I had been away on vacation.

My appointment at Johns Hopkins came several weeks later.  Having made the appointment, I kept it.  To her credit, my spouse went with me.  The diagnosis here was very different:  gender identity disorder of adulthood, non-transsexual.  I took that to mean, "Has a very serious gender issue but seems able to cope."

Continuing discussions at home in the days and weeks to come made it clear that I had to choose between the diagnoses.  Go for continuing gender counseling at Hopkins or take the pills.  It was also clear that if I went for the former, I would find myself divorced with little or no access to our two year old son.  It was a stark choice.  I chose to stay married, remain a parent, and hope against my own desires that the diagnosis of depression was the right one, that this would go away.  "Life would be so much easier if only this would go away," I would say to myself even as I grieved inwardly.

In this, the darkest summer of my life, there were just three bright spots.  My sister, as confused as she was by my revelation, visited me daily and from that time forward became the main emotional support of my life.  Dad was still unapproachable and even proposed taking over my financial affairs since I was "ill,"  but it was different with Ma.  "Do you remember when you discovered me that night wearing my sister's clothes?" I asked her.  She replied, "Yes.  I never understood then just how difficult it was for you."  It wasn't much, but from that moment onward I felt much closer to Ma than I ever had as a child.

The third bright moment was a special friend, CT.  He is an unlikely hero in my story, the last person I ever expected to accept a side of me I thought was unacceptable.  CT is a reactionary, true-blue American patriot who has never voted for a Democratic candidate in his life.  Some would say he is a bigot, but like Clint Eastwood in the movie Grand Torino. there is another side.

Only days out of the hospital, I took a long walk with CT.  Near the end, as we walked up the small hill towards my home, he stopped, turned and looked at me.  "Maybe this really is you," he said.  "Maybe you really were supposed to be born a woman."  The person I least expected to do so was the only person who validated my right to my own feelings.  I never forgot that moment.

It was another twenty years before I mentioned that conversation to CT again.  On that day in 1990, CT proposed something else as our conversation drifted.  "I'm going on a bike ride with friends next weekend," he said.  "Why don't you come along?"

A bike ride?  My college bicycle was gathering dust in the basement, unused for years.  I did go on that ride with CT, and I never looked back.  Soon I was riding over 5000 miles per year as a commuter, and I still ride to this day.

So to my bicycling friends, here it is, the transgender roots of my career as an avid rider and activist for bicyclist rights in Maryland.  I had failed at coming out.  I was back in the closet for another twenty years, but for those twenty years, the rhythm of my legs and the quiet of the long road were a solace and a source of peace.  Where psychiatry and its pills failed, the bicycle saw me through to a better day.

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