“Did you two ever connect?” the message read. I was sitting in an ordinary restaurant with my ordinary family eating an ordinary meal, and “Ding!” went the phone. “Did you two ever connect?”
The text was about a child I barely knew, a child I had met one time only. A friend of a friend. Really a friend of the friend’s son, who had graduated from high school with all the appropriate bells and whistles and congratulations. A cake with a mortarboard on it. Badminton and cornhole in the yard. The friend connection was an old one, a trusted one, so I wrote back.
“No,” I said. “I liked that kid. How is he?”
Not so good, came the answer. Not. So. Good. Problems. Problems at home, problems with love. Problems with tolerance, and acceptance, and affirmation, and caring, and oh yes, safety. Problems.
A dull heat rose behind my eyes, as it always does when these sorts of problems enter my life: a banked fire with coals ready to burst into incandescence, so I responded again. “What do you need from me?”
Another adult friend. An ear. Maybe a shoulder to cry on. Somebody to act as a sounding board to help process the difficulty, one adult to another. Okay. I can be that, I can do that.
So I sent a message to the young man. “Hi. Our trusted old friend suggested I contact you. Do you want to go out to lunch?” And another completely ordinary restaurant meal was scheduled, on a completely ordinary Tuesday with office workers and meal-runners (“with feta cheese, please, not parmesan”) coming and going, and because I am the way I am I asked.
“Are you safe?”
And got answered. “Depends on the day.” I looked at this child, the banked coals got some oxygen, a flame grew, and I thought to myself just one word: “No.” Amid the banality of garlic bread and salads and “do you want a soda or just water?” the word “No” was soft but clearer than any sound in the place. A single mental syllable that got my whole attention, that crystallized and galvanized my will. “No.” Not safe? Not acceptable. Not for any child, but for some reason on that day, ESPECIALLY not for THIS child.
The young man in question is small, lithe, graceful, and well spoken. He spoke of his situation on that day with a candor and calmness that were nearly alarming – why, then, was he not screaming? Was he jaded, in shock, in denial, what? He is, as it turns out, contending with a very treatable condition, one that has been ignored and denied and neglected and relegated to shame and fear by the parents who were supposed to put his needs above their own, who PROMISED when they adopted him to love him and raise him in peace and yes, also in safety. Instead they chose to ridicule instead of support, to shout instead of speaking, to control instead of teaching, and sometimes to hit instead of holding. The flame in my head was now considerably hotter, causing prickles behind my eyes as I listened to this young man speaking so calmly – the prickles were tears, but I was too shocked to cry. I was speechless. And hey, guess what, NOW I was angry, because he was being hurt enough just by living in his own body. And I thought of Leelah.
Leelah Alcorn was a beautiful transgender girl who died by suicide on December 28, 2014 by walking into freeway traffic. She hoped that her death would lead to dialogue and an end to discrimination for transgender people. Her parents subjected her to a brutal deprogramming known as “conversion therapy.” This practice is designed to shatter the fundamental nature of how a child interacts with his or her own body so that it can be rebuilt in a way that is perceived by fundamentalist Christian society as acceptable. Prior to 1981 it included “interventions” like applying electricity to the genitalia and ice pick lobotomies, because it’s apparently better to hurt someone so badly their conscious self becomes separate from their body than to let them love someone whose body matches their own. Now the “treatments” are subtler, more emotionally than physically violent, but every bit as destructive. When Leelah died I longed for a time machine, a way to travel to where she was so hurt and just to hold her, to tell her she was beautiful, to say or do ANYTHING to keep her off that freeway.
“What if you could get out of there? What if you had some place to go?” I asked, KNOWING beyond the slightest doubt that I would move heaven and earth and all nine circles of Dante’s Hell to get this boy free of the place he lived in. And my husband, who knows me very well and who has jumped willingly off every cliff of this nature that I ever dragged him over, had but one question: “So will we move the little kids in together or repurpose the office? ”Three days later we had created a contract that covered everything from how we would handle inevitable conflict to how much rent the office would be worth when our new addition got on his feet. He moved in with two boxes, a guitar, and a bicycle. That was all.
Since then I have thought about the combination of love and rage and how they are actually related. People do crazy things out of love, and people do crazy things out of rage. This love-rage thing I have going on is frightening. I met with this sweet young man’s erstwhile parents, and in one fifteen-minute conversation they shattered the things I believe to be true about how parents should be. And so, for his sake and his safety, I was calm, polite, smiled a lot, and made civil conversation, standing my ground as though I had grown roots. And we got him out of there safely, leaving behind cherished childhood possessions and memories because they would not allow him to take those things, separating him from the things that were his as gently as possible, trying to anesthetize the incision with love.
A week later I was confronted with these parents again, two days after he came home from a visit at their house shaking and crying and told me he’d spent the drive home thinking about bridges and how easy it would be to just end everything by driving off one. I was calm, and polite, and civil, “Nice to see you again,” and stuck by him as though I had put down a foundation of steel. All this got accomplished in a black fury that would cut through them like a plasma torch if they were truly exposed to it. The feeling is identical to the one I experienced sending my youngest daughter, who we adopted from foster care, to “visitation” with her biological parents. She would come home from these visits (which were supervised by an overburdened social worker) a teary ravenous wreck, needing every ounce of my energy to recover just in time for another such “visit” to occur. The first time I dropped her off I cried into the Taco Bell burrito I ate in a mall food court while I waited for the wheels of the system to return her to me, but I found the strength to keep going because this was what she needed to get free. I’ll do it again. I am still that strong.
This child breaks me. He is a rollercoaster, with breathtaking highs and subterranean lows that drop into Stygian blackness. He is beautiful and fragile. He is alone and beloved. He is clear light in which deep shadows lie. He harbors music and anguish in himself and sometimes combines them into amazing works of art. I did not know there was a hole in my life shaped like a transgender college boy, specifically THIS transgender college boy. But just like that, in a single chaotic moment, he became mine, claimed and committed to, a child of my heart in exactly the same way my girls are. If anything happens to him something glorious and singular and lovable will disappear from the world, and I cannot stand that loss, I simply cannot allow it. And so I chose consciously to USE my wrath in ways that would produce no further negativity for him, as well as I could anyway. I will stand with him, as close as necessary, for as long as he needs, effecting healing in the best ways I know how. I’m a mom. We roll that way. I am apparently doing something right in raising my daughters, too, because they fling themselves into his arms and let him hold them for as long as he needs to, telling him over and over again that he is loved exactly the way he is. They’re sisters. They roll that way. My husband will continue to be the rock, the anchor of the entire family, the one whose integrity and sense of justice allows no shirking of duty no matter what. He’s a dad. That’s how he rolls.
What the future holds, I do not know. When someone is in a situation as emotionally damaging and terrifying as the one my cherished boy is escaping, there is unpredictability. I have vowed to stand with him as he transitions into the adult man he was always meant to be, and I look forward to seeing him transition into his authentic life.
We live now in a time when people are marginalized by the ruling power in ways that mirror those of Nazi Germany. It is a time of turmoil and upheaval and seismic resettling of lives, a time of erasure and invalidation and rejection for those who are not part of the privileged class of cisgendered, heterosexual, white, and male. It is also a time of great courage, as flags in transgender colors are unfurled at the Lincoln Memorial and signs proclaiming pride and acceptance and shouting “We are here and we are here to stay!” are everywhere. Those who take a knee when the National Anthem is played, those who quietly plan to become part of a new Underground Railroad so that people in danger can be moved to safety, those who stand in at weddings where “real” family has refused, those who visit hospitals and provide sanctuary and march, they are heroes of our time. We SEE the injustice. We seek individual paths to right the wrongs being perpetrated daily and we work toward the light in love and in anger.
My particular path includes becoming a Mama Bear to one particular child. I will likely never know what I did to deserve such a gift from the universe, but whatever it was, I am so very glad I let love and rage take the wheel and steer me down this road.
(For Jayce, for Leelah, and so that there will be no others, November 2018.)
One of the worst experiences of my life involved my son Kaiden, who in fifth grade became suicidal, likely due to side effects from an SSRI antidepressant he had been prescribed. He was admitted to the hospital, placed on suicide watch, and given “care” that was utterly and completely incompetent. One afternoon I went to visit and found Kaiden in a fetal position saying “Mommy I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” as he cried in my lap. He was finally able to tell me that he had tried to hurt himself by swallowing a game piece from a game the kids were playing. I got him calmed down and then stormed out to the nurse’s station to ask why nobody had called me, because they hadn’t, and I was furious and scared. I let them know that if anything even slightly untoward occurred involving my child I was to be notified immediately and was told “Most parents view a hospital admission as a break from their child.”
Following this visit we had a care conference scheduled with the nurse practitioner responsible for Kaiden’s “care.” She greeted me brightly and said “We’re going to downgrade Kaiden’s suicide precautions, isn’t that great?”
“Downgrade. DOWNGRADE?” I said, and then described the condition I had found my kid in less than an hour before. I was very angry but in no way belligerent. I asked if we were even looking at the same child, and whether my child was receiving competent treatment at all. Following that “care” conference I went immediately to the hospital’s patient advocacy office and refused to meet with the “care” team ever again without an advocate present.
Kaiden’s condition improved over the next few days, and we began preparing for discharge for him. On the day we finally left, I went to sign the discharge paperwork… and noted a new addition to the diagnosis list.
“Parent / Child Relational Disorder” is not a formal mental disorder as such; rather, it is a condition in which abuse occurs within a family. The nurse practitioner was accusing me, on paper, of abusive behavior towards my child. Let me reassure the reader that no such condition exists. Kaiden is beyond beloved and has been cared for capably and with great dedication all his life. The new diagnosis was a blatant falsification of my son’s medical record, and if I had thought I was angry before it was NOTHING to how I felt now, so I got very, very calm.
“What is this?” I asked the nurse practitioner. “Oh,” she said dismissively, “we just put that in there.”
I stayed calm as I got my baby out of that place. I stayed calm as I filed a formal complaint against the nurse practitioner with the Department of Regulatory Agencies accusing her of falsifying a medical record. I stayed calm as I filed a formal complaint with Joint Commission regarding the hospital’s absolute bungling of Kaiden’s entire stay. That nurse practitioner no longer works there; I do not know if she retained her license. The hospital has greatly improved communication with parents, apparently. I have been told this by friends. We have never gone back, not even in the worst of circumstances.
This story is told to clarify my position on mental health services as they are delivered in the US today, particularly to children. The system is disjointed, disorganized, and impenetrable. The stigma on mental health issues is alive and kicking.
There is a double stigma present in Jayce’s case – he has not only had mental health challenges to overcome, he is also transgender. This means in seeking care for him I have been EXTREMELY vigilant and EXTREMELY direct with hospital staff. He has been hospitalized twice and both times has come out stronger and more grounded. Both times the hospital handled his gender status flawlessly. We were lucky. We shouldn’t have had to be lucky, we should have been guaranteed good care.
My position on mental health from a parent perspective is this: Listen to your intuition. If your gut is telling you something is not right, pay attention to those messages. Get multiple opinions. Only change one thing at a time, whether that is a medication, a behavioral intervention, or a counselor or therapist. Stay very close to the process, watch, take notes, know what is going on. Until standards of care for mental health conditions are brought into the light and scrutinized by institutional forces, scrutiny on an individual basis is essential.
Take care of yourselves, fellow Madwomen, and take care of those you love.
Kelly is a registered nurse, mama of four kids from 21 down to 9, and author of “Somewhere Under the Rainbow,” a memoir about family life with transgender kids. Pronouns are she / her / hers. She lives with her husband Daniel and her children Jayce, Kaiden, Gabi and Mari in Arvada, Colorado. She likes to read and crochet and she thinks coffee is the elixir of life.
Since this piece was written two more of the Price kids have come out as what Kelly calls “genderquirky.” Kaiden, now 18, is trans male and Mari, now 9, is nonbinary. Kelly also mentors several “bonus kids” who need love and adult support. She would help them all if she could.
Kelly considers it a great honor to be selected for “Madwomen in the Attic.” You can follow her on Facebook at Somewhere Under the Rainbow.