Earlier this week I had a day where I simply could not shake the restlessness from my bones. At work, I found myself compulsively reaching for my phone whenever there was a moment of quiet, and scrolling through Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram with robot-like intensity. Later in the evening, I messaged my partner asking that we watch some TV when I got home. She graciously agreed to this and once home, I poured my remaining anxiety into becoming absorbed in episode after episode of Person of Interest, a show about government surveillance, murder and rogue spies. Nothing like a good conspiracy to soothe my frayed nerves.
Only the next day did it occur to me that the day before had been the 12th anniversary of my friend Alex’s suicide. The body remembers even if the mind forgets, it seems. It finally made sense why I had felt so out of sorts. I was annoyed with myself for having forgotten the date’s significance. It somehow felt disloyal to Alex’s memory. Like I was turning my back on her by not honouring her memory on this one day. And yet part of me felt relieved, that finally, after 12 years of dreading this one day in the year, I had managed to move through it without being completely incapacitated. Surely, this was progress?
Alex had changed my life. Though we were never romantically involved, we held a deep emotional connection. She was a few years older than me, and everything I wanted to be but wasn’t. She was a mentor, a friend, a confidante and an employer. She was funny, and smart, and charismatic, and charming. She was outspoken, ambitious, creative, loyal, brave and fearless. She was also reckless, impulsive, generous to a fault, and fragile. More fragile than I could ever know, it turned out.
I met her at a time when I was just beginning my transition from female to male. Even before I’d decided to transition she recognized something in me, something that we shared, and she reached out to me, offered to be my friend when I had few friends I felt comfortable trusting with my burgeoning identity. She never lectured me, or told me what was right or wrong, she listened to me, offered a kind ear when I struggled with my family and their rejection of my struggle. I loved her. And trusted her. And it was largely because of her that I thought transitioning possible. In her I saw someone who had dared to follow through with the task of leaving their birth-assigned gender behind to embrace their true self. She wasn’t an outcast or someone to be pitied; she was an ambitious young woman who had been assigned male at birth, who dreamed of becoming a lawyer to continue the good fight so that others could have an easier path ahead than she had had.
Only later did I learn that behind her sunny, teflon-like exterior lay an abyss of suffering into which I could not follow her – because she would not let me. We were only close friends for the span of one year, at the start of a rare and beautiful friendship that only comes along once in a lifetime. And during that year, I truly began to embrace my own masculinity and made steps towards living my identity out loud. During that year, my relationship with my biological family disintegrated because of what they viewed as my self-destructive behaviour. During that year, too, my father was diagnosed with cancer, Alex died, and then four months later, my father passed away too. That year was my watershed moment. There is my life before 2005, and after.
Before I met Alex, I had obsessed daily about my own suicide. I derived a perverse pleasure in imagining different scenarios. It wasn’t a question of if but rather of when; I considered suicide a forgone eventuality. And it wasn’t just despair that drove me to think this way: I saw my death as a kind of moral duty, my gift to humanity. In my own eyes and in the eyes of my birth family, I was an aberration, a freak of nature; at best I could hope for the world to tolerate me. But I didn’t want to be tolerated. I wanted to be embraced. And since my birth family clearly couldn’t do so, I assumed the rest of the world wouldn’t either. But Alex showed me a different way of seeing. She refused to have the world belittle her. She stood up for herself, for her friends, and for her beliefs. She didn’t cower in silence or hide away her difference. She embraced it. Because of her I started to imagine that life might be worth living after all, even without the support of the people who raised me. Because of her I thought I, too, could maybe access a life of joy and relative prosperity.
The day I found out of Alex’s death, I also received an email from my mother. In it, she told me I was going to hell, that I was a disgrace to my family, and better off dead. Whatever love she may have felt for me at one time, was clearly gone. And in that moment I realized that I no longer had the energy to fight to regain it. That moment released me. A calm spread over me, as I woke to the fact that I could choose to stop fighting a losing battle, and that choosing this didn’t mean I had to die. That, in fact, if I wanted to survive, I would have to do the unthinkable: I would have to leave my biological family behind.
It’s a strange twist of fate that Alex’s death woke within me a desire to live, no matter the price. It felt like the universe had pulled a sick practical joke. Here I had been the one constantly rattling on about suicide while Alex had been the stalwart survivor. And then the universe had taken Alex and left me. If it hadn’t been so truly awful, the irony would have been funny.
Twelve years later, and I am still here. And every year when April hits, I brace for the storm of emotions that come with remembering not only Alex but my own life before I met her. If I am here today, it is because of her. If I write about trans issues, that too is because of her. If I care about women’s issues, it’s because of her. If I seek to be more visible about my own trans identity, rather than simply living my life quietly, it’s in part my way of honouring her memory and her willingness to speak out, bravely and proudly, for me and for so many others.
Maybe after 12 years, I can allow myself to focus less on the day she died and embrace the life she helped me value. I choose to see that as progress.