Removing the Past from the Present

Leela G. ID CheckBy Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Recovering from repressed trauma and transitioning were similar experiences, in that both involved integrating of parts of myself which had been sealed off. For the last four years flux has been my normal state, adjusting to and healing past terrors, and transforming my body and identity. Throughout, it’s felt like an unmapped voyage, my inner and outer identities shifting and evolving in ways wholly unpredictable.

In the beginning, I foresaw only doom. Transphobia, a word I didn’t even know, would, I assumed, take from me my friends, and livelihood, while the memories of childhood sexual assault, by my prediction, would haunt and stunt me like a plague.

I’d lived my whole life with an impregnable wall inside me, sealing off the terror and betrayal I’d endured. Another wall had been erected by our culture, enforced first by the bigotry of my family, then by that of the community at large, and maintained vigilantly by myself.

With each of these breached, I was subsumed with constant dread, confusion and rage. Little by little, though, my sense of alienation lessened, while a confidence arose that I was no longer crippled by wounds inflicted decades before.

Perhaps it’s my nature, but I found this time engrossing. I was seldom at a loss for something to write about, and I’ve ended these years immeasurably happier and less burdened than I began. Likewise, I’ve ridden out highs and lows completely independent of my present day life, in a sense, living vicariously through both my own past and my inner world.

At the start of both the recovery of my memories and my transition, I had hardly the time or space to think of anything else. Sleep vanished, as my mind raced at night, trying to make sense of my story’s being rewritten moment to moment.

Now, however, I contend with the converse, a pervasive emptiness, and the understanding that life, today, is nothing but the moment I presently inhabit. The question, “What would I do if I wasn’t consumed by grief, or confronting a legal, medical and social transition?” has been replaced by, “What would I like to do?”

“What would I like to do?” however, feels fraught, as confidence, spontaneity, and curiosity were stamped out fairly thoroughly for me by the twin circumstances of incest and closeting. What I wanted to do, I rarely wondered about. What I did was hide, protect myself, and daydream about who I might be if I wasn’t myself. Some of those dreams still linger, and sorting out whether I truly desire to pursue them can feel overwhelming, as self-deprivation is such a large part of my history.

Waking up and feeling like my identity’s “inbox” is stuffed with new data to be sorted has been common these past years. The idea of leaving it unchecked and doing something else with my brain sounds both foreign and potentially frightening. What’s frightening, though, as I’ve told myself as if repeating a mantra for months and months, is my past, not my present, where events, if anything, are a bit dull.

I tend to live the highly examined life, though. I’ve wondered these past years why, given the statistics about childhood sexual assault, so few people write about it, or seek help in group settings. It can be painful, but so can living a life haunted by unresolved trauma. Looking back, I assume not everyone would see addressing that history as being true to themselves in the way I did. The same is true for my transition. Being awake and present for it each day was important for me, because I knew no experience I was undergoing at this time could tell me more about myself or the world around me.

The walls within me feel gone, and with them the unending surpluses of anger, bafflement and despair. “What would life be like if those things had never happened to me?”—another oft-employed mantra of mine—is now a question I’m exploring.

At some level, having been threatened and violated the way I had, implanted a fear, a sense of insecurity no amount of self-protection could assuage. Likewise, the violent, unequivocal rejection of my identity I sustained generated a narrative, which said, “Everyone is normal but me.”

Asking, “Who am I?” when I was younger, led very quickly to wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” and to confronting a mystery, in the one instance, and what had become a secret, in the other.

Slowly, who I am has come to encompass that history, rather than being haunted or defined by it, so that, “What is my life like, irregardless of those things that occurred?” has become my resting state, and all the divisions I’ve perceived within and around me have fallen. Getting there only took my whole life . . . but what else is a lifetime for?