Today’s post is coming from a place of deep hope, because my hope has been renewed, and therefore, I hope maybe my story can do the same for some of you parents who are struggling with gender noncomforming or trans children. For as many posts as I make public here on my blog, or publish at HuffPost, Medium, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere, there are quadruple that amount of posts I’ve written that are just sitting here in my unpublished drafts – unpublished, because they’re not stories to share today, and many are painful. But today I am filled with hope so I have to share.
Some of you who’ve been following our journey or just know us are familiar with Charlie’s lifelong struggle with anxiety. When Charlie was a mere 14 months old, I witnessed (him, then) have a panic attack in the elevator at the shopping mall. It was Charlie’s first time in a stroller in the elevator. I thought nothing of it – I’d done the same with my older two, Jack and Kate, and never had a single problem. The elevator was full. Not stuffed or overcrowded, but with my stroller and about four other people, it was full. Charlie was all giggles that day, but as soon as the elevator doors closed, Charlie began shaking violently and turned beet red. Then for the entire ride, Charlie continued violently shaking and quickly, hyperventilating. I mean, this was only of about 15 seconds, start to finish, but everyone in that elevator (including me) thought Charlie was having a seizure.
Panicked gasps and hands from all around me reached in to touch my baby as I knelt beside Charlie in horror, feeling helpless, one moment away from screaming. Someone began to call 911. Another lady asked, “Has he had seizures before?” And then, as soon as the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened, Charlie stopped shaking and froze, the blood quickly drained from Charlie’s face, and we all listened in shock to this child pull his 18-month old self out of a panic attack with positive self-talk, “Charlie okay now. Charlie okay now. Charlie feel better. Go bye-bye. Go toys. Charlie okay now.”
No two episodes were alike until much later in Charlie’s youth, but in hindsight, I eventually realized that was Charlie’s first panic attack, and it also served as a well-fitting metaphor for Charlie’s life, one where Charlie has always refused to be boxed in in every sense of the term.
What started as severe encopresis from age 16 months only worsened over the years and continued to manifest in outward behaviors that came out as frustration, self-defeat, negative self-talk, verbal aggression towards others, dramatic over-reactions and melt-downs, and every other behavior no parent wants to come face-to-face with. I knew my child wasn’t a spoiled brat acting like a jerk for not getting his way; I knew my child’s gentle, heart of gold, his intense ability to empathize with others, how he’d cry when he saw others crying or attempt to comfort them with toys he knew they liked. Charlie was expressing compassion for others and empathy in ways that were more developmentally advanced than any normal, typical, socially developing child. And this was a child who had no problem potty training, no known digestive issues, or allergens. It made no sense.
We had no idea then what it even was, or that encopresis was the name for this painful, excruciating, condition that would render my child sick, unable to attend preschool for an average three days as we had sleepless nights from the abdominal pain, and it was nothing short of a miracle if we could get Charlie to even fall asleep in our bed just so we could nap. Over the years, the pediatrician ignored my pleas of “something is wrong with my child,” and always reassured me with, “it’s just chronic constipation. Keep pushing the Miralax and water. It will resolve.”
Encopresis kept us away from social events and birthday parties. We missed school and I missed work for numerous three-day segments of time. And it would continue for another six years, until Charlie was having final episodes of it in second grade, because my marathon google searches for what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-my-child eventually yielded the result of encopresis, and how to treat it behaviorally. Within a few months of CBT, Charlie was done forever with this painful condition. But the anxiety underneath it still manifested in other ways.
Daily panic attacks became a thing in 2nd grade, went on a short hiatus for 3rd grade, and came back in full force again in 4th grade, this time with a vengeance. This was also the year my child began to assert their gender, or, at least, it became evident to everyone else that Charlie was not a stereotypical “boy.” Friendships became impossible. Charlie wanted to continue playing with girls, but in 4th grade, girls wanted to only play with other girls. And boys certainly didn’t want their reps tarnished by a “girly” boy hanging out.
Charlie mentioned playing alone on the playground, or sitting on the buddy bench, “but no one ever came to ask me to play,” as daily parts of life they were just resigned to. By then I was fully employed in the public school system, and able to support this child who at the time needed my presence. We were into weekly panic attacks by this point, coming at random and for no apparent reason. A really bad one came during lunch when Charlie’s class was having chocolate birthday cupcakes for a classmate. No rhyme or reason, as chocolate and cupcakes are favorites of Charlie’s.
I spent many days in the health office bathroom with Charlie, as he was hunched over the toilet, trying in vain for 30 minutes to vomit the panic out of his body as he shook, sweated, and turned beet red, just like that time in the elevator. The panic attacks even carried into the summer. They’d come as soon as we arrived for a day at the swimming pool, Charlie’s favorite thing in the world at the time. Charlie would sit out, wrapped in a towel, shaking, feeling nauseous and miserable, sometimes for hours before the feeling passed and Charlie could get into the water at last. We’d been to therapists. Nothing helped. None of them really seemed to click. Medication was off the table because the mere thought of having to swallow pills would bring on another, full-blown panic attack, and apparently, the type of medicine Charlie needed didn’t come in the liquid form – at least not in any brand that we could afford.
Charlie had forever been showing us their gender (mostly not boy; mostly girl, but refusal to fully embrace being a girl either), but we missed the signs, or didn’t fully comprehend how important it was. We missed that all behavior is communication. We somehow missed the life-empowering memo of just letting Charlie live authentically. Not just in the confines of our house or yard, but everywhere. We knew Charlie never showed interest in typical “boys” toys, clothing, or school accessories. But we didn’t know how important it was.
The very first sign of the anxiety resolving was that trip we finally took to Justice, at the very beginning of 5th grade when I let Charlie have a shopping spree and pick out clothing that he (he, then) wanted to wear. Shortly later we found a therapist who specialized in gender, and that opened all kinds of doors for us. The combination of letting Charlie live authentically from a young age (expressing as a girl despite being AMAB, preferring the gender neutral “they/them” pronouns, but also not correcting others who use “she/her,” because that’s okay for Charlie, too), combined with the gender therapy for Charlie, Matt, and me, which also trickles down to our other two kids, were the forces that stopped this beast of anxiety that plagued my child.
We are now into the middle of the 6th week of 6th grade/middle school. The first time Charlie and I have been at separate schools in nearly five years. Words cannot express how scared I was to let go of that control. To let my child go into middle school, without the safety of me being a few steps behind, and being a child who is still AMAB (assigned male at birth), who expresses female, and goes by “they/them,” or “she/her,” for the first time in middle school, was a living nightmare. I needled them with questions every single afternoon, and it was putting a wedge in our relationship. Charlie had this. Charlie HAD this. Charlie was good. Charlie didn’t need my questions. The gender therapist helped me to realize that.
Has 6th grade been hard so far? Somewhat. Yes, there is a group of boys who called Charlie, “retard,” “weirdo,” and a host of other names. But with an amazing principal and staff, that behavior was nipped in the bud as soon as I brought it to the principal’s attention. Charlie is developing a good core group of female friends with similar interests, and they seem pretty protective of Charlie. But the single most important event (or actually, trio of events) that led to Charlie’s anxiety going away was 1.) allowing Charlie to live authentically, regardless of the imminent bullying and harassing that happened for two years in elementary school which led to 2.) realizing this is about gender and finding a good gender therapist, and 3.) Letting Charlie grow on their own, in their own space, from the seeds of acceptance we planted years ago.
The resilience this kid shows living authentically behooves me every day. Everyone tells you, “oh, middle school is the worst. Brace yourself.” And certainly, that was true for my older two cisgender kids. But so far, middle school for Charlie? I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and it’s just not happening. (finding some wood to knock on right now.) but had we waited until it was “safer,” when Charlie was “older,” I don’t think it would’ve happened. I think the confidence building needed to happen early for it to happen at all.
I’m in awe as I watch Charlie get off the bus each day, laughing, sometimes arm-in-arm with their good friend, Ava. And I realize, Charlie is only getting through this because of their extreme amount of self-confidence, which has only occurred because we as parents allowed Charlie that freedom from an early age. So despite any teasing and taunting happening out there, Charlie is not bothered by it. I now have before me an extremely confident child who does not seek the approval of the popular 6th grade boys; who lives out loud and proud, and won’t let anyone dull their sparkle. If we all could live that freely, what a beautiful world it would be.