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 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Mommy, and elsewhere, there are quadruple that amount of posts I’ve written that are just sitting on my desktop in my unpublished drafts — unpublished, because they’re not stories to share today, and many are painful.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 then, 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 my baby’s face, and we all listened in shock to this child pull (his, then)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 around 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 meltdowns, 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, then) way; I knew my child’s gentle, heart of gold, intense ability to empathize with others, the tears Charlie shed upon seeing others crying or Charlie’s attempts to comfort them with toys they liked. Charlie was expressing compassion for others and empathy in ways that were more developmentally advanced than any typical socially developing child. And this was a child who had no problem potty training, no known digestive issues, or allergens. The meltdowns and freak outs 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 Charlie’s gut-wrenching abdominal pain. It was nothing short of a miracle if we could get Charlie to even fall asleep in our bed — a rare treat enjoyed by all 3 kids — just so Matt or I could nap. Over the years, various pediatricians 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 a couple of final episodes in second grade. 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. No more Miralax, which, despite the fact it reads “dissolvable,” Charlie called “sand.” As in, “Do I have to drink the sand water again?” 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.
As daily parts of life they were just resigned to, Charlie mentioned playing alone on the playground, or sitting alone on the buddy bench and later telling me, “I sat there a long time but no one ever came over and asked me to play.” 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 one day 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, then) was hunched over the toilet, trying in vain for 30 minutes to vomit the panic out of that tiny, frail body as (he, then) shook, sweated, and turned beet red, just like that time in the elevator.
The panic attacks even carried over into the otherwise carefree days of summer. They’d come as soon as we arrived for a day at the local 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. Nothing I could say or do in the moment would help, so we just let Charlie have space. It was gut-wrenching, but once Charlie was over the panic attack and in the water, it was as if nothing even happened.
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 (no matter how small) 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 didn’t have 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, then) wanted to wear. HB2 be damned. Despite “bathroom bills” and “locker room/changing facility bills” that told us we weren’t welcome or allowed, my (then, boy) kid was going to shop in tween girls clothing stores, because that’s what it was going to take to let Charlie know our love and acceptance was unconditional.
Shortly later we found a therapist who specialized in gender, and that opened all kinds of doors for us. Simply by letting Charlie live authentically from a young age (which meant expressing as a girl despite being *AMAB, going by the gender neutral “they/them” pronouns, but also not wanting to correct 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. Living out loud and proud was the thing we were missing.
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 was terrified for them. I wanted to have a plan A., B., and C., and I wanted each of those plans to have back-up plans.
As a result of needing to have this control, I needled Charlie with questions every single afternoon. I didn’t realize it right away, but our therapist helped me to see that this needling was putting a wedge in our relationship. If I really wanted to show unconditional love, I needed to let go and trust.
To let go like that, to not even ask “how was your day?” was excruciating at first. It was torture. But only after about a week, Charlie came to me, on their own, whenever they had an issue to process through or discuss. And that was all I needed to know — that my child had not stopped communicating with me. And I just had to trust that they were handling all the rest of it on their own at school. Charlie had this. Charlie HAD this. Charlie was good. Charlie didn’t need my questions.
Has 6th grade been hard so far? Somewhat. Yes, there is a group of boys who called Charlie, “retard,” “weirdo,” “monster,” and a host of other names. But being in tune with Charlie’s needs from early on and thus, being able to spend plenty of time researching and visiting potential middle schools, we are blessed to have Charlie in a school where the adults are outstanding. Kids everywhere will tease. 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. We definitely aren’t out of the woods, but I’d say we have a pretty good start. If we’d waited until Charlie was much older to self-express, Charlie probably would’ve lived a life in the closet, and my opinion is that it’s never okay to force someone to hide like that. There’s something empowering about getting to do the things close to your heart when you’re young — even if it is just in the way of harmless clothing expression.
I often get contacted by parents of young kids who are in a state of panic, who’ve just realized, “I think my child might be trans… what do I do?” or “I think my child is seriously depressed/stressed/having anxiety over fitting in with their gender… what advice can you give me?” I’d have to say that 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 (not sexuality) and finding a good, experienced therapist who specializes in gender diversity, and 3.) letting Charlie grow on their own, in their own space, from the seeds of acceptance we tried to plant years ago.
Of course, Matt & I can’t take all or even most of the credit. The resilience this kid shows living authentically astounds 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, but it’s just not happening. (Finding some wood to knock on right now.) 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 solid amount of self-confidence, which has really only occurred because, as parents, we allowed Charlie that freedom from an early age. So despite any teasing and taunting happening out there, Charlie is not terribly bothered by it. I now have before me an extremely confident child who does not seek the approval of the popular 6th grade boys; a kind little human 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.