psychology

I have never recognized my own face

The author in July 2013, and the author today.

The author in July 2013, and the author today.

I don’t have prosopagnosia, otherwise known as face blindness. Recognizing other people’s faces has never challenged me. In fact, I tend to remember and recognize others’ faces rather well, just as I also learn names fast. There is, however, one face that I can rarely look at and say, “Oh, I know who that is.” This face is my own.

The revelation never struck me until this summer, when I was taking a full inventory of my various psychological oddities in preparation for a new phase of therapy. Amidst a host of other questions I asked myself, I wanted to get to the root of why I am someone who can’t stop staring in mirrors and, yes, taking selfies. What I have concluded is that I can functionally identify my own face, my own person, when viewing a reflection, a photograph, or a film/video recording— but that is only because, since time immemorial, all evidence has pointed to those images being of yours truly. In the meantime I have always felt dissociated from that image, not in the sense of body dysmorphia but in the sense of literally feeling as if the person reflected or recorded is not really me. My inner self-image is not of somebody real.

Sometimes this does lead to vanity, or giving off the impression of vanity. In my constant quest to connect with the person I look like, I ceaselessly examine my favorite features to affirm to myself, “Yes, this is me, I like how this part looks,” and I stare in disappointment at other features as I try to process the fact that no matter how much I don’t like how x looks, it is actually me as well. And I loathe having any photo or recording taken of me that I don’t control from start to finish. When I look at a recording someone else has taken, or even a photo taken from a bad angle, I don’t just hate it because it fails to adequately flatter me; I hate it because it frustrates me by making me stare at it while I perform mental gymnastics to accept the fact that it is me. Half of my Instagram account, as my friends know, is selfies, and I have this habit because it helps me practice acceptance of my appearance, plus it gives me a chance to get photos of myself that come closer to the version of myself that I see when I close my eyes.

I don’t think this is unusual for someone who was both raised in a body-negative society and came to identify as trans over time. But I do think it’s important to distinguish that at the end of the day, I really don’t consider myself ugly. I have a fairly realistic understanding of how much fat is on my bones, too, and I’m confident that I have no features that look bigger or smaller to me than other people would imagine. And when I’m just feeling my body, feeling my body’s place in space, I don’t experience any of the dysphoria I used to.

My confusion and even anguish are just tied to the fact that my mind’s eye is not in agreement with the sensory information I get, when it comes to my looks. This, I suspect, is the strange thing— the thing that makes it less typical for my upbringing and demographics. But maybe it’s really there for a lot of people like me. I don’t know.

In fact, while other trans people’s mileage may vary, I have concluded lately that a portion of my lifelong gender challenges has been that no adherence to any standard gender presentation can help me recognize myself better. The photos at the top of this post are respectively from three summers ago and this summer. When I took the first photo, I still identified as a binary trans man, albeit with some genderqueer leanings, and I was about eight to nine months from a total collapse of my effort to maintain such a gender. In the second photo, you can see a nonbinary, fey leather-femme, who has dyed xir hair bright red and is now embodying a much more iconoclastic imag than before. I know that these are both me. I do not feel that they are both me. The second photo comes a lot closer to the mark, but not because it is more recent— just because it is me doing a better job at making myself look like something I can recognize.

I don’t know if I will ever do a completely adequate job. There are some things I will never be able to change. My face is just all wrong, even though I think it’s reasonably attractive now. Beyond my face, I’m so much shorter in reality than I am in my head, it’s somewhat absurd. I feel as if I probably stand about 5’7″ or higher, and I absolutely don’t. By some laws I am a dwarf (and I’ll take that word over little person, by the by). Maybe I should start wearing six-inch heels. I don’t know.

There is no special point to this piece. It is an observation, an explanation of something about myself, and probably not much else. I will probably write similar pieces over the coming months, if I find the energy and time. In the meantime, whether you like my selfies, don’t like them, or didn’t know I took them all the time, now you have the story behind them.

D. Llywelyn Jones

Survival, So-Called, Part 1

Immediate warning: This entire post repeatedly mentions and describes emotional, sexual, and financial abuse.

I didn’t wake up planning to write this, but I also wasn’t born with the expectation of one fellow human singlehandedly and nonconsensually breaking down who I was and spitting out a remade version of that self. I did not expect to be shaped by abuse.

The reason I feel like writing about my abuse right now is that I have lately meditated a lot— and, yes, occasionally worked with my therapist— on some personal challenges that I didn’t think really connected to that abuse. But, as seems to be fairly typical, of course those things did connect. I also dislike being misunderstood, and since virtually all of these particular problems impact my interactions with other people, this evening I was suddenly moved to write at least once on why I have turned into the sort of friend, relative, etc. that I am. Which is to say, I’m not a terribly “good” friend or relative in many traditional senses, and I feel alternately guilty or frustrated by this. In writing this, too, I hope that maybe I will have a chance at finding other abuse survivors who face what I face, who struggle how I struggle, because we are by no means a monolith, and I can tell that my remaking clearly deviates from the Standard Victim-Survivor Model in some respects.

Here are some things for you to know first. One is that my first novel, Tiresias, does derive large portions of the storyline from my own abuse experience, which anyone knowing me during my junior or senior years of college could clearly recognize; but it is not a connect-the-dots roadmap for exactly what happened to Devon Llywelyn Jones the young scholar. Though it undoubtedly qualifies as a roman à clef, the protagonist Quinn narrates from a crossroads of gender and politics that I once did inhabit but is not my situation any longer, and even in the past I was not identical. The wholly accurate details of my abuse— and of how I really feel about it these years later— have only been disclosed to a few people, and these details were highlighted differently in the novel than what I wish to highlight now.

The second thing, which leads right to my main point: I have encountered and sometimes conquered a number of psychological hangups that relate to how I cohabitate with people, how I navigate my gender, and how I have sex, all of which absolutely derive from being abused; I don’t think that those hangups affect me so greatly nowadays, especially since around autumn of last year when my economic circumstances took a substantive turn for the better. So I’m sure that I could lend my voice to the chorus of survivors describing how we’ve each been affected by someone putting us into debt, by someone exploiting our altruism while collectively sharing our poverty, by someone’s poor impulse control leading to a hoarder household where you couldn’t even fucking breathe, by codependency leading to a mutual willingness to allow shirked responsibilities, by someone using your gender crisis as an excuse to map their own gender crisis onto you in the bedroom, by someone putting their hands where you don’t want them to go on your body, by someone physically hurting your sexual anatomy, by someone coercing you into sex acts that cause you nausea and disgust. But honestly, truly, I think that most effects from those elements of my abuse… they’re now rather marginal. I’m lucky. I’m relieved. I really did survive those things, and I can now live with the ways that Devon Llywelyn Jones was irrevocably remade before and after that survival.

What I am quite sure that abuse damaged in me long-term is: my ability to form, maintain, or even give a shit about most kinds of social attachment; my comfort levels with environments or aesthetics that probably a lot of people consider “pure” or “soothing”; and my interest in existing within certain social arenas at all. Of course, when I say that I was damaged, I mean this in a highly specific sense, not to broadly say that something is now horribly wrong with me. Frankly, though I have long called myself an extrovert insofar as being around other human beings (physically or digitally) is preferable to being alone, I would definitely qualify this as a “closet” extrovert because I’ve always compartmentalized the when, where, and how of most personal connections, e.g. if I know someone as “the friend who holds parties” then I am pretty content just seeing them at parties, or if I enjoy a coworker’s company in the office then I feel very weird seeing them outside of it. In the meantime I’ve also harbored a lifelong gravitation to the macabre, the morbid, the violent (all nuances of that word), etc., and I grew up as an outlier, a brooder, an iconoclast, and a cynic. If I had not been abused, I am fairly certain that I would still have spent a life embroiled in various countercultures, exploring things that are fundamentally queer, Dionysian, even occult. I feel no shame about this. I feel no drive to cloak myself in irony. I am wired unconventionally, and so are plenty of other people, really, and that’s all right. But by being abused, my existing peculiarities were fermented and magnified into something I don’t think many people who currently know me understand. Something that gives me a difficult model for the kind of connections I do want, and something that I suspect makes me a difficult fit for the model of connections that others might expect from me.

I do not think I can lay out the whole history and effects in just one post, even if I had time tonight. For the moment I will just try to focus on the attachment aspect.

To the best of my knowledge, my ex, whom I will call Cat, had been abused in multiple ways by three out of her four immediate family members before I met her when I was a college sophomore. I know this instantly complicates my own abuse narrative because I did not have an archetypal abuser. A young woman, hardly some classical sociopath, in fact impossible to diagnose consistently in terms of her psychology. Depending on which professional she saw, she had bipolar I, bipolar II, major depression, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, or some combination, all of which resulted in a totally new drug cocktail every six months. To say the least, I think that Cat was suffering emotionally on a profound level, and this is more important than classifying a condition or judging how much was borne by her own failings.

(An aside: while I think borderline personality can in fact be a meaningful profile to use for analyzing someone’s behavior, including Cat’s, it does rather frequently seem to be deployed as a way of saying, “You have PTSD symptoms but you’ve brought it all on yourself.” Never mind the gendered components. And the name is grossly misleading.)

Cat’s suffering perpetuated itself into my own life. The abused became the abuser, which I suppose is archetypal in certain spheres, but I couldn’t recognize this for a long time, partly because the ways that she abused me usually didn’t resemble the ways she had been abused. She must have learned that you always hurt the one you love, insofar as she rapidly proved incapable of relating to me in a way that wasn’t harmful, exploitative, manipulative, and alienating; and yet, she was not hitting me, forcing her body physically on mine during sex, doing sexually humiliating things to me in public, and so on. She just started, within months of first sleeping together, to force me into creating an environment where she never had to face anything that she was afraid of.

I won’t make “safer spaces” analogies. There is total validity to the concept of safer spaces and to their underlying logic of expecting people to treat each other with basic human decency. What Cat tried to do was make our shared life something I’ll call an innocent space. First she excoriated my tastes in virtually all media and pastimes because they were not always cute, gentle, optimistic, binary-femme, or sexless. Sometimes they were what you might call “problematic,” but she embraced plenty of problematic media herself so at most she was hypocritical in that regard; generally it seemed like if something were merely dark, intense, butch, or sexual, she could not tolerate it. Over time she extended this daily or weekly coal-raking to my presentation, my pronouns, my creative pursuits, my spirituality, and my social circle. I was not allowed to transgress my assigned gender because choosing something remotely masculine or butch threatened her even despite what a femmy, flamboyant guy I was at the time; if I couldn’t naturally become her partner in twee lipstick lesbianism, she would berate and verbally assault me until I was at least willing to forget or erase the most discomforting parts of myself. And yet gender was really just one part of it. Her gender policing belonged to such a broad package of identity management that I suspect I only zeroed in on the gender for years afterward because it was the most obvious form of oppression, a cis person telling a trans person how (not) to be trans.

Overall, I was systematically isolated from my friends because Cat temporarily convinced me that all of them were useless, unoriginal people, and that I needed to expend all of my emotional energy on her. Not simply because my friends called me “him.” Overall, I stopped doing anything that made me happy because doing it distracted me from her, because it shattered the innocent and calm sphere that she wanted to be in, and because it cost me money that was barely there in the first place (and that she was all but stealing from under my nose). Overall, we stopped having sex because Cat could not compute healthy sexuality into our relationship, because I believed at the time that if we never really had sex then we would still be saved by “love,” and because the sex we did manage quickly became bad and/or encompassed the sexual abuse I did experience. Not simply because she didn’t want to have sex with a “him.”

My abuse was so complex that I already feel like I need to pause and note how deeply I understand why Cat treated me how she did. It was not right for her to do, but the rationale is easy to trace, and it seems impossible to blame her for wanting a cozy, domestic existence surrounded by nice material possessions and some assurance that she would never ever have to experience anything more intense than a fuzzy blanket, or to experience anything more sexually and sensually stimulating than cuddling amid a marijuana high, or to be around men. Whenever I feel severely depressed, even suicidal, due to the state of my life or the world, my first recourse is certainly to go home, have a good meal or buy something nice to wear, and have a long snuggle with my husband, who is literally the only man I can cope with under those circumstances; a good shag would also make me feel better, but my libido isn’t really up to the task for at least a few minutes after a good cry.

I am quite sure that a dividing line between a healthy need and an abusive behavior is when you demand that someone else compromise virtually all their own healthy needs in order to satisfy yours, and when you force them into compliance through guilt or the feeling that you are the only person who can validate them. Cat crossed this line with me too many times to count. I’m sure it was hundreds. It blurred together into two and a half years of utter hell.

Friendships that once mattered to me were shunted aside to such an extent that I was only able to pursue perhaps half of them when I finally escaped, and then I suspect that even half of that half got irrevocably stunted. It had taken me twelve years of grade school to learn how to attract and nurture friends, to acquire the types of connections that I did desperately want— and it took me a sixth of that time to not only drop so many people by the wayside, but also to get shaped into such a cynically judgmental and bitter person that I saw most of these collapses not as losses until I was free. I have even retained that cynicism up till today, though the reasons for which I now find myself judging potential companions are fairly different than what Cat drove into me. This is the most obvious effect of my abuse on my attachment skills. Now, I just tend to back away fast from social connections because they remind me too much of her; because the ways we’re not so compatible are too daunting for me to feel capable of spending energy on getting along anyway; or because of what I will explain next. But I do back away. A lot.

The less obvious effect on my attachment skills has arisen more obliquely. Let me talk for a moment about empathic investment. I am very empathic. I don’t feel like starting some contest for who is the most empathic person I know, but whatever mechanism you would use to describe the cause of empathy, I have that mechanism overclocked. Obviously this made it easier for Cat to manipulate me in the first place— if she was suffering, I felt absolutely awful on raw principle— but beyond that, if I do value and respect someone enough to regard them as what many people would call a friend, those feelings of valuation and respect are strong. They are often quite equivalent to what many people would also call love, even though I don’t feel much of an impulse to live together or send flowers or exhibit a lot of stereotypically romantic behavior. I might find them sexually attractive too, and I might harbor some latent hope that they find me the same, though these feelings aren’t some kind of default. I will get to sexuality more soon, but my point right here is that it is hard for me to feel unmitigated admiration for someone else and not experience it as a kind of crush. This feeds into why precisely I am queer, I believe. It’s also a grotesque emotional inconvenience. I cannot go through life with starry eyes for virtually every person who’s moderately interesting, trustworthy, or socially relevant.

So: this is certainly one factor in my closet extroversion, for even if I prefer the company of others to the company of merely myself, I would be empathically exhausted if I made an effort to regularly spend time with anyone who was more than a very casual acquaintance. But also, post-abuse, I find that my basic threshold has dropped for growing emotionally overwhelmed, so more than ever, I feel as if I need to invest my energies strictly in personal connections with the people to whom I do feel magnetically drawn. My social experiences over the past several years have increasingly dwindled to spending time with “kindred spirits,” much as I hate that phrase, or to satisfying my extroversion by simply going places where there are going to be a lot of random strangers. I love long, soul-searching online conversations, and I love ritually scheduled parties, performances, and nightclubs. I can no longer cope with spontaneous “hanging out” or keeping track of important friends’ lives via sporadic status updates or annual e-mails.

That troubles me, because before my abuse, I was never too spontaneous and I was never good at obligatory correspondence. Worse, the general sexlessness of what constituted my ex’s comfort zone (apart from the few times that she decided to abuse me in bed) has repulsed me from connections where I know or imagine I need to walk on eggshells regarding sexuality. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being open about how the enforced vanilla non-sexuality of life with my ex eventually pushed me to feel most fulfilled as somebody kinky and highly sexual. I never feel as if sexuality rules me in some addictive fashion. It is, however, a severe challenge for me to conduct myself around asexual, minimally sexual, or sexually ultra-private people, and I am not exactly proud of this. I have literally no disagreement with others inhabiting a less sexually-focused existence than my own, but I am directly triggered (yes, in the clinical definition of the term) when I discover myself in the company of people who don’t enjoy sex, don’t experience sexual attraction, are themselves triggered by sexuality, view sexual desire as a corrupting force, or would simply prefer not to talk about sex in general. I can be around these people, but I need to leave the room or take a break from the Internet if such qualities become a discursive focus. I am not terribly afraid of behaving like a genuine creeper, though I certainly hope someone would point it out to me if I ever did; my visceral reaction centers purely around the fear of being judged for something very benign. I don’t like how this has caused my blood pressure to pointlessly spike around people I otherwise would want to spend time with. It’s embarrassing. It’s stupid. Abuse can produce the strangest triggers imaginable. Abuse has hampered my ability to nurture friendships with more than a handful of hugely compatible, equally sexual people.

With that thought in mind, I will leave this alone until I can summon the time and capacity for a post on the next logical topic of this abuse that I seem to have survived in name only.

DLJ