When You're Still That Scared Little Girl in the Schoolyard
It's 9:30 p.m., and I'm just stepping off the anxiety train for the first time today. All aboard the panic caboose!
I have an anxiety disorder, in case you didn't know. Also, in case you didn't know, anxiety disorders are balls.
It's been with me for a lifetime, and has manifested itself in different ways, from hypochondria (I think the newer term is "health anxiety") to OCD ("Did I turn the oven off? Let's get out of bed and check again! More steps on the FitBit!"). Lately, however, it's just good ol' fashioned Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. I keep it at bay with exercise and deep breathing, a decent diet and coffee with friends.
But not today. Today, it was a beast. A lion. It backed me into a corner and dug its claws in. That's because I had to do some unexpected advocacy. Frankly, unexpected anything is enough to send the lion running straight at me across the Savannah. But advocacy carries a certain weight, a responsibility that makes it a really big lion.
The National Gallery of Canada has invited a known transphobe to give a talk. It's surprising to exactly no one that I would take big issue with this, not only because I have two trans family members and many friends I love dearly, but also because the queer community has historically found the art world to be one of the few safe and accepting places for us. To have someone who regularly speaks out against trans people and their rights giving a talk at our national art gallery is harmful and a slap in the face to queer Canadian artists. Why they would invite someone so hateful is beyond me, but I'm not going to stay silent about it.
So I wrote a Facebook post about the whole thing, and it was shared a few times. Then came interview requests from various media agencies. Before long, there were cameras at my place and a trans friend and I were doing our best to explain why the National Gallery is all wrong about this.
I'm no stranger to media. I've worked with them plenty of times. I wouldn't say I ever get comfortable being interviewed, but it's not as terrifying as it used to be. It's a necessary part of the advocacy work I do. But I never look forward to what happens once the cameras are off, the phone call ends, or I wrap up a radio interview, and I find myself on the other side of the chaos. Generally, I silently go into a panic.
Here's the thing: I'm pretty confident most of the time. But advocacy requires me to give a lot of myself. It's like saying, "Here, take my carefully articulated thoughts, my mass amounts of adrenaline, all the research I could pull together, and all the passion I feel for this topic because it directly affects the people I love." I place it in front of them with a piece of my heart and a piece of my mind, desperately hoping it does some good. It's vulnerability at its finest.
By the time it's all over, I'm raw. I have no reserves left. The anxiety swells. And in that moment, the messages I've spent a lifetime holding at bay will come flooding through.
"You probably screwed that up. Said the wrong thing," the lion will whisper.
"They should have asked someone else to do this. You should have said no," it will taunt, claws digging deeper.
"You are the most uneducated person. Did you hear yourself?" it will ask, fangs exposed.
"Who do you think you are?" it will roar.
Who do I think I am? Good question. In that moment, I am a younger Amanda, somewhere between the age of 5 and 15, and I'm being repeatedly told I'm worthless. I'm being shoved and kicked and, at one point, as I've mentioned before, even set on fire. I am the girl who was mocked when she used her voice until she felt she couldn't use it at all. I am the girl who hid who she was, because being openly gay would put me in danger. So I am nobody, and nobody cares what I have to say.
This is the place I can so quickly go to when I'm feeling vulnerable. It's dark and ugly and I hate it, because Logical Amanda is trying to reason with Emotional Amanda. Logical Amanda gets angry about being back there. "We're forty now!" Logical Amanda will yell. "We are not that person anymore! We have children and a wife and a wonderful life filled with incredible experiences and so much love. Don't you see that?"
And now Logical Amanda is yelling and that jerk lion is roaring and I am definitely not having a gay ol' time, thanks.
The problem is Emotional Amanda is a slow learner. She's not quick to budge. She lingers in the schoolyard a little while longer, looking back. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for more than a day, before she makes her way into the present again.
I am still that lonely girl in the schoolyard. And I don't know if I'll ever truly graduate.
Our formative years create the foundation of who we are. I gave a talk on that very thing last year, and I compared a solid childhood foundation to one filled with cracks. My foundation is definitely leaky because of the experience I've had, from an absent biological father to being the joke of an entire high school, from depression to substance abuse to homelessness. I've spent a lifetime repairing that foundation, but it will never be perfect.
But, you know, maybe that's okay.
Maybe part of what makes me a half-decent advocate is that I've lived through some of my own profound pain. I know what it's like to be at the bottom, to feel alone, to wish someone would speak up for me.
Maybe being able to relate on that level breeds compassion, which is the driving force behind everything I do. I might not be the smartest or most educated person, but that compassion gives me fierce drive. It comes from that place deep within me that says, "Be the voice you once needed. Don't let anyone else feel that alone." It makes me talk into cameras and go on live radio. It makes me write these blog posts. It gets me through the panic. It makes me love what I do and never want to stop doing it, even on the hard days.
Maybe I wouldn't be able to do what I do if I didn't have that cracked foundation. It's an imperfect system, but what's perfect, anyway? Aren't we all a little broken in our own ways?
I'll keep trying to silence those voices. It's getting a little better these days. Today, I put in a mayday call to a friend and she came running for coffee and cookies therapy. Tomorrow, I'll work the rest of it out at the gym, and then spend the day preparing for a talk I'm giving in Alberta next week - yet another out-of-my-comfort-zone moment. Yet another moment when I get to use the voice I finally found again through speaking up alongside my daughter, my wife, and the incredible trans community they belong to.
The schoolyard isn't where I'd like to linger, but it could be going back there from time to time allows me to keep moving forward. And one day, I'll tame that lion.
Until then, there are cookies.