The trans child in me still needs to feel wanted
I am still that terrified baby who feels abandoned by everyone important to me.
by Jamila Dawn Mitchell
I’m writing this because I need to feel wanted. That’s it. It may sound selfish to most. To a psychologist, though, this makes sense. Most things we do are done in spite of our desire to want to be loved. The sense of belonging is the essence of our humanity and something Black transgender children often miss out on. And so, I sit here, writing this, by the calling of the very lonely transgender child still living within my heart.
Psychologists understand how the first three years of childhood impact the next 97 or so years of our lives, and it’s a crime that most of us don’t know this truth without having to pay for therapy. I’ve been in and out of therapy for most of my life, and it still took years for someone to tell me. Just last year, I finally found the therapist I’ve always needed in a small Texas city outside Waco, and they were able to trace my troubles back to my childhood.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (BPD) and Generalized Anxiety during my first hospitalization for emotional distress at age 22, but there was more to be addressed. As my Texan therapist described, I am a “survival beast.” Specifically, my sleeplessness, random sensory overload, and sustained feeling of urgency were among a catalog of evidence that I live with little-known Childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I wish the therapist was wrong, but the revelation was like wearing glasses over my horrible near-sighted vision for the first time. Many of my BPD traits actually come from a belief system that I began constructing before I even graduated pre-school. Since I was a kid, I have subconsciously believed that I am not worthy of love, belonging, or all the things I need and want, and it began when I had only just learned to walk.
When I was a baby, my mom was hospitalized due to a Schizophrenic episode. I was too young to understand what happened. All I knew, at the time, was that I was at my grandma’s house for a long time – away from my mom and dad. I didn’t learn what happened until I was a teenager and my parents each told me partial, biased pieces of the story. As of this writing, I still don’t know all the details and my journey to release subconscious memories buried under trauma remains incomplete. My only confident personal testimony is that the rest of my life has been a rapid back-and-forth of both beautiful and terrifying times with my parents.
My parents are brilliant and hardworking. They worked diligently to provide me with a childhood filled with abundance. We traveled and maintained an active lifestyle of adventures with many family friends. During the good times, the house was filled with laughter and conversation. My extroverted expression of affection comes from their openness to show love verbally and physically in front of me. My parents were once as playful and giddy as I am today. Holidays were full of soul food, community, and a wealth of loving feels. Still, the bad times were spontaneous, loud, and scary.
Despite my dad’s fear of expressing it, trauma from growing up poor in the hostile environment of Chicago’s Cabrini Green projects haunted him. He had the fear of losing everything and returning to whatever pain the projects were for him. Dad also carried the fear of failing to be a better father to me than his emotionally absent dad had been to him. His parents had used verbal and physical punishment as methods to install the behaviors they wanted in their ten kids.
He confessed all of this to me only two weeks ago, but I always saw it in how loudly he reacted to mistakes made by my mom and I. Any slight inconvenience or setback triggered a panic attack and his response was to assert control over us through gaslighting and a raised voice. Dad became the good parent he had dreamed of being, but anxiety sometimes brought out the worst in him.
Then, there was my beautiful mother’s mental illness and unresolved traumatic pain. It was always a gamble of whether she was having a good or bad day. She struggled with finding treatment to keep the voices and hallucinations at bay. When medications worked, she sang around the house. When meds didn’t work, the house was a warzone. I spent a lot of time peeking around corners to gauge the atmosphere.
A considerable amount of my time and energy as a child went into trying to calm my parents. It was very intense and a constant balancing act. Reacting to the intense highs and lows of my parents’ personalities had me too occupied to even care about society’s disgust at the fact that I was a sissy playing with Barbie Dolls.
That changed in high school when my parents surprised me with an intervention, asking why I had pictures of men stuffed under my mattress and slept with an old People’s Magazine special issue with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover, which my mom had tried to throw away a few times. I wanted to tell them that all I wanted to be was an entrepreneur, wife, and mother. I wanted to tell them that the only way I could sleep at night was to daydream about Leonardo DiCaprio or some imagined man being enchanted with my beauty. Instead, I told them I was gay.
The first thing most gay, transgender, or queer people will tell you about our existence is that we already figured out, years before puberty hit, that we would have to fight the world alone. At age five, I had my first crush on a boy. For some reason, I knew that I better not tell anyone. My parents had never told me directly that I couldn’t wear dresses, yet I knew not to dare do it. Despite my queer nature being obvious to others – evident in the odd stares and noticeable gossip from adults, including my relatives when they thought I wasn’t within earshot – I complied, until I couldn’t any more. When I told the world I was gay, I did it with my fists clenched, ready for a fight. When physical threats from other kids never actually turned to bruises, I used the power of school media to chastise people for being openly homophobic. At home, I found ways to have conflict with my parents.
One day, I came home from school wearing nail polish. I had gotten bold and wanted my parents to see. My mom had been supportive of my sexuality and had even enthusiastically met my boyfriend a week after I came out. Dad had disassociated and worked hard to pretend like it didn’t exist – from my perspective. But their reaction to me turned dark at the sight of nail polish. It sparked an argument that I attribute the years-long repression of my true gender to. For a long time, I had such animosity towards myself and my gender that I experienced uncharacteristic anger when I was 18 years old and my therapist unexpectedly asked me if I saw myself as a woman.
Black queer, transgender, and gay kids know when adults are repulsed by them. I did. All I wanted was to be accepted, to feel wanted. Apparently, that little kid is still alive in my 33 year-old body, finally in the beginning stages of my gender affirmation treatment.
Recently, I met up with my ex, after nearly five years apart. We have a complicated something-ship that’s been kept alive through phone conversations that jump between hot and cold – he is not a friend, and we are not partners; we love and complicate each other. You tell me what that’s called. After nearly a decade of love and heartbreak between us, I happily met his current partner. But it triggered me, a lot.
I drank the moment they left, because the kid inside me felt unwanted. A whirlwind of painful accounts of loss and loneliness blew the cover off my long-held belief that I would never belong somewhere with things I needed. Later that night, my overly-critical, drunken brain led me to an epiphany. The reason I am a restless workaholic who moves every three years is because I am still that terrified baby who feels abandoned by everyone important to me.
Every day, I work hard to make myself into someone extraordinarily noticeable, so that I can feel wanted. Despite mature decisions I’ve made to be more self-loving, there are still things I do for others in hopes of being loved by others for the person I am. And even though I often struggle with the idea of being loved, the young girl renamed Jamila inside my heart still begs for the feeling. The only difference between this moment and where I was before is that I now have the awareness to be the caregiver she always needed.
Jamila Mitchell is a writer that comes from across the disciplines of business management, non-profit development, and community organizing. Educated in economics and business management at the Milwaukee School of Engineering Rader School of Business, Jamila has used her knowledge assets on neoclassical economics as an advocate and grant writer for various causes such as mental health treatment. She has worked on numerous political campaigns including the Fight For $15 pro-union national campaign, voter rights, and various President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.