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LIVING TO TELL
TELLING TO LIVE
Nancy Reynolds Nangeroni
This is my story.
I tell it not because it is unique, but because it is the sort of story which is common among the members of my community.
LIVING TO TELL
It's been ten years now since the day my world nearly stopped turning; it feels like a lifetime. Looking back to those days, I see a life of despair and loneliness. Stretching behind was a trail of broken relationships, abandoned dreams, and lost jobs; ahead, seemingly, lay more of the same. For years in fact, virtually all of my life I had lived with a secret which brought me shame and misery, ultimately pushing me to the brink of self destruction. That secret was the desire to wear women's clothes; to crossdress. Oh, I had tried to purge it from my life. And tried. And tried. No matter how many distractions, no matter how many promises, no matter how much I berated, kicked, and implored myself, that inexplicable need always returned. I felt like the world's biggest pervert, like some freak out of a carnival sideshow. Worse yet, I didn't just want to wear the clothes I wanted to BE a woman! Talk about nuts I figured I was deranged beyond all hope of salvation. I wondered how much longer it would be before that inevitable day of discovery, when surely I'd be humiliated beyond any shred of self respect.
Occasionally I would get lucky, and meet an understanding woman with whom I could share this dreadful secret. At such times, I would be overcome with joy and gratitude at her acceptance, and for a brief time my life would be full of bliss. Sooner or later, though, she too would be repulsed, leaving me feeling more sick and depraved than ever. I was one sorry puppy, having a lot of no fun.
The years of self hatred and abuse built into an overwhelming burden. Needing to somehow escape my prison of shame and deceit, I moved 3000 miles from home to try and get my life on track. But the move only increased my sense of isolation, deepening my misery. I came to care so little for the life which was proving so bitter that I treated it with casual, sometimes pointed, disregard. Flirting with danger on the back of a motorcycle, I figured that, if I had an accident, I'd just die, and so have no worries. No big deal, eh? Heck, I'd probably be better off!
I couldn't have imagined how badly I underestimated both the strength of my life force, and the love of those around me.
It was a beautifully sunny Sunday morning, a few days before my 28th birthday. In a few hours, friends would be arriving at my home for a birthday party in honor of myself and another friend, whose birthday came a few days before mine. As I often did, I mounted my BMW R90S motorcycle for a brisk morning ride. This was no ordinary bike no BMW is and I'd recently customized this one with gun metal grey metal flake finish, tasteful blue and white pin striping, black pipes, and trick mirrors. It was a hot machine, and I enjoyed making it scream. Heading north from Los Angeles that morning, it carried me up to that infamous stretch of roadway in the mountains above La Canada, known as the Angeles Crest highway.
Pushing the limits of self and machine through the dangerous and twisty narrows between cliff wall on one side and sheer drop on the other, I rode the fine line between heart stopping excitement and disaster. It was a satisfying morning; I'd made triple digits where the curves stretched out a bit, and smirked at a police car looking for something it could catch. Turning back towards LA, I headed down the final descent towards the city below. I remember seeing another bike in a turnout where the rider and his passenger had stopped to take in the panoramic view. And then nothing.
The next thing I can remember is waking up, lying on my back in a bed, looking up at strangely unfamiliar yellow walls and ceiling. I thought, "What am I doing in bed? I don't remember getting here. And what's with the walls and ceiling? I don't remember my bedroom being yellow!". Feeling groggy, as if coming out of a deep sleep, I couldn't see much, but could hear that there was someone else in the room.
Then I heard my mom's voice, softly: "Jack...Jack it's your mother. Dad's here too. Do you know where you are?"
Fuzzy as everything was, I felt elated at a visit from my parents. But what were they doing here? I didn't know they were coming to LA! "Hi mom! What are you doing here? Did you see my new van outside?"
"Jack, " she replied, "you're in the hospital; you've been in an accident."
This was obviously a weird dream. I couldn't seem to wake up, so I went back to sleep. I'd wake up later, hopefully in a more pleasant state.
Well, when I started waking up again, it was more of the same. My mom was there, telling me I'd been in an accident, and my Dad was there too, although I don't remember him saying much. It was all very fuzzy, but warm and cozy. I couldn't think straight, and I couldn't see much. I kept trying to figure out what had happened to my room, and how I came to be there.
Eventually, I had to concede that I was indeed in the hospital. I remembered having been out for a ride on the mountain, but couldn't remember anything bad happening. I didn't feel any pain; instead, I felt light hearted and peaceful. But my brain felt groggy, and my body well, I just wasn't aware of it at all. I could turn my head a bit and talk, but that was about all. I wondered "What's going on here? What happened to me?". The thought of having been in an accident was too scary to contemplate.
Days passed; I woke only occasionally and briefly. I felt no pain, and had no idea of the extent of my injuries. On Friday my best friend John appeared. I told him I'd be out of the hospital in a week or two. After all, I wasn't hurting; why should I be there any longer? He said little.
A week later I was moved from the intensive care ward. The world darkened as my parents left for home, I lost the company of the abundant and playful nurses, and the pain started. The realization that I was not going home soon set in as I found out what had happened to me.
I met the medical evacuation team that brought me down off the mountain, and read the police report of what had happened. Apparently, I came around a corner too fast, and lost control. Crossing the center line, I hit an approaching VW head on. I suffered deadly abdominal injury, and my right arm and leg were severely mangled.
Within moments of the accident, as I was laying on the ground in a fast growing pool of blood, a car pulled up and out jumped an off duty nurse, and her friend, a police officer. She controlled the bleeding while he radioed for a 'copter. Together they saved my life. The medical evacuation team told me I was as bad a case as they'd seen survive. They'd had to use a special inflatable body suit to hold me together while they moved me; most people they'd used it on didn't live.
As I listened to their story of my brush with death, I felt a curious sensation. I wasn't horrified, or saddened. Instead, I felt somehow cheated. I had often wished for rebirth into a woman's body; now here I was, reborn into a crippled body.
My right arm, immovably fastened to a board at my side, did a 'Z' between elbow and wrist. My right hand was paralyzed, and had a thin steel rod sticking out of near the base of my thumb. My right leg was wearing a bloody cast and hanging from a traction bar running overhead. My stomach had an incision that started just below my sternum and ran as far as I could see; the incision was held closed with metal staples, and had a tube twice the diameter of a drinking straw exiting just south of my navel. There was a plastic bag attached to my lower right abdomen, which turned out to be a colostomy. There were wires attached to rubber pads stuck all over my chest and sides, and tubes in every orifice, including some new ones. Any movement below the shoulders brought sharp pain to my lower back, despite the drugs. I felt disassociated from my body, and recoiled from any touch, whether the annoying and incessant tweaking by hospital staff of my big toe to make sure my leg was still alive, or the hand of a friend offered in support. When I was awake and alone, I either lost myself in the television or cried for my hurt; I did the former as much as possible.
Both my arm and leg needed work, but I was running a high fever. The doctors said that they didn't want to operate until the fever was gone because of risk of infection. I waited, trying to ignore everything.
My parents arranged for my long distance girlfriend (from Boston) to visit me. I welcomed her presence, but couldn't let her get close to me; I was too busy trying to shut it all out. She spent a frustrating week watching me. When it came time for her to leave, we fought. She told me that the doctors had almost cut off my leg, and were waiting to see if I lived before wasting any more effort on me. She said that they were not taking good care of me, and that I had better wake up and take control of what was happening to me.
She got my attention. Almost immediately, the fever broke; I began taking charge of my recovery. I negotiated goals with my doctors; the needed surgeries were finally performed. The long recovery began in earnest. The emotional recovery, however, was still to come.
As time passed, I wondered about what had happened to me. Through some miracle, fate, or coincidence, the two people I needed to save my life -- the medical person who could keep me alive, and the officer with the radio who knew how to summon the right kind of help -- happened by at just the right time. People repeatedly told me how lucky I was to be alive, but when I agreed with them, I felt hollow, as though I was merely paying lip service. Inside, I wasn't sure I had been so lucky. After all, a clean death would have been preferable to the life of pain and disability which the doctors were now predicting for me. And that life had been anything but happy before; what were my prospects now?
Weeks passed; I lay in the hospital alternating between bliss and agony as the painkilling drugs were administered and wore off. In the midst of this ordeal, something magical happened. I received more love and attention than I could ever recall, most of it from people I had never met before. I was truly moved by this; the world, after all, seemed not such a cold place. People were friendly, and had come to my rescue when I needed it most.
Their love gave me new power, and I tended my recovery with interest. As I exceeded the doctors' predictions about what was physically possible, my confidence grew, and I began to feel optimistic. Here I was, starting all over again with a new (if damaged) body, growing new capabilities with daily practice. Anything seemed possible.
Maybe it was the feeling that if I could survive a brush with death, I could survive anything lesser, like people knowing I get off on crossdressing. Or maybe it was the feeling that I'd been given a second chance; that the rest of my life is sort of a bonus, an opportunity to do something extra. Or maybe I'm alive for a reason; my life truly has some purpose, and I have not yet attained it, whatever it might be. Whatever the reason, I resolved to change my life. I had put my body back together; time now for my head. Time for a little more honesty, both with myself and with the world around me.
Once again, help would find me.
TELLING TO LIVE
When the hospital finally released me, I returned to my home in Silverlake, a pleasant community in the hills near downtown LA. I was renting a room in a modest home, and had two roommates. The woman who owned the house Eve, was a petite, practical, and friendly woman in her late 50s. She had flame red hair, a lively wit, and a vivacious lifestyle. She was my biggest supporter during my recovery; she was both good friend and mother to me. My other roommate, Heather, was a tall, athletic woman in her mid 20s, studying dentistry at USC. She was bright, charming, and attractive; everything I wanted to be. The three of us got along extremely well, frequently sharing in life's little pleasantries, and occasionally doing a night at the ballet. It was the happiest living situation I'd ever experienced.
One evening, I was enjoying Eve's company over a chance dinner together at home, when her voice took on a warm, but purposeful tone.
"You know, John, when the policeman came to the door to tell us about your accident, he asked for your parent's phone number. And neither Heather nor I had it. Of course we had to look for it in your room."
I drew in a quick breath, and my heart stopped. But when I met her eyes, and they were friendly and respectful. She paused a beat, and went on.
"We didn't mean to invade your privacy, but it took us quite a while to find it. We ended up looking just about everywhere before we found it."
Her smile was genuine, almost sympathetic, and her eyes sparkled a bit. My heart calmed, and I felt a surge of love and respect for this woman who had been so incredibly kind to me already. I gave her my warmest smile, a slight nod, and replied "No problem, Eve. I really appreciate everything you've done for me."
And with that, our conversation continued on to other matters. But my thoughts lingered behind.
Over the following few weeks my mind churned in the background. Eve and Heather had to have found women's clothes (much of it underwear) in their search. Clearly, they knew about my crossdressing. Somehow, that knowledge made me feel good! But, I wondered if that pleasure was in itself some kind of perversion. I thought, "Maybe I'm just getting off on their knowledge of what a pervert I truly am! Maybe I'm just enjoying a new form of self abuse." But I couldn't take these thoughts seriously. Somehow, I was feeling less like a pervert and more like a loveable and respectable (if unusual) human being. After all, here were two friends (not sexual partners) who had learned my deepest, darkest secret, yet still treated me as a respected friend. Maybe, just maybe, that secret wasn't so dark after all!
Encouraged by my roommates' reactions, I thought about the feelings and behavior which had forced me to hide myself from others, making me feel ashamed. Fear of discovery was a frequent companion. I feared discovery because of how those whom I cared about might regard me -- or themselves be hurt -- should my secret be revealed to them in all its deviant glory. Yet I'd found friends who could accept both that secret and myself. Living in fear of discovery was getting old; clearly, some people could handle my crossdressing. What about the rest? Only one way to find out, scary though that was.
For the first time, I sought help, and consulted a psychologist. He told me that I was the first crossdresser he'd met. I told him of my fears, and that I was considering sharing my secret with my parents. He warned against it, saying "once you've told them, you can never un tell them". Later, when I visited him crossdressed, he made a pass at me; I guess that helped render his advice just a tad suspect.
Why not tell? Why continue to put my loved ones at risk to the malice of others? Better the whole world should know; I could learn to live with that. The worst that could happen couldn't be worse than what I'd just been through. Besides, my expectations were a little reduced now. I no longer had to be exceptional in order to gain acceptance; just being alive was enough to justify my existence. If I wanted to be a transvestite, and that reduced someone else's esteem for me, what difference? I'd already thrown it all away -- anything I got back now was gravy!
So I resolved to tell both family and close friends that I am a transvestite, and that I might indeed one day choose to live the remainder of my life as a woman. I stood at the cliff, and prepared to jump.
I particularly feared the reaction of my family. I could stand to lose friends; my closest friend, John, had known and accepted for years; other friends mattered less, and I could find new friends if necessary. But you only get one family, and they're yours for life. So if they decided not to accept me, they could make my life even more miserable than it already was. They had recently demonstrated their love during my recovery, so I had reason for hope. But I struggled with indecision and fear.
I was living in LA at the time, and visited my folks in Boston two or three times a year, generally at holidays. It was springtime, I don't remember exactly when, and I was home for a visit. Although we hadn't always gotten along real well, I loved my family. My parents were in their mid 60s; Dad was working part time as a consultant, and Mom tended to her flowers and various community based charitable activities. They were both well informed, and especially interested in helping those less fortunate than themselves. One sunny day, I walked into the kitchen and, seeing my Mom there, wished her a cheerful good morning. After the usual exchange of pleasantries (it's easy to be pleasant when you live 3,000 miles away and visit only twice a year), she proceeded, as she likes to do, to tell me about an interesting talk show that she had heard the day before.
"You know, Jack, I heard a very interesting talk show yesterday. It was all about transvestites..." My ears jumped to attention; I must surely have stopped dead in my tracks. She continued, "... and I was really surprised. I never understood why anyone would want to do something like that, and I always thought that there was something wrong with anyone who did. But there's nothing wrong with these people; they're not hurting anyone. For the first time, I think I have some understanding and sympathy for these people." Well, twist my arm and I'll agree to anything! "Yes", I agreed, "there's nothing wrong with someone just because they want to wear women's clothes!"
Well, I saw my opportunity, and within a few days I told her all about myself. I picked a time when we were alone together and would not be interrupted, and when neither of us was particularly busy so that we could both be unhurried. I was careful to make it clear that I did not consider my gender conflict to have been caused by either her or my father, and that there was no point in trying to assess blame; no amount of digging into the past will change the present, so I'm content to leave it be. I told her that I love her and that I wanted her to know about my crossdressing for her own protection, and also because it is an inseparable part of me, however much unhappiness it might have caused me. I assured her that she need never deal with it directly, that I would always respect her wishes and would never expect her to want to see me in feminine attire.
She received it well. She had known for a long time that I was not a happy camper, but never understood why. She was more concerned about my health and happiness than about an unusual but benign behavior, and said as much. She felt lucky to still have me around; and as long as I wasn't hurting someone else, she said, she didn't see any reason why I shouldn't do as I please. Imagine my relief! My love for her grew greatly that day.
Although my mother counseled against it, fearing what his reaction might be, I shortly thereafter told my father as well. Again, I was careful to pick a time to talk when we could be alone and unhurried; it turned that we talked while sitting in the car, in the driveway, at the conclusion of an errand together. He listened attentively while I told him that I held no blame, and wasn't looking for anything from him other than to allow me to get something off my chest which had been bothering me awhile. I stressed that I was telling him so that he could be prepared in case someone should find out and confront him with it; that is, I was thinking first of his well being and telling him because I love him and wanted to protect him from the shock and/or embarrassment of hearing it first from someone else, particularly someone who might try to use the information to their advantage. I told him that my expectation was that he would find this revelation difficult to accept, and that I would certainly have no difficulty understanding if that should turn out to be the case.
Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. He was as loving, as accepting, and as supportive as I could ever have wished for. Although he mentioned that he didn't want to see me that way, it was to me a minor return that I could give him for the tremendous love he had shown me in stating his acceptance and continued love and support for me in the light of this new revelation. I felt a tremendous surge of love and respect for my father that day.
I went on to tell my brothers and sisters, and one aunt with whom I am particularly close. My Aunt counseled caution, then went on to tell me the story of a woman friend whose husband had had a sex change. "Three years later he died of a heart attack, but those three years were the happiest years of their lives!" The others mostly expressed love and support in a variety of ways, and in every case my relationship with them remained essentially unchanged. They respect my privacy, avoiding causing me any embarrassment or difficulty. From time to time, the subject comes up (increasingly of late), and I generally enjoy answering whatever questions they ask.
The relief that came with `coming out' to my family was substantial, but incomplete. Something was still missing. Years passed; I moved back to the Boston area. Although I no longer suffered the intense feelings of guilt and shame, I still suffered from my desires. I found myself not going out on weekends, so that I could crossdress at home. And sometimes there would be a knock at the door which I could not answer because I was crossdressed. It seemed like crossdressing was contributing to my social problems, by separating me from others. And I knew that I wanted to be closer to others. I had tried quitting crossdressing again, but that didn't work. So I became depressed. There seemed no way out. I couldn't quit it, and it was keeping me alone.
One day, in a pamphlet of publications aimed at satisfying various unusual sexual needs, I came across a brief description of TAPESTRY, which was extolled as a dignified journal for crossdressers. Although it sounded too good to be true, I sent away for it, a move that was to have profound impact on my life.
When I received my first copy, I knew I'd found what I had been looking for. Here were other people like myself; people searching for self respect in a world which accords mainly ridicule. Emboldened by this discovery, I thought about attending the Fantasia Fair, an event I'd known about for years but had never been able to muster the courage to attend. Fortunately, I was able to talk about it with friends and family, all of whom encouraged me to go. So, I finally got up the courage, made the necessary phone calls to get myself registered, and started shopping for the clothes I would need. I worried how I would feel at seeing a bunch of men dressed as woman. Would it feel like hanging out with a bunch of weirdos, and leave me feeling more like a weirdo than ever? Was I someone who wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have them as a member? Or would I be able to enjoy myself, maybe even finding friendship and self respect?
October finally rolled around, and I found myself welcomed into the Admiral's Landing, a guest house apparently catering to gay men. I had arrived at about 8 PM on the first Friday evening; I figured I'd attend the `come as you are' cocktail hour in male drag, as it would take me forever to get dressed, and surely by the time I did so the event would be over. Mistake! I was the only person -- other than bartenders -- not in female attire. And several folks greeted me with the revelation "You're not dressed!", heightening my feelings of extreme discomfort. Fortunately, I was rescued by a gracious lady (thank you, Gwyneth!) and enjoyed dinner with several others who made me feel welcome, even if I was out of uniform. Despite their efforts, though, I went to bed that evening wondering if I had made a mistake in attending the Fair.
The following morning, I agonized endlessly with dress and makeup. Finally, nervous as could be, I emerged from my room. I was relieved to find the common areas empty, and slipped out of the house without seeing anyone. The walk to the orientation breakfast seemed endless, but I was buoyed by the sight of other crossdressers obviously heading the same way. Of course, I was too shy to talk with any of them. Once inside the restaurant, though, everything changed. People were friendly and outgoing, and I was part of the group. Within minutes of my arrival there, my anxieties started dissipating; within tens of minutes, I was enjoying myself. The rest of my week was pure bliss. I was finally able to live full time as a woman, as I'd long dreamed. It felt to me as if I was finally given my freedom after a lifetime in prison. As one sister put it, "What you've got is Gender Euphoria, honey!" Well, for once I could happily agree. I had finally found my place.
All too soon, the week passed. As the final evening drew to a close, and the specter of abandoning my newfound world grew nearer, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of sadness and loss. I felt like Cinderella, knowing that the ball was over, returning to the cinders with no rescue in sight. After the awards dinner, I joined my sisters from the Admiral's Landing for a final drink together at a local night spot. I felt very sad and lonely, and withdrew from the group. As we left, Leia asked what was wrong; in answer, I turned to her and tears started running down my cheeks. She took me into her arms, and I cried my heart out. She and the others took me back to the house, and I cried for what seemed like hours while they comforted me. The next morning, I cried some more over goodbyes.
Returning to my regular life was a wrench, but it was softened by the fact that many of my friends and family knew where I'd been, and were interested to hear of about my experience. With bolstered confidence, I widened the circle of associates who knew of my `hobby'. I became active in the crossdressing community. For the first time ever, crossdressing was not a barrier, but a bridge.
That's my story. Over the years, I tried a variety of solutions to my `problem'. From trying to quit, to living with abandon, to telling friends and family, each attempt was a necessary step. But none relieved the hurt inside. When I reached out to my sisters, my community, my friends, and said "I belong here!", this changed. With these words I finally reached the one person who needed to hear them the most: me. I finally made it possible for peace to make a home in my heart.