(The following post contains frank discussions of abuse, trauma, illness, and death. I sort of like the way it ends, though.)
In 1986, I’m three years old. I have no idea of anything about the world except that I think the Thundercats are great. He-Man, too, but they’re basically the same thing, except one is cats. The transformational aspect of both shows is fascinating to me. I want to say some magic words and become strong. Unsurprisingly, the Transformers themselves are also among my favorites.
I don’t remember this, but it was told to me: At this age, my father was not living with us. He had a drug habit, and my mom had thrown him out. He worked on cleaning himself up. He came to visit sometimes (I still do not remember any of this). Once, he and my mom had an argument in the living room. I’m told that upon hearing the yelling, I came charging out, interposed myself between them, and yelled up at this strange man to leave my mommy alone. My mother also told me that he looked so dangerous at that response that she had to usher me from the room. The gravity of this is lost on me until I’m an adult.
Hope You Survive the Experience
When I’m eight years old, my mother is diagnosed with cancer. I handle the news in the way a child does. I say, “Oh.” I ask a few questions, but it’s too big for me. She’s sick, the doctors are going to try and make her better. That’s enough.
Then I’m nine. That puts the year at 1992, the absolute height of the X-Men’s popularity. There is a brand new X-Men cartoon on TV. It runs Saturday mornings at 10 am. The theme music is so ingrained in my subconscious that I immediately perk up whenever I hear it, to this day. I’m fascinated by these characters, by the idea that nothing happened to them; they’re simply born this way. They are people, but evolved. Transformed. They just want to live. I can empathize with that.
It is around this age I’m first aware of my father’s alcoholism. Again, the concept is too big. I know that he drinks, and I know that he’s mean when he does. I resolve never to drink. I tell him this one day when he’s sober. He smiles, tells me that’s a good choice. He doesn’t believe me. When he’s not sober, he’s terrifying. He yells and screams, throws things, slams doors. I don’t know what will provoke his ire and what won’t. I stop playing in the living room. I go across the street to my friend’s house, or I play in my room. I do not want to draw his attention. I just want to live.
Like a lot of families in the early 90s, we have a Nintendo Entertainment System. My mom is judicious about our use of it–no more than a half hour a day. We own almost no games, but she lets us rent them every now and again. There is an Uncanny X-Men game, but the cover art looks vastly different from the designs I’m used to. Wolverine is brown (such is the imprecise language of a child). Storm has a mohawk. Far from put off by these changes, I want to know more. I am ultimately disappointed by the game–it’s not very good, and the graphics are sparse enough that I’m given no enlightenment by the designs.
Two events happen, the order of which I’m not sure of. My cousin, twelve years older than me and so about twenty at the time, begins visiting from San Francisco. He is very familiar with the X-Men. He’s been collecting their comic for some time. His visits are regular and last for the weekend. I don’t know until later that they coincide with the times my mother has chemotherapy–she is consciously protecting my sister and I from the ugliness of her disease.
The second event is that I get my own first X-Men comics. As I said, I don’t know if this happens before or after my cousin starts sharing his love of them with me. Either way, I find them in a quarter box at a thrift shop. I buy several of them, using some change my mother gives me. They are issues 163, 164, 168, 169, 173, 177, 178, and 180. Of these, 173 is the most striking to me. The cover is all black, featuring only Wolverine (in that same brown look I knew from the game) charging at the reader, with a girl dressed in green behind him. I suspect she is Rogue, because of the stripe in her hair, though she does not look like her cartoon counterpart. I’m not an unintelligent child, I can figure these things out.
The issue grips me for other reasons. I learn that this is the one where Storm first gains her mohawk. The fact that I know the direct parallel between this issue and the art on that game cartridge fills me with delight. I can see the pattern. I work out that these issues are older than the cartoon, and spend a few years incorrectly believing that the brown costume is Wolverine’s ‘original’ one. There is a fight between him and the Silver Samurai in this issue. I have no idea that the panel breakdown of it is an homage to earlier Miller work. It’s simply the best, most exciting fight I’ve ever seen. The issue ends with Mariko leaving Wolverine at the altar. His shoulders are squared, he doesn’t chase after her. He accepts her word. This sad moment is significant to me, and I will return to it over and over.
The issues I have are an interesting spread. There are character beats that are created and resolved only within those issues. 173 features Kitty Pryde’s negative reaction to Storm’s new look. I don’t understand her upset. I can see that Storm has Transformed. I don’t understand the self-actualization of it, yet, nor do I have knowledge of what her look, her choice of attire conveys, but the framework those earlier cartoons from when I was younger has given me tells me that she has Transformed, and is Better. I will forever think of mohawk Storm as the best version, because of the way it is first presented. Regardless, the conflict between Storm and Kitty is resolved, or at least ameliorated, in issue 180.
I have no idea of Kitty’s significance as a viewpoint character, nor even do I know what a viewpoint character is at that age. I know that she features heavily in the issues I have. I like her. She reminds me of me–quick-tempered and tired of being told what she can’t do. 163 and 164 introduce me to the Brood. I have no idea the movie Alien exists (interestingly, the Brood predate the Alien franchise–many assume it’s the other way around). They impregnate the X-Men (and someone named Carol Danvers) and turn them into hosts. I’m fascinated by this. It’s my first introduction to body horror. I witness Carol’s transformation into Binary. It’s still probably my favorite incarnation of her. I like the idea that she’s not a mutant, but is hanging out with the X-Men. They have friends. I’m too young to notice the way powerful women are featured as a recurring theme within the book, but it has an effect on me all the same.
My cousin moves to Sacramento for a while. I visit him at his apartment, and he shows me his collection of comics. He tells me to wash my hands before I read them, and I take him seriously. His collection starts at 194, an issue featuring Nimrod, then jumps all the way to the Outback era, where it runs unbroken until Chris Claremont leaves the franchise. My cousin has a few scattered issues of the other X-books from the era, but not much, save for Excalibur of which he has almost all of the Claremont/Davis era. I read every single issue multiple times. Later, as an adult, I fill in the missing issues. It’s still the set I’m fondest of. My cousin also has a Sega Genesis. I play the X-Men game that exists for that for the first time. I fall in love with it, even though I can’t get past the first level.
For fifth grade, my mother puts my sister and I into a parochial school at our local Catholic church. I said all the words at mass because I was supposed to, but I didn’t really get it, and it never stuck for me. I liked the school, though. I got to wear uniforms, and I was fascinated by that. No one could tell I was different. No one could tell anything about my life. I looked just like they did. I fit in. In the classroom, someone brings in X-Men issues. We hunch over them like contraband, whispering intently as we pore over them. They’re two issues of X-Men Unlimited, I think. Cyclops is in a snowstorm. He can’t find his visor. I don’t remember how the issues resolve. I’ve seen them in back issue bins since then, but I’ve never actually gone back to reread them.
Three quarters of the way through the year, my parents buy their first house together. I’m 11 at the time. The new house is smaller, but newer. It’s been recently added on to. We purchase it from a middle aged lesbian couple. It’s next to a park. I’m upset at the move. My first day at school is the day after spring break. I arrive in the middle of the day, while the class is out at recess. I learn that I am the fourth student to join the class late this year. The class, apparently, is sick of it. I’m standing in the room waiting with the teacher to greet them as they come in. The first thing anyone does is to groan and say “ANOTHER one?!” I’m mortified. Eventually, though, I make a new friend. His name is Justin. He loves the X-Men as much as I do. He lives a quarter mile away, but I’ll be twelve soon, and this is no longer a real impediment.
When I turn 12, Justin and I suddenly have another thing in common. My parents sit my sister and I down and announce that they’re splitting up. My dad is moving out. I’m furious. I’ve begun to understand some of the ways in which the world functions, and I know there is one true thing: You do not turn your back on people when they need help. My mother is still sick, and he’s leaving. I do not know yet that she wants him to. I do not yet have the context to understand that the way he behaves is abusive. I think that if only he would stop drinking, everything would be fine. Our relationship deteriorates to a level it will never quite recover from. Justin and I continue to escape into the world of X-Men. Everyone has lost parents there. Some never had them to begin with. We feel a kinship.
My cousin moves back to San Francisco. He gives me his comics and his Sega Genesis before he goes. I spend many afternoons with them, holed up in my room. Soon I’m thirteen, though. My behavior shifts radically, fueled by hormones and rage. I start smoking, committing petty larceny. The larceny is in support of the smoking, which in turn is because I entertain my first fatalistic, self-destructive notion: My mom is dying, my dad hates me, and smoking will probably kill me if I do it for long enough, so why not? There is a Circle K near my house where they keep the cheap, off-brand cigarettes on a stand at the end of the checkout counter. They’re six feet from the front door, which is propped open in the summer. I park my bike so that it’s angled outward, ready to go, walk in, and take packs, two at a time. I do this on three or four separate occasions before I’m introduced to someone who can buy cartons for me. All I need is the money. I steal three hundred dollars from one of my dad’s clients on a house visit. It’s under the couch, has been there for weeks. They didn’t know, already thought they’d lost it, and so don’t miss it immediately. I’m flush with smokes. I spend more on a Marvel-based card game called Overpower. In a fit of carelessness, I leave the remainder of the money on the desk in my room. The door is shut, I figure it’s fine. My mom, who’s home all day by this point due to how far her cancer has progressed, goes into my room for something. I forget what. I’m caught. I come clean about the money but not what I’ve spent it on. I get by with that for a while.
In the summer, when it’s warmer, I start sneaking out at night. This lasts until my mom wakes up one night and calls for my help. My sister is with my father, it’s just supposed to be me there. In case she needs me. I’m not there when she does. My parents make me demonstrate how I’m getting out of the house. My father is an alarm technician, he installs them in homes for a living. We’ve had one for years, and set it every night. If I were going out the window or the door, they’d know. I show them how I’m able to use the hypermobility of my shoulders to fit through the dog door. It is, I suppose, sort of like my mutant power. They are as amused and impressed with my ingenuity as they are angry with my actions. This will become a running theme of my life going forward.
When I am fourteen, my mom dies. It is Tuesday, September 16th, 1997. I’m two weeks into Freshman year. She dies a little after noon. My father is home when we get there from school, crying in the entry way. He tells us that it’s happened, and even though we knew that it would, I cannot accept it. I say no, I drop my backpack on the front step, turn, and run. I spend a few hours at Justin’s house feeling miserable before I’m up to going back.
My mother is dead. My father moves back in. It’s just him and us now. He lets my sister have her wedding ring. My sister puts it on a chain, but the chain breaks and she loses the ring at school. It is the most grief-stricken I have ever seen my father. He is full of rage, but weeping in a way I have never seen. He drinks more regularly now.
With no tempering influence in the form of my mother, my jackassery now continues unabated. It will be years before I say it in so many words, but my father is my enemy during this time, and my single-minded mission is to test the limits, not of his patience (because I know he has none) but of his awareness. He is canny and clever, like I am, and he attempts over and over to entrap me. He searches the jeans I leave in the bathroom after a shower. He parks in parking lots along my school route to watch me go by. He’s rarely able to catch me in anything after the sneaking out; I’ve learned from my mistakes. He doesn’t find my hiding places for smokes, because I don’t hide them in the places one would expect a teenage boy to. Still, he knows that I’m up to things, so he clamps down on minor infractions as a means of containing me. He tells me to go straight to and from school, and because he’s following me, he knows if or where I stop.
There is a friend’s house just past the high school, where I typically stop for a smoke on my way home. One day, I look up and see him walking up to the gate, looking triumphant. My stomach knots, I’m sure he’s caught me smoking. I drop the smoke anyway, step on it so he can’t see it. Sure enough, he misses it. He’s triumphant at the small act of catching me stopping on my way home. I don’t put up a fight, because I’ve gotten away with the worse thing.
The next time I spot his work van in the parking lot on my way to school, I smile and wave before heading into the donut shop for a coffee. He doesn’t answer my challenge. He knows I know, and he knows I don’t care.
The X-men fade into the background radiation of my life. I still read through the issues occasionally, but I’m into music now, and pissing off my dad. My hair is long for the first time, and I love it, even when it’s a hundred and ten degrees outside. I started growing it out after my mom died, partially because I was fourteen and partially because my mom was the only one who cared enough to make me get it cut. I leave printed sheets of lyrics to Tool on the kitchen table. I know that he can’t resist reading them. He tells me he disapproves. I shrug, and say, “Okay.” It is the most blatant disregard I have ever shown for his opinion up to that point. Our relationship continues to deteriorate.
Toward the end of my freshman year of high school, my jaw is broken. It’s partially my own fault–I’m prepping for a taekwondo tournament and I’m sparring without headgear. I take a hook kick to the face. The guy who does it is horrified, but I never hold a grudge. It was an accident, and I’ve been hit enough times on purpose by that point to know the difference. My jaw is wired shut for six weeks. Somehow, in the way that only a teenager could, I gain ten pounds on a liquid diet (it involves ramen through a blender. I do not advise trying it if you can avoid it.). While in this state, I ask my dad if he’ll buy me a game. I feel like I’m pushing my luck even asking, but because my jaw is broken, he’s a little nicer. He gets me a copy of Wolverine: Adamantium Rage for the Genesis for five dollars at a pawn shop. It’s not as good as the X-Men game but it’s such an out-of-character small kindness from him that I remember it forever.
That summer, I’m introduced to my dad’s new girlfriend. She lives in Washington, where he grew up. She comes to visit, and her first words toward me are derisive. We do not get along. The first time my dad punches me, it’s because I steal a pack of Winstons from her. He apologizes, but I never forget. By the end of August, 1998, we’re living in Washington with Patti. Despite the size of her house, there is no room for me. I live in a converted section of the garage. We’re there for six months. During that stretch, the family dog dies.
Fall of the Mutants
In April of 1999, I’m sixteen years old. We move into a tri-level house in Washington, where we’ll live until I’m an adult and move out. My dad and Patti’s relationship has crashed and burned already by this point. His charm has worn off, and he is a broken, grieving alcoholic with two asshole kids. I remember the specific week we moved into the house, because it’s the same day the Columbine Massacre happened. Strange to be building our new life in Washington while watching the lives of others torn apart.
My visits to comic shops prior to the move had become more sporadic. My father doesn’t approve of the hobby, nor any hobby which puts my nose in any kind of fiction. It’s a strange sort of thing–he didn’t want me to be an athlete or anything, he just didn’t approve of the time I spent with books. I suppose because the inside of my head was the one thing he couldn’t control, and so he sought to limit my access to that retreat in what ways he could. When I was grounded, he’d forbid me from reading entirely.
After the move, in rural Washington, I’m lucky to see the inside of a comic shop once a year, if I hopped on the ferry for an afternoon in Seattle. I stopped buying them entirely, but I snagged an issue of Wizard whenever I could, because in those days before the ubiquity of the internet it was still the best way to find out what was happening in comics as a whole. I still reread my issues of X-Men religiously, but in Washington I have no one to share them with. The new friends I make introduce me to Magic: The Gathering and a host of other games, but they have no interest in comic books. No one does anymore. I keep them to myself.
That year The Matrix comes out. It is everything Hollywood has been looking for in a superhero movie–all of the action with none of the cheesy costumes. The Wachowskis are known as brothers, but this is not true. They will transform, and suddenly the transformative nature of their works will take on a new light. For now, it is a slick action movie with enough generic ‘resist the man’ trappings that I will watch it again and again. Resistance I understand. I have been doing it for years at this point. I am firmly convinced that eventually my father and I will have a knock-down, drag-out fight, because I am immature and I read too many comic books and this is how I see reckonings play out. I’m also convinced of this because when my father cannot verbally force my submission, he resorts to physical intimidation. This is normalized for me to the point where I believe one day that that fight will come, and that winning it will be the only way I will be free of him. I will not understand the unhealthiness of this mindset for some time.
Rural living does nothing to stop me acquiring smokes. Honestly, by this point I’m nearly an adult, and more worldly than most of my school’s students, who have predominantly grown up together in the same three-road town. I mistake this for wisdom, because I am a teenager and an asshole. The new school, the fact that no one knew me until the day I walked in, gave me the excuse to determine who I wanted to be, and so I transform. I become Better, like Storm did. There’s no mohawk, but I cut my hair off, spike it out. I’m loud, brash, and just funny enough to get away with it. I have fun stories about my time growing up in Sacramento. Half of them are made up. Years of vigilance around my father give me the skills to read when enough is enough with each teacher, each classroom. The next couple of years proceed at about the same rate–the different class structure of my new school combined with the difficulties I had in my old one mean that I enter Sophomore year several credits behind. I spend the rest of high school catching up and graduate with a three-point-something GPA.
It’s not good enough for my father, but nothing ever is, and I’m unperturbed.
By Senior year I’m something I’ve never been. I’m liked. I’m not the most popular kid, and I still have issues, but I have friends. People talk to me. I think this is important until we graduate and I never see most of them again.
During that year the first X-Men movie comes out. Suddenly they are a thing in my life again. Everyone goes with me to see it, and everyone is interested as I explain the differences between the film and the comics, and where this bit or that came from. None of them actually want to read those comics. I will repeat this process in 2002 and 2006.
It’s 2001 and I’m 18. I have a high school diploma and no car. My teenage years have been such a mess of fucked up priorities that I am completely unprepared for adulthood. The only upswing of it is that I have to get everywhere via bicycle, which means regular 10 mile biking trips that keep me fit and keep my lungs from getting too bad, despite the smoking. I try to join the military, but I’m disqualified because of my allergy to bees (honey bees will kill me). College is not a prospect because my father will not provide me with his financial information, which is necessary for the FAFSA until I’m older than twenty-six. He won’t do this because he hasn’t paid his taxes for eight years and he’s afraid that he’ll be caught.
Eventually I get a job working at the local Boys and Girls Club. It’s four hours a day, on call but they always need me, and it’s a thinly veiled excuse to hang out with a few of my high school friends a bit longer. Eventually they go off to college and I, with no prospects and a bad attitude, get fired. I make a new friend, Bryan. He’s the boyfriend of a classmate of mine, still in school when we start hanging out, but he’s in the alternative school which means that he’s only there for a few hours a day. We spend the rest of the time hanging out at his house–his mom is never home, and my dad’s perfectly content to rarely see me. We form a group of fast friends, kids with no direction. 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons comes out. I start running games for them, because I’m the only one who’s played before. D&D still has a bad reputation in those days, so they’re unsure until the first session. After it, they’re hooked.
The fighting between my father and I gets worse. In 2002, I get ticketed for not wearing a seatbelt while out hunting for another job. Far from angry, my father is amused by this because I have always been extremely good about this sort of thing. I am only not wearing it in this instance because the buckle is broken, and I am nervous the entire time. I have to borrow $86 from him in order to pay the fine, with the understanding that I will pay him back from earnings I will make working the 2002 Bumbershoot festival. When those earnings take months to materialize, my father blames me for their tardiness. I blame myself as well, but I don’t know how to be better yet.
Sometime later, he drops an ultimatum, as he frequently does. He is very fond of the phrase “as long as you’re under my roof…” This time, I think it’s about smoking in the house, and this time, I’m done, so I call it. I pack a duffel bag full of clothes and I walk out the door. As I’m packing, he asks me where I’m going. I shrug and tell him I don’t know. I don’t care. I leave. I end up in the unlikeliest of places: his girlfriend’s house. She takes me in, and she does what no one has done for me since my mom died–she defends me. When I tell her that I don’t want to see him, she tells me I don’t have to. She doesn’t let him in the house. He, amazingly, respects that boundary. He asks to see me a couple of times, aware that he’s broken something between us (and that we were not in a good place to begin with), and I turn him down each time. I do it because I am angry. I don’t realize until years later that it’s the closest thing I’ve made to a healthy decision in the entire time he’s been in my life.
After three months or so, she informs me that she’s moving in with him. Because I have no choice, I go with her, return to my old room. I’m different now, though. I’ve transformed again. Three months without him in my life has given me time to think freely. My head is finally clear of the sludge long enough that I can see how toxic it is. I resolve that the stay will be temporary, and it is. With military and college off the table, I look for other options. By May of 2003, at 20 years old, I’m on a plane to Nampa, Idaho, where the Centennial Job Corps campus resides. My comics go into the storage space under the living room, where I won’t look at or read them again for six or seven years.
Operation: Zero Tolerance
If three months in my dad’s girlfriend’s house is enough to give me a renewed sense of purpose, then eight in Idaho is enough to fundamentally alter the direction of my life. The campus is highly structured, like a military academy, except for delinquents. That’s what we are–for the first time since moving to Washington, I’m actually the tamest one, the most well adjusted. Some of my dorm mates are there on court orders–it’s that or juvenile detention. Some are even more screwed up than me and just trying to get by. I have a significant head start over most of them in that I actually graduated high school.
Dorms are segregated. There are two female dorms and six male. We’re four to a room, each with a twin bed, half of a four-drawer dresser, and a personal closet. Each room has its own bathroom and shower for its four residents. There is a lights out time, and a time by which everyone must be up for cleaning before attending whatever classes each student is attending that day. The campus has incentivized the cleaning process in order to motivate the students into caring for their personal spaces. The dorm I’m shuffled into has been winning that competition for months on end. The other dorms have accused us of cheating, but after my first couple of weeks witnessing the process firsthand, I realize that we’re just effectively led. Our dorm president is a couple of years older than me, a couple of inches shorter, and built of pure muscle. His name is Ryan. He’d been there for nearly two years by that point, coming in as a wannabe hardass and leaving as a consummate professional. I admire everything about him. I am attracted to him, though I don’t know it yet. I want to be him, certainly–gorgeous and confident and admired. There is also one student from my town, though he’s several years older, so I wouldn’t have known him when we were both back home. His name is Christian.
Smoking is allowed on campus as long as you’re old enough–most of us are, as the age range for Job Corps is 16-24. For the first time, I have a steady income, am of legal age, and have no one telling me that I can’t. I’m smoking a pack a day by the end of the first few months. I feel like hell but the freedom of it is intoxicating. The first time I try in earnest to quit is because Ryan looks at me and tells me I’m better than that. I start to transform once again. In the campus uniform of color coded shirts and khaki slacks, I look clean and presentable, and I feel like an adult. The schedule, the fact that I need a pass to even leave campus on the weekends keeps me honest. I start going to sleep at reasonable times, getting up in the morning. I start taking things seriously in a way that I hadn’t since elementary school.
Something happens, I can’t remember what, a month and a half in. The entire dorm leadership is removed from power, Ryan included. He’s nearly done anyway, it’s a black mark but he takes it on the chin. Then Summer break comes and I’m being bussed back home for two weeks, having scarcely left. Christian and I end up becoming friends, because it’s a long bus ride and we’re the only two going that far. We spend most of our two-week break hanging out because I still can’t stand my dad. I meet Christian’s sister. Her name is Amber. She’s eight years older than me, with two kids and a failing marriage. Everything about that scenario seems like a bad idea, but there’s a spark when we meet.
By the end of my third month, I’m in dorm leadership myself, and by the end of my sixth, I’m the dorm president. It’s entirely too solemn of a thing, in the way that young men will be when they think they’re doing something important. I take it seriously until one of the students sneaks a girl in and puts me in the position of turning him in or losing the respect of my peers. It’s the first time that childhood notion of “don’t tell on your friends” comes up against the adult notion of responsibility. I tell them I saw nothing, but the girl is caught on her way back to her own dorm, and hangs us all out to dry. Even so, the punishment is minimal, but it puts my time there into stark relief. I decide I need to focus on myself again and step down from leadership.
Christmas break comes around and Christian and I are again on the way home. Our connecting bus fails to materialize somewhere in southeastern Washington and we spend a night stranded before we finally make it home. Amber has a house of her own there now, having left her husband. Things happen in the way that they do and we spend most of the break together. When I go back to Job Corps, we speak daily over the phone. Before the end of the month, I decide I’m done, having completed the first third of a three-part course, and bail without the A+ certification I’d originally signed up for. I leave Job Corps on February 7th, 2004. I’m twenty one years old.
Days of Future Past
I move in with Amber immediately. By the end of March, I’m working full time for a computer anti-virus company and I’m the unofficial stepdad to two boys, three and five years old. Amber is going to school to become a CNA. She gets certified, and starts working at a local rest home. Because we are both not making very much money, we can’t afford a babysitter. I work five days a week, she works the other two. We have no days off together for the first several years of our relationship.
In June, I finally get my driver’s license. I actually buy the car first, for $500 from the grocery store parking lot. I wait to get the license because the car will get me to and from work, but it will not pass inspection. In the interest of not getting a massive fine, I finally get the license taken care of. I go with the girlfriend of one of my dad’s bar friends–she’s the only person I know with a car that will pass other than my father, who won’t let me use his truck.
I have no idea how to be a father–I only have bad examples to work from. Two days a week I am alone with them. I do my best. I have a few moments that remind me too much of my own father, and I work on having less of those. When I do have them, I apologize, and I explain to them why I’ve had those moments. I tell them that it’s not their fault, that it’s mine, and that I’m working on it. They’re young still, too young to really understand, but they understand at least that I was wrong and that I am apologizing. I hope that it’s enough, until they’re older.
In 2006, at twenty three, I finally quit smoking and it sticks. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve made the attempt, and I do it by force of will alone. I think that this is an impressive display of my willpower at the time, but really I am entering a phase of my life where I am so naturally grumpy and unpleasant that the irritation of my not having nicotine for a couple of weeks is hardly noticeable to anyone else. Still, I’m proud of myself. A year later, Amber quits too, after I take her last two cigarettes and break them while we’re on a field trip. She has to go the entire day without access to more, around a class of screaming kids. It is rough and probably a bit cruel of me, but I point out that if she can handle that first day, the rest is a cakewalk. She agrees, and it sticks.
My father and his girlfriend host a camping trip when the boys are young, perhaps eight and six. She has three adult daughters, and her first grandchildren, so they rent a couple of large camping spaces and invite everyone. I bring the boys, and we proceed to have an afternoon with the family. His girlfriend disappears into a tent at some point, citing a headache. We are loud in the way that a large family gathering can be, and as it gets later, a park ranger stops by to ask us to tone it down. She comes out of the tent in a full fury, tearing into the park ranger in the most vicious, over the top verbal assault I’ve ever heard–which, given the story until now, is impressive. She resists any and all efforts to calm her, by her own children, the park ranger, even my dad. At this point I feel the old fatalistic stirrings, and the speed with which I act on them surprises me. I cannot remember the words, but within two cutting sentences I have redirected the entirety of her ire on to me. I have done this intentionally, because I can handle it. I am used to parental figures being angry with me. She informs me that I ruin everything every time I show up. This is the same woman who took me in a few years prior. I realize now that I did not know her then. I find out later that she is an alcoholic on a level that makes my dad seem relatively in control–she had been hiding in the tent with a bottle of liquor for hours. I collect my children and leave, because the situation is toxic and they do not need to experience any more of it.
A couple of weeks later, she reaches out to apologize. I tell her in no uncertain terms that I’m glad she’s done so, but that she’s crossed a boundary that won’t be forgotten. I don’t exactly forgive her, but I make peace, of a sort. The following Thanksgiving, I wear a shirt to the family gathering that reads “I ruined it for everyone.” I can be petty.
The intervening years are shot through with relatively mundane things in comparison. There are school troubles, job troubles, and I continue to struggle with depression. But I have transformed again. I am a Dad now, and I take that responsibility seriously whether or not I believe I am prepared for it. I am certainly taking the task on younger than many–my friends do not begin having children until mine are well into elementary school. I will be only thirty six when my youngest turns eighteen.
An occasional member of our old D&D group comes out, begins her transition. We are not in close contact by this point, but the information is noteworthy. There’s a flicker of something in the back of my mind. Otherwise I feel…compassionate. I know that kind of announcement takes courage.
In 2007, I buy a house.
In 2008, Amber and I are married. We hold the ceremony in front of the old house Bryan and I used to hang out in. It’s not in the best condition by then, but it faces a beautiful pond. We’re married next to the pond, and it’s a lovely, laid back ceremony.
In 2009, my hair is long again. It has been for a while, but it’s at its longest, hitting my waist when it’s pulled straight. It’s naturally wavy to my shoulders, at which point it turns into ringlets that make people envious. I love it. It is one of the only things inherited from my father that I’m genuinely grateful for.
I walk into a comic shop. Iron Man has hit and left theaters. There have been Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four movies. Superheroes have finally returned to the mainstream of pop culture. Surprisingly, it is not the X-Men that bring me back, but Green Lantern. The X-Men of the late 90s are still fresh in my mind, but I am twenty six and have a better understanding of exactly how far the quality of those comics fell. It’s not long before I’m playing some catch up, though. I’ve missed the entirety of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is still only a couple of years old. I pick up some issues here and there, but mostly I focus on filling old back issues I’m missing. I rescue my old boxes from my dad’s house. Amber is mildly frustrated by the space that they take up in our room, but she likes seeing me excited, and I am again. I’m picking up new things, I have new friends to talk to about them.
That year, my dad loses his job. He is in his late fifties, and spends some time looking for a new position, but spends more of his time drinking. It’s the year after the housing market crash, and no one wants to hire a man less than a decade to retirement age.
I read a lot of comics–not just X-Men–over the next few years. I setup my first pull box, for the first time have the kind of money it takes to keep up with books on a monthly basis. I find a lot of stories I’m a big fan of, and I find a lot that I think are absolutely terrible. Often the ones I think are terrible are popular, and slowly I learn that I am a certain kind of comics reader, that I am looking for something different in them than most. Again this begins a process of self-reflection, one that would not pay off for years.
In 2010, I’m laid off from the antivirus company. Specifically, I’m let go on the exact day of my sixth anniversary with the company. In dark humor I find this extremely fitting. That company is a story for another time. I spend approximately five months unemployed. I pick up a new job at a company that assists businesses with sales tax calculation, and it is terrible. Fortunately, I have a new job within a few months.
Sometime in this period, a register jockey at my local comic shop comes out. She takes the name Angelina. I misgender her accidentally once and kick myself about it for months because I do not want to be that kind of person. I start considering the way that I interact with people more. I realize that it is important to me to recognize the validity of others living their lives because I have been so often denied mine. It is a selfish start to a motivation, certainly, but it’s also an empathetic one.
In 2011, I start working that new job. I’m doing interesting work testing and monitoring a newly designed marketing system. The hours are terrible. I start going bald. I cut my hair, but I grow a beard. I am now indistinguishable from a multitude of male tech professionals in their late twenties and early thirties. Part of me is comforted by that fact–I have always wanted to fit in. Another part of me shudders in violent rejection. I assume it is just the rebellious child I once was. Within three years the schedule of this job and the atmosphere of the workplace will lead me to a nervous breakdown. I will start antidepressants for the first time in my life. Truth told, I probably needed them sooner. I will also go to therapy appointments for the first time since my mother died. I definitely needed those sooner.
My dad and his drunkard girlfriend split. It’s not long before he meets someone new. At the bar. Despite this circumstance, she’s sweet. She’s good for him, as far as we can tell. Soon, she’s sick.
I spend a year in therapy over the course of 2013, during which I turn thirty. That therapy ends when I lose my job and thus my insurance. The ACA has not taken effect yet, and so I’m forced to wean myself off of the antidepressants as well. They were not working as well as I’d hoped, anyway. My dad loses the house he bought when I was sixteen. He’s working again, but it’s too little, too late, and he spends too much on booze.
I spend three months unemployed this time, before starting with a contracting company in February of 2014, installing computer hardware in local hospitals. It is the first time I have enjoyed my work in a long time. It changes daily, makes use of my organizational skills, and I excel in the role. Unfortunately, the job ends when the installation is done, and by August of 2014 I’m without a job again.The up-and-down nature of this period is difficult, and I can feel the depression slipping in again.
In March, during that job, my dad’s new wife dies. Of cancer. This is a blow he cannot recover from. He retires shortly after, and begins sitting at home, doing nothing but drinking.
In October I’m hired for another installation job. I need some paperwork that is still in my dad’s files in order to start work. I go to visit him and find that he can’t leave the couch. He’s too inebriated. There are thirty empty bottles of Black Velvet on the counter. There’s a half-eaten English Muffin. Virtually his entire caloric intake is coming from alcohol. My sister and I manage to get him into a hospital, where he spends three weeks in detox. He has given himself diabetes and a mild case of alcohol-induced dementia. When the doctor tells me that, I realize that it’s all over but the waiting.
Meanwhile, I’m missing shifts my first week as I try to sort him out. My boss is, thankfully, understanding. Again, I excel at the role, but this one is over two hours away from home. I commute four hours every day on top of an eight hour work shift. I stop being a person, nearly. I get up, shower, eat, drive, work, drive, eat, sleep. I have no free time save on weekends. By then I am so tired from the week that the act of going to the store is too much. I last four months before I find a new job. It’s just in time. I can feel the anger underneath the surface. Even now, I have to work to not be like him.
Age of X
In February 2015 I’m hired at my current place of employment. It’s contract work, but long term. It’s easy, it gives me lots of downtime. Because of that I have lots of time to reconnect with comics once again. I find myself connecting with the comics community, to find that it has again changed. The nature of social media has brought critical voices together, and there is a real, live discussion happening about comics every single day. I’m eager to be part of it. I write a few blog posts here and there, make some friends, make a lot of bad jokes.
A couple of months later, my dad has returned to his pre-hospital habits of drinking and smoking too much. He has a bad fall in his driveway and hits his head, goes back to the hospital. He blames it on a mistake with his medication, but I don’t believe him–I suspect it’s more likely the fact that he’s mixing that medication with alcohol. I don’t challenge his assertion, though, because it doesn’t matter. I write him a letter. I tell him that if he won’t commit to his own sobriety and health, then I can’t be a part of his life. He cries when he reads it, makes the usual promises. He doesn’t keep them.
Later that year I start listening to a podcast called X-Plain the X-Men. It is a thoughtful, thorough analysis of my favorite comic in the world, in order, a few issues at a time. Listening to it, listening to critical analysis of these artifacts from my childhood opens my own life up to me in a way that I’ve never known before. I’m utterly addicted and I binge every single episode that’s available. Shortly after I begin, one of the hosts comes out. He prefers Jay, provides only the necessarily relevant information, and then moves on with the job of hosting a podcast. The floor is not open for questions, this is the way it is now. The announcement is a firm and succinct line and I like that about it. It’s neat, organized. He’s transformed. More himself. Better. Because of the X-Men, because of the context of my life, vastly different though it is, I can understand this. Something clicks in me as I listen and I mistake it for admiration, but it’s not.
I continue to be surrounded by marginalized voices in the comics community. As I listen, I hear the things I’m thinking reflected in them. I read the things that they say and find myself not just agreeing, but comparing those things against my own life experiences and sorting out the parallels. The align into a clear, precise arrangement of facts and I have to face one in particular: I realize I’m queer. The truth of it is like a physical blow, and the weight of it is something I have to sit down to process. I spend days recontextualizing past interactions.
I realize this in 2016, at thirty two years old. I’ve been married for nearly a decade, I’ve been in a heterosexual relationship for even longer than that, but–I’m queer. This becomes the new skin I wear. I don’t know what to do with it at first. Amber was out as queer when I first met her–she was never once shy about that. I talk to someone online about it, someone I don’t even know, because he’s queer, and because I need an outlet that is unconnected to my life in order to sort out what this means.
Within a month, Amber knows. We’re driving around and she’s talking in the passenger seat, and I can’t even remember how the subject comes up. She says something to the effect of she knows I’m not into guys, and after a long pause I reply back with, “Well, I’m not not into guys…” After a shocked moment of silence, she laughs, I laugh, and we talk about it. It’s good.
In the midst of this, my father has a stroke. He still has not changed his habits, and because of them, he pays another price. His status as a vet enables him access to the local VA home, and he’s lucky enough to get a bed there (it is not an easy thing to do). He spends most of the year there, during which I only visit him twice. My sister now has power of attorney–she will help him where I will not. I feel guilty about this constantly, but I can no longer stand to even be around him. The few occasions I am, his frustration with his situation translates into the same old mistreatment, but I am no longer a teenager, and I simply walk away.
In March, I create a private twitter account specifically to process those feelings. I have a breakdown and delete everything I’ve said up to that point. Later I calm down and realize the instability of this behavior, realize further that my own emotional instability has ramped up again in response to the turmoil and uncertainty of my life.
I struggle with the definition of my queerness, because even though I know that the label does not really matter, I feel the need to label it. I like organization. I try pan- and bi-, and they feel…fine. I discover that the prefixes themselves don’t mean to me what they mean to others. They’re delineations on a spectrum and it’s the spectrum itself that fascinates me. I’m back to just thinking of myself as ‘queer’. I’m attracted to men, and women. I’m attracted to non-binary folk. I’m a little bit on the poly side, but my anxieties make it hard. Trying to define it any more strictly than that feels wrong. It hurts, somehow, and hurting is the opposite of what I want to do.
I spend a lot of time considering what the concept of masculinity means to me. I never struggle to accept the idea that masculinity could be toxic when it is introduced into the global conversation; that matches my lived experiences. It has always been women who made me feel safe. It has always been women who shared with me a sense of community and acceptance. This is not to say that women are not also capable of the cruelties that men have inflicted on me, but the women I have known have never been this way. Too many of them have been victimized, too.
The truth is that masculinity has always felt like a performance. When I need to perform, I can do so, and well, but largely I become more quiet and reserved as time goes on. I shrink back from the role when I can because it drains me. I stopped going out years before, but now I stop contacting friends entirely. I am simultaneously the most myself that I have ever been and the most miserable.
In April of 2016 I attend my first Emerald City Comic Con in almost a decade. It is also the first one I attend where I’m open and out about my sexuality. In May, I write a piece about Captain America in which I publicly come out (in fact, between that post and this one I have not written a single other thing). I alternate between thinking it’s decently composed and feeling faintly embarrassed that it’s out there. I’m embarrassed that I’ve tied the expression of my identity to a comic book character–to an interpretation of that character that doesn’t even actually exist. I spend the next several months deciding at least once a month to delete it. I never do. It is uncomfortable having that moment of honesty there, in its passion and imperfection, but the honesty of it is what was important in the moment, and so I leave it.
Over the summer, Amber has some confessions of her own. She takes her time with it, because she struggles through questions of identity slowly, the same way I do, but the truth comes out: Alex is a trans man. He’s terrified that I will leave him. He’s terrified that he’s ruined something between us with this stark fact about himself. I assure him that this is not the case. He still has not come out publicly, not even to our children, because he is too afraid to disrupt the natural order of our lives. It’s a silly anxiety, but one that I understand, since I still have not come out to them either (Alex has read this article prior to its publication, and approved of the sharing of this information).
In October, Tegan O’Neil publishes One Hundred and Sixty Four Days. It is her coming out essay. It is powerful and personal and honest, and she follows it up with several more posts over the next few months that are full of excellent writing. Several points of it resonate with me; her self-destructive tendencies, her memory issues, her inability to focus. I read it that day and feel a kinship, but in my way I don’t say anything beyond some general words of praise. I continue to go back and reread it several times.
My father is released from the Veteran’s Home. He has convinced them that he is able to care for himself in the way that alcoholics can always convince people that they’re all right unsupervised. It takes him only a few weeks to stop taking his meds regularly. He lives in an apartment now. Once a week someone comes by to help him clean the place. He does nothing other than that but sleep and stare at the TV. He has hearing aids but never wears them, so the TV is far too loud.
In December of 2016, my mental instability hits a critical low. I enter one of what I’ve always called ‘black moods’, wherein my self-esteem and belief in hope are both so guttered that I cannot see a way forward. I’m depressed and angry with myself for being depressed, for being unable to get it together. I write a note entitled ‘If I’m Dead.’ I have no intention of killing myself, but I can no longer discount the possibility that it might happen, and my nature to prepare plans drives me to write the note just in case. It is an apology and an explanation:
I don’t know what this is. I have a problem. I want to die. I want to not exist.
My brain tells me that I should die. My brain is my enemy.
I want to be really clear about that fact. I know that I should not want to die. I know what it would do to the people I care about. I know that many of them would never, ever forgive me. I should say, too, that when I explicitly state ‘I want to die,’ I do not mean that I want to want that. Does that make sense? I wish, fervently, that my brain were not trying to kill me. I wish that it were not my enemy, because it has been my brain for nearly 34 years now, and I am well aware of some of the things it is capable of.
The day I write that, I reach out to an old friend. This carries an anxiety of its own; my problems have made me into a terrible friend. I go months, years without contacting people, each progressive day more and more convinced that after this long, they don’t even want to hear from me. I reach out nonetheless, because I know that I’m in a bad enough state to really need it. Despite my fears, they listen, they read the letter I’ve written, and they talk to me for a solid couple of hours, until I feel like I’m in control. My next step is to immediately call the doctor and schedule an appointment.
It’s January of this year. I explain to my doctor why I’m there. This is a new one. My old primary care physician has moved on, and so I have to find someone new to talk to. He listens, he’s patient. At the end he prescribes me a month’s worth of Zoloft to see how I handle it. My blood pressure is high, so he advises I change my diet and join a gym. I do so. I lose twelve pounds in a month and cut my blood pressure from 138 over 96 to 110 over 72. He’s impressed with my progress. I’m mildly annoyed with myself at how pleased I am to have his approval.
This past weekend was Emerald City Comic Con. It’s my second year in a row, my fourth in total. I am thirty four years old and have attended twice from 2008 to 2009 and now twice from 2016 to 2017. Those experiences are so far removed from one another that the two earlier ventures might as well be by a different person.
The night before last, I decide I want to paint my nails. I have never done this before. My spouse helps me when they get home from work. They are a dusky matte blue. I’m in love. It could be a combination of the diet, medications, and exercise, but I feel something like happiness. I smile when I look at them. I’m nervous about wearing them to work, to the gym, but not enough to let it stop me. That night I have an intense dream. In it, I’m screaming truths about myself to passers by, all wearing faces of people I know. None of them look at me. None of them care. It’s a terrifying intersection of my anxieties and issues. I sleep fitfully and wake up exhausted. I go to work anyway and spend the day admiring my nails and thinking about my identity. I write three thousand words filled with my thoughts, but I don’t publish them. Today, I go back and write another 8000. They’re about the same thing, but the message is transformed. Better.
I spend some time musing about how I was faintly embarrassed by tying my coming out last year to Captain America, only to immediately follow that up by tying this one to the X-Men. But evolution’s the thing. Improvement, progress. Each thing that changes me makes me more myself.
I have never truly felt like I belonged anywhere. I have known for many years that this feeling is not a function of the environments around me, but of the problems within me. Only in the last year or so has my understanding of that sharpened; I do not feel belonging because I am not comfortable with myself. I am not comfortable with myself because my self does not reflect me. I guess that this is dysphoria. It is not the feeling I believed it would be. It is not a gut-heaving revulsion at myself as I imagined, perhaps because I have read too many comic books.
Dysphoria registers as a low-grade humming in the back of my subconscious. It is not articulate or enlightening, it tells me only that something is wrong. And something is always wrong. The intersection of anxiety, depression, abuse, codependency. I am never completely okay. I fake it well. It’s exhausting.
I’m tired of being exhausted. I think I might not be cis.
yes you're trans
(if this isn't on your mind, please ignore this tweet. if it is, think about how that makes you feel)
— Magdalene Visaggio (@MagsVisaggs) January 9, 2017
March 08, 2017