Op-ed: At the Last Moment, I Chose to Live
It was the very beginning of spring in 1997, the time of the year in New Jersey when the temperature is just beginning to warm up. Heavy winter coats are put away until fall and the sweatshirts and light jackets come out.
I was still presenting as male, and I hated myself for it. By then, I knew who I was and how I wanted to live my life, but I still hadn’t mustered the courage to make it happen. I’d been online and I’d discovered that there were people, an entire community in fact, who had been designated male at birth and had successfully transitioned to live as women.
The process of discovery was enlightening and even exciting, but after a while the darker side of my transgender self-education began to assert itself. The more I learned and reveled in the courage of these women, the more ashamed of my own cowardice I became.
I wanted to be like them. I desperately wanted to escape the closet I’d locked myself into for the first 35 years of my life and present myself to the world as the woman I knew myself to be, but I just didn’t know how. The fear, indeed the outright terror, of revealing the single greatest secret of my life — the one truth about myself I’d only ever told a therapist I hadn’t seen in several years by then — was very real to me.
I’d heard the stories of rejection by friends, families, wives and partners, and professional colleagues. While to this day I’ve never seen any credible evidence backing it up, a popular statistic being thrown around at the time online was that 50 percent of transsexuals didn’t survive long enough to transition. I had no trouble believing this to be true, because I’d reached the point where I knew with certainty that I could no longer bear to keep living as a man.
This wasn’t unfamiliar territory for me. As a teenager and young adult I’d been a punk rocker. The music spoke to me, but my interest in it was also a misguided and completely ineffective attempt to cure myself by fully indulging in every aggressive and stereotypically male behavior that made sense to me at the time. Drugs, alcohol, violence, even shameful indulgence in the overt racism, misogyny, and gay bashing that were so much a part of the punk movement of the ’70s and ’80s became my way of trying to re-create myself as a man. In reality, the harder I tried to convince others of my manhood, the less I believed in it myself and the deeper into depression I fell.
At least three times I’d come within moments of intentionally overdosing on something before deciding, for reasons I’m still not certain of today, to take about half the dose I’d intended and just make the pain go away for several hours instead of sending myself to an early grave.
By 1997, I’d been off hard drugs for several years but the depression remained. My greatest fear was that if I came out and began living my truth, I would lose everything I held dear in my life. I was convinced that my family and friends, my coworkers and bosses, everything and everyone I cared about would disappear and I’d be left all alone. I’d completely internalized what the culture had been telling me about myself for years. I saw myself as a freak, someone who could never live a normal, happy life, someone who would be shunned, hated, and mocked by the rest of the world because of who and what I was. I didn't want to live as a man anymore, but I was even more terrified of the alternative.
I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. I hated my life and I hated myself for continuing to live it. I saw myself as a worthless coward who didn’t deserve to live. The only viable option I could see was to put an end to the pain of the deep depression that by now consumed my every waking moment. I came to the conclusion that the world would be better off if I were just a memory.
Days went by as I went through the motions of my life. No one knew. I wouldn’t allow it. I’d spent my entire life keeping my secrets and was quite adept at presenting a false positive face to the world regardless of what was going on with me internally.
And then, one day, I decided it was time.
As I did every weekday, I went to work that warmish spring day at my job as a messenger and production assistant for a local market research firm. I loaded up the company van and set off on my morning rounds. After making my first stop as I always did, I came to a small girder bridge over a creek I crossed every day on the way to my next stop.
This time, though, I took my hands off the steering wheel and let the grated metal road surface pull the van toward the side of the bridge. In that brief moment, there was a calm, an inner peace as I mentally prepared for my life to end.
The passenger side mirror slammed into one of the girders, smashing it into the window and spraying me with chunks of safety glass. Instinctively, I grabbed the wheel and pulled away from the side of bridge, no more than a split second before the body of the van would have crashed into the side of the bridge as well.
I pulled the van into a small dirt parking area on the other side of the bridge, put it in park, and sat there, covered in glass chunks, sobbing uncontrollably for what seemed like hours but was really just a few minutes. Finally, I stepped out of the van, brushed off the glass from my clothes, and shook it out of my hair. I just stood there for a while, watching bits of sunlight reflect off the surface of the water.
It was during those moments, as I contemplated the natural beauty of the site where I’d chosen to end my life, that I came to realize I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live, but on my terms, as the person I needed to be, as the woman I needed to learn how to present myself to the world as.
Death was no longer an option. I had to make it happen. I needed to find a way to live, no matter what the consequences.
I got back in the van, finished my morning rounds, and lied to my boss about the broken window. At lunchtime, I went to the local Barnes & Noble and bought the first and only transgender-relevant book I found on the shelf, Transgender Warriors by author and activist Leslie Feinberg.
Obviously, I found my way out. I may not be thrilled with every single aspect of my life, but with the help of good friends, a supportive family, and a damn good therapist I learned how to love and respect myself, to take joy in living, and to look toward the future with hope instead of fear and despair.
Too many of us don’t make it this far. A recent study indicates that 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in their lives, a rate 25 times higher than the general population. Some, like me, survive that moment of weakness and go on to live as the men and women we know ourselves to be. Others don’t.
Consider that for a moment. More than four out of every 10 of us try at least once to take our own lives. That’s a truly stunning figure, one which we as a community should be paying far more attention to than we do. How many more will we never know about because they succeeded?
The resources are out there, but we must do a better job of connecting those in need with those who can help. Those of us who are suicide-attempt survivors must tell our stories to those who need to hear them, and we need to do it now.
Last week, a trans woman I know tried to hang herself. Luckily, her friends and allies put out the word, the online trans community sprang into action, and she’s now getting the help she needs. Not all of us are so fortunate.
We need to work harder to make this stop, to bring that number down. It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
REBECCA JURO is a journalist and radio host who writes about media for Advocate.com. Her work has been published by The Bilerico Project, The Huffington Post, Washington Blade, and Gay City News. The Rebecca Juro Show streams live Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m. Eastern.
Anyone struggling with harassment, depression, self-harm, or thoughts of suicide should reach out to support networks like The Trevor Project, which offers a free, confidential 24-hour hotline for LGBT youth. The Trevor Lifeline is available at 1-866-488-7386. Others may want to reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.