Creating Safe Spaces in Dangerous Places

Photo by Morgan Martinez

Photo by Morgan Martinez

In 2016, I took a huge step and moved back home with my parents. For many, this might not be a huge deal -- perhaps meaning they gave up some level of pride, independence or direction in their life at worst. But for me, this meant I was moving back in with my abuser.

I had quit my job because I had been at crisis symptom level for two weeks; a few months after I had admitted to myself that I was bipolar, just like my dad. Overwhelmed with anxiety, anger and a strong urge to hurt myself and others, I arrived home in a pile of defenseless, tired vulnerability, prepared to start the process. I needed something to stop the voices in my head (both figurative and literal) so desperately that I didn't have time to assess the consequences of going back into the lion’s den.

Right before I started taking my first round of meds, my dad and I fought for the first time in years. I've avoided him tactfully all throughout my college career. It took exactly a week of me living at home for him to bring me to tears, browbeating and mocking me over a harmless opinion I had shared. This elevated into nasty emails from my dad, telling me how toxic, bitter, and overly sensitive I was. I read his words aloud to my mom through tears as she drove me to the train station to visit my partner over the weekend (I have my own car, but my mom was worried about me being behind the wheel with how suicidal I'd been). 

My mom cried too as I read the emails, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the wheel harder. “I'm so sorry, that is unacceptable,” she told me. “I'll take care of him, don't worry.” I love my mom, but that was just another empty promise.

On the train, I pondered how exactly I'd be able to survive living at home, especially when I was trying to recover from bipolar, PTSD and alcoholism. I felt like running. With the stress my dad puts me under, the way he refuses to treat his own bipolar,  He is one of the causes of my PTSD, how could I really achieve the mental health goals I need to living under that roof?

With the help of meds giving me so much peace I had never experienced before, and my loving partner, I figured it out. Living in my room had always felt difficult, as its usual arrangement always reminded me of a traumatized past. I had never been able to quite get motivated enough to change anything about it. But my partner came up to visit me for the weekend and helped me set everything into motion.

We worked tirelessly altering the entire layout of the room, picking up some cute organizational tools and decorations from Target to spruce it up. We threw out 12 bags of junk that were clogging my space. And by the end of the weekend, I felt like I could breathe again. Like the space I was in was actually mine, and filled with my own hopeful and warm energy. I had successfully exorcised my room of my dad.

Once I checked myself into an outpatient program, I took off into doing my own thing. Five days a week, I was surrounded by loving folks who understood my diagnosis and my gender.  They were ready to help me do my best every day. As soon as I'd get home, I'd go back up to my room, a place I now loved so much. Within those four walls, away from everything bad, I coached myself through anxiety attacks, wrote stories, did yoga and watched a wild amount of The Sopranos. Besides the stir-crazy feeling an unemployed person can sometimes get, I felt happy. But every time I'd walk downstairs and be greeted by my dad, I'd feel my safety be compromised all over again. Especially, since my dad wasn't supportive of me doing something he should've done decades ago.

So, I decided to make a rule: Dad couldn't talk to me no matter what the circumstances were. I had pretty obviously ignored him for months, but my dad has a hard time picking up on the hints I dropped. This became apparent after I started taking an antidepressant and appeared more cheerful and sociable than I normally would. Fearful of how he would react to me, I told mom to tell him about this new rule. We stopped talking completely.

Asserting myself and setting that rule hurt my dad, but that only made it better for me. Not only could I have the power to rid my space of my dad’s voice and energy; I had the power to hurt him at long last.

Creating safe spaces in dangerous places is tiring work. I was reminded of this when I woke up one morning to Donald Trump being our president-elect. For the first few weeks after hearing this news, I had collapsed. I felt terrified to be a newly out trans man in America, something I didn't anticipate needing to worry about further based on the election results.

I felt immensely depressed because my future seemed bleak, because my excitement about transitioning vanished into concerns about surviving. Google Docs circulated telling folks that they should change their gender marker now. I don't feel ready for that -- I felt so overwhelmed. How could I possibly be myself and be happy now?

I've written about my trans identity plenty of times, but I don't tend to talk about it much in the real world. So, I brought it up to my therapist, a lovely radical and trans-accepting feminist that I've been seeing since September. There, in that room filled with white furniture and sage-scented incense, she created a safe space for me where I could talk about being a man. She addressed my concerns with trans-positive words, making me aware of many of my options and helped me look forward to certain goals of my transition I set with her. I felt seen and loved -- like as long as she sees me, I could never disappear. We ended the session with a safe space meditation, a guided experience where she helped me visualize a place I can escape to when I feel that I need it. I visualized a cozy bed on a sea-green ocean floor.

The power of friendship, of belief in yourself, of online communities and constructed safe spaces -- real and imaginary, tangible and intangible -- is something I learned to hold on to. If we’re going to survive treatment, abusive people and hateful leaders, we have to create safety for ourselves and be resources to the safety of others. Though it can sometimes feel impossible when the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us, this year I've learned we can always rely on the kindness of our community and the strength of our character to build us back up again. If I get tired, I can always escape to my ocean bed.