Mary

Right at the center of our little village, Swanton, VT, in between Flat Iron Park and the Episcopal Church, there lived a mysterious woman named Mary. Mary lived in a once-majestic house, squeezed in between two other more modest-sized houses at the other end of Grand Avenue. It took me ten minutes on foot to reach her house from mine.

Whether walking to the middle school, or walking to Tiffany’s house or walking with friends somewhere else, you had to walk by Mary’s house to get into the middle of town. Passing along all of the houses on each side, you witnessed neat, tiny lawns, trimmed edges, wreaths hanging on front doors, and potted plants hanging along porches, overflowing with hot pink azaleas. Everyone’s house looked the same as everyone else’s house.  That is, until you got to Mary’s house.

Her house was the size of a small mansion, at least for Swanton, VT.  It might have even been one of the original houses to be built in Swanton, although I couldn’t say for sure. It was easily one of the biggest houses along our main route, and a bit out of place. It had no distinct color, as the paint had faded and chipped away so badly over the years. It was grey and crumbling, betraying the fact that absolutely no one had tended to its outsides in decades.

Mary’s front lawn, instead of being mowed and weed-wacked along its edges like its neighbors, was instead occupied by three or four border patrol cars that never, ever budged. It was almost as if one day, there was some kind of raid at her house, a handful of border patrol agents haphazardly parked on her front lawn, and then just never left.  Their faded mint green coloring and old rims conveyed that this apparent raid had taken place many, many years ago.

Beyond the border patrol cars sprawled a huge front porch, but instead of hanging begonias, or wreaths made by twigs from Flowers By Debbie, or a welcome mat, her porch was lined from one end to the other, from top to bottom, with bulging, black garbage bags. They seemed to take up every inch of the porch, covered the windows and threatened to spill over at any moment. It was certainly a sight to behold when you came upon her house. It was fascinating, and a bit disturbing, at the same time.

Garbage bags and Border Patrol cruisers couldn’t have screamed “Keep Out” any clearer.

Mary herself did not look disturbing whatsoever though. On the rare occasion that I actually laid eyes on her, she looked like any other old lady walking her dog. Sometimes, she seemed a bit overdressed for August, what with her multiple sweaters and hat and scarves, but there was nothing else at all out of place about her, other than her house, really.

My own sightings of Mary were few and far between, but each and every time I walked or drove into the village with my parents, I searched for her.  Occasionally I would see her walking past St. Marie’s store, her dog on its leash, her head down.  I would press my face up against the window and crane my neck as we drove past, enthralled with this mysterious woman who marched to the beat of her own drum.  Really, that was what seemed to draw me to her:  She was not like many of the other people who lived in Swanton and it was a bit refreshing and I’d wished I could know her better.

One day, as I was making my up Grand Avenue somewhere, (I don’t recall where), I noticed that she was headed toward me on the same side of the street. She had her dog with her and her head down as she always did.  Minding her own business.  It was such a rare moment that I actually saw Mary, and I was so intrigued by her house, and why someone would want so many garbage bags and border patrol cars on her front lawn, that it was even more exciting to me to see her in person than when the Swanton Festival arrived each summer in our little park.

I wanted to say hello to her. To show her that I was not afraid of her and that I was friendly. For some reason, it was important to me that she know that.  I think I wanted to be her friend.

As I cautiously continued on down the sidewalk, I watched as we slowly grew closer to each other: her, hobbling along with her sweet, calm dog on its leash, and me, my heart beating out of my chest, and unable to take my eyes off of her. Her dog did not pull on the leash, or yank it to go smell a spot of grass; it walked at exactly the pace Mary walked, and seemed completely content and happy to be with her. By now, we were only a few feet away from each other with the distance getting smaller and smaller. I could make out her canvas shoes: blue with white shoelaces and white soles.  They looked worn, but comfortable.  They reminded me of my grandmother’s shoes.   Her pants were blue as well, and she wore a heavy flannel shirt, which covered other shirts underneath. She wore a scarf around her neck and a babushka that tied underneath her chin. I could hear her shoes scraping the sidewalk, but only in-between the loud pulsing happening in my ears.

This was my moment.  This was my chance to say hello to her and make myself known.  Who knows, maybe one day I would walk to her very house and bring her some cookies.  Maybe one day I would sit in her mysterious house and she would tell me stories about her life and I would learn from her wise words.  As the two of us grew closer, my adrenaline grew stronger.

Just as she and I were about to pass each other, I smiled and raised my hand, only just a bit, in a friendly wave, and said, “Hello” pausing my step just slightly.

It was as if I wasn’t even there. As though I were completely invisible. She didn’t even look up. She didn’t even miss a step. Had she not heard me? How could she not have seen me? I wanted her to know I was friendly and nice. It was so important to me that she know that!

As she and her dog passed me, completely unfazed and seemingly unaware of my presence whatsoever, I felt so stupid. I had built myself up so much, had almost had a heart attack envisioning a momentous moment where I possibly make friends with the mysterious and infamous Mary of our little town, and she hadn’t even known I was there.  Or worse yet, didn’t care.

I continued on my walk, glancing over my shoulder after a while and noticed that Mary looked exactly the same as she had her entire walk down Grand Avenue. My heart began to slow and my embarrassment began to wane as I tried to figure out what just happened.

Maybe it was me who needed to feel accepted and approved of, and not the other way around.

Troy and Rachel: My teachers, my guides.

*  Troy and Rachel are fictional characters in order to protect the identities of anyone I’ve worked with…although I’m sure we can all see parts of ourselves in their eyes at one point or another.

Troy and Rachel

He walks into my office, arms folded and head down, and sinks into my couch.  No hello, no how are you.  I quietly shut the door and slowly ease myself into my rocking chair, my eyes on the young man in front of me who is desperately trying to fold into himself in the corner.

His name is Troy.  On a good day, he toys with the idea of someday calling himself Amber, but today is not a good day.  Today, is a very bad day.  One of the many very bad days we’ve spent together in my office.  They come and go like many good days and bad days do for the rest of us, but with Troy, the bad days feel more like torture.

Troy is 16.  He is short, with dirty-blonde hair, a small bunch of freckles scattered across his nose and green eyes.  Beautiful green eyes that shine like emeralds on good days, when we talk about the latest Colbert Report episode, and eyes that look almost lifeless on days such as this.  We sit in silence for a little while.  A familiar silence that isn’t  awkward or uncomfortable.  We’ve been working together for over a year now and he has taught me a great deal.

I’ve learned that he feels like he has the wrong body.  He actually hates his body.  Sometimes, he cuts himself at night, alone in the bathroom, when he wants to crawl out of his own skin.   I’ve learned that on very bad days, he often comes in with long-sleeved shirts.   I’ve learned that he’s thought about killing himself more often than he has not.

Despite being born male, he feels more female inside.  He has no idea why he feels this way, or when it really started to take root.  He didn’t even know what he was feeling until the last few years, and until recently, had no idea who to talk to.  On these very bad days, Troy’s self-loathing and self-hatred is so apparent and so intense, that he can barely stand to be in the room with me.  He avoids my eyes and his hunched shoulders and averted gaze seem to beg, “don’t look at me, I’m horrible”.   We sit alone in my office, him staring off into space, and me, holding myself back from going over and wrapping my arms around him.

On days like this, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what “issue” the person across from me is struggling with.  I’ve learned that when any human being despises themselves to the extent that Troy does, that simply staying with them in the room and being with them is all I can do–if they’ll let me.

After 10 minutes of silence, I casually say to him, “Justin Timberlake’s new album just dropped this week”.   Earlier in our relationship, we talked about obscure Indie rock bands that we liked, educating each other about our “high taste” in music, until he courageously admitted he really liked J.T.

“Me too!” I concurred, and we made a pact to never breathe a word of it to anyone else.

At my comment, Troy gives a half smirk and fleetingly glances at me, as a courtesy, “yeah, I know I bought it off iTunes”.  He doesn’t move, but I’ve brought him out of wherever he was into the room with me.

“I’m kind of disappointed in it, to be honest” I lament, “except for “Suit and Tie”.  That’s a decent track.”.

Troy ever so subtly shifts on my couch.  “Yeah, I’ve listened to it a few times now.  Some of his other songs are starting to grow on me.  Just give it a few tries”.

I argue a little with him, “I don’t know.  “Mirrors”makes me want to gag.  It’s just so corny”.  He smirks again.

And then I know what will stir him up, and despite the almost sacrilege of it, I say it anyway.  “Well, I’d rather listen to him than The Damn Beatles” I say.

“Are you kidding me?” He blasts, his green eyes a little more alive than when he first walked in.  “How can you say that?  That’s got to be a sin or something!”.

“I know, I know” I smile.  ” You’re right.  I feel like I should go to confession or something, but I cannot tell a lie and I really have never understood the whole Beatle thing”.  We both sit up a little bit higher in our chairs as he stares at me in almost-disgust, which is wonderful.  At least he’s feeling something other than what he was.

We move from The Beatles to horror movies and talk about things that scare us to the core, which oddly somehow brings us to a conversation about Stand Up Comedy.  We find ourselves laughing about a Robin Williams routine he did about the origins of golf.  Troy can do a perfect Scottish accent.

Then, there is Rachel.  Rachel is a 15-year-old High School student whose anxiety feels insurmountable to her.  She is newer to me, but I have a growing affinity for her.  I have watched her sit on my couch on the verge of telling me, “I’m gay” a few times now.  Her eyes well up with tears, she visibly starts to shake, and her lips quiver almost imperceptibly.  She half-opens her mouth, but then quickly looks away from me and says, “I forgot what I was going to say”.

“It’s ok” I tell her, “It’ll come back to you at some point”.

These are the private sides of our LGBT youth that most people don’t see.  Most people see Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of a magazine and pass judgement around like one would pass a bowl of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.  Most people see two men, or two women, walking hand-in-hand or showing each other affection, and comment that there is no need to flaunt it.  Most people here about the Supreme Court decision and are offended that these people should have the same right to marriage.

For me, and many other psychologists, this is the side of our LGBT youth that we see on a weekly basis.  Self-loathing teenagers with fresh cuts on their arms.  Young girls with so much fear about uttering their own truth that they can’t even bring themselves to say it aloud.

On very bad days that all of these young kids have, they have taught me that my job isn’t about diagnoses, or techniques, or textbook approaches, or new medications, or trying to convince them of this or that, or labels or categories.  They have taught me that it’s not about if they are a boy dressed as a girl, or a girl dressed as a boy, or gay or bisexual.  They have taught me that my one and only job is to sit with them and be with them and make sure they understand that they are worth knowing, whoever they may be.

As Rachel packs her book bag to leave, and grabs her skateboard, she awkwardly mumbles something about “maybe I’ll remember next week” as I hold the door open for her and tell her, “Well, either way, I will be here waiting for you to arrive”, hoping that somehow, she understands what I mean when I say it.

By the end of my session with Troy, he is slightly less hunched over than before and has his hands in his pockets.  As we both move to go, I sit on the edge of my rocking chair, my hands on me knees, and I look him in the eyes until he meets my gaze and tell him, “I’m really enjoyed your company today”.

He gives me a half-smirk, moves toward the door and says, “I’ll see you next week”.

I find others’ judgments about the gay and lesbian community almost comical.  Almost.  It’s just so typical.  And I am grateful I don’t share in their sentiments.  I consider myself lucky to know these young kids.  I am lucky that they have taught me how to look at them as a human being who wants to be accepted as they are, like anyone else.  I’m lucky and honored that they have trusted me enough to allow me to join them on their paths.  I’m lucky that I get to spend my days with them.

They have been my greatest teachers and thank goodness I have been paying attention.