When Two Worlds Collide: Part 1- A World Turned Upside Down
This is the first segment of an essay in three parts.
Two years ago my world turned upside down.
Readers of PITT might assume this was the day my young adult daughter announced a transgender identity. But that nuclear bomb was actually detonated in our house six months later. No, I’m talking about when after a week of unexplained high fevers, two drive through Covid tests, a trip to our pediatrician to rule out strep, flu, and mono, and a trip to our local hospital for labs my teenage son was diagnosed with high-risk leukemia.
Looking back there were signs that my son was sick. He was coming home from school and taking a nap. He couldn’t seem to stay warm. While other boys in his school weightlifting class were adding weight to the bar and bulking up he was benching less and less and losing weight.
I had randomly read an article in a magazine about a child with cancer whose mom initially became concerned when she noticed how pale her daughter’s lips and face were. I noticed that about my son too but dismissed it. I think in my gut I knew something was seriously wrong but didn’t want to accept it. So when our pediatrician showed up at our house the evening my son’s labs were due back, my husband and I knew immediately this couldn’t be good. Our doctor gently broke the news to my husband and me, then to our son, and finally to the rest of our kids. He stayed with us for about an hour while we all cried and he answered our questions the best he could. Then he told us our local children’s hospital was waiting for us and we needed to go right then.
The next few days are a blur. My son was very sick by that point and within hours of arrival had IVs in both arms giving him blood transfusions, platelets, saline, antibiotics, and medication.
Over the next week and half in the hospital he had additional blood, bone marrow, and genetic testing to confirm the diagnosis, banked sperm, had surgery to place a port, and began chemotherapy. In terms of childhood cancer we got the best of the worst. Childhood leukemia has a good prognosis and my son is receiving excellent care. But the treatment is a grind.
Over the last two years we’ve stayed almost 40 nights in the hospital and made weekly trips to the oncology clinic at the hospital for treatment. My son has had 12 different kinds of chemotherapy given many, many times, sometimes stacked two or three at an appointment. His hair has fallen out and grown back twice. He’ll be in active treatment for about 3 years total.
Boys actually get an extra year of treatment because leukemia can metastasize to the testicles. Hmm, funny how biology matters. Then he’ll be followed for an additional two years until he’s finally declared in remission.
With my daughter, there was no inkling. No gut feeling that something was wrong. Like so many parents describe, her announcement came out of the blue. We were completely blindsided and had no idea how to react. We told her we loved her and would try to get her some help.
Her announcement was more of a shock to me than my son’s diagnosis. If my son hadn’t needed me so desperately I might have crawled into bed and never gotten out. I used the excuse of my son to hide out in my house. I had no idea what to say to family and friends about my daughter.
Initially we affirmed her in her belief and made some attempt to use her chosen name and alternate pronouns. I searched online for information, any kind of lifeline that would tell me what to do. With my son, his treatment was difficult but his oncologist and medical team told us exactly what to do and we did it.
The only information I could find online about my daughter was that if we didn’t go along with what she wanted we weren’t loving parents, she might run away, or worst of all kill herself. I was wracked with anxiety for both my son and my daughter. I could barely eat and lost weight.
At one of my son’s appointments a nurse we hadn’t seen for awhile said, “Wow, you’ve lost weight. You look great.” Little did she know. “Thanks.” I said. “It’s stress and anxiety.” She realized her gaffe and apologized. But it was true. I could barely function.
I stayed awake at night worrying and crying. I stopped returning phone calls and texts. Finally, a good friend became so concerned about me she came to my house to check on me. I confided in her about my daughter. I repeated what my daughter had told me. “She doesn’t want this. She didn’t ask for this, but it’s innate and can’t be changed. Her brain doesn’t match her body. She was somehow born in the wrong body.” My friend listened to everything I said, then very compassionately questioned what I was saying. She told me she was confused by the idea that my daughter was born in the wrong body. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “How could someone be born in the wrong body? We are our bodies.” She told me that she, herself had a history of anorexia- that she had used restricting food as a way to feel like she had a sense of control. She thought this sounded like a similar maladaptive coping mechanism. She told me she had a friend who was a therapist and she would ask her about it.
My friend forwarded me the text response from the therapist and it changed everything. I vividly remember reading, “Many clinicians do believe in affirming a transgender identity, but there are a few therapists in an online group I’m in who are questioning whether this is the only approach.” I felt an inkling of hope for the first time in months. The therapist sent a link for Gender: A Wider Lens Podcast. I binge listened to every episode that had been released (there weren’t that many at the time) and each new episode as it came out.
My hope deepened. I realized there was another way to frame what was happening to our daughter. I searched for and found other resources. We walked back our affirmation. I happened to overhear the therapist we had found for my daughter telling her in an online session that “If your mom would just realize that you are an adult and can make your own decisions…” and “If your mom would just support you in your true identity”… “you would feel better.” We ended the relationship with that therapist and were fortunate to find one that is exploratory.
Using strategies gleaned from Sasha and Stella, fellow PITT parents, an open-minded Facebook group, articles, books, podcasts, etc. we have managed to begin to extricate our daughter from her transgender identity. She rode the fence of nonbinary for awhile and just recently during a conversation when she asked me if “I actually knew any trans people” and I told her, “Well, I know you” she said quietly, “Well, I was trans but I’m not anymore.” I haven’t dared to push it much farther but am holding my breath and the line of reality for her as she slowly awakens.
Honestly, I’m not as relieved as I thought I would be to hear those words come out of her mouth. Other parents have expressed the same sentiment. I think it’s because I know she is still very vulnerable. At any moment she might slip back into the identity. And I realize there are issues that made her vulnerable to being pulled into a transgender identity in the first place that we are going to need to address. But just like with my son, I’m incredibly grateful that it seems our scenario is the best of the worst. I know there are many families who haven’t had the same outcome.