How do I begin to tell you about a person who went from almost ending their life, to profoundly impacting mine?
What could I say to do justice to someone whose struggle and courage challenged me to rethink my limited perspectives and ultimately become a better person?
Before I start, It would be remiss for me not to point out that while I am an extremely open person about myself and my life, my friend is more private, for reasons that will become obvious.
Yet I do not feel I could possibly convey what makes them so extraordinary without revealing some very personal things. While I’m not naming them, it may become obvious to some of you who I am talking about. I want to stress that while they are bravely allowing me to talk about this candidly and even use pictures they have been linked to, please be considerate to them and respect their privacy.
Fifteen years ago, I received a friendly email asking for an invitation to our weekly game night. I didn’t know very much about this person, but their email was witty and charming, so I struck up a conversation online that lasted hours. We talked with the openness and rapport of people who had known each other for years.
I wasn’t sure why, but I felt an immediate bond with them that was undeniable.
Less than a week later, we met in person, instantly comfortable with each other. It was the beginning of an intense and profound friendship. Their character (or fursona) was a husky, an apropos choice for someone who exuded a warm, gregarious, playful energy. However, as I would soon learn, hidden behind that wagging tail were terrible scars.
A little over a year prior to that email, on a lonely December night after a long period of confused depression followed by an emotional breakup, they had attempted to drive off a bridge. One of the most beautiful souls I've ever met is still here today only because of some sand barrels and forgetting to not wear their seat belt out of habit.
In subsequent hospital stays, they would be officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which while not exactly great news, at least helped explain their emotional turmoil and provided key information for future potential treatment.
I had gone through periods of what had seemed like serious depression before in my own life, but I had never before really seen or understood what day to day life was like when you have bipolar.
After being diagnosed, they were put on medications that helped considerably. They seemed to have hope and purpose again. They would return to college and graduate, and later get a very good job with a well known tech company, something that they’d always hoped to achieve.
I was incredibly proud. We may talk about mental illness more openly and with less stigma these days, but there’s a big difference between sympathy and empathy. Their achievements would be impressive for someone NOT suffering from bipolar, but so much more so because of it.
A few months after we’d met, they’d introduced me to the concept of pups (puppy play) and the idea that some people enjoy roleplay as a dog, even without a big furry costume. I’d heard of this but I’d never personally known someone into it, or at least that had told me. But this was my friend, so why not use this as an opportunity to learn?
I ended up buying them a personalized tag for their collar one day that read “Always be proud of who you are.” Quickly, I learned the magical power of the words “Good dog!”
Soon after they revealed they were also into ageplay, which in simplified terms is an adult who enjoys roleplaying as a child and, in many cases, wearing diapers. It’s crucial to stress here that it is NOT some kind of twisted sexual thing, but actually due to the desire to be cared for, to feel young again and free of the stresses and responsibilities of adulthood. It is not my own personal interest, so please note that I’m sure it means a lot of things to a lot of people, and this is just my attempt to provide a brief, if inadequate, explanation to those unfamiliar.
Granted, many people have negative associations with the idea of wearing a diaper by choice when it isn’t a necessity. But the people who obsess on this particular aspect, are missing the big picture of why it is desirable; it isn’t really about diapers, it’s about a feeling. To reduce it to something easy to target is a common, if unfortunate tactic. But if someone is into this (or frankly ANYTHING that does not have a direct negative impact on the lives of others), and they are discreet and respectful about it when venturing into public, what is the value in harboring negative feelings and cruelty toward people who only want to find some temporary peace, comfort and joy?
Admittedly, I myself did not have a particularly favorable impression of this when I met my friend, but again, I already cared about them, and I felt it was not just an opportunity, but my responsibility to try to carefully reconsider my perspective. It is weird? Perhaps less so when time is taken to examine the reasons and effects, but regardless, should that really matter? I'm quite fond of my own glass house.
It’s also important to note that they didn’t spring these things on me long after we became friends, but were open about them very early on.
Maybe they expected me to be scared off like others had been, but it was the opposite: I actually preferred damaged people, as long as they had a good heart, were honest and did their best to fight their demons. As someone who also felt damaged and had long ago tired of pretending I wasn’t flawed, anyone willing to admit vulnerability but also showing a desire for self-improvement was absolutely my kind of person. It takes way more courage and insight to reveal the things you struggle with, especially when they aren’t incredibly obvious, than it does to pretend you’re perfectly fine.
Over the next several years, there were plenty more ups and downs, but although we had inevitable disagreements, nothing really ever seriously threatened our mutual bond.
As much as I have tried my best to provide whatever I could for them, they have always been at least as generous with me in so many ways. Sometimes I’m the one who needs emotional support more. They are wise, honest but compassionate, always willing to help out when I need computer assistance yet again or just sound advice on something troubling me. They are also creative, insanely capable of anything they put their mind to, be it music, coding, photography or any number of other things.
Sometimes, during the good days, its almost possible to forget that anything is seriously wrong. That version of my friend, full of warmth, silliness and laughter, is irresistible. But over time I have become just as familiar with seeing them with the numb, blank look of someone just trying to survive, for days and sometimes weeks on end, knowing that I cannot hug or console the darkness away. I can only be there, to wait and hope that the roller coaster goes up again soon.
I had to learn that what might seem like a lack of progress did not necessarily mean lack of effort, and how to be supportive even when the response seemed like it wasn’t working. How to maintain the delicate balance of honesty while also being sensitive to the emotional impact of that honesty. I personally feel that value of bluntness can be overrated; you don’t get points for honesty if you’re wielding it like a weapon, without compassion.
How to not smother someone with too much well-intentioned, but unrequested analysis and suggestions when what they actually need is a little love, space and time to decompress. But simultaneously also recognize the dangers of not paying enough attention, since they are constantly battling their own damaged self-image and how often the default mentality is “I don’t want to burden those I care about with my misery.”
Then came a brand new unexpected challenge. Roughly around two years ago, during the same time that we were all trying to deal with the daily horrors of worst president in history, police brutality and a worldwide pandemic, they revealed to me that they were transgender after becoming increasingly disillusioned over time with their physical appearance.
This had never once been mentioned in our almost 15 years of heart to heart talks, so I was extremely caught off guard. I have to admit that one of my first thoughts was “is this just a new symptom of their bipolar negative thoughts? Was this decision brought on by the pressures of all the other miseries going on right now?”
But as complex as those questions were, it also risked delegitimizing their feelings and beliefs. I was scared. Scared for them, scared that I would say the wrong thing in trying to understand and talk about it, scared that it meant I would lose large and cherished parts of a person I knew and loved so deeply.
It's one thing to talk a big game about support when it’s a hashtag and you’re dealing with sterile moral concepts instead of actual familiar people. It’s another when it’s your best friend (or partner, or family member). Someone you already thought you knew almost everything about. That’s when you find out what is truly in your heart. What its like to retrain your brain from every "he" to "they" after 15 years of it being automatic, and the guilt you feel every time you don't catch it before they do.
I thought, “well, as long as it makes them happier overall”. Except it often didn’t seem to.
Because I was struggling to adapt and desperate for them to be happier, in my self-centered frustration I questioned their decision, which was never my decision to question. Of course, I’d forgotten the most obvious thing of all:
The cautious joy of beginning to accept that you can finally be who you desperately want to be, is often negated and overwhelmed by the fear of not just being rejected by the world, but also how the people you love are going to treat you because of it. Even when they are clearly trying and doing their best.
To say that the last few years have been rough is a vast understatement that all of us can relate to. It’s been the darkest time in my life, and it’s really forced me to change my perspective again to try to find a way to feel hopeful.
But imagine that in addition to all of that, you are someone with bipolar, someone coming to terms with being transgender and not being able to tell the people you are closest to for so many years, all while trying to hold down an intensely demanding high-level tech job and keep your marriage (that some people want to take away) together. Someone plagued by horrifying nightmares on a regular basis, and a voice in your head that never stops lying to you in the most horrific and traumatizing ways.
And here is me, constantly urging that things will get better and trust me life is worth it and your life is objectively better than you are able to perceive it and literally anything I can possibly think of to say that doesn’t sound like an idiotic cliche motivational poster.
Nothing snaps you out of your numb emotional daze than someone you love matter of factly telling you the too specific ways that they’ve considered ending their life with the casualness of someone listing what to get at the grocery store.
It’s a LOT, and however overwhelming it feels at times for me, it’s only a fraction of what it is for them.
I don’t know what I’d do if I lost my friend. “You’d survive,” they say.
Sure, I’d survive. But survival is not living. It’s not having hope and joy and peace. It’s not giggling together about the dumbest things, it’s not the serenity of feeling the fragile heartbeat of someone who means the world to you as you affectionately wrap your arms around them. It’s not being there to experience the euphoria of the highest of the highs or absorb the tears during the lowest of the lows.
I don’t want to survive. I don't just want to live. I want to thrive. In spite of everything. And I want that even more for them.
I need my friend. Selfishly, perhaps, but I need them and I will fight anyone and anything that threatens their safety and well-being. Sometimes blindly, sometimes clumsily, sometimes foolishly, but always steadfastly and with absolute resolution.
My friend is not quite the same person they were when we met 15 years ago. They're more private, more subdued, more measured and somewhat less social. They’re not even the same gender.
But they are still here, still battling, still loving, still caring, still doing their best to live up to their own insanely high standards. Still not giving themselves enough credit for just how much they’ve accomplished, because all the critical voices are loud and angry. Both the deceitful ones inside their own head, and the ones in our very own government and society, doing everything in their power to discredit and hinder my friend’s life, and the lives of so many other wonderful innocent people who only want to be themselves, to be allowed to be happy, to be free of hate, violence and wanton cruelty.
I try to be louder than the angry voices. But I recognize sometimes it’s hard to be heard above all the endless noise, and sometimes silence can be a relief.
My friend admitted to me that they often feel bad for not having accomplished enough in life. A problem I can absolutely relate to, and have thought a great deal about.
I sighed, took a moment to make sure I chose my words carefully. And keep in mind, most of this isn’t just true for my friend, but most of you reading this.
“I know you want to have a great impact on the world, in a way that is undeniable and monumental. But the honest truth is that you already have. Maybe not in millions of people, but undeniably in some pretty good ones. And what you give to those people, they can give to others, and those give to others, and it spreads on and on just like the Butterfly Effect. Everything we do matters.
You don’t need to cure cancer or save the Earth to be living a worthwhile and admirable life.
You are valid simply by being yourself, but the wisdom, compassion and effort that you’ve shown in the face of great adversity makes you someone I have always been proud of and will always be loyal to.”
It’s okay to feel fucked up, confused and scared, because we’re ALL fucked up in various ways for various reasons, whether we are brave enough to admit it and valiant enough to try to improve. Our legacy is what is in our hearts, what we manage to put our focus and effort into when everything claws at our sanity and threatens our existence. Being determined enough to find actual joy in something, without regard to whether or not it will be accepted and understood by everyone everywhere, instead of finding fault with everything.
Even when so much feels irreparably damaged, we can be a critical ray of hope in a world of ever-encroaching darkness.
Daring to be different, not only true to our own “weirdness”but proud of it in the face of ignorant critics who seek to control others when they are powerless to fix their broken selves.
To admit our struggle, to offer help when possible yet brave enough to ask for it as well.
We’re in this together, just as we’ve always been and shall always be. Love may not be able to cure all, but it can still be our fuel in the long fight ahead.
We are beautiful creatures not in spite of our traumas and weaknesses, but because of our ability to love, forgive and persevere in the face of them. They may sometimes detour us from our originally chosen paths, but they do not and cannot define us, nor dim the radiant light we shine on the people and things we care about.
There will never be enough eloquent explanation to properly express the profound positive impact my friend has had on me, the invulnerable love I have for them, or how much it’s meant to my life to be a key part of theirs.
Fortunately, there will always be two magical words that never fail to earn me an instant smile.