CONTENT WARNING: SUBSTANCE ABUSE + SEXUAL ABUSE
There has been a movement in the recovery community to utilize "person-first language" in regards to substance abuse. Individuals with substance abuse disorders, however, have every right to name themselves using the language of their choosing.
I’m occasionally inclined to compare the formation and history of my addiction with my transgenderness, all the while calming my inner queer activist with the grave admonishment that “one is a terrible, potentially lethal disease” while the other…? The other is something other entirely.
Still, addiction and transgender arrive early to the party and never leave, although sometimes they are nearly impossible to find. In me, they both had a way of insinuation, shadowy and interstitial, until something called them forth to make manifest. For decades, my life was both informed and governed by a prohibited desire.
There’s an artfulness in both the addict’s and the dysmorphic’s brilliant capacity to compartmentalize and self-mediate. In their ability to delude, they are unparalleled equals.
Someone might have observed my eating of five bowls of Honeycomb cereal in a row at age five as the potential for excess, the burgeoning sugar addict. Maybe someone noted that the child who stole from his mother’s pocketbook to pay the 7-Eleven man for chocolate might have some problems with self-regulation. Nine, ten, furiously pedaling my Stingray bike to buy candy bars, burning through bags of M&Ms…
Our family went to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where I bought beach fudge to share, only to find myself hiding in the attic in shame and compulsion, eating the entire pound myself.
By the time alcohol and pot emerged on the scene, I was already primed, already disgusted with myself, full of secrets and rotten with rage. By the time these things became of utmost importance (age 13), I had already been molested, I had already been defeated, I had already surrendered to the obvious: that I was a girl from whom things were expected.
This is not to say I had some horrible, Dorothy Allison upbringing — on the contrary, my tomboyishness was absolutely encouraged and even given valance. I had a wild childhood capering between the horsey pastures of Virginia and the dilating urbanity of DC. The sixties and seventies might have been the very last decades of a kind of childhood innocence, a kind of youth experience that television and other media now foreclose.
"I WOULD LIKE TO SUGGEST THAT TRANSGENDER EXPERIENCE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO EXPLODE OUR HIGHLY CODIFIED UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN IN A BODY."
So I sometimes think of these two embodied inhabitances together: transgender and addict. I fought them for as long as I could. I don’t know what “causes” gender dysphoria—maybe it, too, is a genetic disorder, like Klinefelter syndrome or hemophilia, or maybe it is, like addiction, a concatenation of events, one of which is a neurochemical receptor with a certain little allele, an as-of-yet-undetectable polymorphistic flourish.
I would like to suggest that transgender experience has the potential to explode our highly codified understanding of what it means to be human in a body. Maybe that’s the difference for me: addiction coils one inward while transition unfurls one outward.
"YOU CAN’T GET SOBER IF YOU DON’T SOFTEN UP. SOBRIETY DEMANDS A NEW FOCUS, A NEW VISTA, ONE THAT INCLUDES OTHER PEOPLE AND THEIR SUFFERING AND TRIUMPHS; IT REQUIRES SPENDING TIME WITH PEOPLE YOU MAY NOT LIKE, AS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH."
It is tricky and even heretical to suggest that transgender is somehow like alcoholism. I fetishized every single object in my father’s jewelry box — a fetish I’ve managed to keep, apparently, as I find myself buying knives, cufflinks, watches, and tie pins I have absolutely no use for except that they are immediately soothing. This collecting, and the rich, subconscious (male) life I’ve led are, in some unclear way, related to the compulsive candy-buying, in that there was a neural itch I had to scratch or go mad.
But the doper’s need for dope and the transguy’s need for transition are essentially different. Even a wordy motherfucker like me cannot describe what it’s really like to be transgender. Many of us can report that we “feel” like a “man” or a “woman.” While I don’t know what it “feels like” to be either of those things, I do know what it feels like to be in the body of a betrayer. I know what it feels like to long for a flat torso and not breasts and curves, and long to be seen as a man. I know what it is to live with greedy eyeballs that catalogue gestures, stalk men and their ways, how they tug their shirts, how they pull fabric from bunching their balls, how they walk and move and exist in space and time—all while finding them equal parts revolting and horrible.
One of the (many) things I have come to admire about twelve-step programs is their ability to soften people. You can’t get sober if you don’t soften up. Sobriety demands a new focus, a new vista, one that includes other people and their suffering and triumphs; it requires spending time with people you may not like, as a matter of life or death.
My practice of this counterintuitive relating was essential for me to survive my time in Butner, North Carolina. It was my connection to other men—some of whom I found terrifying or, worse, boring—that allowed me to move beyond my immediate Sad-Sam story and find help, and even grace.
Transitioning from something like female to something like male, in spectacular and unexpected ways, gave me a deeper, somatic experience of being a part of everything. Spiritual work in sobriety helped me understand how we are not separate from one another at all, that we are all One, as it were.
But transitioning put that on the ground. I’m writing this during North Carolina’s recent political blunder, HB2, or the “bathroom bill.” It’s vexing to see such sadism in humans. Until we begin to acknowledge that our meek and tiny selves rely on meek and tiny others, that we are interdependent, until we break the terrible American addiction to “independence,” we will keep producing men like the men I lived within Butner—men who were in desperate crisis, yet willing to maintain their isolation from one another at the probable cost of their lives. We will keep reproducing political structures guaranteed to punish the already marginalized, while perversely enlarging the status and power of those who need them least.
Both addiction and transgender have bestowed a great many gifts to this human transguy.
Addiction’s gifts come from recovery.
Transgender’s gifts come from embrace.
This excerpt is the Afterward from Sam's memoir TRUNKY (transgender junky): A Memoir of Institutionalization & Southern Hospitality from Transgress Press.
Samuel Peterson is a recovering addict and transgender activist who believes in the power of personal story-telling. His work is in Kate Bornstein's next-wave anthology, Gender Outlaws: the Next Generation, and Vinnie Kinsella's anthology, Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi, and Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life. He's been a rocker, a woman, a tattooist, a performance artist, and a junkie, and lived to tell all the tales. Now he lives happily in Durham, NC and considers himself fortunate indeed to be alive.