A letter to… my mum: “You don’t know who I am, even though we speak every week”

Letters To... Candid Orange

TW: Suicide, self-harm, substance abuse

Dear Mum,

I am writing this to you knowing you will never read this. I am writing to you because in our family all our feelings get locked away inside a box and I have yet to find the key to talk to you. I am writing because you told me when I was sixteen years old that you will never call me my name, and that was that. I am twenty now, with a moustache and a shaved head, I am a man, with a voice that’s depth and warmth fills my chest, and yet to you, still a daughter. I am writing more than anything because you don’t know who I am, even though we speak every week. I am writing and you are not reading because the shame of disappointing you has become an all-consuming monster, watching me from every corner of every room.

I remember the first time you found anything that would suggest I wasn’t who you wanted me to be. I had bought it for pride, a t-shirt reading ‘I’m gay, get over it’. Purple sparkly letters, it was something I had hidden, terrified of your raised voice and how it seemed to shatter the windows in the house. You held it up to my face, so much calmer than I had expected, for a moment I held on to hope. “No you aren’t.” was all that you said to me. That was enough for me to understand, this was not up for discussion.

There is so much we never said to each other. My school forced us into family therapy when they saw my wrists. Two hours a week filled with “I don’t know’s”, and how I had gravely disappointed you. Three accident and emergency visits, my stomach full of pills from your cabinets, and emptiness on my lips. Because how can you tell your mother she’s the reason you want to end your life at fourteen years old? That the dresses you still lay out on my bed for me to wear made me want to disappear completely. You told me on that last drive to A&E that I was ruining your life, spat in a rage. I still can’t tell if you meant my suicide attempts or my failed gender.

I remember when I bought my first binder, the fabric slipping through my fingers like a dream. The hooks down the side running down my chest, squashing that hated growth. I finally felt like I could breathe, although my lungs caved in at the pressure, coughing up blood, a paradox I couldn’t give up. Hidden under t-shirts, one day I found it, cut up into slices and dissected. It’s new home under the sink, with the microfibres and old underwear dusters. I hated you more than I could ever say for that, my heart and hope lay with it, sliced up, under the sink. The world was against me in those days, and I thought you were too. It crosses my mind now, you probably had no idea what that soft piece of cloth was. How could you? I never told you, never explained how when you brought those expensive kitchen knives home from the boxing-day sales, all I could think about was finding the courage to slice myself open, to push a fist inside my chest cavity and pull out tissue, or maybe my heart. Because not existing always felt easier than talking to you, than making you cry.

I remember you cried when I cut off my hair, the one thing that I had that you gave me. Uncle Alan called us ‘frizzy wigs’, black curly hair out of control like a cartoon witch. Everyone said that I looked just like you; hearing that filled me with acid. I hacked it off with the kitchen scissors when I saw fourteen. Blunt blades scratched against years of keratin and history. How you used to plait my hair in the mornings, sat on the floor in between your legs, you pulled at my scalp, every time you touched me felt like a punishment, That was the first time I really thought you could seriously hurt me. “She” and “her’s” fell from my scalp, littering the streets of my hometown, like a snake sheds his skin. I was desperate to shed you. Now my hair runs away from my face, just like dad’s did in his twenties. Hair bleached, no leftover curls of yours.

I think I understand you sometimes, how you felt my gender was a personal attack, as I cut off everything that ties me to you. Threw away the name that you christened me with, injected myself to rid those hips that could make me a woman, a mother like you. It’s not your fault that womanhood felt like a prison to me.

Last year was the first time I spent Christmas away from you. I had found myself in some boy’s arms. Even eighty miles away from you, I could not escape the pronouns spat with malice. I cried in the bathroom, as they told me not to make a big deal out of it, that it wasn’t their fault I wasn’t a man. I missed you like a drowning man misses oxygen. Lungs filled with off-hand comments, burning up my insides.

Even if you never knew my name, you knew my heart. When that boy left me, as he always would, you were there. You taught me how to live again, to nourish myself like a plant in a nursery, as you did when I was your baby girl, to wash my hair, to feed myself. You sent me a gift, a knitted cactus, smiling with a heart. You laughed, told me it was something I couldn’t kill for once. I think about how through everything, I could never stop you trying, in your own misguided way, to make me happy, to put down the cigarette, the bottle, the blade. On the brown paper postage, there it said, my name. The one you said you could not call me, written in your perfect handwriting. I smile knowing this we will never talk about this either. I may have failed you as a daughter, but I will always be your stubborn son. Both of us together, never admitting we were wrong.

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Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.