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The Unbearable Weight of Accepting Gifts
Today is my 34th birthday. Though plagued with other problems, because of events in 2001, I struggle to feel truly safe accepting gifts.
Today is my birthday. Various problems in my life, such as the fact we are once again struggling to keep the farm, plague me to the point where I cannot enjoy it, but I admittedly struggle with gift-giving holidays and have for over two decades now. While many joke and meme about their “personal 9/11” online, a number of events happened in 2001 that stuck with me forever and have caused me lasting trauma to this day.
When that fateful year rolled around, I was in 7th grade at Baylor School, a prestigious prep school in Chattanooga. Though my parents had nowhere near the sort of wealth to pay that tuition, I was able to attend on scholarship due to my academic achievement. For some obnoxious reason, the top students in the 7th grade were given the “honor” of doing the busywork for the middle school (8th grade) graduation. Bitter about this and stuck on campus until after the graduation ceremony was over, I wound up sneaking out early and wandering around.
At the time, I was painfully aware of the fact that I was transgender. The fact that I had to put on a boy’s uniform for school every day was especially taxing for that reason, a reminder I couldn’t experience the kind of upbringing that actually felt genuine. I had to play a part. This was greatly exacerbated by the fact my family put an extreme amount of pressure on me to perform. From a very young age, I was expected to always be performing leaps and bounds better than even my “gifted” peers.
I even spent a lot of the tail end of 2000 grounded because I got an 92 on my first report card in math — a grade determined in large part by project to construct a cube that could hold exactly one liter of water. Despite eagerly wanting to decorate it, my father insisted it would “distract” from my work and barred me from doing so. The project was peer-graded, and I was given an 85, despite it perfectly holding exactly 1 liter of water, because my 7th grade classmates thought it was “boring.”
Despite this utterly horrific 92 I inflicted upon my father, I still found myself one of the top kids in the class wandering around campus the night of the middle school graduation. And then I saw it. A uniform skirt in lost-and-found. The school year was over. The chances it belonged to anyone still at the graduation — let alone that they would come looking for it after — felt impossibly low. So I slipped it into my backpack.
Two months later, my parents found it. My dad screamed at me about it, expressing how much it profoundly bothered him. When forced to explain why I had it to someone clearly angry at me for wanting to wear women’s clothes, I said that it was because of a powder-puff football game. He determined that wasn’t true and then said I was grounded for the rest of 2001 because of “lying.” This would be the last time either of my parents would directly bring up what happened ever again.
Apparently, the day of 9/11, my dad told my mom he wanted a divorce. I did not know at the time and just went to school like it was a regular day. But something suddenly felt off afterwards. A few weeks later, in early October, they told me. Though the skirt was not mentioned again, I was told that I was no longer grounded. While relieved, it made it feel as if a symptom of my gender dysphoria had triggered a divorce in my parents. They promised things would be really good despite them splitting up — that I would have the best Christmas yet. That this wouldn’t ruin anything for me.
And then my mom accidentally let it slip that she had gotten me Final Fantasy X on Playstation 2. Except there was a problem. I didn’t have a Playstation 2. Being a clever 13-year-old, I almost immediately surmised that that was what my dad must be getting me. Despite me not doing anything wrong, my mother freaked out about how my dad would react if he realized she had basically spoiled the surprise and spent the weeks leading up to Christmas freaking out about whether I would “perform surprise” well enough.
When it rolled around, I put off opening what I knew was the Playstation 2 as much as possible. I used the fact my brother had gotten a K’Nex set that he was eager to start building but felt overwhelmed by to focus on that instead. Finally, I was forced to open the gift I absolutely wanted but felt incredibly anxious about “performing” correctly around opening.
While I did “perform” well enough, that quickly turned into arguments with me — and then with each other — about how I needed a PS2 memory card to be able to save any games, first arguing with me that it’s “compatible with PS1 memory cards” (but only for PS1 games) and then freaking out because there would be no way to get me a memory card quickly with everything closed.
Despite loving that Playstation 2 and Final Fantasy X, it was the worst Christmas of my life, and the only Christmas or birthday since I have truly loved is when I was turned 16 in Japan, completely disconnected from all of the weird, stressful family drama and pressure I experienced, and could simply enjoy eating some Kobe steaks in metro Kobe with people I did not feel were expecting me to perform for them on my birthday.
While I have come to accept that my parents were never meant for each other — and, in fact, learned when I was 18 my dad admitted to my grandparents that he didn’t love my mom and only married her to try to create the “perfect genetic combination” for his kid to be a “genius,” starting those extreme expectations before I was even conceived — the year 2001 for me was an experience in thinking my being trans had split my parents up and that I was ultimately profoundly alone dealing with my problems, that good things only came when I “performed expectations” exactly right.
To this day, I’m extremely reluctant to accept gifts that I’m worried I won’t be sufficiently visibly excited for. I’ve turned down things I wanted because I only mildly wanted them and not deeply wanted them. To have any hesitation when I want something spikes my anxiety that getting it will only come with more pain and trauma. All because of a Playstation 2 over two decades ago.
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