Crossing a painful divide

For years, Ben Power felt he was born into the wrong body. Transitioning, and peer group support have helped, he tells Caomhán Keane

SUSAN Woods had picked her spot. Sat behind the wheel of her BMW the father of two had found the perfect place to end her life. Conscious of the fact she had been trapped in a man’s body since the age of four she had no more fight left in her. If she didn’t transition she’d die.

But, taking her car to 120mph, her mind was filled with the possible consequences of that decision. “I was facing the loss of my wife, my family, my earning ability. My place in society, ” she says. “My identity, as every one knew it, was about to change.” Feeling like she’d failed as a man — and not knowing if her kids could cope with a transgendered father — she planned to speed into an exposed bridge pillar off the Ashford Bypass.

“I simply couldn’t see how I could solve all the problems I faced.” But when the moment came to turn right and end it all, she drove on. “I’d love to say I’d had a change of heart. But I just couldn’t turn the wheel.”

Cases like Susan’s are not unique. According to the Trans Mental Health and Well Being Survey conducted in the UK and Ireland between June and August of last year, 78% of respondents claimed they had considered ending their life at some point. 63% of those had considered it in the last 12 months, 14% thought about it every month and 15% thought about it on a weekly basis. 40% had attempted suicide.

Some relief was provided in transitioning, the act of medically acquiring the body one wanted. 81% of those surveyed said that they thought about suicide less after they began the process.

Ben Power started transitioning from female to male in 2007. “Before coming out I tried so hard to be the person the world expected me to be. But I just wasn’t that person.” Trying to give his sister an idea of what he was going through he asked her to write something with the wrong hand, then to apply that feeling of awkwardness to her entire body. “That’s how I felt, all of the time.”

While Ben suffered with depression throughout his life, it now intensified. “I locked myself up in my bedroom, not leaving the house. It was an effort to just get out of bed, let alone go to college, which I eventually dropped out of. I spent long periods sitting at home thinking about how I was going to kill myself.”

“No other community in this country has such a high suicide rate,” says Vanessa Lacey, health and education officer for the Trans Equality Network Ireland (TENI). Despite this TENI are given no funding from The National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP).

“With a rate of suicide like we have, for the NOSP not to take us seriously is frustrating.”

Ben’s hermitic ways would return after careless words left him plagued with anxiety. “I had nights out where I would put on the binder and feel really good about the way I looked. Then some guy would read me as female and come on to me. When you have made this huge effort not to be a woman and have that kind of epic fail it really can knock you for six.” He hasn’t worked since 2010 and between his loss of earnings and waiting for a medical card, he couldn’t afford hormone treatments and started to bleed again.

“I have no problem with the fact that I am trans,” Ben says. “But it’s the problems that go with being trans — family rejection, work issues, difficulty getting the right medication or referrals for surgery — that’s where the depression comes from.”

But when you consider how high the figure is prior to transitioning only 9% said those feelings remained after it. “My marriage broke down but I’m still great friends with my wife,” Susan tells me. “I have my kids three times a week, I kept my job and prospered in it, and the support and understanding my friends have shown has been fantastic.”

The challenges facing the community are still immense. Another survey of 800 health professionals in the HSE found that 90% of them had not had any trans-specific training. While most wanted it, a troubling 26% said they did not. “It’s a brick wall,” admits Vanessa. “You’ve struggled after all these years. You’ve come out or you’re about to. You’ve lost your health care because you’ve lost your income. Yet you want to transition. And the system in Ireland just lets them down.”

“No matter who I went to,” Susan says, “I had to spend the first two or three sessions explaining to them the issues I was facing. They wouldn’t understand. They had no experience of dealing with us.”

TENI do have their own information line. “It was supposed to signpost services available. But it became clear quite quickly there was a greater need and many of the calls involved suicide prevention,” says TENI director Broden Giambrone.

Rejection and isolation were the main reasons people called the service. “But if they’ve called me, they want to live, ” Vanessa says.

“They want me to find that reason for them to stay alive. Once you find that glimmer of light you can build on it. I put them in touch with someone who can help them, or with their local support group so they no longer feel so alone.”

Peer support is probably the biggest factor in changing the lives of trans people for the better. “Trans people meet others they identify with and who identify with them,” Vanessa says.

They have social occasions as well — nights out, bowling, movies. It’s about normalising their situation. Because if you look after people’s mental heath, if you look after their physical health, if you look after their families, you increase their chances of becoming a functioning part of society, becoming part of the workforce, paying taxes. ”

“My work with TENI is what has kept me going,” Ben, co-fascilitator of the Cork Support Group, says. “The work I do with them is geared to getting me back into the workforce. It’s amazing to see the difference in people, who come into the group quite and shy and within months have come into themselves.”

The support groups play an important role in looking out for people when they are at their worst. “If a person is feeling down at least they have their friends in the group to talk to if they can’t reach TENI, who can in turn alert us of a problem.” Atlantic Philanthropies, who were TENI’s core funders, have pulled out of the LGBT sector. But the HSE have stepped in with money to develop health pathways for trans people in Ireland and to provide education to service providers. Last year the group trained the Samaritans in Kilkenny, Carlow and Galway, and there are plans to expand that to other branches.

“With visibility of transexuals rising, the support groups have trebbled in the space of a year,” concludes Vanessa. “That’s due to TENI’s success at awareness raising. As people come out, identify and feel more comfortable with being trans and families become more aware and tolerant, suicide rates of 40% will start coming down. If we keep people on the planet then that’s a success.”

*Susan Woods’ name has been changed.

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