By Michelle Bonnet Hale
Talking with the smart, empathetic doctor in the Bartlett Critical Care Unit, Jim said, “I’m done with HRT. That’s it.”
An edit I suggested to Jane’s column, “Stigma that kills,” that did not make it in, was my silent comment to myself at those words of Jim’s. “Dodged that bullet,” I thought.
But even then, I knew not to put too much stock in Jane’s comment about hormone replacement therapy. You don’t take CCU promises too seriously. Nor do you hold people to them. The time was tumultuous and dangerous, the relief at understanding the solution to a life-threatening problem immediate and fresh.
A lesson Jim Hale has taught in his writing classes is to ask yourself when you sit down to write, “What am I trying to say, who am I saying it to, and why?” The clearest answer I have is to the second question. I am saying this to partners and spouses and family members and friends of people who make that hard choice to transition, those who love those who are not at home with the gender they were born with.
It was a wildly confusing time for me. It was a time that was both exhilarating and terrifying for Jane (who was still going by Jim then; I have mastered neither the change in name nor pronouns so they appear in a randomly alternating pattern, and Jane is fine with that).
I did not see this coming. And when it arrived, I had no idea whatsoever how to figure out myself in this new reality, nor did I know of any resources to turn to.
When your husband is transitioning but has not yet come out, you just don’t talk about it. With anyone.
I slowly did find resources. I located some great books. I talked to my doctor and she recommended a truly excellent counselor, who I am still seeing. My dear sister-in-law was in on it from early on.
But the single comment I remain the most grateful for was made by a friend who knew through his partner about Jim’s transition. He was on vacation when I called, but he was 100% there for me as I stumbled through my confusion. His words: “You deserve your own process.”
Whoo. Just like that, my grief, my bewilderment, my struggles were deemed valid. Not that Jane had trivialized them, but rather that neither of us having gone through this before, we had no idea how to even begin thinking about it.
Another resource is online, OurPath, that was until recently called “The Straight Spouse Network.” The name was changed to reflect the broad range of people who grapple with someone transitioning. It also reflects the broad range of responses of those of us on this end of the equation: We each deserve our own process. Each person’s path must play out in its own specific and particular way.
Advice to those counseling people about transitioning: The more you can provide help for family members, the easier the process will be for the person transitioning. And I don’t mean anemic “use the right pronouns” advice. I mean real resources for people struggling with deep and legitimate questions. This is completely unknown territory for most people. I felt thrown to the wind with my own struggles.
We talked. We talked a lot. We had hard conversations. Through them all, I remained committed to Jim Hale. As I said when Jane first talked about wanting to transition and as I still hold as a primary truth today, I didn’t fall in love with Jim Hale the man, I fell in love with Jim Hale the person. Jim or Jane, I’m still in love.
When I was helping care for my grandma, who had dementia, I took a Savvy Caregiver class. The shining lesson from that class was that it’s not about me. This lesson is particularly important for being with people with dementia, but “it’s not about me” resonates for me in all walks of life. During one particularly searing conversation, Jane sitting at the kitchen table, me on the couch, I expressed one of the many hardships I felt confronted by. I saw Jane’s face literally fall, collapse. She never wanted this to hurt me.
In that instant, I realized that as hard as this was for me, it was exponentially harder for Jane. The call for me to be supportive to my partner had been there throughout, but was obscured at times by my own confusion. Although I do deserve my own process, my loyalty and commitment to Jane come first.
Yet they can coexist. I didn’t dodge a bullet because there is no bullet. There is just life being life, people being people, all of us trying to figure this out as best we can.
• Michelle Bonnet Hale serves on the Juneau Assembly.