My “father” married my mother to stop her from having an abortion. That’s the story. I was three months in utero.
When they got married, he didn’t know her but two weeks. He sent her home to live with my grandparents in a very small Catholic town—105 people—and she was already divorced. When you marry a divorced person as a Catholic—back then, anyway—you lost your sacraments, so the entire town—105 people—hated her guts because she took away his right to at least go to the high levels of purgatory and get into heaven sooner. It didn’t work out for her to be there very long because of all of the bias and stuff against her, so she moved back to Seattle with my father.
He was in the Navy, so it was a Navy brat sort of situation. The very first memory I have of him is being molested in the crib, and that sort of activity and violence. That sort of thing continued a lot for most of my life. I think, the last time he tried anything with me, I was 19. He thought I was my mother—he was drunk—and he kissed me at a party. After that, I didn’t talk to him for almost 20 years. But the sort of things that happened were being almost trafficked with his friends at parties, and just behaving as his wife. My mom left when I was 10, and people in the neighborhood didn’t realize I was his daughter all of the time. Our body language wasn’t appropriate.
The first time I attempted suicide was at the age of nine. I tried to rid myself of my sexual organs because that’s what they wanted and, I figured if I gave it to them, they would just leave me alone. But it didn’t work. Then at ten, I tried to overdose, and that didn’t work. At about thirteen and a half or so, I decided to shoot myself with a starting gun. I didn’t realize you wouldn’t really have any success with that—a little bit of powder burn and that was it.
A little bit before sixteen, I was just done. I couldn’t handle any more of it. Not only was I his wife, but I was my sister’s mother, and she called me mom. People thought that I was in that role, and I wasn’t very comfortable with that—not only because of what it was, but because I was going through gender identity issues almost from Jump Street. I was shirtless in my town. I was one of the boys. When I was sent to Catholic school, I had to wear blouses and skirts, and it was like wearing a foil cone on my head. It was totally foreign and not very convenient, so there was that in play, as well.
I went back to my grandparents’ house, which I spent the majority of my time at except for the last couple years prior to that, and I was going to kill myself where I came from. Just complete the circle. The guy that was closest to my age lived across the street. He was six years older than I was. He saw me crying on the front steps, didn’t know what it was about, asked me—and I didn’t care anymore because I was going to kill myself that day, so who cared who knew? He asked what happened, and I told him. He went into my grandfather’s garage and stayed there for about half an hour, and he came out and said I didn’t have to worry about it from him [my grandfather] anymore. He said it was important just that somebody else knew that he was doing all of these things.
It wasn’t until years later—probably my young thirties—that my oldest cousin sent me a letter. In that letter, he had said that he had tried to tell his parents that he had been molested by my grandfather, also. When I was little, I thought that [my cousin] was just a prude, because he was always telling me, “Don’t show your panties,” and, “Don’t let him see you like that,” and, “Stay away.” I thought that he was just weird because we didn’t talk about that then. I knew it was happening, but I thought it was happening because I was adopted and I wasn’t blood related, therefore I was disposable. I had no different knowledge at all about that.
I was in my young thirties, and he wrote me a letter, and he told me that. We corresponded back and forth a number of times, ‘cause we weren’t close. He lived in Des Moines and I lived in Wichita. It came to pass that, with his research and my research, we realized that, for at least two generations, my grandfather had molested every child in our town. That was a difficult thing for me to wrap my head around, because the guy who saved me was perped by him too, but he had the courage to face up to him. So I didn’t kill myself that day.
There were attempts later in life, but it wasn’t so much the fact that I had developed a sanctity of life, it was because I was very, very busy, and I had a lot of friends. I didn’t want to break plans with them. If I didn’t have a full schedule, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but I did have a full schedule, and I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I just kept on living. I said, “If I’m not busy, then we’ll take care of this,” but I was never not busy. Eventually, I became well-adjusted and self-valuable and that sort of thing.
The last time that I even thought of self-harm was two Fourths of July ago. My father and mother were married on the Fourth of July, and that was the last time that he tried something—when I was nineteen, on the Fourth of July. I caught myself behaving in a manner that reminded me of him in my sleep, but I didn’t want to kill myself that time. I just wanted to chop off my hands, so every sharp blade was locked in the trunk of the car for a while. That was the last time, about two years ago.
My father tried to kill himself when I was ten… I found him and cleaned him up and dressed him, and then I called 911, ‘cause he was still breathing. He was [in the] Department of Transportation. He started out as a state agent, but ended up being a federal agent at that time, and I didn’t want him to get in trouble. Because of the good ol’ boy network and his status in the state, he was listed as just being exhausted in the hospital. Came back out and wanted to try it again. Chased me with a knife… Behind closed doors, we had a very violent family life that we weren’t allowed to talk about at all, because he was just really well-known. When we did try and tell, we were just neurotic children trying to seek attention.
My mother actually did succeed in killing herself in 2006. She had Lupus. Lupus is a disease that eats all of your organs and, eventually, drives you a little mentally ill, so I didn’t begrudge her that at all. When she died, we discovered that she wasn’t the race or the age that she brought us up believing that [she was], so that was a bit of a shock. I had tried my entire life to find my half-brother and half-sister through her, and I couldn’t, and the reason I couldn’t was because they didn’t exist.
Mental illness has been prevalent in my life because of her. I always wondered—and I know this is a stigma—that if I got the crazy gene, if I’d be getting it from her. My therapist said, “Darlin’, if you’re walking around with your pants on your head, somebody’s gonna tell you,” so I was okay with that.
That’s my abbreviated story. I don’t know if we have life’s purposes. I’m not sure if life is random or constructed, but I have become blunt enough to be able to be honest with people. I have no fear about asking people if they have a plan. I have no fear of talking about it, because I’m not sure how normal I am, but I feel pretty normal. So, if I’m normal, they’re normal, too. If they’re normal, then you should be behaving normally.
Lots of folks have come across my path, and have been—and are—mentally ill. I think the experience—it’s not my life’s purpose, I’m sure—but the experience helped me help them. It’s trickle-down positive affectation, I think…
Des: Would you consider your mom’s death a suicide, or is it more like a death with dignity? Is there a line?
Cei: Well, the definition of suicide is killing yourself. It definitely would’ve been more dignified than being put in the hospital and being caused to soil yourself and not having control over your own life. I don’t know if a lot of the problems that she had could’ve been solved in a manner which would’ve given her quality of life five, ten years longer. I’m not sure. She didn’t practice good self-care. She was mentally ill to the point where she saved her feces and urine, and saved her hair clippings and nail clippings, because she thought people would take them and cast spells on her. She was a hoarder. There was lots of different processes in there, and I’m not sure if she was thinking straight. She was estranged from us off and on, and that was one of the estranged periods, so I don’t know if she thought that now was better than later, or if she was suffering that badly. I know she had health problems, but I don’t know. I don’t know. I think, in that situation, I don’t begrudge her the opportunity to do that…
Either way, it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around suicide being a bad thing all the time. I think, if you’re mentally ill, you probably should have somebody intervene. If you’re not, then I think it’s more acceptable. Most folks would think, “If you’re thinking about suicide, you’re mentally ill,” but I don’t think that’s always the case.
I don’t have any judgment or bias at all, ‘cause I couldn’t prove it one way or another. It’s a moot point now. I think that she was planning it for a long time, because she was the type of woman who had to have me pay her electric bill. We went through her finances [after she died], and she was paid up and paid over. Everything was in order, and everything was straightened out. It was as if she suddenly became cognizant and put her affairs in order and was planning this for awhile. I’m not sure that she could’ve been consistently mentally ill and so orderly at the same time. That’s another thing that makes it okay for me to think that it was okay for her.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Cei: It’s always an option.
I’ll use an example: You’ve got a cold. [You get] better. You’re gonna get sick again. Some folks are absolutely fine until they’re 53, and then they lose it, and then they become ill. Yeah, it’s always an option. Even if we’re talking about dignified suicide, who knows what illness or disease I get later that takes my quality of life? That can be an option, too. I think as long as you’re living, you have the option to kill yourself.
Even my grandmother, who was a staunch Catholic, encouraged me—she didn’t ask me outright, ‘cause she didn’t want to send me to hell—but she encouraged me to keep her full of morphine, which would cause an overdose, ‘cause it was a free pump. She didn’t tell me she wanted it. She didn’t ask me to do it, but it was implied. I think that was her way of [dying by] suicide through me, because she was in such terrible pain toward the end of her life.
Suicide’s always an option.
Des: What do you do when shit gets real?
Cei: So, what’s my daily habit? Part of me still isolates a little bit. I recognize that. But at this point in my life, at the age that I am, I’m terribly involved in the community. I have that thing where I have the full schedule and I have to complete it, so I can’t hurt myself because I’m always busy. It’s not logical, but it works for me…
[It’s] just staying involved. I’m gonna have really bad days, but I’m still involved. And when I am involved, I also tend to fake it a little bit. The whole “fake it ‘til you make it” thing, I think, is really kind of true, to a degree, in most folks.
Des: Is this just community of friends? An artistic community?
Cei: Yes. I am in the artistic community, but I also do charity fundraising, and I’m also a chaplain for a ministry in Omaha. I owe accountability to all of these organizations. I do conservative activism for the queer community. I respect the flag and I like guns, so I’m not sure where that puts me on the spectrum.
You’re looking at me weird.
Des: You’re obviously here [at the Midwest Regional Suicide Prevention Conference] being an activist about suicide. What else are you activisting about?
Cei: Violence against women is one of them, and equal rights for oppressed people. It’s not just queer folks, but the race issue—it’s worse in Omaha, which is 45 minutes away, but it’s pretty bad in Lincoln, too. We are almost a totally segregated town. Unless you travel different neighborhoods on foot, you wouldn’t know that anybody but your race lived there. I’m sure the minorities know, but if you’re a white person, there’s no clue, unless you go into an ethnic restaurant of some sort. I work on literacy, and then I work for the church, as well. It’s a nondenominational GLBT-directed church.
So, I do those things, and then if anyone wants me to help them, then I’ll help them… I’m user-friendly, and I’m practiced in a lot of different areas, so I go where I’m asked.
Des: What about the extremely high suicide rate among the trans* population? How can we change it?
Cei: I’m gonna say some unpopular things, and this is my flag-respecting, gun-liking self.
Within the GLBT community, transgender individuals are four times as likely to attempt suicide than the other factions. I believe that is because it’s a different struggle. I’m not even sure why the T is in the acronym, because it has very little to do with bisexuality and it’s more about gender, whereas gender really doesn’t matter when you’re gay, except for what you’re attracted to.
The struggle is different. You’re stuck in a body you don’t want to be in. There’s a lot of dysphoria. Largely, you don’t have much of a support network, except for maybe a network of your peers, and if your peers aren’t being supported, and you’re not being supported, there really isn’t a lot of support. Or [the support is] not educated, or misdirected, or overzealous.
…It’s harder. Folks can’t afford surgery or hormones, or their parents not only disown them, but vehemently disown them, and sometimes try and kill them. When you’ve been your mother’s daughter for twenty-seven years and then, suddenly, you’re her son, not only do they not have the tools to recognize that—because you’ve been in your head all your life, and they were just told that minutes ago—but in many cultures, that’s just akin to having an affair or having unmarital sex in many parts of the world, and they just kill you. A lot of transgender people who attempt suicide are in countries where there are absolutely no rights, and perhaps being dead is being better than suffering through the stuff that they’re suffering through.
I don’t know for sure. I had an incredibly easy journey, and still do. That part of my life has never caused me any thoughts of self-harm. But a lot of folks are without resources. They’re kicked out. They’re disowned. I came from rural Nebraska, and in rural Nebraska, where the hell are they gonna go? Especially if you can’t afford to move to a bigger city, and you’re the only person in your town, and you’re all alone. It’s hard to take.
Those are some examples, but it’s easier to blend in when you don’t have such a mountain to climb, I guess.
…I see many more incidences of young children being accepted. Accepted by their parents, at least. The controversy of their existence is getting awareness out there. It’s affecting school boards and [there’s] the whole bathroom issue. [That’s] a big deal. Slowly, things are getting passed where they are protected, like unisex bathrooms, and that sort of thing. I think, in urban settings, younger kids are having an easier time on a higher percentage than they did. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s better.
Des: I was thinking more about how it started with Leelah and, similarly, how it started with Trayvon. Now we’re paying attention. Is it helping?
Cei: I think it’s helping in two ways: It’s putting it out there. The more you talk about quinoa, the more people are going to eat quinoa. The more you bring something into the focus, it becomes a little more normal because you hear about it so much… I [also] think it gives other children—young adults—another opportunity to know they’re not alone, even if they can’t touch that person. The media, and social media, I think, has helped a lot. There’s trans groups all over the place—international and local and stuff.
I think it’s been positive, but I also think that it has a little bit of a negative spin, because a lot of stuff you see on the news is, “So-and-so killed themselves,” and they’re saying it’s because they were transgender, but they don’t mention the fact that it was [also] because their boyfriend broke up with them, or because they got an F. All those reasons are valid, too. I realize the trans community has a higher percentage of suicide. It’s a smaller community. The percentage is probably going to be higher because of the turmoil and the obstacles and stuff, but it kind of pisses me off that each suicide is not treated with the same gravity and weight, because it should be…
Des: We’ll blame it on being transgender, but we won’t actually talk about the challenges that people who are trans face. We’re just like, “Yeah, they’re dead now. Bye. Rest in Power.”
Cei: …You’re right, ‘cause the struggles aren’t pretty.
Laverne Cox. She’s beautiful. [She got up on a stage.] Didn’t talk about her struggles. She wouldn’t talk about her junk on TV. Really? ‘Cause that would be really helpful. It’s nobody’s business, but it would still be helpful. It’s not popular. It’s not pretty. You don’t want to talk about phalloplasty. It’s gross. It doesn’t even work half the time, but you don’t talk about that because it’s not pretty. It glamorizes the tragedy of a young person killing themselves because they didn’t have the resources. Well, that’s pretty language. If they, maybe, used language that wasn’t so pretty, people would stop and think more, because it would be more disturbing, or more real.
Des: How often do you deal with mental health and/or suicide in your writing?
Cei: I was counting all the different poems last night because I was reading them to my roommate. There’s quite a few in there. I didn’t even realize it. It must be in the back of my mind almost all the time…
Des: How do people react to your writing?
Cei: A myriad of ways. Some folks have said, “Oh, that’s really good. You’re just a good writer,” and some folks have come to me crying. I don’t know that I’ve saved anyone’s life, but I definitely take a difficult topic and make it public, because I’m not a pretty writer. I am pretty graphic sometimes. I think that’s a needed thing, because so many times, negative stuff is still wrapped up in Hallmark. It’s palatable and pretty so it can be done in public, but my stuff can be done in public. My stuff can be done in public, but it’s not pretty. I think, if anything, it puts it out there so you have to face it, whether you want to or not—if even for three and a half minutes.
It’s caused some conversations, and it’s let me make some friends who may have contemplated—and have contemplated—suicide because of the mental illness that they deal with. I’m really comfortable talking about whatever. I have friends who are bipolar and friends who have schizophrenia and just all sorts of things. And it’s okay. You’re schizophrenic and you have blue eyes. It’s the same weight in my head…
…I have several friends who just can’t deal, and they’ve considered harming themselves before, frequently.
Those are the folks who I ask, “Do you have a plan? Do you need me to stay with you? What you’re feeling is okay, but you can’t…”
I’ve driven a couple to the hospital.
Des: Where did you learn how to deal with suicidal people?
Cei: I have no freakin’ idea. No freakin’ idea. Well, a small idea, I guess.
My grandmother and my mother died within three months of each other. I’m not sure how I existed after that. I have epilepsy, and it was aggravated by stress, so I had to get a new neurologist. The neurologist was an idiot savant. Brilliant man, but picked his nose and talked at the same time. He shared his office with a psychologist, and they suggested that I go there, that it’d help with the epilepsy, ‘cause I was having cluster seizures three or four times a week sometimes.
She and I talked about suicide a lot, and she brought it out in the open so it wasn’t so scary. It wasn’t ever scary to me anyway, because it seemed to be a companion, but it was a different kind of not scary. Instead of there being a roommate, there was something abstract. I could look at it from a farther place. So, I learned from her the language to use, and how you can be comfortable with it. You don’t have to be afraid of it. It’s not something that is necessarily so overwhelming, at least from a third party point of view. She helped a lot.
I’m not sure if I’m really well adjusted or I just think I am, but I think I’m well adjusted, and I’ve gone through this stuff, and I’ve survived it. Like I said, it was my roommate, and even if you don’t like your roommate, you’re still able to speak with them most of the time. If you can speak with them, you can speak of them, and I think that’s helped a lot.
Des: Talk more about the companion—what that means, what that feels like—for somebody who maybe doesn’t get it.
Cei: Well, we said earlier, it’s always an option. It’s always there. And if it’s always an option, then it’s always with you. There were times where I was doing something that distracted me and kept my attention, but at that point in my life, I was so extremely upset and even disturbed for awhile. From the time I was sixteen ’til I was, like, twenty, there were voices in my head. All the time. Telling me how every action was going to cause me harm. I’m not sure if I was planning for myself in third person or if I had a mental illness, but one day, it just stopped. I don’t have any idea why.
You know when you’re a little kid, and you think, “Well, my parents are so awful, I’m just going to kill them in the night?” I mean, almost every little kid thinks that stuff—poison them with spinach or something like that. For me, it was, “If it gets that bad, I’ll just kill myself.” That was my out. That was my Plan B. I felt safe and comfortable with the fact that if I couldn’t handle it anymore, I didn’t have to handle it anymore—to the point where it really wasn’t disturbing or scary.
The only thing that was disturbing or scary was the fact that I didn’t have the tools to do it. I didn’t know how to get that. I was really comfortable living with the idea of suicide being the answer because it was always an answer. It was always my go-to, my—not necessarily a best friend, but somebody who could certainly help me out in a pinch. I think that’s why it was a companion, because it was always a possibility. It was always, “If this gets really, really bad, you’ll be okay because you can just die.”
Des: You mentioned that you attempted at [age] nine. How early were you having thoughts that you can remember?
Cei: I don’t know that I knew that you could do that, prior to then.
My grandparents were involved a lot in my life up until then, and when they got taken away from me, it was devastating. My grandfather just molested me. My father molested me and beat the crap out of me and called me names, so being at my grandparents’ house was always a better option. All I had to do was be in a separate room, dodge his advances, and that sort of thing. It took a lot of work, but it was still a safer, better place.
I think that my grandmother knew, but it was just something that you didn’t talk about in her generation, so her failure to protect was cultural, I think. There was enough involvement and support by caring adults then, but I didn’t even know the definition of the word, then.
My mom left when I was ten. They separated when we were nine, but once I was just with my parents, I guess the exposure to inappropriate television or older friends—way older friends—or popular culture, may have mentioned that. I think that I learned that it could become an option, or I was intellectually developed enough to know that you had a choice.
Des: Talk about pop culture and representation within that.
Cei: I don’t let my goddaughter watch network television at all, and she doesn’t listen to the radio, except if it’s an approved folk song or top 10 songs for kids or something like that, because the sanctity of life doesn’t exist in popular culture. People would say rap songs are really, really bad, because they objectify women and all that. Have you listened to country? Really? I mean, it’s a slower beat and the words sound like honey, but it’s just as bad.
I think over most methods of media, especially television, every program past [the age of five] that’s not animated is all about death, and before five that’s animated is pretty much the same thing. Even back then, The Road Runner always killed the coyote. He just came back to life.
I think that teaches children that their life really isn’t important, that somebody can kill somebody and it’s all good because you caught the bad guy, but life isn’t important. Nobody really mourns the folks that get killed in these shows. People are objects, and objects can be thrown away. There aren’t very many opportunities in pop culture that teach that life is important.
You hear, in religious circles, that life is important and it should be valued, but not very often, every day. The news shows death. They show beheadings in the five o’clock news when the kids are eating dinner. [We see pictures of beheadings on social media and nobody really pitches a fit], but you show a picture of a kill shelter with little bags of dogs and everybody just tears you a new one.
I think that we’ve just been trained to believe that most of us aren’t important. And if you’re not important, then you’re easy to throw away.
Des: Talk to me about sanctity of life versus the idea that suicide is always an option.
Cei: I think the sanctity of life part comes from the folks who would support you, because if you’re suffering from mental illness, I don’t think you’re cognizant of the fact that you are valuable enough. I don’t think you’re cognizant of the fact that there are resources, because you’re not well…
I think the sanctity of life is more about your support circles, and them rallying them around you… Most of us have our network and our friends and that sort of thing, but I think we need to be a little braver in reaching out. I think we need to be a little braver.
If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can’t feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada). If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don’t like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to Taryn Balchunas for providing the transcription for Cei’s interview.
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