Voices on Addiction: A Body Full of Ghosts

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When you grow up in a conservative Christian household it feels like the world is always ending.

We really started going to church after my dad got sober. We went to church in other church basements, in strip malls, in high school gyms rented out on the weekend, and for a while, an old drive-in movie lot turned megachurch. We didn’t only go to church Sundays, but also Sunday nights. We went to youth group on Thursdays, and held bible studies at our home on Wednesdays. These were churches where the congregation spoke in tongues, where folks fell out of their seats, wild and flailing with the Holy Spirit. Hallelujah. Amen. Praise God. It was the 1990s and so the pastors were worried about the gay agenda and the corruption of the world. They saw hellfire and the Anti-Christ everywhere they looked.

I learned two things from these churches.

1. The Devil is everywhere.

2. The world is never not ending.

I think you can find the Devil or God in anything if you look hard enough, and already the world has ended for me several times over. Once when I got sober and again when I came out as a trans woman.

 

My mother’s father was a Catholic turned Evangelical Christian born during the Depression era. He lived in Nepal for years and then back in Portland, Oregon where he married a British woman and moved to a trailer park. One afternoon, the sun bright and splintering, he came to visit us in Salem, where we had moved the year before. I was young and this was the middle of his Nepal missionary days before the trailer park and the British wife. Within minutes of entering our house he announced a demon was present.

It was like he had some sort of machine, a demon detector, that went berserk the second he entered our home. This is what I mean when I say that for evangelicals the world is never not ending, and the Devil is everywhere. We couldn’t even have lunch without an exorcism.

He went from room to room, hunting the demon, looking for the monster hiding in my parents’ bookcase or in my sister’s CD collection. When he got to my room, he gasped.

It was 1997 and I was twelve years old, so my walls were covered in alien posters, the kind with bulging foreheads and empty, wet eyes, pale gray skin.

“The Devil has come in through these posters.”

It was the first time my parent’s religion began to crack for me. I liked those posters, and ever the Aquarian, I was obsessed with aliens, so said the large collection of alien books I kept on my shelves.

My parents wouldn’t hear it. They made me take down each of the posters, toss every last book. It was important that I be the one who toss out my things. I’d brought the Devil into the house, so it was up to me to get rid of him, a lesson in carrying the tension and bowing to the comfort of others. I remember the bright blue trashcan, all my books and posters ripped up in a pile.

My walls half-empty, my grandpa hugged my shoulders. “Keeping the Devil out is hard work,” he said.

 

I’ve known since I was a child that the world is ending. I felt it in my bones. Every Sunday I heard we were living in the end times. I had nightmares. I would lie in bed at night and imagine what it would be like, whether I was good enough to get raptured or if I would be left behind, my parents and sisters taken by God. Even though I knew, on paper, if I loved God I would be raptured, too, I also knew there was something intrinsic to who I was that God did not like. Something that resided deep in my body, so deep I would never be able to excise it. Something I could not name. Upon awakening before my family, I would lie in bed and wonder if the rapture had happened while I slept. Would I wander into my sister’s room and then my parents’ and finally the living room to find everyone gone?

The world is never not ending.

 

For all my childhood and adolescence, I denied this feeling of otherness, of feeling wrong and uncomfortable. I pushed it as far down as possible, told myself if I ignored it, I could deny it my entire life. When I was an adolescent, I thought Armageddon was always around the corner, so I only had to stave off these feelings of otherness and discomfort until the rapture. Once the world ended, I would be sent to heaven, where relief awaited me. In my twenties, I could no longer avoid my sense of otherness and disconnect. I didn’t want to anymore. I was tired and sad. I took queer and gender studies courses in college, made queer friends, and saw parts of myself in them. Queerness bubbled up in me like an active volcano, molten lava swirling in my thighs. In the summer of 2011, I left my family in Oregon and moved with Stelleaux, my partner, down to Oakland so I could start my MFA. I had already started quietly identifying as queer. Queer how? I was not exactly sure. I only knew that I felt more myself when I was around my queer friends. I used the distance from my conservative family and the thought of a new beginning to explore my sexuality and gender.

My first queer dance party as an out queer person, as someone who desired queer relationships, desired to feel whole, even if I didn’t know what I needed to be whole, was in Oakland. Surrounded by new friends, all queer, we danced and sweated, and I knew I belonged. That was how I first came to understand my queerness, as belonging. Queerness as community. I got drunk. I took MDMA. I felt free for the first time in my life.

Being among other queer and trans folks meant I felt at home, but I couldn’t forget what had been ingrained in me. Bits of my childhood nagged my conscience. I drank too much in order to forget the shame and self-disgust just beneath the surface. Many nights I got black-out drunk. Late at night, sometimes four in the morning, I would come out of the black outs and shame would rise to the surface. I sobbed. Stelleaux begged me to see a therapist. I would not. I drank a little more each night instead.

I thought of telling my parents that I was queer. I fantasized writing an essay and sending it to them after it was published. All I could hear when I thought about telling them was my dad talking about how “disgusting” he thought gay people were, how whatever us gays did was our business but it had no place out in the open. I remembered the pastors at the pulpits spitting hate every Sunday. I started having nightmares that I was gay-bashed and sent to the hospital, that this was how my family found out. Me, badly bruised in a pale hospital room, my mother confused as to how someone could have done this to me. Each night I woke up just before I was able to tell her why, my queerness a rock in my throat.

 

June 12, 2016, I came home, drunk, to the news of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Pulse, a nightclub like the kind I went to, full of people like me—although it was our Latinx gay siblings, not me, not white queer people, who were targeted that night. My partner and I sobbed in bed together, exhausted with the weight of the world’s hatred. It was Pride week in Portland; we had moved back from Oakland the previous year. Every event I attended included a moment to honor the siblings we lost that night; every event brought back my nightmares.

Three days later I came out to my family, using a Facebook post as a buffer, to diffuse any sort of backlash.

My father called me minutes after my Facebook post went up. He called to tell me he loved me and that I was beautiful. Whoever I loved was welcome in my parents’ home.

I still couldn’t unload my shame. I still drank every night. Something still didn’t feel right.

 

I was never a wake-up-in-the-morning-to-a-bottle-of-vodka kind of drunk. I wasn’t even the go-out-and-get-black-out-drunk-every-weekend kind of alcoholic. I could go a day or two without drinking. When I did drink, everything lost its sharpness; knives were dulled. Everything was softer, sweeter.

After a night of drinking, around 5 a.m., I would wake up sober to a deep sadness, the heavy weight of depression compacted across my shoulders. These moments always felt like a space between worlds. I would get up, go pee, and come back to bed to try to sleep away the rest of reality. Hangovers were relentless, a fuzzy sickness and headache that stretched into the next day.

Two years ago: the worst hangover I’d had in a decade. Sick for a week. My mind was woolly for a month, and I felt like a stranger to myself. Too much dullness and too many blurry lines.

I was mostly a fun drunk, but I still lashed out to those closest to me. “It’s like a switch is flipped,” I was told. That night, the one that led to the worst hangover of my life, we’d thrown a Halloween party. We’d just moved into a new house and we were excited to show it off. I had stopped drinking for the week leading up to the party. The week had gone well. I thought maybe I’d go a month without drinking after the party, see how that felt.

A week without whiskey and the pressure of a commitment to remain abstinent for a month only sent me into a drunken spiral. I remember nearly nothing of the night. I am told that I stood on our back porch drinking at 4 a.m. and when my partner asked me to come inside, I spit on the ground and scoffed.

I vomited for two days straight and felt sick for a week but worse than the physical illness was the shame I felt in treating my partner, my best friend, like shit. They are not the kind of person to make ultimatums. They meet people where they are. They do not ask anyone to change their life for them, including me.

“I will always love you,” they said, “but I can’t promise I will stay with you if I am treated like that again.”

Stelleaux and I had been together for over twelve years at this point. Losing them would be akin to the world ending.

October 28, 2017 was the last night I got drunk.

My head got clearer and then foggier. Each sober day carried a soft glow like I’d never experienced but as with all things, the glow faded. Some days the world was fresh like it was beginning for the first time in my life. Other days life was gray and boring. I was writing a novel that I swore would be the death of me. My life went in circles and nothing progressed. I was stagnant. I wanted to chase that healing glow, so I started to see a therapist.

 

Seeing a therapist meant I spent every week recounting every piece of shame from my childhood I could confront. Like ghosts that haunted me or, maybe more aptly, demons that possessed me, I exhumed a lifetime’s worth of shame, every session an exorcism. I told the story of my grandfather forcing me to throw out anything relating to aliens. I told her about the nightmares of my family finding out about my queerness because I’d been attacked. I dug deeper. I told her how, for my family, the apocalypse was always around the corner. Still I was dry, a glass of wine a month maybe. I finished another draft of the novel, this one better, closer to how it was.

Despite the healing I found in therapy, something was still wrong. I was off kilter, like the ground could fall out from beneath me and I wasn’t sure why.

 

When I need to think about something, I take my dog for a walk. I’ve had my dog for ten years and we have walked together nearly every single day since I got her. Sometimes we walk for fifteen minutes and then it is back home to write. When I am particularly struggling with a book or with a problem, we walk for an hour. It is such an ingrained habit that as soon as we leave the front porch, my mind gets thinking.

On a walk with my dog in November 2018 I realized I was a woman. I was working on a much earlier version of this essay and knew it was missing something. Unprovoked, out of the goddamn blue it hit me: I wasn’t telling the whole story because not once had I mentioned I was trans. I had been writing the essay as if I was a man, and I was not. I spent my adult years thinking of gender as a concept, but never once had I considered my own gender. I did everything I could to keep myself from thinking about my gender, but now a light went on like I’d always known. It was a secret, a ghost buried deep in my body.

The world is never not ending.

Even the sky was apocalyptic. Dark gray storm clouds gathered overhead and off to the west, a violently red sunset flamed.

My partner is nonbinary, and when I came out to them, they hugged me and asked what they could do to support me. I took it slow, or at least I felt like I took it slow. I tried to live in the space of knowing for a while. I practiced different pronouns at my house for weeks at a time. I came out to my best friend and then no one else for a bit. I told my therapist. I played with lipstick and eye shadow. One Friday night, we went shopping at the mall and I bought clothes from the women’s section. I came out to more friends.

Every time I came out to someone, my body filled with shame, even as I was greeted with congratulations and celebrated. Slowly, my brain and body rewired. Slowly, the God of my youth faded. The thought of a God who hated me for who I was, one who thought people like me were destroying the country and waging war on the pious was replaced with the realization that uncovering myself was a beautiful, wondrous thing. I began to feel something besides shame—something like pride.

There was a downside to uncovering my gender. Before coming out, I had shoved my feelings of discomfort deep inside. I denied myself any feelings regarding my gender. Once I named it, once it became clear who I was not (not a man), I was uncomfortable all day long. Every glimpse of myself in a mirror brought waves of sadness. I had moments where I was grounded and at home in my new revelation, when I wore a little lipstick or when I piled my long hair on top of my head in a loose bun, but these moments were often fleeting. I hated my body. I became obsessed with the idea of figuring out the details of my transition.

What kind of trans woman was I? Would I medically transition? Would I ever be out at my job? To my family? To the writing world? Would I change my name? I looked at images of physical transitions, timelines and before and afters. I tried to find women who looked like me. I read about Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and surgeries. The not knowing was killing me. I sat in the liminal space between knowing what I was not and knowing what I was.

I struggled with the notion that I had never worn my mother’s pearls as a child, nor had I snuck into my sister’s bedroom to steal her lipstick. There was not the early knowing that I was a woman during my youth. We are told this narrative repeatedly and I thought I was a fraud because it was not my experience. I had only ever experienced a disconnect from my body and my spirit. I had only ever been a stranger to myself.

I lied earlier when I said I had never considered my gender.

Seven years before all this, age twenty-six, a couple of months before we moved to Oakland, I got drunk. It was one of those “have a drink with lunch at 2 p.m. and then keep drinking until 10 p.m. and BAM a day is gone” kind of drunk. Stelleaux had fallen asleep on the couch almost immediately after we got home, something not that uncommon.

I was still awake and didn’t have to work the next day so I ate some ground psilocybin mushrooms. At first the trip was simple. Our apartment was small but brightly painted and so I lay on our couch and listened to music and watched the colors dance. The entire room breathed. My body sank down into the couch and deeper into the earth. I pet my dog and watched my partner sleep.

Time seemed to stop. It was like in my youth when I thought maybe the world had ended and I was left alone, everyone worthy raptured. It was a night entirely of its own where I could do whatever I wanted without judgement or shame. I could forget anything I did the next day.

I went into our bedroom and ran my fingers along the clothes in Stelleaux’s closet. Sequins and lace and crushed velvet. Eventually I settled on a dress. Blue and yellow sheer fabric down to the ankles, spaghetti straps. I squeezed it over my body and chest. I remember how cold the air was on my shoulders. I can still feel the wood floors under the pads of my feet, how solid the ground felt. I stepped in front of the mirror and instantly started sobbing thick, cathartic tears. I felt both so comfortable and so ugly. I left the mirror in the hallway and twirled around in the living room to the music. The dress twirled behind me by half a second. I sat on the couch, crossed and uncrossed my legs, folded my arms and then let them hang at my side. I practiced every possible movement I could think of. It was not my first time in a dress, but it was my first time in a dress where I wasn’t in costume or dressing up as a joke. The world stopped. I was the only person left and I was in a dress.

It took me twenty-six years to reach that moment, a woman in a dress in her living room, an apocalypse of sorts. It took me another seven years to say the words “I am a trans woman” out loud.

My depression deepened and I spiraled as a result. I wanted relief, any relief from the gender dysphoria, and so I decided to seek hormone therapy. Even if I ended up stuck in between MAN and WOMAN, that would be okay if it meant a reprieve. Now, I welcome that space, thrilled to be a trans woman, knowing this is who I am. No looking back.

I sought a doctor who could prescribe hormones. I got added to waitlists. I occasionally had a drink. Why not? I was happy now.

A month before I was to start HRT, Stelleaux got me a gift, a tarot reading with a trans witch. We sat for an hour on their sun porch. I was sick with plugged sinuses. The room filled with lavender smoke and sunlight. I told them I was planning on coming out to my conservative family. They pulled the JUDGMENT card. “This is what you’re afraid of,” they said, their finger touching the edge of the card. They told me about growing up Catholic and how under Christianity, they were told over and over that judgment day would come, how they could relate. “We are always preparing for the end of the world,” they said, “and so in many ways our parents’ religion prepares us for coming out, prepares us for the fallout.”

Coming out as the end of a world.

 

When I finally got my prescription, I walked around with it for a while. I just let it sit in my bag for an hour while I ate lunch and walked home from the pharmacy. Every obstacle had been removed and now the power was mine. I sat at the kitchen table, two pills in my hand, one for squashing testosterone, the other a tab of estrogen with a light mint flavor.

 

I dubbed it my Summer of Coming Out. I came out at work and to each of my friends. For a friend’s thirtieth birthday we all went to Mexico, where I introduced myself with my new name, “Emme,” for the first time to someone new. A friend told me one morning, that he saw me walking around in my robe and sunglasses and long hair, and thought to himself, Who is that beautiful woman. I came out to my sisters and soon there was nearly no one left but my parents. I prepared for the end of a world.

In the weeks leading up to the dinner I had planned for coming out to my parents, I thought about what it had been like to grow up in a strict Christian household. I thought about every shame-inducing word I’d heard about queer and trans people. I thought about everything my mother or father had ever said about us.

One night, I was bartending at the restaurant where I work. A whiff of whiskey wafted across my nostrils and the desire to drink overcame me. I stepped away from the bar and stood in the cold walk-in for a second. I breathed deep. I stood next to boxes of citrus and felt the fruit beneath my hands, focused on being here and now. The desire to drink was so intense that it seemed insurmountable. I wanted to get off work, go to the bar, and drink whiskey until closing time. I wanted the fuzzy hangover, the dull ache of shame. I went back out to the restaurant to keep making drinks and finish my shift, and when I was done, I went home.

Before that night, I didn’t know the craving ran so deep. I didn’t know I was capable of that kind of desire and I wondered if I had experienced it before but had always given myself the relief of a drink. I decided even an occasional glass of wine was too much.

My body had changed rapidly in the few months since I’d started taking hormones. I’d started growing breasts and a round ass. My face grew softer. I began wearing clothes that fit my new body better, dresses even. I wore makeup most days. I got bangs. I was told the biggest change was that my eyes looked like they had life in them, a happiness from within. I guess that’s what folks mean when they talk about a “glow up.”

We have a grape arbor in the front walkway to our house. The grapes are bitter, only ornamental. They sit on the vine and rot. In years past I have come home to our grape arbor swaying in the night, families of raccoons in the vines getting drunk on the rotting fruit. Slowly they’d climb down the arbor. We joked that it was the neighborhood tavern where raccoons got drunk on free wine and then left to start fights.

It was two weeks before my dinner with my parents. I weeded our front yard on one of those sunny fall days, where the leaves have turned but the sun is bright. A friend came over, someone I hadn’t seen in nearly four months. “My God, Emme,” he yelled, “you look like a completely different person.”

“That’s the point,” I laughed.

We hugged near the grape arbor and the air was full of wine. Even then, in a friend’s embrace, the desire for a glass of wine stirred in my belly.

 

The desire to drink was strongest two weeks later when I was in my parents’ living room in the liminal space between knowing what I was and telling someone else. My sisters were there. Stelleaux was there. That was the plan. No matter what happened, I had backup.

What does shame feel like? For me it sits behind my shoulders and in my gut. That’s why the drinking helped. It relaxed my shoulders and filled my belly with something other than shame. When I said the words, “I’m a trans woman,” in that living room, I felt the shame leave the space behind my shoulders. My parents told me that while they didn’t know a lot about it, they loved me and they would learn. The shame bubbled up from my belly and all of it came out in salty, ugly tears in my parent’s living room. I sobbed and they came and held me.

Maybe the world wasn’t ending, at least not completely.

 

After I came out to my parents, I was emotionally exhausted, but I was also light and happy, my body empty of shame and full of hope. Feeling seen by them did a lot to heal my past traumas and allowed me to relinquish much of the shame I’d had ingrained in me as a young child. With the shame that left my body, my desire to drink also left, along with the need to hide, to bury the shame or dull it with alcohol. Things are by no means perfect, but every day is less of a struggle. I have not had a drink since last summer, and most days the desire is simply not there. I can go weeks without even thinking about a drink.

 

I walk my dog in the mornings now, past a neighbor’s house covered in posters written in a child’s hand about Jesus and God. My favorite reads “JESUS IS ALIVE” but the handwriting makes it look more like JESUS IS OLIVE. My neighbor cooks scrambled eggs every morning for the crows and pigeons. She comes out in a long, ratty nightgown to fling the eggs onto the sidewalk. (A fucked-up thing to think about, feeding eggs to birds.)

I walked by a few weeks ago and my neighbor came out to say hello and give my dog a small scratch on the head. “I see you walk by every day,” she said.

“Oh yeah?”

“And every day I pray for you.”

My neighbor is like my grandmother. Every time I see my grandmother, she tells me she loves me and then tells me she is sad I won’t be in heaven in with her. I know my neighbor does not pray for me to find peace or love or for others to see me how I am, a beautiful woman who is happy. I think she prays for me to revert to how I was, to lose who I have become, who I am. But I pray, too, in my own way. I pray that others may find community like mine, chosen family and blood. I pray that if there’s anyone out there who is swirling in a dress in a living room and thinks freedom only comes with the end of the world, they might know the world ends and begins again every day. I pray that I am always grateful for the end of the world because it brought me here.

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Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.

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Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.


Emme Lund lives and works in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in APT Magazine, Paper Darts, 580 Split, and 34th Parallel, among many others. In 2016 Quiet Lightning Books published The Sacred Text of Rosa Who Is Great, a book with art by Stella Peach. She was the recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in 2019. More from this author →