Discover more from off-grid baby
i’ll bring you flowers, in the pouring rain
on healing, depression & friendship <3
So I’ve spent the last month healing, but not necessarily from the things I had planned to. My body has been healing of course, from the gender-affirming surgery I am so very privileged to have received - and what a fine job it has done. I have felt next to no pain other than the emotional - very me.
The much-feared post-op depression did not come. Not quickly, anyway. My care team marveled at how spritely and self-sufficient I was straight out of the hospital, cautious not to let my visitors do too much of what they were there to do. I couldn’t sleep, exhilarated by this new beginning and just very bad at the sleeping on your back thing. And when I looked in the mirror, I truly couldn’t remember what I had looked like before, so much so that I had to keep checking in with Soha for reassurance that anything had changed at all (my partner is very patient). Sure, one of my nipples is decidedly bigger than the other, but I feel like it’s giving “not gay as in happy but queer as in one of my nipples is decidedly bigger than the other” which is fun. Recalling the actual years of heavy grief and trepidation leading me to this surgery felt quite surreal, for on this side of it, it couldn’t be less of a big deal.
After the drains and stitches had been removed, the opioids had worn off and the care rota came to an end, things got a little more dicey for sure. Extreme swelling made home under my skin, and I have been flooded with waves of dysphoria as the shapes on my chest try to figure themselves out. I naively thought dysphoria would be gone after surgery, and in some ways it is, but for the rest, it’s a waiting game (I am not very patient). The doctor told me, the more I think about them, the bigger they’ll get (lol), so for the rest of the healing period I find myself humbly re-entering my cocoon of dissociation. It’s just as I left it.
Ushering myself into the state of vulnerability that major surgery requires, beckoning in a moment of need, had me asking many questions, with one standing particularly tall among them all - who are my friends? Who are the people who show up in these quiet moments, who center you, love on you, choose you, protect you, who make you feel like care might just be abundant after all, like caring for you could even be a gift? Who remembers you, checks in on you, wants to see you win, comes closer? Who brings your partner food so they don’t have to cook, stretches too-small vinyl gloves over their hands to touch your blood, sends a surprise hot pink mastectomy pillow to your house, drives you to the beach to feel the breeze, brings you flowers, sends you a designer cupcake, a care package, reminds you you deserve it all?
The answer, for me, is found in many people, and for that I am eternally grateful. I have many friends, in many corners of the world, sharing varying levels of intimacy, history and frequency of contact (some of whom are paying to read this right now LMAO ly). I have a handful of friends, some I haven’t seen in years, who I would count on to do just about anything for and with me - people I conjure in my mind's eye to soothe my frequent reverie about losing everything I have. Life raft kind of friends. I have many friends and I also live with a profound loneliness that comes and goes. Sometimes more existential, sometimes more actual. A deep, gnawing desire for intimacy and community that is never quite fulfilled, or when it is, fleetingly (a particularly hilarious lunch, a perfect dance, the right text at the right time, like last week when my beloved babetheory texted me out the blue with “if i spend 350 pounds on trousers then that will be a real commitment to live life i think”).
As a chronic depressive and rabid over-thinker (same thing?), a sort of unrelaxed close analysis of friendship has haunted me forever. A key feature of my depression brain is the absolute and total insistence that I do not have friends, that I am unloved and uncared for, that those who do seem to hang around would be better off without me, or better yet, wouldn’t even notice my disappearance. That those who love me do so because I tricked them into it. That I am doomed to be alone. You might even say I look for clues that this is true, or fixate on them when they naturally emerge. Anyone relate?
Depression has brought me to my knees in high definition many times in the last decade, and every time, in an act of survival, I have to ask, who are my friends? Who will help me pick up these pieces this time? If I am being generous to myself, which I try to be despite how ghastly it feels, I will attribute my near-constant fixation on friendship and loneliness at least in part, to this. It doesn’t help, of course, that I never stay in one place for too long, or that we are all still recovering from and enduring a pandemic.
As I wrote in my pre-surgery newsletter, “in taking this impossible step for myself towards comfort, I am asking myself, what other ways do I wish to be comfortable? In what other parts of my life shall I demand it?”. I think what I was getting at here was the beginning of a realization that sometimes I chase love in dynamics that don’t want to give it easily, or in a way that feels totally good for me, and I absorb or make excuses for this discomfort - meanwhile feeling too overwhelmed to text back the people who do want to give it all to me. I’m extremely nostalgic, tending towards attributing value based on old-school notions of friendship such as how long you’ve known someone and what you’ve been through together, and that’s okay and often beautiful but it’s also limiting and pressureful, making way for feeling lonely despite being surrounded by abundance. Letting that seed of loneliness grow so big that it shrouds everything else. In fact, a solid learning from my experiences in reaching for friendship, for something that feels like survival, is that it always finds me, in unexpected places, and unexpected ways.
In their most recent newsletter, my substack bestiewrote,
“Aside from all of this interior work, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my friends. To me, this is the most important work of one’s life.”
Same, I thought. But I felt sad!! Maybe because I projected onto the statement, victory or something uncomplicated, when little in my life is. But this was actually magic, that my new friend had been thinking about the same things as me, maybe. That he linked to 5 articles about friendship at just the moment I needed them, one cheerily titled “it’s your friends who break your heart”, about a pair of white lady friends who, intending on email corresponding with each other about “wellness”, end up pissing each other off and writing increasingly searing emails to each other, carving into stone for all to see, the unique horror of a prolonged friendship break-up. Luckily I haven’t had one of those with another writer yet, I thought. Also, Gioncarlo, I know we have yet to meet, but I know you’re reading this, and I’ve been listening to Feist’s new album a lot and thinking about you, okay?
I am not a perfect friend. I cannot tolerate being ignored, I am forgiving until I’m not, I can veer, (I imagine, confusingly), between being brutally honest, and passive aggressive and I am much funnier on paper. I am self-aware, and not for being self-aware’s sake, but because I am committed, always, to being better. But who fucking cares, really. Is self-awareness the new ‘intention’? Just because you know you’re a bitch, does it make you any less of a bitch? I have tried, as much as possible, to design my life in a way that allows me to center things somewhat outside of capitalism, like sleeping when and for how long I want, being financially and emotionally generous whenever I can, and yes, honouring friendship. Perhaps that makes me want a lot. Too much. It’s not something I'm ashamed of, but speaks, rather, to the capacity I have for giving. I want a lot and I want to give a lot. But ‘a lot’ is subjective - just make me feel something good. Just love me?
While I was sitting with all this during my recovery (do not recommend), my friend Oopie emailed me with a reminder that I was due to submit some work to their beautiful publication, HONEY.
“HONEY is a riso printed zine meditating on the experiences of friendship. The project was conceived by two friends who recognised non-familial connections were entirely formative to their politics, welfare and identities, but observed a marked lack of attention on modern forms of friendship in print media.”
Struck by the timing, I wrote a babbly email explaining that I wasn’t sure I had it in me to write something by the deadline, which was met with the special kind of compassion and softness that Oopie exudes in everything they do. I share some of our exchange below, for it helped me:
OOPIE: hello my dear aishhhh,
how's recovery time been for you? how does it feel in the soul? totally understandable re potentially not having the capacity for new wisdom and thanks for considering at all. but again, only if you feel like it/have capacity for bb <3 your rest is priority always always
original invitation & preliminary mind-map below :) some of the contributions so far have been real tearjerkers and if you know me you know nothing else makes me feel happier than them tears :')! excited to shareeeee
AISHA: hello oopie my sweet
thank you for your patience with me. i'm still kinda deep in recovery - i dont think i can get anything together in time :( but here are some things ive been thinking about still because as ever, we are on the same wavelength one way or another…
this invitation feels so poignant for me right now, as healing from surgery has been going well but the hardest part of it has been rumination or reevaluation around friendship and my place in it all. in this way, this surgery ushered in a new beginning for me, but not just in terms of my relationship to my body, but to comfort in general, and what i wish to tolerate and what i don't. i feel like i'm standing on the edge of a grief i didn't even see coming and i feel alone and untethered, knowing it can never again be what it was. i thought i would miss my breasts but i don't. funny that. turns out i don't want breasts i want peace. i want groups of emotionally available, dedicated, fun, kind, generous, totally non-avoidant people who all take turns instigating the harder conversations when they need to happen and do the work of seeing each other for who they really are and not just a projection or mirage of each other's griefs and insecurities and do the work of finding ways to play. friends who never elicit fear. is that fair? i want to take a leap towards acceptance, that my friendship fantasy may not be everything that i dreamed and that sometimes dreams don't come true and that sometimes things we never even had the range to dream come true instead. that in my 30s there’s work to do yet. that life could be long, that perhaps life would be less painful if we replaced expectation with openness. staying open to goodness to fun to boundaries, to the ebb and flow of dynamics we love and that have hurt us and that demand respect, and that just want to be. that in empty space, better things may find us. that if it don't flow, let it go
OOPIE: oh my sweet sweet sweet ash,
you and your thoughts make me cry <3 i think about you a lot and go back to your words, our conversations and our dreams? still think of the time when you sent me off to india, 2 winters ago now, with 'but what are YOUR dreams?'. i keep coming back to that everytime i feel lost in the capital spirals of london.
i am in love with your thoughts on friendships and recovery. it sent electric waves of feels across my skin.
how are you doing? i want to make you a playlist for recovery? do you use soundcloud much? been swimming in such beautiful music lately.
thank you for being such a generous dreamer, i love you very much.
AISHA: i carry you with me always, thank you. it’s such a precious thing, to ask someone how their healing is going - if their pain is retreating? how they are becoming. and really listen to the answer. i guess thats what i meant about expectations. i think its ok to have expectations tho right? they weren’t cruel or even great. brave expectations? i dont know!! i really ought to focus on the positives of which i know, rationally, there are many. i have been so loved. sometimes i want love exactly how i want love. i wish to uncurl the fettered edges of my shell and submit to receiving more in forms and shapes that i cant predict and dont expect. love is all around after all. you remind me of that all the time.
thank you for everything you are and everything you do and the many ways you hold me
i love you too
OOPIE: I was trying to find something that deeply moved me and filled me with awe. Here it is - A radio drama! Haven’t heard something like this since I was toddler. Maybe you’ll like it too?
I know I know I know what you mean by ‘managing your expectations’. You know I struggle with that too. In the past year every time (exaggerating mb, sometimes) when I bring it up, the conversation often ends with ‘Oopie, you need to date’ </3 Maybe I do, maybe I have not fucking meant anyone exciting coz I love the shy ones at the back.. but to see someone to compensate for bad friendships is just not it? Idk.. Just pushes me back to my shell. Also, what if I did see someone? Would that mean I expect any less from my friends? I just wanted to be held you know? Didn’t need words..
Sending you so much love, I mean it.
AISHA: not a RADIO DRAMA!?! oopie! how perfectly random of you, and also, i have been returning to podcasts recently. adrienne marie brown seems to have great friends. here's hoping these "audio commissions about British folk culture" are as miserable as i am. i have hope! i am disturbed if not surprised to hear that people tell you to find a spouse when you ask for something from them. i wonder if they're the same friends who would berate you for having a spouse if it meant not giving them what they needed? gosh i sound so cynical. but there’s a general frustration at people in long term relationships for prioritizing them over other relationships in their life, but perhaps the work is not exactly being put in to make those relationships outside of the heteronormative couple model thrive? it's tricky isn't it. and like, absolutely none of our faults (we know whose fault it is). but i daresay i have been feeling lighter today, thanks to you and the way you see me and live in the thicket of the deepest emotions and yearnings alongside me. (i am imagining us as swamp toads side by side with thick. luscious, green seaweed brushing our cheeks) thank you
OOPIE: HEHE! "British folk culture" is always going to be miserable! Especially compared to the chatty American ones. I have this 'grass is greener on the other side' romantic idea that Americans understand and value friendships more? Or are just better at holding all sorts of chats, including difficult ones. Idk.
SO GOOD to hear that shimmers of lightness have sparked. Something shifted for me too, but it's a sinker (when you sink into earth and you let it hold you), rather than a lifter (when you fly light with the clouds). Maybe it was the moon all along (something moved from Aquarius to Taurus yday, and I am told that's a good thing) or maybe it was the joy of being witnessed by you, my dear. Our history matters to me, roots me even. Thank you.
Going to ride the wave and see where it takes me <3
I hope you are feeling light in mind, body and spirit <3 Speak vvvvv soon.
In terms of romantic love (though I don’t really like using ‘romantic’ for this distinction - what’s a friendship without romance!!?), I have, largely, been blessed. Many of my exes are now my close friends and my girlfriend is easily my closest, and greatest earthly champion - a truth I find myself fighting against, no matter how good or right or easy it actually feels. But recently I’ve been toying with the idea of acceptance. Nurturing friendship outside of sex-bond has always been a priority for me, something that feels important, joyful and safe. Of course, many coupled friends, yes the queer ones too, prioritize their lovers, while sometimes single friends may be seeking the kind of Final Boss intimacy i’m interested in, from a sexual relationship, or assume that because I’ve found mine, I need less. It’s complicated. Is it?
Is it possible that friendship is romanticized? And god forgive me, that's not to say it isn't fucking great - I think, I hope, that we all know what that greatness feels like when it fills our chest. But I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the jagged edges of friendship. The soap-opera-esque betrayals, the jealousy, the inactions, all the white people you had to fucking cut out because they refused to be uncomfortable for 3 seconds, the PTSD from frolicking with nightlife demons, the years we spent thinking every brown twink we met was probably a good person. Years we can’t get back.
At Mon’s birthday we stand in the corner talking about friendship, and I actually did not bring it up this time. We muse on whether our partners being our best friends make us bad queers. She says, and I’m paraphrasing, with permission, the immortal wit of a Gemini - so sorry Mon, in advance, she says, “as community organizers we’re used to giving and giving with no expectations of return. And love is abundant, right? So that’s okay! Why would I need or expect anything? But where that’s carried across to my friendships, it presents a problem. I’m rethinking that strategy. Maybe I get to expect, to want, to need in those relationships. And maybe they’ll step up, and maybe they won’t. Platonic friendship is not inherently better than romantic relationship.”
And it’s true isn’t it? That part of the human disease is our unflinching dedication to categorizing things such that we can claim one is better or more valuable than the other. But say we take things on a case-by-case basis, or open ourselves to the natural flux of life. That sometimes we’ll feel held and full and sometimes abandoned and hurt. That sometimes a friend will do what friends do best, and scoop you heroically from a pain so deep, let you sit on their sofa until you find strength once again, and sometimes that person will be a lover. I, too, have dreamed of communal living. And I also want to be perfectly alone. Can I learn to hold my own vastness without having a panic attack? I don’t know, but I’m grateful for all the ways friendship has shown up in my life, and all of the time we’ve spent in each other’s loving orbits, figuring it out together.
I leave you with this text from my new friend and former neighbour, Phoebe, who it seems is no stranger to sculpting love out of nothing and everything, making it look effortless, and who despite going through a tremendous lot recently, found a way to shepherd me at the same time. This in particular, more a spell than a text message, I’ve returned to 100 times in past weeks.
ooof yea, the waiting game is tough. I will share that your process with top surgery has reallly activated a lot of exciting reflection and thinking for me personally. I never considered a reduction or let myself even process it as a possibility. Your surgery was somewhat revelatory for me-- I was like, whoa, wow. wait, hotttttt ! You made me recognize the in between spaces. Sometimes I really really miss my nipple sensation and sometimes I really really miss being clocked as non-binary (whereas now I am mostly read as a man-male of some sort). It's complex to be trans and to be a body and to make explicit intentional choices. And I think for sure the first several months post-op, the body/mind/gut/heart is integrating and feeling its way through those transformations.
Maybe you can imagine the next months of dissociated waiting and coping with dysphoria as hiding out in a cenote. like getting out of the hot hot sun, to rest in a cool watery (v cancer-y) deep wet cave, a subterranean inverted boob, if you will (the alternate universe of the body). There are turtles and cute little fish and coral reefs and realllllly cute bats all in there with you. And the water is mega super blue and the temperature is perfect. And it smells of frankincense, camphor, sandalwood, cinnamon, and coffee (or alternatively, of neroli, portugal, lunette, lemon, bergamot, and lemongrass).
and you are loved. and we are all loved.