A cup of comfort by Nikki Byrom

I don’t have a coming out story. In retrospect, there was nothing to really come out for. I’d read the stories of other people,  and sometimes wept for their beauty, but I didn’t have a moment that I could specifically point to and say I looked at my loved ones and said, “I am a lesbian". If anything, I have a handful of stories wherein I looked at them and said I wasn’t. I was reared with my younger brother by my maternal grandmother in a wildly conservative, Christian, Black family in a small town in the rural South. My grandmother was one of those Black women. She had a reputation and an image to protect and uphold, so having a “funny” granddaughter wasn’t allowed. Even though most things like my introversion and moodiness were excusable because I was an orphan, my “alternative lifestyle” somehow was in the fine print. In bold, angry, red letters, underlined, and italicized with asterisks aplenty, it was completely and utterly forbidden. I quite literally could have been anything else but a lesbian and my family would’ve been okay with it. Hell, I dropped out of college and it was less of a deal breaker than that one time my grandmother saw me holding a friend's hand too long (I was an adult and my friend had just lost a loved one but, whatever). 

My grandmother used to try with everything in her power to curtail what she believed were my “bulldagger” tendencies. I had too many female friends, I wore more pants than skirts, I worked too hard and was too good at things that weren’t feminine, I read too many books, and I didn’t smile. She controlled everything about my existence; from the length and color of my nails, to the length of my hair. From how many and what kinds of friends I could have, to who I could and could not talk to in the community at large. The kinds of books I read were limited as was how long I read them. She read my journal almost as fastidiously as she did the daily newspaper. Before I knew what my “lifestyle” was, she lambasted it with a fervor and vitriol I still don’t completely understand. I guess part of it was because my family was (like most small town Black families) wildly conservative and Christian and therefore beholden to the rules and regulations of white supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy. I didn’t fit the description of my gender assignment and therefore needed to be corrected or discarded. When one of her schemes failed, another sprung up in its place. Disownment, though lamentable, was the final solution. If I couldn’t get right, I had to get left. 

Last year, I had to have a hysterectomy and the whole experience was a mindfuck. The part I’m still not completely ready to dissect in therapy though, is the lack of a specific kind of comfort I desperately needed. Being a masculine presenting lesbian/queer woman sometimes necessitates the creation of several layers of armor. It is more than just having thick or tough skin; one has to absolutely build virtually impenetrable walls and moats filled with piranha and flesh eating bacteria to function when dealing with the outside world. Being sick had worn down my defenses, so I found myself regularly just wanting someone to comfort me in a way I couldn’t describe. I guess this is the point wherein I also disclose to you that I tend to be a hardass. Very little phases me, so my tribe just went on with business as usual because I did. But on the inside, I felt that at any moment I would dissolve into a puddle of tears and locs with no one around who would know how to reassemble me.

In moments of weakness, I felt that my health issues were a punishment from the god of my grandmothers; an all knowing petty old white man who “sat high and looked low”. In my mind, the lowest of the low was me. I mean, I couldn’t even lesbian right, ya know? Not masculine enough to be a stud, assuredly not feminine enough to be a femme, not a “woman”, not a “man”. Yet there I was, having “woman troubles” in a French cuffed shirt, cufflinks, and tie.

 One of the things that was most challenging about the whole diagnosis and pre surgery experience was that I couldn’t have pain medication. I’ll spare you the gory details but because of my severe anemia and my body’s inability to properly metabolize certain chemicals, I had to suffer through months of bleeding, cramping, back pain, headaches, et cetera, without a single milligram of any kind of analgesic. It has been documented (though not nearly enough) that the medical establishment does not listen to Black women. I’d like to add that they absolutely do not listen to Black, masculine presenting, lesbian/queer women who have made the agonizing decision to have their reproductive system forever altered. The prevailing narrative is that because I dress and comport myself in stereotypically masculine ways, I must invariably think I am a man and therefore deserve to endure this pain and shame without complaint. So there was no semblance of comfort given including, but not limited to, not being able to take even one Tylenol when cramps as strong as contractions hit leaving me balled up like a piece of scratch paper.

And thus, I wanted everything I didn’t and couldn’t have. My mama, my ex-girlfriend, my daddy, my stuffed bunny from childhood. I wanted someone, anyone to look at me and see a person in pain. I wanted for one moment not to have to explain to people that even though I was a masculine presenting woman, that identity was not a monolith, and I, Nikki, was struggling with this for a Trojan horse full of reasons. Until I finally realized, that as hard as it might be and as much as I didn’t want to do it, I had to be that for myself. I had to learn to pour myself a cup of comfort. But I had no idea what the fuck that even meant.

Part of my problem was that I had internalized so much misinformation and shame about femininity, masculinity, and life in general that I had no real or working coping mechanisms to rely on when I needed them most. Because of my upbringing and life experiences, I felt like I was always being watched and judged and that there were definitive right and wrong ways to perform the facets of my identity. My modus operandi had always been to push through at all cost; and the cost was this moment. Self-care, in its ubiquity, wasn’t a real thing for me. 

That changed after I had a cup of Ivy’s Tea Company’s Sister Sister 2. The description said that the tea would help curb menstrual symptoms. I mean, I no longer had symptoms, I had a full on sheet of diagnoses, test results, and a surgery date a few months away. Regardless, I bought it. And the first cup was warm. I drank it in my office at home because I couldn’t go to work. That day, I had 2 or three cups. The next day I had a couple more. The third day, I cried because even though I was still in pain, I could get up out of my bed and sit in a chair long enough to have a cup of tea. I could have a moment or two when I could pretend I was a normal person again. A moment or two when I could think about what my life could be after this surgery. After this nightmare. 

I was able to create for myself a safe space wherein no matter how I felt before, I would eventually feel better. A place where I could begin the process of healing wounds I didn’t know were there. I had to tell my inner child, teenager, young adult and 20 year old self that they were beautiful and worthy of respect, adoration, care and love. And I wanted to do these things because I needed my life to be better on the other side of all this. I wanted to take the chance I was being given and capitalize on the possibility of wholeness. I wanted, more than anything, to be able to look at myself in the mirror and not be repulsed by the person looking back at me for any reason. I wanted to do the things I enjoyed and not judge myself for liking them. I wanted to move forward and find or be found by a partner willing to love and be loved. I wanted to nullify the fine print of my upbringing, and write a new lease on my life. Everything about my past had been predicated and dictated by people outside my Self, and because I didn’t know any better, it almost killed me. This was my moment to lay claim to my body and my life. To give myself a chance to have the kind of love and acceptance I couldn’t get from people who couldn’t give it. I began this process with a cup of loose leaf herbal tea, in a beautiful Buddha teacup that I purchased from TJMaxx because I wanted it.

The thing I learned, a lesson almost 30 years in the making, is that it matters not how I perform my personhood. It never did. When I was a kid who read too much and loved working outside or with my hands, I was living. When I was a teenager who enjoyed poetry and music and hair and nails, I was living. As a college student who enjoyed sex with men and flirting with girls at the club, I was living. Somewhere between my college graduation and getting a real job, I had stopped living, and my body had to teach me to love mySelf again. As a whole person. Not as a set of labels to be read or misread by anyone, myself included. The comfort I had always sought was only to be had when I decided to create it. mySelf. 

Bio: My name is Nikki R. Byrom. I am, among other things, a writer, artist (@ktheotherway on IG),  professor, recovering bibliophile and foodie. Writing bios isn't really my jam, because I'm never quite sure what to include. I'm a masculine presenting woman who loves God and trap music with fervor.  Nature is my church,  and I pay my tithes and alms in love and reverence for all creation, except cauliflower.  

Leave a comment