An Unwelcome Anniversary

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One year. It seems like such a long time. And it feels like yesterday. 365 days, and the blink of an eye. We lost Rivena on this day one year ago. And I remain at a loss for words as to why our oldest child took her own life on January 28, 2018.img_7435

There are so many things I’ve learned about grieving during this past year. Not because I’ve wanted to, but because there hasn’t been any choice. Among the more important lessons learned is that it feels good to be able to talk about Rivena. So, on this day, the first anniversary of the worst day of my life, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter Rivena.

If you’re here with me, reading this, I thank you. Just like the hundreds who showed up at Rivena’s memorial service last year, the outpouring of support from so many people continues to leave our family humbled. But the ironic thing about the support from so many is that very few people actually knew Rivena. There were a small few who really did know her, more who knew Rivena by her former name, and most knew enough to know that Rivena was a transgender woman who had only come out publicly about a year before her death.

Being a transgender woman was just part of who she was, though. Rivena never would have wanted to be defined by it. My goal today is to convey a sense of the person Rivena was.

She gave me purpose in life

Rivena came along at a time in my life when I was, to say the least, not quite ready to be a parent. She was born the first week of my final semester in college. Kim and I had no income other than my part time job in a bank, no benefits, and no experience as adults, let alone any parenting skills. And yet, Rivena’s arrival completely changed the direction of my life for the better. She gave me purpose. She gave me the drive to succeed, not for me, but for my family. And she absolutely is who I can thank for teaching me how to be a good parent. She forced me to grow up, take responsibility, and she gave me my family without even realizing it. And it’s safe to say that Kim, Madison, and I all benefitted from her existence in this world.

She loved to read

As a young child, Rivena was a voracious reader, and she started reading much earlier than most kids. Without any real pushing from us, she began to recognize the scribbles on pages as things that represented certain sounds, and then started stringing those sounds together to form words. We realized it when she was just two; we were touring a model home looking to buy our first house, when she blurted out “National Builder of the Year.” We hadn’t said anything to her – instead, she just pointed to the wall where a banner said those very words. I have no doubt the nightly bedtime stories read by Kim were the cause of the early uptake, and in fact Rivena wrote in one of her journals during her last months, “One of my favorite memories was reading books with Mom.”

Her teachers in school consistently realized the same early talent for reading. In her preschool class, while the other kids were learning basic phonetics, Rivena was assigned Charlotte’s Web. And her first-grade teacher, when dismissing all the kids for the summer, told each one as they left, “Read a book, read a book, read a book…” and to Rivena, “go outside and play!”

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The upper left sticker was added to her laptop the day before she died.

Even all the way to the end, Rivena devoured books. In what turned out to be our final conversation, Rivena told Kim and me about an outing she had organized for her treatment group that she was particularly proud of. She had found an independent used book store with a funky, vegan friendly coffee shop next door, where she had introduced her group to her love of interesting, old books. She was gone the next day.

Value of constantly learning

We are fortunate to have so much of Rivena’s voice left behind in the form of her writing. She kept journals during her time in treatment that have become both priceless for their window into her thinking and painful for their haunting view of her constant struggle to find real happiness. In one of her entries, she describes what she refers to as her core values. Near the top of that list is her self-described value of constantly learning.

While she really didn’t care much for what her grades were, (she was the kid in school who never turned in homework – she didn’t see the point – but aced every test) Rivena had a curiosity about the world that ran deep. She read and re-read The Elegant Universe by John Green and tried in vein to explain string theory to the rest of us. She tried almost every sport you can imagine, from soccer to hockey to rugby. Whether she was good or not wasn’t the point… she thrived on learning new things along the way. She taught herself how to play the guitar, she learned how to build computers, and she is the one who, when the traditional college just path didn’t work, decided to put herself through an intensive coding school.

Ironically, Rivena’s younger sister Madison is the person Rivena aspired to be. Rivena had watched as Maddie battled her own depression and anxiety for years, not allowing it to deter her own dream of going to study acting in New York. In a letter Rivena wrote to Maddie three or four months before her death, she referred to Maddie as the example of what a strong, self-confident woman should be. During that final year, Rivena looked up to her younger sister as an example of how to be her true self, constantly seeking newfound strength.

Humor and Wit

For those lucky enough to truly know Rivena, you know she had a deep, dry, deadpan sense of humor that tended to come out when you least expected it. One of her grandfather’s favorite memories of this was one of her high school jazz band concerts. She played the upright bass and typically stood right near the center of the band on stage. On this night, she came out on stage wearing a huge fake mustache – think Mario Brothers – and didn’t so much as crack a smile as she just played away. We were all rolling in the audience, and she simply played her set.

Her Christmas gifts tended to be more than a little unique… the gifts themselves were img_7434always very thoughtful, but how she chose to give them to each of us was something that had to be seen to be believed. On what would be her final Christmas, the gift from her and her sister to me was adorned with regular Christmas paper with a huge “Dad” written in large black sharpie, a duct tape ribbon, and happened to include a full-size grapefruit tied with a bow. That was her. One of a kind.

Sense of adventure

From an early age, Rivena had a tremendous sense of adventure. Our family tended to value experiences much more than things, and Rivena was no exception. When each of our kids turned sixteen, we told them they could choose anywhere in the world they wanted to go, and either Kim or I would take them for a one-on-one experience. Of all the places Rivena could have picked, she chose Africa. So, she and I ended up spending about ten days in Kenya – in Nairobi and three different safari camps in three different regions. We saw all the wildlife you can imagine… lions, cheetahs, leopards, hippos, and even managed to catch a river crossing during the great wildebeest migration. And yet, her favorite part of that trip had nothing to do with seeing the animals.

kenya trip 644At one of the camps, we asked our guides if we could take some time to go to a local primary school out of the game preserve. We had packed a few soccer balls and some basic school supplies and wanted to deliver them ourselves. Rivena, in her own quiet, shy way hit it off with a couple of the young kids we met there, and for her that was the most memorable part of our entire adventure.

Empathy, Kindness

That experience in Kenya was just one of what became many examples of another one of Rivena’s self-proclaimed core values: always putting others before herself. As her dad, this sometimes drove me nuts, as she insisted on letting everybody else go ahead of her in line, and she never wanted to make others go out of their way for her.

She became a vegetarian, not based on any nutritional preference, but because of her compassion for living creatures.

And it’s safe to say Rivena didn’t follow the most typical path out of high school. She did manage to start college at Colorado School of Mines, but when her depression caused her to leave after only one semester, she leaned on her sense of adventure and kindness toward others to find her way forward. She ended up volunteering for a thirteen-month position with FEMA Corps, traveling the country and providing much-needed assistance to others following natural disasters like superstorm Sandy. Then, with her eyes open to what was possible, Rivena went on to take another volunteer position, teaching English to children at three different schools in Suzhou, China.

That compassion for others was constant. Once she was back from China, she lived and worked in downtown Denver. Rivena being Rivena, she refused to have a car and so she walked everywhere, often interacting with the many homeless people along one of her normal routes. It was not uncommon for her to purchase a box of day-old donuts and give them away as she made her way home.

Even money was never a motivator for Rivena, unless she could give it away. After graduating from coding school in early 2017, she was hired by a local media firm as a web developer. And when she realized she would be making real money, she immediately figured out how to give away a quarter of that income to a few charities she believed in. Her motivation for working hard was to be measured in terms of how many mosquito nets she could give away or how many people would get clean water. Again, one of a kind.

The Dark Side

Unfortunately, the kindness and empathy Rivena so generously endowed toward others had a dark side; you see, for as kind as she was toward other people, she was equally hard on herself. She had difficulty seeing herself through the same lens though which she viewed the world and tended to see herself as a burden on those around her. For those of us in her immediate family, it meant being torn between what we saw on the outside and what we knew she felt on the inside. It was heartbreaking to watch as she struggled between darkness and light, and her journals today give us a window into the true depth of those battles.

Near the end of her life, Rivena shared in a family therapy session her thoughts on being pulled toward death, saying she honestly thought it would be easier for everybody if she killed herself. In her mind, we as her family would only have to grieve once versus her having to fight a battle every single day. Obviously, we saw the flaw in her logic then, and we are now living in our grief every day.

The lesson to take out of Rivena’s experience is to be compassionate in life – both toward others, and very importantly toward yourself. Allow yourself the same grace, the same kindness that we easily give those around us and know the people we love will extend those same caring feelings back to you.

So hard to say goodbye

I find it impossible to convey exactly who Rivena was. She was kind-hearted, she was brilliant, she was compassionate, and she was incredibly complex. As her dad, I couldn’t be prouder of her fight to find happiness in being her true self. I only wish she hadn’t succumbed to the darkness of her depression.

In her own words, Rivena wrote, “If I can look at someone and see that my presence is benefitting them, I feel fulfilled and good.” Well, kiddo, I think you should feel good, wherever you are.

Post script

I was just finishing this piece when I paused to run out and get today’s mail. In the mailbox was the magazine pictured here. On the cover: a room called The Cathedral at img_7433The Baths on the island of Virgin Gorda in the BVIs. Our family has vacationed on Virgin Gorda many times through the years. And just 4 weeks ago, Kim and I spent a day there during an extended quest to run away from the holidays. At the very spot pictured on the cover of this magazine that arrived today, the one-year anniversary of Rivena’s death, we left some of Rivena’s ashes. The universe truly works in mysterious ways…

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(Not) Turning 26 Today

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Sometimes love just isn’t enough.

Those were the only words I could manage to write the day after Rivena died. In the numbness of a long flight back home, I pulled out a pen and the new journal that my kids had given me for Christmas a few weeks earlier, and those 5 words were all I could muster.

IMG_5626 (2)As those of you who know us are aware, our sweet daughter Rivena lost her battle with depression on January 28, 2018. While we had been very cautiously optimistic, she died by suicide despite our best efforts to love her, support her, and get her the help she most desperately needed. Like I wrote in my last blog, Rivena had been in a residential treatment program following a rather horrific suicide attempt last September. And while we worried every day, we held out some hope that she had found the ability to manage through her depression and stay safe. We could not have been more wrong.

A thought about what follows

This is not a piece that is designed to solicit empathy, pity, or any form of sympathy for our family. I am writing this for two reasons: one, because there is something very cathartic for me in talking about Rivena, and two, because there may be something in here that resonates with somebody else who has had similar experiences. I apologize in advance for the disjointed nature of this, but such is the stream of consciousness for a grieving parent. I invite you into our lives to make the point that we need to do whatever possible to help those we love, even if in the end, that love itself is not enough.

Our fears about depression

When I first penned my “Unlikely Advocate” blog, my intention was to be an advocate to and for the transgender community, a segment of our population I was just beginning to become familiar with through Rivena’s own transition. One of my greatest fears upon learning of our daughter’s gender identity was in the alarmingly high rate of suicide among people who identify as transgender. Because Rivena had a history of depression that went back as far as age 8, my sensitivity to what that might mean for her was already off the chart.

Rivena came out to us in January of 2017, the same night she graduated from an intensive 7-month long coding program. At the time, she seemed to have an enormous weight lifted from her shoulders. She started a great new job as a web developer in February, the same month she began hormone therapy to begin her transition to her true self. And she appeared to be genuinely happy for a couple months. She seemed to enjoy her job, enjoy the freedom to live, work, and present as Rivena, and enjoy being able to donate to some personally meaningful causes with her newfound income. There was an outward happiness and energy about her that gave us hope and began to calm some of my fears.

But with time, there began to be a dark side. For years before coming out, Rivena had essentially been able to suppress many of the more difficult thoughts and feelings she routinely had. And while there is no way I can know this with complete certainty, I believe that as her hormone levels increased, she was forced to feel her emotions in a way that was new, powerful, and completely unfamiliar. This became starkly clear when our family was all together in New York for our youngest daughter’s college graduation last May. Rivena had a complete breakdown while attempting to spend a day working remotely from our hotel room; we had left her alone for the day and returned to find her wrapped in a sheet from the bed, huddled in the corner of the room, crying and incapable of even the smallest action. Her depression was back (not that it was ever truly gone), and back with a vengeance.

The terrible state of mental health care

For anybody who has experienced depression themselves, or anybody who has been close to someone who suffers from depression, you know how all-consuming it can be. And for all the efforts to eliminate the stigma of mental illness, and to encourage people to ‘just talk to somebody,’ I can tell you without question that our mental health treatment system is completely broken.

The challenge of finding someone to ‘just talk to’ is so much harder than it needs to be. And even with help from others, once inside the system, there can be so many stipulations and pre-requisites that getting appropriate care is nearly impossible. Even worse, we found out in the worst possible way that some of those who put themselves out as experts often don’t know how to treat patients who don’t fit into a neat, tidy, pre-defined guideline treatment program. But I digress here – this is a separate topic for another day.

Finding long-term mental health care that goes beyond the standard ‘stabilize and release’ protocol of most inpatient treatment facilities is near impossible. In Rivena’s case, she required long-term residential care. Unfortunately, and despite our best efforts, we could not find a single facility in our home state of Colorado that would accept a patient without a dual diagnosis – in other words, they required both a mental health diagnosis and either a substance abuse problem or an eating disorder. And even those who purport to carry the banner of mental health as advocates don’t always want to take on the tough stuff.

I reached out to Andrew Romanoff, President of Mental Health Colorado in early May to talk about the lack of resources in the state that led us to take our daughter to what we only now know is a deeply flawed facility in Utah where Rivena ultimately died. After a couple emails back and forth, he passed me on to a staffer, who then asked me to fill out an online form to be part of their advocate community and call if I had any questions. All I wanted was a conversation, and even the advocates wouldn’t engage.

Transgender health care

The subject of health care in general for someone who is transgender is even more challenging. I will never truly understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s skin – to feel like I am in the wrong body. But the gender dysphoria felt by those who do is only exacerbated by the black and white binary coding that is baked into every single treatment chart. Every state has certain unique requirements for getting legal identification that matches gender identity, and in almost every case the process is a rigorous endeavor. That said, Rivena had not yet managed to legally change her name or gender when she found herself fighting for her life in an ICU last September.

As a protective father, it was all I could do to make sure the teaching rounds conducted for the hospital residents were done outside of Rivena’s room, because every conversation started with “patient is a 25-year-old male…”. For someone in intensive care, following an attempted suicide, who has been clinically diagnosed with gender IMG_6903dysphoria, the harshness of the treatment protocol was one more way of saying to our kid, “you are wrong, and you don’t fit in.” I found myself increasingly losing my patience with doctors and nurses who were simply reading from a system-generated chart, and continually tried to educate those who were good enough to listen. For her part, Kim placed a sticky note on Rivena’s chart with her chosen name and reminder of pronouns – and I should note that many of the staff were very willing to adapt. We found people in health care to be incredibly compassionate. We found the systems they used to be very unforgiving.

Ultimate slap in the face

Once inside the mental health treatment system, insurance coverage is spotty at best. In Rivena’s case, she was fortunate to have decent employer coverage that we were able to continue through a COBRA election after she lost her job; with multiple inpatient treatment stays starting last August, she simply couldn’t keep her position in a 15-person media company. But even good coverage from a well-known insurance company can have glaring, impersonal, and unforgivable holes.Rivena UHC denial pg 1 blog

Using their own formulas for determining what appropriate care should look like, Rivena’s insurance company sent her a notice – after the fact – that her residential care coverage had been discontinued as of about ten days earlier. The letter was authored by a board-certified psychiatrist from the insurance company – someone who had never spoken to, let alone met, Rivena. In his letter, this psychiatrist literally stated, “You are doing better now.” This letter was dated January 31, 2018, three days after Rivena’s death. We received this in the mail about a week later, just before her memorial service.

Worst experience of my life

Rivena’s death came while my wife Kim and I were visiting our youngest daughter Madison in New York. We had planned a special trip to enjoy a weekend in the city with her. On Saturday night, while waiting for Maddie to finish her shift at work, Kim and I talked to Rivena. We had what seemed like a particularly good conversation, with her telling us about her new apartment, an outing to a used book store she had planned for her treatment group, and we talked about an upcoming family visitation weekend; she sounded modestly upbeat – something of a rarity for her. At the end of our 45-minute call, she took the time to say a separate goodbye to both Kim and me – again, a rarity when we were both on the line. Did she know something then?

The next day, we had a great time with Madison and her boyfriend. It started with a gospel brunch in Harlem, included drinks at a swanky Midtown hotel, our first ever 4-D movie near Times Square courtesy of Maddie, and ended with a nice dinner together. We parted ways, with Maddie going home uptown, and Kim and I back to our hotel. It was about 10:30pm, while sitting in the lobby of our hotel when Kim received a garbled voicemail from a Utah area code… with Rivena in a Utah treatment facility, our fears were immediately on high alert. We took the elevator to our room before returning the call, and by the time we were inside, we both instinctively knew.

Being unable to make the call herself, Kim handed her phone to me. My hands trembling, I put it on speaker and dialed the number back that had just called us. The tenor of the voice on the other end told us immediately without saying a word – it was the program director from the treatment facility where Rivena lived. Before saying anything, she asked us just one question: had we spoken to the police? Everything else was a blur. I shook so violently I could hardly hold the phone (and I shake now again just thinking through this memory).

The next 48 hours exists in my head like an abstract painting, with shards of harsh clarity and cloudy visions interspersed randomly together. I remember getting a car up to Maddie’s apartment in Harlem – we had to tell her in person. I remember the three of us going back to our Midtown hotel, where we lied awake all night, alternatively crying, screaming, muttering senseless things, staring at random art deco patterns on our shoebox size hotel room walls, and having foggy conversations with family, police, staff from the treatment center, an organ donor organization, and the morgue. The next day, I managed to get United Airlines (thank you for your kindness) to squeeze us on a flight back home, Kim and I like zombies shuffling through LaGuardia, then sitting and staring at nothing through silent tears on a four-hour flight trying only to get back to the relative comfort and newfound pain of being home.

And so, the next chapter of our lives had been set in motion.

What it means to be a survivor of suicide

The actual impact on our family has been profound. Losing a loved one, especially a child, in any manner is a tragic, sad, and soul-crushing experience. Losing a child to suicide is absolutely devastating. As parents, we are hard-wired to protect our children at all costs. We dedicate hours that turn to days that turn to years that turn into entire lives toward helping our children grow to be happy, self-assured, thriving adults. To know that my daughter’s depression has taken that opportunity away is something we will forever have to live with. The questions we are left asking are too numerous to even begin to comprehend. The hole left behind is real, it is deep, and something I don’t see going away.

One of my aunts lost her son, my cousin, many years ago. She talks about her life existing in two parts, one before his death and one after. I am finding this to be painfully accurate. For our immediate family, each of us has been forever changed. Without getting into specifics, Kim and Madison have both seen their lives turned upside down in the months since Rivena’s death, including Maddie making the difficult decision to leave New York and move back to Colorado.

As for me, I still struggle to find solid ground, and have seen my grief manifest itself both mentally and physically. I had taken a new job just prior to Rivena’s death (largely to cover the out-of-pocket costs of her treatment), one that was a perfect match for my background and skills, and I had the opportunity to build a new business for a consulting firm I deeply respect. Unfortunately, I found quickly that I lacked the emotional bandwidth required to put the necessary creative energy into building a new business and had to step away. (Many thanks to the team at FUSE Research Network for your understanding.)

Physically, I have been unable to maintain the routine I worked so hard to build over the past decade. As a triathlete and coach, I stopped regularly riding, running, and swimming – my motivation has simply flat-lined. I’ve struggled through two marathons but have not actually raced at all this year. At the same time, the additional stress of grief has exhibited itself in a couple of ways; not only have I put on weight, but my immune system has been weakened to dangerous levels. As a result, I’ve spent the last 3 weeks on oxygen thanks to a serious case of bacterial pneumonia. I have plans to return to race triathlon again in April 2019, something that today seems so far out of reach. To say that I am starting from square one is not in any way an understatement – my first test back on my feet will be to simply walk around my neighborhood.

One of the harder challenges to navigate for us has been social. We are blessed beyond belief to have a very large circle of friends and family who care deeply about us. They have been there to help us through the darkest days, and they continue to regularly check in. For those of you in that camp (and you know who you are), know that we remain eternally grateful. Our challenge comes in the form of not wanting to be ‘those people’ who are always bringing things down. We don’t yet have much desire to laugh, play, and socialize. And we fear that even the best of friends begins to fatigue after a while. I should know… I don’t want to be in such a dark place, and I certainly don’t want to continually drag others down into this hole with me. But it’s also our reality for now.

A note for people who are transgender and their parents

We are still working to find a positive way to honor the life of Rivena. At this point, I don’t have any real answers on what that will ultimately look like. But I will say this – my daughter opened my eyes to what it means to be a person who happens to be transgender. As I have written before, my personal views were uninformed before Rivena came out to us (see my “Unlikely Advocate” blog from November 2017 for specifics), and I am thankful to have learned from her the importance of kindness and acceptance.

IMG_6902One thing that breaks my heart is to know how many parents of transgender individuals have turned their backs on their own children. I absolutely understand the concept of feeling like you have ‘lost a son’ when that son tells you ‘he’ is a transgender woman. But I also know all too well the debilitating, all-consuming grief of actually losing that person.

I would give anything to have my daughter back today. To be able to hug her. To tell her we love her. And to watch her grow into the person she was meant to be. Gender doesn’t matter. I would give anything to have my kid in my life.

If you are a person who has had a parent turn their back on you, know this: Even if you don’t feel it, you are cared for. You matter. You matter to me, and you matter to the memory of my daughter.

Sometimes love just isn’t enough

Back to those words I scribbled on that long flight home from LaGuardia on January 29th. Today would be Rivena’s 26th birthday. Our love for her burns brightly, even in death. And while that love will never be enough to bring her back, we will never stop trying to carry her memory forward.

Happy birthday, kiddo.
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An Unlikely Advocate

 

An unlikely advocate. That’s what I have become. But I am first and foremost a cropped-img_6149.jpgparent of two amazing young women, ages 25 and 20, and like any parent, I want nothing else in the world above the happiness and health of my kids. What follows here is a story about our family’s relationship with the oldest of our two daughters. It’s not her story – that is hers alone to tell; rather, this is the story of how her experience has influenced me as her father. Before I go any further, I must point out that I am telling this with the permission of our daughter in hopes that our experience may be able to bring something positive to somebody else who may be struggling. With that said, here goes…

Back in January, we went out to dinner to celebrate my kid’s graduation from an intensive 7-month long coding boot camp, where the focus was on learning to write code to support back-end web development (something I know literally nothing more about than that). As soon as we sat down at the table that evening, we learned something that would turn our lives upside down and inside out. Our son of 24 years cut right to the chase and told my wife and I that ‘he’ was a transgender woman. As we sat stunned and began to let what was said sink in, we also began to ask the questions that any parent would want to know. What we came to learn was that from the time our child was about 12 years old and starting to go through the natural changes of puberty, things felt horribly wrong. Our ‘son’ had felt completely wrong in her own skin, felt completely wrong about what came with being a man, and had known then that things just didn’t fit with what was supposed to be happening. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, she had forced those feelings away and buried them as something that would pass or something to be dealt with later.

Fast forward to 2017, and our kid had finally finished something she was proud of, had a vision for what a future could look like, and had taken the huge step of acknowledging the repressed feelings that had been there for years. She had been seeing a counselor for months by the time she came out to us, and there seemed to be palpable relief in finally being able to be her true self to us.

For our part, we were floored. We are asked all the time whether we had any indication beforehand, and the answer is an unequivocal no. Our kid had always been a bit of a homebody, with a small handful of friends, and rarely socialized, but we never thought too much of it. She certainly made things interesting for us as parents… as a young kid, she began reading full books long before other kids her age, and yet had a sensory-motor integration diagnosis, speech therapy, occupational therapy, eye therapy, and where social skills always seemed like a challenge for her, there was an off-the-chart IQ. Think super-smart kid who didn’t care about the popular crowd or social norms, and that was our child.

Sidebar

To remove any thought that I might be trying to push a particular agenda here, let me take a minute to give a little background on me, just so all the cards are on the table and you know where my own biases are. I am a Republican, have voted Republican (except for a couple individual candidates) in every election since I was 18, have worked in the financial services industry most of my adult life, grew up in a very middle-class military family living on or around Air Force bases all over the country, and while not coming from money, have done OK building a reasonably comfortable life for my family. I would define myself as spiritual, but not religious. And even as a Republican, I would characterize myself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. My views on transgender issues were uneducated. I believed somewhat nonchalantly that it was a matter of personal choice. I had nothing against anybody who identified as transgender, but I also didn’t have any interest in learning much more. To each their own, I figured. That was my starting point.

Back to the Story

As my wife and I began digesting the news that our adult child was transgender, we sought out what we could find to understand what that meant and how we could best love and support her. We researched everything. My wife found support groups. I spoke to friends who had similar experiences. And as we began to put the pieces in place, there were a few things that came to light.

First is the fact that gender identity is unequivocally not a choice. Knowing just how difficult the path is for a person (especially an adult) to come out and make the transition should make it clear that simply choosing to be another gender is not something anybody would opt for. The process is brutal. People can be unkind. And for our daughter’s sake, I can say there is no way she would have taken such a difficult path unless the alternative – living a life in someone else’s skin – was just too unbearable to move forward.

Second is that there is an alarmingly high suicide rate among transgender adults. I happened across a broad-based transgender research study released in 2014 that was co-authored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA. Their findings… 41% of transgender adults had attempted suicide. Forty-one percent. That compared to a 4.6% rate for the overall US population. As a parent, that scared the hell out of me, especially with our kid having a history of depression.

Third, for all of our desire to accept the new reality of what our kid had expressed, there is a very real sense of loss that a parent experiences. I certainly don’t pretend to speak for all parents of transgender kids here, but my reality is that I find myself simultaneously welcoming my new daughter and grieving the loss of a son. She is the same person, with the same quirky sense of humor and wit that has always been there, but I’d be lying if I said taking down pictures of her before transition was not heartbreaking.

Everything Changed

If our story ended here, we would simply be talking about the process of helping our adult daughter figure out her new life and how to best support her. Unfortunately, things took a dark turn over the summer… our daughter became part of the 41%.

Without getting into the specifics, our daughter had been in and out of three different inpatient treatment regimens over the course of about six weeks to help her stabilize after bouts of depression and suicidal ideation. Just seven days after her release from her third inpatient stay, my wife Kim and I found our daughter on the floor of her apartment nearly dead. She had made a horrific attempt on her own life the night before, and was miraculously somehow still clinging to life when we found her. I would not wish what we saw on my worst enemy… the scene was like seeing something out of a movie set, but it was real. And it was happening.

Things were a blur over the next few weeks. Kim and I watched her carried into an ambulance, raced behind it to the hospital, stood in disbelief in the ER trauma room, consulted with surgeons, spoke to chaplains, cried with each other, broke the news to our family – including the hardest call to our youngest daughter, spent hours (which turned to days) by her side in the ICU, all in a fog. The whole thing felt like it couldn’t possibly be happening, and I think Kim and I were both waiting to snap out of the nightmare.

It would be appropriate for me to point out that as of today, our daughter is still with us. She spent four days in the ICU and almost two more weeks in the hospital before being admitted into a residential treatment program. We feel extremely fortunate that she is medically OK and can now focus on getting the kind of help she needs to find her life worth living.

As for Kim and me, the weeks came and went, and we slowly began to accept that there would be no waking up from this. We both have struggled to regain our footing in normal daily routines. We’ve been quiet in social settings, and almost non-existent on social media (until this week, as you’ll see below). As parents, our first instinct is to want to ‘fix’ things – to make them easier for our kids. In this case, it feels helpless that we can’t fix anything. What we can do is love our kids and try to give them the support they need.

A Truly Unexpected Interruption

Wow, just wow. I had been sitting at my desk a few days ago writing what you’ve read to this point when I got a frantic call from Kim… she had just received word that our daughter “AMA’d” – signed herself out of her treatment program against medical advice. We knew from talking with her and her therapist a few days earlier that she’d had thoughts of signing herself out and walking into the mountains to die, but hoped that she had managed to work through those thoughts.

Our world quickly collapsed again. She was out on her own, on foot, with no money, no phone, and no ID, and we knew the only reason she would have AMA’d would be to take her own life. And we were an 8-hour drive away, powerless to do anything. We spoke to the local police, sent a photo and description, and got their assistance in the form of an ‘Attempt to Locate’ alert in the county where she was last seen. We both threw a few things into a bag and hit the road, not sure what we would do, but we knew we had to get there. Before leaving, though, Kim turned to the only resource we had to recruit help in finding her… she posted about our daughter on Facebook.

I write this two days hence, and for those of you who followed our updates on Facebook, you know that the outcome was positive. Our daughter resurfaced, very cold, very tired, and more than a little shaken, but also very much alive. She had done exactly what she had expressed, and somehow still found a deep primitive survival instinct. Today she is safely back in her treatment program, and clearly still has a long road ahead, but we will be behind her for every step she wants us with her.

During these couple days, we were faced with an almost unbearable sense of dread, helplessness, and uncertainty. We drove hours on end in an unfamiliar area, showed photos to anybody who would listen, and tried to do what we could to help ease the same all-consuming emotions our youngest daughter was experiencing on the other side of the country. And that’s where Kim’s Facebook post taught us something so very valuable… people are inherently good, and kindness is incredibly powerful.

Within 24 hours of the original post, it had been shared more than 1,100 times. The outpouring of love and support we experienced was overwhelming, and just thinking about it has me in tears as I write this. Eleven hundred people, many of whom we knew but most we did not, jumped in both to help us find our girl and to lift us up and out from the nightmare we were in. Your comments, your thoughts and prayers, and your selfless acts of kindness meant the world to me, Kim, and the rest of our family.

Coming Full Circle

For those who know me, you know that I am an avid triathlete. I’ve done many Ironman races over the years, and this year for the first time I planned to compete in two full distance Ironman events in the same year. As luck would have it, our daughter’s massive suicide attempt came just a few days after I finished my first Ironman of the year in Madison, Wisconsin. Following that attempt, I didn’t exactly have any desire to continue training, and the thought of competing in another Ironman this year seemed somewhat meaningless and self-serving… my plan to race Ironman Arizona in November didn’t seem to matter much anymore.

As I began to cope with almost losing our daughter once (the events of the last couple days hadn’t yet happened), and with a nudge from our therapist, I started to get back into running, biking, and swimming again. What I found is that these were the only times when I could quiet the thoughts in my own head – a three-hour run effectively became a three-hour therapy session for me. And from there, I started thinking about whether I could salvage my Ironman Arizona by using it to do something positive for our daughter.

And this is where I began thinking of myself as that unlikely advocate. But it fits. I decided to keep Arizona on the calendar, and instead of racing it for me, trying to squeak out a few more minutes for a small personal victory, I will be racing it for Rivena, my daughter, who is one of the kindest, most accepting people I have ever known.

In Rivena’s name, I will be racing Ironman Arizona this Sunday to promote kindness and acceptance for people who are transgender.

If you don’t know much about what it means for someone to be transgender, that’s okay. I am learning with you. All I ask is that you be kind, show basic human decency, and be willing to accept people as people, regardless of what our differences may be. A 41% attempted suicide rate is way too high, and while more research needs to be done around this, we can start from the ground up by being kind to one another and accepting people we might not understand. This is how I can best help my daughter.

While the last few days have been an incredibly difficult way to start an Ironman race week, Rivena is now safe and back in her program and Kim and I are back home, so we decided to keep our plans to be in Tempe this weekend. More importantly, all of you who jumped into our story this week serve as beacons of hope for me. You have shown me how much power there is kindness, and we’ve already witnessed more than 1,100 non-judgmental acts of kindness from you. How many more can we get?

Thank you for taking this journey with us. Thank you for reading, and thank you for sharing. And for any families struggling with similar issues, we are still deep in the trenches with our daughter – her story is far from over – but our hope is that by sharing some of this, you can know that you are not alone.  Let’s work together to promote kindness and acceptance, and hopefully we can all do some good for our kids.

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You’ll see me wearing the transgender pride flag on my Braveheart Racing kit this Sunday.