Belfast Telegraph

Dragged back by grief

The second part of Clifford Smyth's candid, moving account of his life-long struggle with transvestism.

My past life laid its hands on me shortly after my mother's unexpected death. My mother had enjoyed rude good health for years but she collapsed one evening and, overnight, succumbed to a massive stroke.

My past life laid its hands on me shortly after my mother's unexpected death. My mother had enjoyed rude good health for years but she collapsed one evening and, overnight, succumbed to a massive stroke.

Transvestism had played no part in my life for over 10 years but, after my mother's death, the compulsion to put on make-up and dress in women's clothes suddenly re-asserted itself. I felt weak and powerless and the need was pressing.

Fear and shock overwhelmed me. For years I had comforted myself in the knowledge that, after so much struggle and pain, the Lord had delivered me. Now my transvestite urgencies had taken on a new life. What was to become of me, I wondered.

Years earlier, my wife Anne had prevailed on me to go to the marriage guidance council, as it then was, about my "problem."

Eighteen months with the marriage guidance counsellor had been an important stage on the road to recovery, though her "solution" took me aback. I ended up touring senior citizens' groups, and appearing in concert parties with a bevy of crazy women - Carmen Miranda, Edna Everage, Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Temple all at my beck and call. My amateur drag act enabled me to exercise a measure of control over my compulsive needs.

This was a high risk strategy that eventually led to my downfall when my minister of religion publicly denounced and humiliated me.

The dust had no sooner settled than I found myself attending a healing ministry for the 'sexually broken' and, during one of their sessions of prayer, confession and healing, I was liberated from the power of transvestism over my life.

I interpreted this remarkable change as God's 'deliverance'. I left my transvestite ways behind and moved on, though the cause or causes of my former affliction remained unknown to me. There had been a hint of an episode of sexual abuse when I had found myself the plaything of much older boys in the 'big school', but that clue hadn't been followed up.

The marriage guidance counsellor, had remained on the friendliest of terms ever after, although we didn't see much of each other. Then our paths crossed for the first time in ages just weeks after my mother's death. As we chatted across shopping trolleys, she asked: "And how are you?"

I didn't hold back, and she got my whole sorry tale of woe.

"That's not to be unexpected, Clifford," she said.

Disaster struck a second time but on a scale unimagined.

Just when I had purged myself of the dressing-up kit and had hoped for calmer waters, we received the dreadful news that my youngest child had been involved in a fearsome car crash while back-packing in Australia. Gripped by incomprehension - a mixture of disbelief at what was happening and denial - I flew out to Melbourne with my eldest son.

Later, I would realise that Almighty God had taken us all the way to Australia, to say goodbye because, three days after we touched down, Martin, who had never regained consciousness, died of his brain injuries.

I was heartbroken and devastated. Weeks passed and, like some untameable torrent, the flow of grief changed course. Once again, the compulsion sprang up, and old, long forgotten patterns of behaviour reasserted themselves.

I was at a loss. Losing Martin was horrendous, but why this?

On our return to Belfast, we had certain procedures to go through, required by the authorities in Victoria. We had to produce psychiatric reports on our family's trauma. This gave me the opportunity to raise my predicament with the psychiatrist preparing my medical report for the accident tribunal. The doctor explained that, from what little he knew of my past, the transvestite reaction would not have been unexpected. Now the psychiatrist was saying the same thing as my former marriage guidance counsellor.

As far as I was concerned though, this unwelcome development was almost entirely unexpected; I say "almost" because, during the 10 years when I had been 'delivered', there had been the occasional disturbing thought that, when my mother died, I might regress.

Nothing, though, had prepared me for the actual horror of the events that engulfed me. I had no idea how to cope. I prayed and I trusted and I confided in friends. I also went to a self-help group for transvestites, but that was depressing.

I had thrown out much of my wardrobe in an effort to keep a grip on myself, but I knew from all the literature that I had read, that 'purging' was actually part of the pattern of transvestite behaviour, which only reinforced my fears of where all this was heading.

My father had survived my mother's death and, having lost his daughter to breast cancer years before, he comforted me in the death of my Martin.

I got to know my father in a way that I had never known him before. This moment, though, was short-lived. Suddenly, he went into, what would have been called in the past, a decline, and I lost him, too.

Before his death, he had been moved into a nursing home, an event which triggered all kinds of unhelpful memories in my mind about family relationships in the past.

My transvestism frothed up with a revitalised urgency. My wife, Anne, already having to cope with Martin's death, seemed remote; how could I burden her with my frailties? She knew the past had caught up with me, because I needed to be honest with her, but there seemed little point in troubling her with the extent of my difficulties or their frantic intensity. My explorations of my feminine self took place elsewhere.

Anne and I went on holiday to Sardinia, and we enjoyed the break intensely, but Martin's death was never far from my mind, as if he stood on the edge of my conscious thoughts, ready to burst in.

When we returned home, I went rapidly downhill. Suddenly, the deaths of my mother, Martin, and Dad all came together in one big 'thing'. I couldn't even define the 'thing' - blackness of an impenetrable kind, just blackness.

I knew I was unravelling like an old woolly jumper, all loose threads, shapeless, and not much else. I hadn't lost faith in Almighty God. Despite every disaster, I knew the Father's love, but why, why, why? And especially, why was I vexed with the compulsion to be a weirdo?

We went for a long walk along the tow-path between those little villages in the heart of Ulster, Scarva and Pontzpass.

The rain was unceasing but my companion was the ideal Presbyterian minister, non-judgemental, compassionate and wise with another world's wisdom, not like the minister I had encountered many years previously, who hurled me out of his church when he encountered my deviant behaviour; no help there.

My companion on the walk advised me to go for counselling to a personal friend of his, an expert on post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Despite previous encounters with counsellors, of whom some were charlatans, I recognized that I was desperate and that my brother in Christ would steer me in the right direction.

And so it came about that, over a number of months, I journeyed back into the past, through the pain and grief of Martin's loss, encountering two episodes of sexual abuse, one after I left school when I first confessed my transvestite shame to William McGrath, who would later be jailed for predatory sex at Kincora Boys' Home, and the other at the 'big school'.

We went even further back, deep into the past, through the earliest episodes of dressing-up in frocks, to confront a sense of deepest abandonment in early childhood.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, in his novel The Shadow of the Wind, remarks: "One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it. By the time the mind is able to comprehend what has happened, the wounds of the heart are already too deep."

Bereavement was reinforcing that deep-seated sense of abandonment and, though a grown man, I was reacting in ways that had comforted me as a child, dressing-up. There were many complexities, but there was a narrative that made some kind of sense.

Now I have a much greater understanding of the origins of my pain and my need to cross-dress, and why death reignited that deep sense of loss and abandonment, and the desire to find a place of safety - infantile and narcissistic though it might be.

I have also discovered that, even though you may come to a much more profound understanding of why you behave in irrational ways, that doesn't mean that those patterns of behaviour go away.

"I don't keep an eye on you, you know," Anne confided on one of those days recently when I felt particularly bruised and forlorn, her understated loving remark displayed understanding and comfort.

Faith and hope have equipped me to be a survivor, to remain optimistic and not give way to suicidal thoughts or take to 'drink'; faith and hope are good companions with which to face the future.


From Belfast Telegraph