Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
ALEC SCOTT ROOK (# 35) formerly Alison Scott Rook
Alec Scott Rook (formerly Alison Scott Rook)
Born in Culgaith, England
Father & Mother both born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father: English / Mother: English & Scottish
Smiling confidently, Alec enters the photographic studio and gives me a firm, manly handshake. He was Alison only a few years back but looking at him now, this is hard to believe. He hands over some carefully-typed notes, indicating the careful thought he has given to what he is going to say about himself in the interview. He has decided to speak out, it seems, but I sense uncertainty and I wonder where it will all lead.
His notes start with the following paragraph: “The image that I project is quite normal, I look confident and able. What other people don’t know is how long it might have taken me to get out of bed that morning, to get washed - if I did at all - and to get dressed, just to go out for something as normal and everyday as a pint of milk. Something others wouldn’t think twice about. How I might have tried to talk myself out of leaving the house because I couldn’t muster the confidence and strength just to do those simple things. What a massive effort, what energy it takes to go out, to put a smile on my face when I don’t want to smile, when I feel I have nothing to smile about, when I just want to shut the world out, curl up under my duvet and sleep, forget, feel safe. Some might say, ‘get a grip’, or ‘pull yourself together’, or ‘cheer up, it might never happen’: if they could only see, feel and experience what it is like in my world when everything is black, where there is no sunshine, no hope, no future, then maybe they would, just maybe, have a glimpse into an outsider’s world. My disability is invisible, so I too feel invisible: I am therefore outside the world of the insiders.”
Alec, formerly known as Alison, was born in Cumbria into an unpretentious middle-class family with solid values. Father was a pharmacology rep’ - for the agricultural products of ICI - and mother was what most middle-class mothers were in those days, a housewife. Alison was the only daughter, having two brothers, both of whom became Royal Marines. All three children had a happy childhood and upbringing - they were all loved and life seemed good. Suddenly, however, Alec interjects: “Only recently did I begin to realise that behind the facade of normality, all was not well. My father suffered from extended mood-swings and periods of depression, diagnosed then as ‘Manic-Depressive Psychosis’ and later to be more commonly known as ‘Bi-polar Disorder’. As I got older, things deteriorated markedly and while my mother shielded us children from the worst effects of it all, the strains generated by my father’s condition affected us all. Of course, the outside world knew little of this and both our parents felt strongly that this was how it should be - the treatments for the condition were pretty invasive, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and medications, for which he was admitted to Garlands Hospital (Mental) in Carlisle.”
The family moved around following the demands of Father’s job, including, at one stage, to Dunblane in Scotland, where Alison started school. At that time, Father was often away on business but his mood swings were particularly pronounced - strict bed times and routines were adhered to, making life easier and relieving the turmoil.
“But then we moved again, this time to north-west Scotland, near Oban. I felt I was definitely an outsider there and life at school reinforced this feeling. Even in primary school, I seemed to have had little interest in girly things; I preferred playing soldiers and building huts in the woods, that was more my thing, and in my two brothers I had wonderfully congenial playmates. In primary school, I was not thought very clever and in that environment, where I had the misfortune to have a horrible, bullying teacher, I naturally failed to make much progress. I know most people remember their early days at school with some fondness, but I don’t: I was frequently bullied, not only because I was English, but also because I had to wear ‘National Health glasses’, because I had a squint, and I seemed to be somehow different from the other children. I was not just bullied by the local children but by the teachers too.”
Aged about 11, Alison progressed to the local high school. She loved Art and English and, academically, did better than some had expected. “Thankfully, I wasn’t bullied any longer; the school was much larger and the range of youngsters there was much broader too, though I must say that I always felt myself to be on the periphery - by wearing jeans, baggy jumpers and trainers most of the time, I did stand out a bit. Towards the end of my days in high school, I did try a bit more to wear school uniform (skirt and blazer) and what could be described as more feminine attire, but I must say that I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in these garments. I felt that I was different, but didn’t quite understand how and why.”
“Of course, puberty did not pass me by and I became conscious that I always had crushes on girls - while I was aware that some men were gay and some women lesbians, I was convinced that I was not one of them. I had my first boyfriend when I was 15 and thought that all was well after all. He was my first love. He was good-looking and we started off on the usual shy, fumbling relationship. Sadly, it all ended when he, the victim of peer pressure, wanted to have sex whereas I felt that, being just over 15, I wasn’t quite ready for this big step into the unknown adult world. He was only sixteen himself and I think the pressure from his mates was too much for him; sadly, we parted and I regret it even now. I was very fond of him and I would have loved to have been closer to him - the love I felt then is with me even now. Teenage hormones did more than change the shape of my body, however; they seemed to make me moody, sometimes for days on end, but can you show me a teenager who isn’t moody? As I knew nothing about bi-polar, I made no association between my moods and the ones my father had.”
Having completed high school at the age of 17, Alison was unclear about what to do next, so she enrolled on a two-year Nursery Nursing course in Glasgow, not an unusual choice for a girl with no firm career aspirations, but she did like children and thought it would provide her with reliable employment. This was the first time Alison was living away from home and while it offered greater freedom and the ability to make her own choices, it was also a bit scary, especially as she was living in a large multi-faceted city. “This was a period of self-discovery. I loved Glasgow but surviving on a modest grant was not easy - I was young and I wanted to do all the things most young people want to do. I socialised quite a bit in my holiday time and drank rather a lot. We all did and drink loosened the inhibitions.”
“Then something happened that I was unable to share with anyone until very recently: I remember clearly having a crush on a female friend who was 12 years older than me and who had a boyfriend who was even older still, almost 40, a businessman of some standing in the community. I got very drunk one night and called my friend from the pub, announcing to her that I was a lesbian. She was shocked and quite dismissive though, as you can imagine, for me it had been a huge admission. Later on, her boyfriend came into the pub; he had a drink and we said ‘hello’. Towards closing time, he asked if I wanted a lift home as I was clearly quite drunk. I was quite happy to go with him as I trusted him and didn’t think anything more about it. But our journey home took a detour: he stopped the car down by the pier on Loch Etive. In my drunken state, I asked why he had driven me there and he told me that he’d learned from my friend that I thought I was a lesbian. Then he said he’d show me that I wasn’t a lesbian and, basically, he raped me. I remember him telling me that obviously I wasn’t a lesbian because I was enjoying it. After he’d finished, he drove me home and left me there. I never told anyone about it, other than my friend, and she didn’t believe me. I had no proof and I had certainly been extremely drunk. At the time, I felt that there was nothing I could do; I just felt ashamed and embarrassed.”
“I only related the incident to my Mum about three years ago. She was shocked and wished I had said something back then, but it would have been my word against his, the word of a girl known for getting regularly drunk against that of an upstanding local businessman. Back then, in the early 1980’s, probably no-one would have believed me anyway. So, as you can well imagine, I put the whole idea of my being a lesbian back into the closest. I think I associated it subconsciously with shame. After that, I became very promiscuous, for a girl; I drank heavily and punished myself for my thoughts about being attracted to women by having sex with lots of men. It was almost as if I was trying to use some sort of conversion therapy on myself. Looking back, it was probably the equivalent of what nowadays would be described as self-harming. Of course, I continued to have crushes on women but never had a relationship with one; faced with unrequited love, I drowned my sorrows in alcohol.”
Having completed her college training, Alison got her first job as a ‘nanny cum housekeeper cum horse groom’ for a wealthy family near Aberdeen. It was a job from hell - £25 a week for a 12-hour day and one day off every 3 months. This was not the best introduction to the world of work and it was hardly surprising that Alison survived there for less than six months. A succession of jobs followed, including work at residential schools as a care worker for children with speech and language problems. During this time, Alison’s mood swings became quite pronounced and began to be seen as a major impediment in her work. “People were finding it very difficult to work with me, or alongside me, and I often felt that when the depression struck, it was like being engulfed by a big dark cloud with no way out. This affected me as a team player and colleagues struggled to make allowances for me and to be tolerant.”
During that time, Alison dressed mainly in jeans, shirts and t-shirts, always aiming to cover up and to reveal nothing of her female side, nor emphasising any femininity she might have. “I continued to have crushes on women but did not recognise myself as a lesbian. One day, in something of a Eureka moment, I subconsciously expressed my desire for one of my female friends by writing on a wall, ‘I really love her and I want to be a man for her!‘ This expression, this notion, came from somewhere deep within me and indeed it was later to become the guiding light for the rest of my life, except at that stage, I didn’t know it, though I was already in my early thirties.”
Alison changed jobs a lot, sometimes with little notice, but she rather gives the impression that this was not so much a sign of irresponsible or erratic behaviour as a search for something that might offer hope, or bring fulfilment. “Of course, when I was feeling high and I had a idea, I would simply go for it; I would just do it, do it there and then; I would hand in my notice or go for another interview. Consequently, I often leapt out of the frying pan straight into the fire! Perhaps I should mention that, towards the end of my thirties, I was for several years in a relationship with a man. I was living in Sussex at the time and he was about ten years older then me. He was a good, kind man, we found a mutual attraction, and he accepted me for who I was. We shared an interest in motorbikes, in walking, and in the countryside, and we connected well too - the intimacy and the sex were better than anything I had experienced up to that point in my life and, like many others, I didn’t know any better. Of course, I always had to navigate my mood swings and it was becoming clear to me that these were an increasingly disruptive element in my life. I had got away with it as a youngster but as an adult, of course, that kind of erratic behaviour is not acceptable to others.”
Asked about the desire to have children and to raise a family, Alec replies: “In my mid-thirties, I was told that for physiological reasons (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, PCOS) I would not be able to bear children and, though previously I had not harboured any deep desire to have babies, I did feel that I had lost something. Mind you, this development was not unhelpful, as it turned out, because my partner didn’t want to have any more children.”
While the relationship was loving and fulfilling in many ways, it gradually tapered off and, having reached the age for blowing out 40 candles on her birthday cake, Alison made up her mind to have no more relationships with men. She could not see herself with a man again because, without fully understanding why, she knew that such relationships were simply not right for her, even if dating women still remained a pipe dream.
Alec continued: “And then the internet arrived into my life and, basically, I just searched online for lesbians! I discovered chat-rooms, started talking, and was amazed at the response I got. I joined a particular online ‘butch-femme’ sub-group and through comparing notes and exchanging experiences, I started to recognise a lot more about myself and perhaps even to understand the roots of my desires. I also met my first girlfriend and, even if the relationship had its hurdles, it felt more right than anything I had ever experienced before. She had children and, like lots of kids, they were challenging and loving in equal amounts, but there was a great deal of anger inside me as well and all of this, when combined with my mood swings, created a very stressful atmosphere for all of us. I was also made redundant three times and, because my accommodation was always tied in with my employment, I was forced to put my cat into a cattery, using up my redundancy money. My life seemed to crumble around me and I had a breakdown - it was all too much. As soon as I felt I had discovered a chink of light in the gloom, a way forward perhaps, other circumstances seemed to become unbearably difficult and then my depression would hit me with full force too.” The local authorities were unable to help but thankfully, Shelter managed to secure a housing association flat for me - the first real home of my own I ever had. I was very lucky and my pussycat had a warm home again too.”
At this time, Alison never knew quite how she would feel from one day to the next and yet she felt guilty at not being able to hold down a job when feeling low; in all that time, the only remedy the medics could offer were antidepressants. “I was 41 and the years that followed were basically years of not doing anything very much. I did look for work but, to be honest, I wasn’t capable of doing a job. For long periods of time, I was very, very depressed; I lost my self-esteem and my sense of self worth; I lost all my confidence. I also felt like a sponger, an inadequate, because I couldn’t work. I felt like one of the benefit cheats that I was always reading about in the newspapers; I felt ashamed, demoralised and embarrassed. I was also angry at having to live with something that was so difficult to control, something that didn’t even appear to have a name. There were many days when my depression was so bad that I seriously considered ending it all. I managed to get some voluntary work with AGE UK and that helped me a lot during this very dark period. I was still living in Sussex.”
Alison’s bleakest chapter was not however entirely without significant development: through her online networks, she happened to meet a number of ‘trans-men’ (female to male [FtM] transexuals or transgender persons). “My first reaction on meeting them was unalloyed jealousy - suddenly, I felt as if I might have discovered the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my life.” This was the absent dimension Alison had been subconsciously searching for all her life. Almost without hesitation, one Monday morning, she went to see her local GP and explained passionately to her that she wanted to transition from being a woman to being a man. The doctor responded amusingly: ‘You certainly know how to start my week...’; nonetheless, her GP proved to be very understanding and helpful. Virtually overnight, Alison understood that she no longer wished to be ‘Alison’ at all. Things had to change: becoming a man, becoming a ‘he’ instead of a ‘she’, becoming ‘Alec’ rather than ‘Alison’, this was the only option, but the road to manhood was going to be a long and tortuous one. The essential first step was for Alison to be referred to the local mental health team; this proved traumatic: “The psychiatrists were Asian men, whose views were inevitably influenced by their cultural understanding, and they really didn’t want to know, or to try to comprehend, why the woman sitting in front of them, why I wanted to be a man. They were extremely disrespectful and dismissive but, thankfully, they did refer me to a gender clinic in London and there I found myself in front of some rather more comprehending experts.”
At what might well prove to be the pivotal point in her life, Alison decided to pause a little, just for a few months, to ponder if the path she was about to take was the right one - after all, it was almost certainly a road of no return. She was nearly 44 and this would be the biggest change in her life so far; she was also particularly mindful of other decisions she had made during mood swings, often rushed decisions that sometimes turned out to be foolish choices or simply bad moves. This time, the risks were much too great for haste and error. Only after this period of reflection did she agree to initiate the next step in the process of transitioning - starting a course of testosterone hormone replacement therapy.
“It was truly an exciting and adventurous time: as a woman exposed to high levels of testosterone, you go through what are almost the symptoms of male puberty and, for a mature woman, that was certainly an unforgettable experience! I very quickly began to grow facial hair; my body hair began to increase; my voice began to break and to deepen; and even my hair started to look to me more ‘male-patterned’, even receding a little at the temples, a change I loved.”
Alison felt good, very good indeed, almost as if her body had at last started to catch up with her psyche. She changed her name to Alec and that sounded right too. Her mum chose the name; it had been her maternal grandfather’s name and it seemed fitting that she chose it, a huge sign of acceptance from her. Whilst the majority of people responded positively to her metamorphosis, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, both her parents and her two brothers proved supportive too. “My parents said: ‘We knew all along that you should have been a boy.’” Alec underwent a bilateral mastectomy approximately one year after starting the course of hormones. Through this time of transition and over the years since, Alec has received counselling, advocacy and weekly support at the mental health drop-in facility of The Metro Centre in Greenwich..
Almost concurrent with his gender transition, Alec received a definitive diagnosis of his mental condition: at last, he had an explanation of the mood swings which had characterised and blighted his life since his teenage years. It was perhaps unsurprising that, like his father before him, Alec was diagnosed with what is now usually referred to as ‘Bi-polar Disorder’. Having this diagnosis was reassuring but at the same time deeply depressing: Alec knew that the condition could be partially managed with medication but that it would never go away, could never be cured. He knew that, as with many long-term mental conditions, his illness would probably always make him an outsider. Bi-polar remains generally unpredictable and tends to worsen with age and, although medical advances have been made, and continue to be, there is as yet no ‘magic bullet’. Alec is philosophical and has resigned himself to this state: “My illness is about two polar opposites, highs and lows, but there are times when it’s level or at a normal in-between stage. That is how I feel about being an outsider: it’s not all bad and it’s not all good. There are some really positive and inspirational parts in between the two extremes.”
Alec continues: “You get told that you have to learn how to mange your Bi-polar condition but I find it very hard. It is extremely tiresome to have to avoid things that feel good, things that though they are deeply satisfying are also the very things that make the condition worse. You want to be normal, to push the boundaries occasionally, but managing Bi-polar is all about trying to maintain a balance and this is hard work. For example, I know that staying up late tends to have an adverse and sometimes cumulatively deleterious effect, and yet it’s fun to stay up late and to watch the late movie or indulge in a late-night dinner party with friends. Noise is a major trigger for me too: screaming children, loud music, and noisy nightclubs are all problematic, but even the general hubbub of the city can make me worse - when I’m unwell, I do resort to packing a bag and heading for my mother’s house in Cumbria, just to recover in blissful silence, to feel safe, and to know that I will be gently encouraged to eat and to care for myself without pressure or judgement.”
Having navigated his way through these extraordinary, often stormy times, Alec now has a partner, a lesbian, and he is currently training to be counsellor. In a few years’ time, he hopes to be able to practise independently and to offer specialist support to the ‘transgender community’. “Life is still a struggle but I am ecstatically happy to be Alec. I dream of being settled, of having a job that I love doing, and of being financially independent. I want to be able to share my life and my home with somebody else, of course - my dream is of having a life that is as normal as possible. My current training is helping me to understand lots more about myself and it must surely be true that one cannot counsel others if one cannot understand oneself.”
The Alison who was later to become Alec was arguably an outsider from the very start and, asked what he perceives to be the disadvantages of being an outsider, he answers frankly: “Not being able to do the things I want to do without considering the consequences for my mental wellbeing; not being able to hold down a full-time job without potentially burning out; being anxious, scared, and afraid of even going to work; being hard to work with (I feel really guilty about that); feeling like a sponger and an inadequate because I haven’t been able to work for so long; having to ask for help all the time; having low self-esteem and self-worth; not knowing how I will feel from one day to the next; knowing there is no cure for Bi-polar, no magic fix; depending on medications that have nasty side effects and don’t completely even out the lows and the highs; having to find ways of coping, managing, conserving energy, constantly having to be aware of my moods to monitor where I am with them - these are the disadvantages I have to contend with.”
“During my lows especially, I feel that I put pressure on my loved ones to support me; I might make them depressed too or make them worry about me, or I fear I might lose them completely; I feel needy, useless, a burden, I feel pathetic and worthless. When I’m high, I’m unpredictable, over-chatty, demanding, irritable, impatient, unable to sleep properly; I’m sometimes hard to be around; I make mistakes, take rash decisions, spend money unwisely (although not so much now as I no longer have a credit card or an overdraft). I had to go bankrupt back in 2007 after running up debts of over £15,000 that I couldn’t afford to pay off. I got a huge buzz from spending, I still do, but I am aware of it more now and I choose things that I need and that I can afford.”
Asked if there are any advantages of his ‘outsider state’, Alec responds: “Being creative, industrious and achieving things that I wouldn’t normally; crafts, and making things with my hands; being very still and having time to sit and watch people, observing them; understanding those who have similar problems; empathy; making a difference to others; finding my ‘calling’, counselling, something that I really want to do for the first time in my life; using what I am learning to understand and know myself; recognising my illness and helping myself; self-therapy; recovering my self-worth, my self-esteem, by slowly building on my achievements yet knowing that I have support around me. This process involves so much self-reflection and self-scrutiny that I am really learning to understand myself properly for the first time and how best I can interact with others. I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t have taken this career direction if I hadn’t had a great need for others or the empathy to help them in turn. I feel that having Bi-polar has made that possible.”
“I was given my Bi-polar condition genetically - my father had it, and most likely his mother too. From the day I was properly diagnosed, it has been like an unfolding curse. It seems to me that my problems and symptoms are almost identical to his. I have even felt that I was turning into him! But, through studying counselling and having counselling myself, I have begun to realise that I don’t have to be like him. I am not him and I have acquired the tools and the strength that sadly he didn’t have, so I can change things and help myself. He was an amazing and incredibly talented man and, despite our differences, deep inside I miss him. I owe it to myself and to him to learn from his life. He was an outsider too.”
Asked if he had the choice, would he prefer not to be an outsider, Alec replies: “Yes and no. ‘Yes’ because it can make life extra hard and unpredictable, and I hate the overwhelming despair I sometimes feel - that black cloud that wraps itself around me, dragging me down to a place where I just want to hide from the world, facing nothing and no-one, a place where I feel ashamed and embarrassed. I would like to experience how it would be to be normal, to feel normal, to have a full-time job, to suffer no stigma, to rely on no benefits. What would I be doing then? How do I imagine I would feel ‘on the inside’? Perhaps I would feel free, untethered, without internal anxiety or worry, or just the worry over ordinary things, like bills and public transport! I might have had a really good job, been able to buy my own house, had my future safeguarded financially. I could have had a family and children, gone on holiday when I wanted to, or at least maybe once a year. I might have felt the same every day apart from the odd time of feeling blue. Perhaps I would have gone to university and then travelled the world, or perhaps I would just have been a normal bloke, normal on the inside too, where there is no judgement.”
“And ‘No’, because then I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be aware of the struggles that others have with their mental health. I might not be in the position I am now, doing something that I really love doing, helping others, working towards qualifying as a counsellor. I would have none of the insight and the understanding I have around mental health. I might have no empathy, no compassion.”
Asked if he had had the choice to have been Alec from the beginning, Alec replies without hesitation: “No, because if that had been the case, I wouldn’t be me now, I wouldn’t be who I am. Everything I have been through has made the building blocks of what I am today. I would not have had it any other way.”
Interview Date: 24th January 2014
Updated: 6th March 2014
From its inception, The Metro Centre has taken a holistic approach to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered health and well-being; go to:
GIRES - Gender Identity Research and Education Society:
Though he was Alison until the age of 44, Alec had always seemed somehow different from other children and it turned out that this difference was not just a matter of gender dysphoria, as if that were not enough to cope with. His father’s life had been blighted by Bi-polar Disorder and sadly Alec had inherited the condition. An unfolding curse from the day he was diagnosed, Bi-polar has brought him problems and symptoms so like his father’s that he sometimes felt he was turning into his dad! But, through studying counselling and undergoing counselling himself, Alec has discovered that he doesn’t have to be like his father; he has acquired the tools and the strength that enable him to change things and to help himself.
Photography: London 24th January 2014