Every trans person experiences dysphoria differently. In this blog post I’m talking directly about my personal experience of dysphoria. So, as always, bear in mind that this doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone else.
So, what the heck is dysphoria anyway?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept…
The Oxford English Dictionary defines dysphoria as: a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life. Gender dysphoria, specifically, is defined by the NHS as: “A condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there’s a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.” In the UK, in order to access treatment, a transgender person needs to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
NB: Dysphoria is not to be confused with body dysmorphia. They are totally different.
Dysphoria can be split into two categories.
Physical or body dysphoria: Discomfort centred on your physical appearance, and the fact that your body doesn’t align with your gender identity. For example I look in the mirror and dislike various bits of myself that I see as feminine.
Social dysphoria: Discomfort around how others perceive you, and how you feel when being misgendered by society. An example of this is how uncomfortable I feel when someone refers to me as ‘madam’ in a shop, or how angry and miserable I felt as a child when the girls and boys had to line up separately, and I couldn’t go with the boys like I wanted.
What does dysphoria feel like?
Dysphoria for me is a constant state. A lot of the time it’s mild, like a buzz of static, or a rumble of thunder in the distance. It’s a feeling of unease, of things not being right, but it’s hard to pin down. I’ve lived with it all my life, but it’s only since I’ve had an understanding of my gender identity that I can recognise it for what it is.
When it strikes badly it’s more akin to a feeling of grief or profound loss. I experience it like a physical sensation, a punch to the chest that makes it hard to breathe. I feel hollowed out and empty, trapped and claustrophobic. Sometimes it comes close to a panic attack.
I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my life feeling anxious and depressed for no apparent reason. But it never felt like clinical depression in the way that others describe it. It came and went too quickly and rarely persisted for long periods, but would sometimes hit me out of the blue with no warning. Looking back, I suspect that much of this cycle of mild depression and anxiety was due to undiagnosed gender dysphoria.
A timeline of my gender dysphoria
As a child, my gender dysphoria was obvious and vocalised. I hated being a girl. I hated that I had the wrong body. It was a source of great shame, unhappiness and anger to me that I wasn’t how I wanted to be. I dressed as a boy when I could, and had my hair cut as short as I was allowed. I introduced myself with the male form of my name, and if strangers assumed I was a boy I never corrected them.
As a teenager and young adult I could no longer ‘pass’ as a boy. Stuck in an all-girls boarding school, my life was difficult for reasons other than gender dysphoria. By that stage I’d buried my desire to be male and was deep in denial. I adopted all sorts of unhealthy coping strategies to numb the emotions I couldn’t name: binge drinking, smoking, drugs, self-harm, disordered eating. As I grew older, I learned ways of coping that were less damaging to my body: exercising (although still rigidly controlling my weight to make my body more androgynous), and losing myself in new obsessions like music, reading, and writing, but the all-pervasive sense of wrongness continued.
In adulthood I never felt like a woman. I hated the word being applied to me, and lady was even worse. Gendered titles like Miss/Mrs/Ms made me irrationally angry, and I was reluctant to get married because I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of being a ‘wife’. Still unaware of what the problem was, I carried on. I went through some phases of overcompensating, and presented to the world in a very feminine way, but it never felt right. I remember joking about how I felt like a man in drag when I wore dresses and heels — If only I’d known how close I was to the truth! At other times I’d swing back the other way and cut all my hair off and dress in more gender neutral way.
During pregnancy and while my kids were small was probably the only time I felt even slightly content as an adult woman. Whether it was the hormones or another bout of overcompensation, I don’t know. But while pregnant and breastfeeding, I finally felt as if the body I’d always hated had a purpose. I’ve often coped with my physical dysphoria by dissociating from my body, and I think perhaps pregnancy and breastfeeding was an extreme form of dissociation. My body no longer felt like my own, but I was okay with that. It was only when my youngest stopped breastfeeding that my mental health got worse again. All the feelings I’d been running from came creeping back, but I still didn’t know what was wrong with me.
Five years ago I finally found the answer. I read a story that had a transgender (FTM) character in it, and immediately recognised myself. After that I went online and found transition videos on YouTube. They were fascinating, but the envy I felt for those guys was so intense it frightened me. I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want to be trans, and that’s why it took me so long to get to where I am today.
As I began to question my gender, my dysphoria got worse because I was beginning to understand why I felt the way I did. My mental health spiralled downward too, unsurprisingly, and that’s what finally pushed me to the point where I had to admit what was going on with me. My dysphoria peaked when I first started telling friends and family, and was the worst it’s ever been. Thankfully it’s settled down a little now I’ve started to move forward, but it’s still ever present. I doubt it will ever go away completely.