Gender Euphoria is Real

So… a lot of my blog posts have talked about gender dysphoria. Where gender dysphoria is a state of unease, sadness, or distress that’s directly linked to someone’s gender identity.

Well, gender euphoria is a thing too. And it’s basically the opposite. So gender euphoria occurs when you finally feel that your inside is matching your outside and let me tell you, it’s pretty great. It’s like planets finally coming into alignment after a million years of circling around and not quite coinciding.

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Today I had one of those moments. I’m only 3 weeks and 3 days post top surgery. And my surgeon said I should wait 4 weeks before starting to run again. But I’m a terrible patient, and I think I’ve bounced back faster than most and everything is healing up just fine. So today, I put on my running kit and left the house with the intention of half walking/half jogging for half an hour or so.

But once I started running, I didn’t want to stop. I’m a big believer in the whole ‘listen to your body’ thing. And my body was saying:
Dude, seriously. This is fucking awesome. You’re awesome. Don’t stop. Run like the wind!

So I ran (like a slightly sluggish breeze, but whatever) for about twenty minutes, and it was BRILLIANT. Running, with a vest top on and no sports bra. This is the stuff that pre-transition trans men’s dreams are made of. Seriously. I fantasised about this for months as my surgery date approached. Any time I felt nervous, or had doubts that I was making the right decision, all I had to do was put a sports bra on and remind myself that top surgery would mean I never needed to wear one again.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know that most cis women hate sports bras too. Who wouldn’t? They’re designed by Satan and are awful… and boobs are a pain in the arse when you’re running blah blah. But presumably you like your boobs most of the time, even if you hate sports bras. And if you really hate your boobs in every possible way, then I can give you the number of an excellent gender therapist to discuss this with.

 

 

 

Self-image, Dysphoria and Seeing the Whole Person

Navel gazing ahoy…

I’m now three months into hormone therapy, and the changes are subtle – almost imperceptible. Yet things must be changing, because before I started on T nobody ever gendered me correctly. I’d get called ‘madam’ in shops, and have polite elderly gentlemen insisting on holding doors open for me (usually when I was trying to hold doors open for them) and saying “Ladies first.” Now, people are starting to read me as male, or to at least be unsure enough that they hesitate before calling me madam. Thank God.

Even so, I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve knowingly been read as male” the guard on the train; another guy on a train; a bloke serving me in a pub; a group of Mean Girls in a womens’ toilet in a pub in Cornwall (who triggered a wave of transgender-related toilet anxiety. Thanks for that ladies).

The weird thing is: whatever these people are seeing, is not what I see when I look in the mirror. But when I started pondering on this, I realised that don’t see myself as a whole at all. I see myself in pieces. This may well not be a trans-specific issue,  I’m sure some cisgender people might experience a similar disconnect for different reasons, but in my case it’s related to gender dysphoria.

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I spent years thinking I was female and hating my body (also not a trans specific issue), but not understanding exactly why I hated it. I suffered with disordered eating for a long time, and it’s only now that I realise I wasn’t trying to diet/exercise to make the most of my feminine assets. Rather, I was trying to lose my curves and change my body into a more androgynous shape. Without the help of testosterone, I could never do enough, so I was constantly dissatisfied.

During those unhappy times, I learned to dissociate from my body as a coping strategy. I got remarkably good at ignoring the bits I disliked: hips, chest, stomach – anything soft and squishy basically; and focusing on the parts I was happier with: my shoulders, my relatively square waist/torso, the muscle I gained in the gym.

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This dissociation has continued since I’ve started to transition. Most of the time I can filter out the things that cause me dysphoria even when I look in the mirror. But as a result, I have no idea how I look to others. I’m so focused on individual features (sorted into a mental checklist of like/hate/indifferent) that I don’t see the whole. The only times I can see how I appear to others is in a photograph, and then I’m usually disappointed. I think I have the opposite of body dysmorphic disorder, because in my head I’m at least 5’10” and have Channing Tatum’s butt. Reality sucks.

Yet my self-consciousness is such that I don’t expect that magic invisibility shield to work for anyone else. On the contrary, I always expect other people to immediately zero in on the feminine characteristics that I usually avoid seeing in myself. So, when someone calls me sir, or interacts with me in any other way that makes me think they’ve read me correctly as male, I’m still terribly surprised about it.

I guess when we look at other people, we see the whole. When assessing someone’s gender, which we do unconsciously in a split second, we weigh up the visible evidence so the balance tips one way or the other (because as a society, most of us like to put people in binary boxes – not saying it’s right, just saying it’s a fact). As I keep taking T, the tiny physical changes are gradually starting to tip the scales towards Male, which feels good, even if I can’t see it myself yet.

I’m looking forward to the day when being gendered correctly isn’t something to get excited about any more. I wonder how long it will take? And I wonder how long my brain will take to catch up with that reality?

Sometimes I’m not okay

Today is one of those days.

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“But I’m too scared to let it show
I’m too scared in case you don’t know
It’s just a passing phase…”*

I’m generally a pretty positive person who tries to see the good in a situation. Glass half full, silver linings, always look on the bright side of life etc. And some days I’m doing all right, even with everything that’s happening at the moment. But other days it all gets a bit much.

I’m not very good at talking about the really bad, horrible feelings. The sort of feelings that keep you awake at night with a sick churning sense of dread in your gut.

At the moment, I have a lot of those feelings floating around.

It feels easier to ignore them, to try and pretend they don’t exist. Don’t voice them. Don’t give them a name. If you say it out loud then it makes it real. But the problem is, Voldemort is still real whether people use his name or not. And those feelings are there no matter how much I might try and pretend that they aren’t. When I ignore them, they just keep building up inside until I can’t contain them anymore, and that’s not healthy.

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Fear
Grief
Anxiety
Isolation
Guilt
Anger
Hopelessness
Dysphoria
Bitterness
Shame

Those are the main ingredients of the toxic combination of shite floating around in my head a lot of the time. It’s not an easy thing to admit, but I’m tired of putting a brave face on and pretending that I’m okay when actually, sometimes, I’m not.

I can get through the bad days because I know they will pass, and there will be better days between the bad days, and hopefully in time there will be less of the bad days—or so I’m told by trans people who are further along the road of transition than I am. See? Glass half full, silver linings, always look on the bright side of life….

But today, I’m not okay, and that’s okay.

*Lyrics from How Are You Today by Seize the Day – click on the link, you can play it and it’s beautiful.

What’s Behind the Facade?

When I open Facebook in the morning, I’m often shown one of those Facebook Memories.

What used to be an amusing trip down memory lane for me, has now become a bit of a minefield. Most of the time I get cute photos of my kids when they were smaller, or cats doing funny things. But occasionally—like this morning—I get shown a photo of me from what I like to think of as one of my overcompensation phases, and those make me shudder.

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Spoiler: This isn’t me.

One of the things that I often feel I have to justify as a transman who came out late in life, and who appeared to live very happily as female for many years, is how it’s possible that I didn’t know sooner.

But you used to be so feminine…

To be fair, I spent 90% of my time in jeans and hoodies, but yes. There were times that I wore dresses and makeup, and that’s what people often remember about me.

I can’t share the photo that popped up this morning, because I deleted it in a kneejerk reaction. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it. You can’t transition at age forty-five and realistically expect to delete your entire female history—and I don’t want to. But that particular picture made me uncomfortable so it’s gone, which is a shame really because it’s a perfect example of how what you see on the outside often bears no relation to what was going on on the inside.

What the world saw was a smiling woman dressed for a party in a short colourful dress, jewellery, makeup and high heeled boots.

But what I remember was that I never really liked that dress because it was too ‘girly’ and felt completely wrong on me.

I remember the jewellery felt weird and tacky and ‘too much.’

I remember those boots were too high, too tight around my toes, and made a clacking sound as I walked that made me feel self conscious.

I remember that whenever I made the effort to dress in something feminine for a party, I always felt like a kid in dressing up clothes, or a man in drag.

And most of all, I remember a deep sense of shame that I was ‘crap at being female’ and wondering why that was.

Well now I know. And next time I wear heels? I really will be a man in drag 😉

TL;DR: Never assume you know what’s going on in someone’s head. There is no such thing as ‘not trans enough,’ and overcompensation is a thing that happens.

Edited to add: I do realise that plenty of cis women don’t enjoy wearing very feminine clothes and that doesn’t mean they’re all transmen in denial. I’m not casting aspersions on anyone’s femininity here, just blogging about my own personal journey. 

Living with Gender Dysphoria

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.