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My Dysphoric Life (a Caitlin on post)

20 May, 2012

Close your eyes for a moment and allow your mind to picture yourself. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

The image you see is not a memory. Nor is it an idealised version of yourself. The image is a mental understanding of your corporeality. It is a template that helps your mind interact with the physical world without having to visually monitor your actions. It can be thought of as a mental “you are here” map, that allows one to navigate their vessel of blood and bone through the rather hazardous environment we live in. This internal body template is what allows us to crack an egg without splattering it all over the counter, to pull our foot back when we step on a tack without toppling over, and to experience the physical and emotional sensations associated with sex. It is a rather nifty little trick, when it works, but what happens when it doesn’t work? What if there is a disconnect between the corporeality and the mind?

That’s when things get messy.

Imagine Lisa, an average woman with an accurate internal image. Granted, it is locked-in at twenty-five and she is pushing forty, but other than some grey hairs and a pound or two the image is as accurate as human beings can get. Until there is an accident at work and she loses her left hand at the wrist. Now there is a dramatic contrast between her corporeality and her internal image. The doctors call this phantom limb sensation. The hand is missing but the mind does not recognise its absence. The truth is her left hand is gone. The truth is her left hand is still there. The truth of its physical absence does not alter the truth of the impulses traveling between the brain and where the hand was. She will still unconsciously reach out for something, she will still shield her face or try to catch herself  with it when she stumbles, and the brain will still receive sensations from it (usually pain, tingling, or pressure). Lisa is experiencing bodily dysphoria.

Imagine Geoffrey, a twenty-three year old graduate student working an IT internship for a local law firm. On the weekends he likes to compete in body building and strongman competitions. His corporeality is a toned, muscular, five-eleven, one hundred eighty-three pound man. His internal image is locked-in at the one hundred and two pound, lightweight, weakling he was at eighteen. When he looks in the mirror he does not see the strength and redoubles his efforts at the gym. He gives up his social life and his internship to pursue more bulk, he just isn’t big enough. He pursues this goal not to get to something, but to escape something. To escape an internalised image of himself, but no amount of weight lifting will change that image. Geoffrey is experiencing bodily dysphoria.

I have always known I was female. It was not until I was four and starting kindergarten that this knowledge clashed with anything external, when I was wrongly placed in with the boys every time we divided up on gender lines. I went home and asked my parents how people could tell the difference between girls and boys and I received the standard answer regarding girl parts and boy parts. I was, also, informed that I was boy. This news crushed me. I knew I was a girl, but everyone around me believed the opposite. It was confusing and I did what every kid does with the things that make no sense: I ignored it. After all, at this point there really was no noticeable difference for me between girls and boys except hair length and clothes. I had red pants, which I knew was a girl’s colour, and foppish hair, so eventually everyone would realise their mistake and we would all move on. I continued to play house and Care Bears and Thundercats and whatever else was popular with the kids and waited for everyone else to come to their senses. An effective tactic, until I hit puberty and all the girls developed breasts and curves. All of them except me, that is. I got facial hair and a deepening voice. While the other girls were complimented on their slenderness and softness, I was made fun of for being scrawny and weak. My parents, concerned about my lack of weight and muscle, started giving me protein shakes with my meals. In less than a year, I went from a happy girl to a confused teenager who couldn’t look in the mirror or have her picture taken without having an anxiety attack. I had pulled the lever on the dysphoria bandit and it came up all sevens.

Pause a moment to consider something. In the first two cases this disconnect between mind and body is labeled bodily dysphoria. This is, also, how it is labeled in other situations (e.g. paraplegia, anorexia), but in my case it is labeled gender dysphoria. The reason? In the other cases the alternative image, the mental image, is considered viable. It is viable to be mobile, to have all your limbs, to be built like The Rock, and to be Kate Moss thin. In my case, the mental image is not considered viable. To be a gender other than the one you were designated at birth is not an option. This labeling says far more about psychiatric opinion of the trans* experience than it does about the dysphoria. Something to ponder.

During puberty, and every day afterward, I felt betrayed by my body. I hated how I looked, I hated my anatomy, I hated whatever cosmic joker had given a girl and male body. I could not look in the mirror without feeling despondent and as the changes progressed I slipped into depression. I could not tell anyone about this because I would be labeled a freak. I figured the news would kill, literally kill, my parents and my brother would be shamed and mocked because he was related to me. So my mind did the only thing it could do to protect itself: disassociate itself from my body. When I looked in the mirror it was like I was looking at a different person. Someone whose body I had to take care of until they returned with mine. As a result, physical sensation meant very little to me. Instead I received my emotional connection through words and ideas. I also became a fantasy and science fiction junkie. I would become absorbed in the stories, identifying with the female characters. It allowed me a vicarious physicality without having to associate myself with my traitorous body. I also invented stories of my own. In my stories there was always someone who was designated male at birth (DMAB) who would through magic, technology, or coercion be physically transformed to female.

Once I hit senior high school fantasy was no longer a viable escape for me. My peers had discovered sexuality and were pairing off with each other or getting off to thoughts of the other. I could not because it involved a connection to the body that I did not have. Also, dating would have been awkward. I was not interested in girls romantically. If I thought they were beautiful it was usually accompanied with a jealous longing to look like them. Neither was I interested in boys because that would have made me (according to how everyone perceived my sex) homosexual and I certainly was not gay. God forbid, I would have been royally screwed up then, a girl in a boy’s body was bad enough but to make it gay also?  So I made my first transition. Not physically, but mentally. I went from fantasising or longing for a body that matched to the first steps in making that body match. At this point I was discovering the transformative power of clothing and accessories. I purchased or asked for rings and necklaces that could be read androgynously things that would blend but still empower my femininity. This was satisfying for a while but the need to transform grew. That was when I discovered theatre. As someone involved in theatre it was okay for me to be a little off, or a touch eccentric. It gave me the opportunity to be someone else, anyone else. Even an hour and half as another person was relief. And then there was the wardrobe room. I did not need a closet that doubled as a gateway to Narnia, I just needed this one wall length closet stuffed with skirts, blouses, and accessories. I snuck in there every chance I got. At first I had to create reasons to borrow my English instructor’s keys long enough to quick unlock and prop the door or to concoct a story legitimate sounding enough to get one of the janitors to open it. I worried about this becoming suspicious and with a little patience and practice I learned how to jimmy both the theatre and wardrobe room doors. Here I could be myself, I could transform, and everything seemed to be in alignment. I would invent reasons to stay after school or tell the director I was working on sets so I could get time alone in theatre. It was my only escape from the dysphoria and without it I would not have lived to graduate.

The trouble with dysphoria is it is a hungry condition. Like Audrey II it demands to be feed and each feeding makes it a little stronger and a little bigger. But its more vile than the plant from outer space because unlike Audrey II, starving dysphoria makes it even stronger. When I reached college  it was no longer enough to see my body looking like my minds image. I needed recognition of who I was. Not the whole world, but at least one person. I dated a few girls but that never worked because they were looking for a boyfriend and I was looking to be like them. I dated a few boys but, again, they were looking for a boyfriend and I wanted to be their girlfriend. And as far as sex went, forget it! I didn’t want anyone anywhere near my genitals. There was only one girl who ever came close to having sex with me and that was because she was very tomboyish, and I still had to shower immediately after. So I did the only thing I could think of, I grew my hair, hung out primarily with other girls, and hoped I would experience gender by proxy. Every time someone “misgendered” me I thrilled.

As college came to a close, even this was not enough to ease the dysphoria. I had immersed myself in fantasy, I had transformed for myself, and I had sought recognition from others; it was time to get scientific about battling my dysphoria. My first year of college was also the year the internet entered commercialisation. So by the end of college I had enough of a grasp on how to use the internet that I could start looking for answers. Mostly what I found was “she-male” and “tranny” porn. I found the images a bizarre mix of repulsive and triggering. I wanted nothing to do with it and at the same time there was an idolising of these women brave enough to become who they were. Beyond the porn, and internet without safety filters is loaded with porn, I found a few sites that provided answers and suggestions. I learned the term transsexual, I discovered there were operations and hormone therapy available for a price (astronomical). In the year after college and my first two years of graduate school I feel victim to every charlatan and snake oil scheme the internet had to offer. I tried diets, exercises, lotions, pills, anything that would ease the constant feelings of anxiety and depression associated with the dysphoria. Nothing worked for more than a month. Finally, my dysphoria hit critical mass and I attempted to transition.

It was a failure. People were bigoted and judgmental. Basically, they assumed I had lost my mind. And somehow, I knew without even really considering it, that bringing all this home to my parents was not an option. So I stuffed it all back down but those few months were enough to drop the dysphoria back to manageable levels and I kept it there by incorporating small touches of feminine clothing into my wardrobe (a shirt or pair of shorts) and jewelry. On its own this would not have held the dysphoria in check for long, but I was also introduced to the woman I fell in love with and married. For her I could hold the dysphoria in check. For awhile I even thought I had been cured, as Boylan says in her memoirs “cured by love.” But our marriage had other problems, big ones, and we started seeing a marital therapist even before we were officially married. The diagnosis he gave me was that I was not masculine enough. That I, literally, needed to man-up if I wanted my marriage to survive. So I did. I threw myself into the men’s movement. I read books like Iron John and Wild at Heart; I attended a men’s retreat and had men’s breakfast every Saturday. I was going to ignore my internal knowledge, I was going to conquer my dysphoria, and I was going to save my marriage. Instead I became withdrawn, disassociated from my body and interactions with others, and my already dysphoricly enhanced temper Hulked out every time my presentation of masculinity was questioned or threatened. I was miserable. I started self-medicating with phytoestrogens purchased over the internet and shipped from Thailand. In my alone time, which I had a lot of, I dressed and experimented with make-up and nail polish. I did whatever I had to ease the dysphoria so it would not destroy a marriage that was already on rough ground. And then everything went splat.

I was at home, in a dress, trying to ease the dysphoria before my wife came home so that we could have a nice hour together before we went to bed. I had started taking photographs as a way of getting the recognition I craved. I never did anything with the photos I just snapped them with my digital camera and stored them in an encrypted file on my computer. The photographs downloaded and camera equipment put away, I had just settled onto the couch to relax for half an hour when the door opened. My wife had come home early. She saw me. My whole sense of self splattered across us and our marriage. The decent into divorce escalated.

A year-plus later and I am rebuilding my life. This time, I am ignoring what everyone else thinks I am and I am rebuilding it as me. I am female. I always have been, despite how my body was designated. The dysphoria I feel is still present. I still have days where I cannot look in the mirror without crying and there are still aspects of my body I regard with disgust. Due to years of testosterone damage and some abusive mistreatment of my body I will never be free of the dysphoria. But with each change I make it eases, just a little. I’m happier now than I have ever been. I hope that each year sees this happiness grow. If you are privileged with never experiencing dysphoria you are lucky person and I envy you. You are beautiful beyond what you will ever realise. And all I ask of you is that you accept who I am in my search for my beauty and that you are patient when I refuse to believe your reassurances that I am.

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