I remember the day I was cured. Sitting in my therapist’s office, sitting on her absurdly white sofa, sun streaming in through the curtains, a touch of joy in my face. Years since we had started, years of massive, wrenching change, of anguish and hope, of fear and anxiety and incomprehensible lows and breakings-through to new possibility; and here we were, in the sunshine. So many years of once-a-weeks and twice-a-weeks and exercises and homework assignments and I was finally done: no next session scheduled.
She was retiring from practice; I was off to a new life on a new continent. I was confident, centred, open again, with a future. I didn’t know it yet, but it was about to be a fantastic decade.
That was 20 years and a couple catastrophes ago. My disasters come in decades.
I’d had a lot to work through, before that. That first session was simple, straight-forward: there was nothing wrong with me, just with my body. I just needed hormones and a rendezvous with the knife — the cure — and she stood in the doorway. We spent that first year following the Standards, ending my gender dysphoria, navigating the tortuous ways of medicine and bureaucracy, dodging the slings and arrows of an outraged society, slipping me ever so quietly into the bosom of womanhood and a new life.
It took her the whole second year to convince me I wasn’t done: there had been consequences. I wasn’t over all that I thought I was over, all that had come before — the abuse, the rape, the assaults, the rejection, the gaslighting, the death. And the cure itself had caused damage, had itself brought fresh abuse and rejection, had very nearly brought death, had re-traumatised me. I had made it through, but I’d been damaged. I was cured of my gender incongruity, but I was not cured. There was so much more work to do.
A decade before that first session I had tried to cure myself. An experience common to female sufferers of gender dysphoria, something one might call ‘the man-cure’. Women like me try all kinds of things — they cut their hair, burn their clothes, grow beards, enlist in the military. Me, I lost my man, quit ballet, changed countries, got a manly job, married the first willing woman and had a child. I went to university, got a career, wore a tie, reformed myself into the image society required of me; cured myself of myself.
And within a decade it all came back apart, like clockwork, like it always did. Long before that first session I looked nothing like the man I’d tried to make of myself. Long gone were the tie and the short hair, and once again I looked like the woman I was. The pretty, green-eyed, red-haired, anguished, damaged, troubled woman I was and had always been. She was there for anyone with open eyes to see. She would not be cured.
A decade before that my father had tried his own version of the man-cure, determined to slap the grace out of me. Tried to cut my hair, fix my voice, knock the flutter out of my hands. ‘You look and act like a fucking girl.’ I was bruised, but I escaped — into dance and theatre, into clothes and makeup, and finally, into the streets, from whence I went home with men. She would not be cured.
I had made it through, but I’d been damaged. I loved men, but things were never stable. I had happy times, but could not remain long in one place. I moved on. After the sunny day of my cure I had a fantastic decade, but still, inevitably, it unravelled, and I moved on, again, and then again. A man, a marriage, a poor choice. A new escape, another move, another sofa in another office.
We’ve been on the telephone over an hour now. Em is talking me down. When it all comes apart, as it has, again, I am left empty, without purpose or direction or future. But there is still future, will be direction, and I must find it. She is my younger sister by a decade, but sometimes wiser. This is one of those times.
We are close, but far — on opposite sides of the globe, in fact. Hours on the telephone; once, twice a week. We shall dine together in a couple months’ time, in the intermediate country. Until then, it is this digital, packet-switched exchange of hearts.
There is a pause in the conversation, as Em changes tacks.
‘I saw this study recently, about successful creative people.’*
‘Hmm, OK, do tell.’
‘They interviewed hundreds of artists and writers and entrepreneurs and the like, to see what made them successful. They thought they’d find out that it was mostly luck, that they’d all just been doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. But they were wrong.’
‘Luck had nothing to do with it. It turned out that what they all had in common was damage.’
‘They were all damaged. Wrecked. Traumatised. Alcoholic parents and broken homes and car crashes and cancer; orphans and addicts and madness, the lot. They were all messed-up, every one of them.’
‘Yep. They could only do what they’d done because they’d been through hell and survived. If they hadn’t been wrecked, they’d never have had what they needed to create their work. They’d have been nothing without their damage.
‘Allison, honey, you’ve got everything you need.’
And so I do.
I am cured, but not like medicine, more like leather.
I make a spare living doing this. You can support my work and get draft previews and my frequent ‘Letters Home’ for less than the cost of a coffee.