There are times in my current life where my memory beyond the first time I truly accepted that transitioning was the only cure for what ailed me grows fuzzy — where I can’t remember the very deep dysphoria that made life as it was, which was rich with friends, family and career, seem so unbearable that I could not continue in it as I was. It’s been eight years now since I first visited my gender therapist in Phoenix and opened up to her as I had never opened up to anyone prior. I remember the events well enough, but not the feeling… not the pain that brought me there.
I have a lot of tattoos. Not just little ones. Big pieces that took many hours to complete. Many hours under the needle, which often feels like being drawn on with a scalpel and the healing feels like recovering from a third degree sunburn. When people see them, they inevitably ask:
Did that hurt?
I also used to have a very thick beard. So thick I could grow a quick beard in a couple of days and a thick beard in a couple of weeks. Removing it took a year of laser and an untold number of hours of electrolysis (laser feels like rubber band snaps and electro feels like an electric wasp stinging your face over and over and over). When people ask about the hair removal, they inevitably ask:
Did that hurt?
I’m sure the tattoos and healing hurt. I’m sure the hair removal was exquisite agony. I’m sure my recovery from GRS was decidedly unpleasant. I recollect that my dysphoria was often crippling.
But I don’t remember the pain. I remember there was pain but I cannot recreate the feeling of it. I remember being hurt, but not the hurt. I remember that I suffered, but not the feeling of suffering. I don’t believe anyone can remember a feeling. We remember that we felt something and we remember if it was a good feeling or a bad one. We can categorize those feelings into different categories of like pain (stings, burns, bruises, etc.) so we can make comparisons. But ultimately, no actual ability to call the pain itself into a present moment.
So I cannot describe the pain of dysphoria to you except to say I felt it and it has no equivalent category. It was simply dysphoria and it was truly awful. Occasionally, I get a hint of it when someone misgenders me or I catch a reflection that I don’t like that reminds me of the damage that testosterone did. Those are just little moments of it that don’t linger long and don’t even begin to approach what I felt prior to transitioning — more to the point, prior to GRS.
Sorry, folks who do not think GRS is vital — until you know the relief of what not ought to be there being gone for good, replaced with something like what ought to be there, you cannot speak to the efficacy of the procedure. You cannot understand what it feels like to be free. Anyone who thinks of it as ‘cosmetic surgery’ and likens it to a breast enhancement or a nose job has no understanding of what dysphoria is or what it means to be free of it. I hate that anyone has to fight for this life saving surgery. The debt that I incurred to get it is worth every last penny of interest.
But did it hurt?
Life before it all hurt more. I remember that. Life before transition, as the walls I had built so carefully began to crumble was agony. It was even more painful because of the life I had made for myself. The very good life of family, friends and career. I had done so much to better myself in my 30’s after my misspent 20’s and all that I had done to be a person I was proud of when I looked in the mirror- to be a man I could be proud of- was undone by the truth that could not be hidden by all those bricks, by that near-perfect little prison.
Near perfect because I don’t think I ever accounted for personal success. This is just a theory of mine, but the happier my life became, the harder it was for me to keep the cause of my depressions hidden. I tried to accept that the depression was a chemical imbalance in my brain, some flaw that could not ever really be corrected. And that is, in part, the truth. I still have depression in my life. But what it is now is decidedly different from what it was.
Do you know the story of Oedipus? His tragic flaw was that he was too clever for his own good, couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to know the truth of things. When most people think of him, they remember his parental mishaps more than anything. I think about him as someone who could not suffer to let a mystery remain unsolved.
Now I like to think of myself as clever. Not always smart, but clever. I’m a great problem solver. I went digging around my psyche, trying to discover the reasons for my constant wishing to be someone else. I started picking away at the walls of the oubliette. I tried to just pick a little bit, to ask the question if all those years of thinking I was trans was the cause of all the wishing and perhaps if I could finally put the trans thing to bed once and for all, it would go away and I could just be happy being me and not be so damned depressed all the time.
I just wanted to be happy being me.
It’s kind of funny writing that. I wanted to be happy being me, to go to sleep not wishing to wake up as someone else. Happy being me meant accepting who I was. It meant looking at the ruins of the walls I had built and accepting that the truth lay within.
And it sucked because in knowing the truth, I wanted none of it. In knowing the cause of my pain, I didn’t want to accept the cure. I thought it meant that I would lose everything I had worked so hard for — family, friends and career. I started considering how I could exit gracefully and make sure my spouse and kids got my life insurance.
Those thoughts meant it was time to see a therapist, and one that specialized in gender issues and knew a thing or two about trans stuffs — because if anyone could reassure me that I wasn’t trans, it was her. I went to her and said I thought I might be trans and could she please make those thoughts go away. I told her that even if I was trans, I couldn’t do anything about it because I would never be accepted in the world as a woman and I would lose everything, so it wasn’t worthwhile to even try. What I really wanted were the tools to put my self back in the oubliette for good.
She was very good at her job. She gave me exercises because I asked for them and when they didn’t work, she wasn’t surprised. The fact was that there was no rebuilding the walls and there was only one solution to curing the dysphoria that had grown so severe that every moment where I wasn’t completely focused on a task was consumed by it. She helped me to come to terms with that solution and to allow myself to accept my self — to finally be myself.
I wasn’t magically happy afterwards. The dysphoria didn’t go away. Acceptance was not curative in and of itself. It simply opened me up to moving forward with my transition.