Content warning: discussions of dysphoria and mentions of self-harm.
When I was about five years old, I started to feel self-conscious about my appearance. I didn’t like my hair, I didn’t like my freckles, I didn’t like my teeth, my face, or my eyes. I thought I was ugly. This insecurity about my appearance persists to this day.
My name is Charlotte Anne and I am a transgender woman. Coming to terms with this was not easy and in some sense I still am. Most days, most of the time, I really love being feminine. Acknowledging it and expressing it have made me happier than I have ever been. But there are still moments when gender dysphoria gets the better of me. I still occasionally loathe what I see staring back at me in the mirror, and I still get the sense that I am from an alien planet, though to a much smaller degree thanks to transitioning.
Gender dysphoria is different for everyone who experiences it, and not all transgender folks go through it. It can vary in how it’s experienced from moment to moment, or from day to day. From five years old to puberty, it took the form of low self-esteem about my appearance. In that time, I also started to develop depression and anxiety that worsened as I entered adolescence. Puberty made me a mess. I was anti-social, cynical, and angry as I spent most of my days isolated from most people. When I wasn’t anxious, depressed, or angry, I was numb. I didn’t feel much beyond those emotions. I never really knew the joy that others seemed to have. There were times when I doubted I really knew what love felt like. I suppose I was spared of some pain and heartache, but I can’t see how that suffering is anything compared to the misery of growing up the way I was and not knowing why.
Suicide and self-harm are frequent occurrences for transgender folks. Up to 41% of trans adults have reported attempting suicide. Compare that to 4.6% of the general population. I never attempted, but I did have serious and persistent thoughts of self-harm in high school and persistent suicidal ideation twice in adulthood. Let me make one thing perfectly clear. We do not self-harm because we are trans. We self-harm because society still does not accept our being trans.
Some transgender folks know their true gender fairly early (about the age of 3 to 5, if I recall correctly). I didn’t start realizing mine until I was 26. I had some experiences earlier in life that didn’t make sense to me when I tried to interpret them with the framework I had. For instance, I would dream of being a woman who was assigned female at birth, but I couldn’t make sense of why I enjoyed it so much. I tried to explain it away by the fact that I was sexually attracted to women. I used that explanation a lot actually. Why did I relate to women so much? Because of my sexual attraction to women. Why did I prefer the company of women and feel more comfortable in primarily female spaces? Because of my sexual attraction to women. Why did I love not just looking at pictures of attractive women and being aroused by them, but deeply admire and subtly envy them? Because of my sexual attraction to women. In hind-sight, it’s easy to see how mistaken I was, but that was all I had to go off of. There were other experiences I had that couldn’t be explained away by my sexuality at all. For example, when I became an adult, I felt really weird about being called a man and being referred to as “Mister”.
As many of those experiences as I had, they weren’t enough to make me aware of what was really going on until April 2015. By this point, I had been thinking somewhat more critically about gender. I was a feminist and an “ally”of the trans community. However, I still didn’t really understand what “transgender” really meant, and what it was like to be trans until I saw a video of a non-binary trans person explain it.
Fastforward to July 27th, 2015. I had just finished work and I was walking to my car when I read a Facebook post from a client bashing my performance on the job. Normally, I would be bothered by criticisms like that (I have been criticized several times before; it’s part of the job), but it wouldn’t be as earth shattering as that criticism was to me. I began experiencing two months of hell that resembled some of my past experiences with depression and anxiety. I had been doing really well the past several years up to that point. I thought I had conquered my mental illness, but it was apparent about two weeks in that we weren’t finished yet. After suffering a severe panic attack, I sought out a previous therapist whom I saw regarding my past issues and my PTSD. We never talked about my experiences with gender (mostly because I had no idea I was trans), and though I had finally realized who I really was, I made the conscious decision to not bring it up in therapy. I decided that it wasn’t relevant, I didn’t need to deal with it, transitioning was too risky, and I could live with this in silence for the rest of my life. That decision did not work out very well.
As it turns out, seeing that video caused me to become aware of who I really was deep down, and I chose to resist it. A core part of my identity was now fragile and that left another part of my identity, my occupational identity, vulnerable. That Facebook post was enough to bring my whole world crashing down.
During those few weeks of therapy and not dealing with the underlying issue, I thought I would be fine. I even started to make some progress and was becoming more optimistic. I didn’t have to admit to myself, or the world, that I was a woman…until I couldn’t do it any more. That progress was swiftly followed by me sinking even lower and experiencing a nasty streak of panic attacks. I was in the middle of one when I realized I couldn’t go on fighting it any more. I had to embrace it. And that is what I did.
I immediately started feeling better when I started coming out to people and I continued to improve as I progressed in my transition. My panic attacks and depression vanished. The most significant improvements started about five days into hormone replacement therapy (I am now about 5 weeks in and continue to improve). Before I thought I knew what calm and “normal” felt like (when I believed I wasn’t suffering from elevated anxiety/depression), but I was sorely mistaken. I started to feel a peace and calm that I hadn’t recognized before. I finally really knew what it felt like to be human.