CW: descriptions of dysphoria, mentions of suicide.
I have had a lot of time to reflect on my past experiences. In fact, it’s mostly what I do whenever I get a moment to think about something other than work or what’s happening in the present moment. I am taking the opportunity to write about it as a kind of self care that will help me gain greater insight into my past and my emotions. This will be a small view into my personal experience with dysphoria and hopefully it will help you get a better understanding of what it has been like for me.
Remember, not every trans person experiences dysphoria (and that does not make them any less trans), nor do those who experience it experience it the same way from person to person or from moment to moment. Thus, when I talk about my experiences, they are mine alone. How generalizable they are, I am not sure.
When I began to think about how to communicate my experiences to a cis (not trans) audience, I thought the best way would be through a short story. What follows will be a metaphor for my experiences.
A Tale of Two Identities
I was born late into a July evening to two loving parents. I was a “male” and a “he” according to the doctor because I was born with a penis. Right away, I had an artificial identity imposed on me.
Deep within my brain were two identities. Charlotte was the original identity born with me, but nothing was wrong until the artificial identity Chet was created. The two originally tried to figure out how live with each other, but over time that proved to be impossible. Eventually shame made it so Chet became strong enough to overpower Charlotte. He tied her up and imprisoned her in a cage where she would remain for many years. She could make some noise every now and again when she had the strength, but the other parts of my mind could barely hear her, and they soon forgot all about her.
When I was old enough to recognize my name, Charlotte immediately was repelled and cried out, “Ugh! No! That’s not our name! What kind of name is ‘Chet’ anyway? We hate it!” Apparently Charlotte was loud enough for parts of me to hear her, because I felt some of her disgust at hearing my own name. It felt wrong.
When I was about five years old, Charlotte was able to access glances of my reflection. “No! We look so ugly! Why do we look like this?” I immediately became insecure with my appearance. Then Chet replied to Charlotte, “Shut up in there!”, but it was too late. The seed of insecurity was already planted and its growth was inevitable. At this point all Chet could do was tell me, “Look, I know you are unhappy with your appearance now, but you can’t tell anyone. Only girls care about their appearance, so people will think there is something wrong with you if you say anything about it. Got it?” And so I never spoke a word to anyone about it.
There were times when my dad took off his shirt and Charlotte would be horrified. “No! If Dad looks like that, then what are we going to look like? We do not want to have Dad’s body hair or physique, and buff guys are gross, too. What are we going to do? We are supposed to have soft, smooth skin and a hairless, slender body. This sucks!”
“Remember, we don’t want anyone to think anything is wrong with us, so you better stay quiet”, Chet whispered.
Every Christmas, I liked a lot of the toys I got, but I could also sense Charlotte’s envy at my sister’s toys. Chet would immediately spring up “Those are girl toys! We’re not a girl!”
“Yes we are!”, replied Charlotte.
“Shut up!”, Chet commanded.
As I got older, I seemed to develop a sense of being out of place in the world. There was something about myself that didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. This became a much bigger problem when puberty began. Testosterone was a major game changer that upset the balance and created turmoil in my mind. It wasn’t built for this.
Anxiety and depression became the new normal for me and grew as I grew. Soon I became angry and cynical. I would rarely feel contentment and quickly forgot what happiness and self-love felt like. Whenever I wasn’t pained by depression, anxiety, or anger, I was numb. I could barely feel empathy, and rarely had strong positive feelings for anyone else. I was living in a personal hell that didn’t have any escape, and I didn’t understand why.
Little did I know at the time that puberty was wreaking havoc and that the only one who could do anything about it was bound up and imprisoned deep within my mind. My parents couldn’t figure out what was going on either. They recognized that I had become anti-social, would have occasional outbursts, and would often isolate myself from everyone else. When I was in the ninth grade, my mother approached me and told me about her concerns. I agreed to go see a school counselor.
After talking to my mother, I worried about what was going on, too. I desperately wanted to feel better and to fit in with my peers. I realized something needed to change. “What should I do about this?”, I asked myself.
“That’s a great question!”, replied Chet. “You need to fit into the role that people want you to fit into. You need to be cooler and more manly. An easy way to do that would be to play sports again. What sport is the manliest and will impress girls the most? Football! You will get big and strong and you will fit right in! Oh! You should also quit being such a nerd, too. Stop worrying about your grades so much. You’ll be fine if you don’t get a 4.0. Just relax and live for once!”
And that’s exactly what I did. I struggled with it at first, but it got better. I got bigger and stronger, and started getting more respect from my peers, but it wasn’t everything I was hoping for. Something was still wrong. I started to feel a lot of pressure and became incredibly anxious about playing football. The anxiety became so intolerable, I couldn’t take it anymore. I became so depressed, I experienced a strong desire to self-harm for the first time. “If I were injured, I wouldn’t have to worry about this anymore and my pain would go away”, I thought. I finally recognized that football wasn’t healthy for me and decided to quit my senior year. People told me that I would regret that decision, but no such regret has ever occurred.
I later went on to experience two other episodes of extreme anxiety and depression that almost ended in suicide. Something was clearly wrong, but what? I still couldn’t figure it out. At this point, I figured that I just inherited these anxious tendencies from my parents and that I would have to live with them for the rest of my life. My parents didn’t understand it either. They eventually concluded that I had Asperger’s and I came to believe that, too.
Things got better the next few years after I made a few changes. I moved out of my parents’ house, got married, had a decent stable job, and started developing my own identity independent of the influence of my parents and former friends. Things finally seemed to be better, or so I thought. I still didn’t really feel like I fit in well and felt as if something was still missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on what that was.
By this point, Charlotte was starting to get stronger and Chet was afraid he might lose control of her. The only way Charlotte could die was if the rest of the mind died with her, so the best thing Chet could do was imprison her. He was also aware that though the mind could not live without Charlotte, it could live without him. He could die, and the mind would be just fine without him.
One day, I just happened to see a video explaining the concept of gender and how trans people fit into that concept. “Is this what I have been missing?”, I wondered. “YES! Yes it is!”, Screamed Charlotte. “Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!” Charlotte began to struggle with a vigor that she never had before. She was able to eventually break out of her bonds, but she was still trapped in her cage. “Let me out!”, she screamed as she shook the bars of her cage.
“Shut up!” Chet answered. “You’ll never get out of there! You know why? Because we will never accept you. The world will never accept you. ‘He’ might already know about you, but you still won’t get out of there because there is no way in hell ‘he’ could ever be you!”
Chet was able to maintain control, but it was much more difficult for him now. Other parts of my mind started to remember Charlotte and were now starting to free her. Chet was able to fend them off, but he realized that he couldn’t fight them off forever. He was starting to become desperate. Then suddenly she was free.
I then started to spiral into another cycle of extreme anxiety and depression. It was happening again and this time I knew where it would end if I didn’t do something about it.
Charlotte had been let loose and she knew if she wanted to remain free and if I were to live, Chet had to die. She quickly found him and they fought. It was a long and grueling struggle that practically destroyed the both of them. Charlotte eventually killed Chet and I finally acknowledged that I was a she. I was Charlotte.
I hope that story was both entertaining and enlightening. Since coming to terms with being trans and embracing Charlotte, I have become much happier and at peace with myself. I now feel that I finally know and love myself for the first time.
Realizing and accepting my identity didn’t erase my dysphoria. It only changed how I experience it. I no longer have extreme experiences of anxiety and depression, but I do still suffer from occasional bouts of insecurity and low self-esteem about my appearance and other aspects of myself. Transitioning, especially starting hormone replacement therapy, has gone a very long way to help me cope with that and I look forward to the other wonderful benefits that transition will bring me.
Note: if you are interested in reading more about trans experiences of gender dysphoria, I relate a lot to this one, so I highly recommend it for greater insight into my experience and experiences like mine.