My Trans Journey: Letting Go

As part of my transition, I have been seeing a psychotherapist who is counseling me through issues related to my gender dysphoria and coming to terms with being a trans woman. One of the biggest things I have to work on is learning how to let go. What does letting go mean in this context? It means accepting that I feel how I feel and that’s okay. I don’t need to fight it, control it, or try to understand it. In fact, struggling to understand and control my feelings has been the source of a lot of my suffering.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but it helps to think of it a certain way. The human brain doesn’t necessarily function as a single functional unit (though in some sense it does and in another sense it doesn’t; the brain is a very complicated thing). Instead, it functions as a bunch of separate, yet highly interconnected units that come together and give rise to our subjective experiences, our intellect, our emotions, our cognition, etc. (of course, this is a bit simplistic, and I am about to make some distinctions that aren’t 100% accurate, but nevertheless serve a purpose for understanding a little bit about how the brain and mind work). There is a cognitive, intellectual part of the brain, an emotional part, and a primal, or animalistic, part (also known as the “reptilian brain”). The primal part is behind some of our most basic survival functions and instincts; the emotional part is behind our emotional processing and experiences; and the intellectual part is behind our ability to plan, control impulses by observing social conventions, and think rationally.

Psychologists have come up with various theories of emotion over the years, but the one I will focus on for this blog post is the one that seems truest to my experiences and is most consistent with the best available evidence: the Schachter-Singer cognitive appraisal theory. According to this theory, when an event occurs, humans will have a moment to perceive it, in which a physiological response (for example, a ‘flight or fight’ response) occurs. In addition to the physiological response, humans then appraise the situation based on certain context clues, and this then leads to an emotion (fear, joy, disgust, etc.). The emotional experience can also be fed back into perception and magnify or diminish the emotional experience (this particular part is important to remember).

“So how does this work in the real world?”, you may be asking yourself. Let’s imagine you come across another person as you walk to the grocery store. At first glance, you might not recognize them because they are far away. They may be much bigger than you and appear threatening because they have a mean look on their face, or you can’t read their facial expressions at all. This may cause your heart rate to increase. You may also begin to sweat a little and become anxious. At the same time, you appraise the situation as potentially bad as you may be dealing with a threat to your safety. This causes you to feel afraid and start planning a plan of attack or escape, which causes you to appraise the situation as even worse leading to an even more intense experience of fear. But then a few seconds later, this person comes into clearer view, and it turns out that it is one of your good friends. You then realize that the situation isn’t threatening like you previously thought it was while your physiological response calms down and your fear turns into contentment as you are now happy to see your friend.

As someone who has struggled with generalized anxiety (at least partly related to gender dysphoria, and, for a while, PTSD), I struggle with the appraisal part. Once I appraise a situation and experience an emotion, especially if that emotion is fear/anxiety, I engage in a destructive thought process wherein I feed the fear I am experiencing. What I initially appraise as relatively minor quickly becomes catastrophic and I go from mildly anxious to extremely anxious, or sometimes even worse: I panic.

In thinking of this process, I am reminded of two Disney movies: Frozen and Inside Out. In Frozen, the main protagonist, Elsa, struggles to come to terms with her abilities and accept who she is after years of repressing them. It isn’t until she is able to do so that she is able to channel her powers into something productive rather than a destructive force that threatens her kingdom. I actually identify quite strongly with her struggle and it is best expressed in the song “Let It Go“.

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I’m the queen.

In this part of the song, Elsa is expressing her feelings of being different and isolated from everyone else. She feels truly alone. As a trans girl, I felt this a lot growing up. I was the queen of my own kingdom of isolation.

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!

Growing up, I was always afraid to let people in and know what I was feeling. I wasn’t ever really sure what I was feeling for the longest time either, and it was frightening. So I hid it. I tried to not feel. This is something I still struggle with, but I have been improving upon it since coming out.

The song continues on as she begins to embrace her power and the fact that she’s different, and I am in a similar part of my life as I come to terms with who I am and embrace my identity.

In Inside Out, the main protagonist is an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. When she moves to San Francisco, she goes through an emotional struggle as represented by various characters in her mind: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Joy perceives threats to Riley’s happiness and she does everything she can to control the situation. She even tries to keep Sadness from having any role in Riley’s experiences, but this is a huge mistake. Joy doesn’t realize that Sadness is critical to Riley’s ability to be a happy, well adjusted person. Sadnesses’ suppression leads to the near destruction of Riley’s life, social relationships, and personality as she knows it as she spirals into an unhappy state. It isn’t until Joy realizes that Sadness is just as important as everyone else is and lets her take a primary role in Riley’s experiences that Riley is able to find happiness and social harmoney in her new life in San Francisco.

This is a parallel to my life’s narrative in the sense that I grew up trying to not feel sadness, but in doing so, I crushed my ability to feel joy. In my attempt to suppress my sadness, I created misery and emotional turmoil. Emotional experience is a package deal. You can’t isolate one emotion and repress it while leaving the others intact. It just doesn’t work that way.

Thankfully, through psychotherapy, hormone replacement therapy, and other interventions (e.g., mindfulness meditation), I am able to be much calmer in my immediate response to situations and I am getting better at avoiding the tendency of my intellect to engage in the process of feeding my negative emotions via catastrophizing and repression. However, there is one thing I still struggle with: letting go. I have been trying to fit my emotional experiences into a cognitive framework and that is proving to be a self-defeating frustration in my life. I have always felt the need to understand everything and control it if I can. If I can’t do that, I become very insecure. I anxiously struggle to solve puzzles, and when I can’t solve one, I experience negative emotions. I am engaging in that cycle I am trying to break. Hell, this post may be an example of me doing just that.

In my most recent session with my therapist, I explained to him that I am trying to understand my gender dysphoria while trying to see how it all fits into my life’s narrative. The struggle to do so has been a stressor and he urged me to just let it be. Like with my struggles with my feelings in general, I don’t have to do what I was doing. My experiences are a complicated thing that I will never fully understand. In that moment I realized that if I am to truly heal and move on, I have to learn to just let it go. My cognitive mind can’t ever fully comprehend or control my emotional experiences because it’s like they speak very different languages and that’s okay.

 

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My Trans Journey: Understanding My Dysphoria

CW: descriptions of dysphoria, mentions of suicide.

Introduction

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.

Final Thoughts

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.