What does gender dysphoria feel like?

(Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional, so this is not a clinical description of dysphoria. You can find that here.)

Defining gender dysphoria isn’t easy. It manifests in so many ways–anger, social anxiety, depression, shock, delusion, disjointedness. Before I had a name for it, I assumed it was an insecurity of the variety everyone experienced. Nobody loves their body, right? Everyone wishes people could see them differently. Everyone winces at the sound of their own voice on an answering machine. If these things are normal, how was my discomfort with myself special? What is it about being trans that makes living in the body you were given untenable?

It’s about context. Dysphoria is a shadow, and your assigned gender is the sun. When gender shines brightest, because, for example, you need to get a manicure for a relative’s wedding, or join a women’s work association, or participate in Girl Cabin 8’s performance at the summer camp talent show, the shadow of dysphoria is darkest. Sometimes the gender sun dips behind clouds–because you’re with someone who accepts you as you are, or you’re in the mosh pit at a punk show with the guys, or you’re walking alone on a summer evening listening to music. But here’s the tricky thing about dysphoria (bear with me through the long analogy), at any moment, the sun can emerge from the clouds and leave you staring at a very long, dark shadow.

In my experience, the pattern has been this: I feel good, confident, strong, authentic. Then something happens suddenly and I see myself the way others see me instead of the inner image I have of myself. And I am overcome by a painful sadness. I have many memories of dysphoric breakdowns, usually precipitated by an event that forced me to see myself through the filter of reality. In high school, I joined the weight training club and tried futilely to build biceps and abs (I’m still on that futile mission, for what it’s worth). Just at the moment I felt progress in myself, one of my guy friends pinched my flexed bicep in a way that melted it to mush and made it clear that the gains were all imagined. It devastated me back to reality. Or the time that I was having a lovely day-date with my female friend who was a foot taller than me…until I caught our reflections in a storefront and my heart broke at how small I was. I have a hundred memories just like this, where a direct confrontation with reality shattered my self image. Much more so than feeling “wrong” in a dress, in makeup, in a Victoria’s Secret store, my dysphoria has been about this dance between self-image and reality.

My parents won’t let me forget that I had a very difficult adolescence.  Until I understood gender dysphoria, I never understood why it would be that I’d have such a hard time as a teenager. I have always been an easy-going, laid-back, optimistic kind of person. The rebelliousness, anger, experimentation, and destructive behavior I exhibited in adolescence was really out of character. Now it seems obvious to me what was happening: the more my body developed into a petite, curvaceous, feminine woman-shaped thing, the more I adopted what I thought was a masculine persona. My attitudes toward sex, driving, drugs, authority, smoking, and music were heavy-handedly chauvinistic. I’m not proud of that misconception of masculinity, but at least now I understand why I tried to wear it.

For the most part I was blind to the feminine parts of myself. I was horrified at the idea of buying bras or girls’ underwear–I used to actually wear my mom’s hand-me-downs so I wouldn’t have to shop. When I finally did shop, I bought boxers. For a long time I refused to buy or wear bras. This posed a problem because my c-cup breasts were not as well contained as I believed them to be under two wife-beater shirts (so help me for using that name–I can’t figure out what else they are called). My high school advisor drew a short straw to tell me that it wasn’t working and I needed to bra-up. It was an awkward conversation for both of us. But I think what embarrassed me most was having to face the fact that my breasts were far more visible than I thought them to be. That I was deluding myself into thinking that other people could ignore them as well as I could.

Dysphoria got to be such a part of my life that I allowed it to stay with me constantly. When I started wearing dresses around law school–because I thought I had to prove that I was a grown up–it slowly eroded my self-confidence. It kept me from functioning normally in social situations, from speaking up or being the center of attention. It made me question and doubt myself and kept me from finding personal and professional satisfaction. When I was constantly presenting feminine, even I couldn’t see myself the way I used to. There were fewer confidence-shattering moments when I saw my reflection or heard my voice, but maybe that was because low-confidence had become the status quo. But there was still room for a little “extra” dysphoria here and there, especially in venues where gender mattered most: the salon, the mall, the women’s employee association event hosted in a goddamned purse store.

I realize I’ve used a lot of past tense to talk about dysphoria. That’s misleading. Beginning the process of transitioning hasn’t cured it–it’s only helped me recognize it. It’s also helped me separate it out from my day-to-day interactions. I no longer have low-levels of depression or intense social anxiety. I do still feel bad, however, when I see my reflection in the subway window with all the other passengers–male and female alike–towering over me. But now I can say to myself–See? That’s your dysphoria. Being able to give it a name is the best thing I’ve been able to do to fight it.

I don’t think that I’ll ever be “cured” of dysphoria. I will never grow taller, I’ll never have all the equipment, and there will always be times that remind me that I was born into the wrong category. My hope for myself is that over time, the dysphoria will no longer be a shock to the system.  That looking at myself in the mirror, the image reflected back at me will be singular–both what I want to see and what everyone else sees.

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One comment

  1. trannyredneck · March 10, 2016

    This. All of this. I am still struggling with how I am going to talk to my folks about transitioning. About why I need to. If it’s OK, I would love to use some of what you wrote here when it comes time.

    Liked by 1 person

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