Detaching Myself from My Dysphoria
The other day, I was trying to imagine how my life would be different if I’d never suffered from gender dysphoria. The point wasn’t to create a fantasy life I could never have but to see how different or similar of a person I’d be. It was to untangle my sense of self from my dysphoria because they can get mixed up with each other. I imagined myself as a butch dyke who never felt a severe disconnect with my body, who never had the urge to change it, who never felt like I’d be happier if people saw me as a specific gender. I would still dress the same way and have the same interests and personality but I would have one less problem to deal with. My life would’ve gone at least somewhat differently because I wouldn’t have felt the need to put time and energy into solving that particular problem.
I can’t say for certain that I’d be happier overall if I never experienced dysphoria because maybe I would’ve ended up dealing with some other kind of problem for years. I just don’t know. Like I said, I’m not trying to create a fantasy of an ideal life. Life is hard and full of difficulties whether or not you have gender dysphoria. Then again, I’ve felt relief during the times when it’s gone into remission because then I had one less thing to worry about. And some problems are better than others. The difficulties that come from learning how to farm are a whole lot better than the difficulties that come with coping with dysphoria or depression.
Imagining my life without dysphoria is a lot like imagining what my life would be like without depression. In either case, I imagine being less weighed down, lighter, able to move around more easily. I think about all the energy I’d have access to if I didn’t have to deal with that particular hardship.
Imagining how my life would be different without dysphoria makes me realize just how much time and energy I’ve put into dealing with it one way or another over the course of my life. I tried living as a man, taking t, living as a genderqueer person, finding ways to make peace with my body, working through past trauma and reclaiming my womanhood. All that was a lot of work. That’s one reason I get upset when people claim that because I detransitioned, I must not have really had dysphoria. Not only do I have it, trying to treat it has swallowed up years of my life.
Thinking about what else I could’ve done with that time and effort is depressing. I try not to let it bring me down. People who don’t have dysphoria don’t necessarily have easier lives than I do. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t suffered or struggled during their lives, one way or another. I don’t want my thoughts to add to my suffering but I allow myself feel sad about all the time I’ve spent trying to cope. Getting stuck thinking about how hard I’ve had it doesn’t help but denying that it’s been difficult doesn’t help either. I let those feelings of sadness and grief move through me.
One of the benefits of this thought experiment is to detach myself from my dysphoria because at various points in my life I have over-identified with it and been encouraged to do so by others. The causes of gender dysphoria are still not well understood. I suspect that some people have a biological predisposition to develop dysphoria under certain conditions, just as some people are biologically more prone to developing depression. And like depression, sometimes social forces can encourage dysphoric feelings, attach extra meaning to them, strengthen them and make them stick around longer. Just as depression and psychosis can be romanticized, so too can gender dysphoria.
I think about what I read as a teenager trying to make sense of myself and my feelings. I read about how trans men, butches and other masculine female-bodied people experienced dysphoria. I got the message that if I was a masculine female-bodied person then it was normal for me to feel disconnected or distressed about my body, whether or not I saw myself as a man. Gender dysphoria in butches was even celebrated and romanticized, as was suffering in general. Butches were outcasts, shunned and mistreated by straight society. To be butch was to suffer but to suffer bravely, that suffering was somehow ennobling.
Sometimes the message I got was that butches were valued because they felt dysphoric and incongruent in their female bodies but they toughed it out. I remember reading in quite a few places that what made a butch special and hot was the supposed clash between her masculinity and her female body. It was normal for butch women to feel disconnected from whatever parts of their bodies marked them as female. This made them more butch, more interesting, more transgressive. This tension was sexy and there was little to no push to question it or reconcile being butch with being female. Transitioning was seen as one way to resolve this tension, the supposed incongruence between being masculine and having a female body.
In the case of being a trans man, gender dysphoria was also central. To be trans was to be driven to transition, to suffer so desperately in a way that could only be alleviated by changing one’s body and one’s social role.
I questioned whether I was a butch dyke or a trans man or something in between the two but I took my gender dysphoria for granted in any case. I would learn to tough it out or I’d transition or otherwise learn to deal with it but of course I would have to struggle with dysphoria because that’s just what people like me did.
At that point I’d felt different and out of place among my peers for years. It was exciting to finally have language to name my difference, to find other people who were like me. I already felt uncomfortable with my body, which was one reason their experiences resonated with my own. Reading what I did reinforced those feelings, told me they were part of what made me what I am and even told me that they made me more interesting and valuable.
There was a lot written about the blurry boundaries and overlap between trans men and butches. While this recognized real commonalities between members of both groups, the way these similarities were framed often served to push butches further outside the category of woman or female. The common ground butches shared with FtMs was used to suggest that many butches were not really women or if they were, they were teetering at the very edge of the category. Butches who were seen as being more like trans men and less “womanly” were often more highly valued, seen as more cutting edge, subversive, cool and sexy. The more qualities a butch shared with trans men, the more dysphoric, the more male-identified and less female-identified they were, the higher their status in a hierarchy of female masculinity. What I learned was that being butch practically made me some kind of some kind of trans person and meant I wasn’t really a woman. My gender dysphoria, my feelings of out of touch with and distressed about my female body and wanting to change it, increased my status as a butch. My dissociation from my body made me hot and transgressive.
I already had gender dysphoria before I encountered these ideas but taking them in influenced how I made sense of and dealt with those feelings. They encouraged me to identify with them and see something of value in them. Having dysphoria supposedly made me a better, realer butch or proved I was really trans. Whatever I saw myself as, dysphoria was a sign of my realness. Its heavy pressure supposedly made firm ground to build a sense of self on, one way or another.
It’s important that people know that women can suffer from gender dysphoria and that lesbians and butch women are more prone to developing it than other kinds of women. I know so many young lesbians who transitioned partially because they were told that feeling dysphoric made them trans and the only way to treat it was transitioning. If they had known that wasn’t the case, they could’ve figured out what they were and what they really needed a lot sooner. But how female gender dysphoria is framed and talked about matters. Just recognizing that butches and other female people besides trans men can feel dysphoric is not enough. When I look back on what I was told about what it meant to experience gender dysphoria as butch, a lot of it wasn’t helpful. A lot of it encouraged me to cling to or identify with my suffering.
I think about two of the most well-known books about masculine female people, Stone Butch Blues and The Well of Loneliness and how so much of those books focus on the main character’s suffering. I think about how the queer culture I participated in as a young person romanticized being marginalized and outcast. How a lot of radical queer culture turned being hurt by the dominant culture into a kind of badge, a mark of pride. Being dysphoric, being alienated, showing off your wounds, suffering became a status symbol, a indication of queer, butch or trans realness.
I have a lot of mixed feelings looking back, especially on my teenage years. I was so isolated at that time. I got shit from the straight kids at my high school and then went to gay youth groups where a lot of the kids there were also confused about what I was. I knew very few genderweird female people. Reading about butches and trans men, about female masculinity and gender dysphoria let me know I wasn’t alone and helped me survive. I could relate to the suffering I read about because I was suffering intensely too. Knowing that there were others like me struggling with the same feelings and problems helped me decide to keep on living.
I can understand becoming resigned to a certain level of suffering because it can be too painful to imagine anything better. Certain kinds of happiness appear out of reach, going towards them seems like it will just lead to disappointment and feeling worse than you did before. So you learn to make the best out of your suffering. If you’re doomed to be an outsider, then you turn that status into a mark of distinction, even superiority. When gender nonconforming people already have so many problems living in society, it can become easier to accept gender dysphoria as if that’s just part of the bargain too. You suffer but you suffer bravely and people will admire you for it because your suffering makes you better than the society that’s tried to destroy you. Maybe that’s the best you think you can do, living in pain but living, not being totally destroyed.
And if that’s the world you think you’re stuck in, than being disconnected from your body can appear to be an asset. Dissociation can help one bear more pain. Gender dysphoria can act like a kind of armor, separating you from your body and all your body’s vulnerability and overwhelming feelings. My own dysphoria is largely a stress response, it comes on strong when I feel threatened or under attack. I changed my body partially to make myself safer. Not just because appearing as a man spares me from certain kinds of abuse but also because etching my sense of self into my body makes it seem more secure. For years other people had been trying to wear me down and destroy me. Taking t, changing my flesh made me feel more fortified, more able to withstand what other people could unleash on me. My dysphoria is all about keeping my body and mind safe, covering over my vulnerable parts so that I’m harder to hurt. Letting go of dysphoria can feel like taking off my armor and exposing my body to the blows of the world.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t just want to be stone, I wanted to be mechanical, like a machine, cold, made of metal, able to make it through anything. I did a lot to try to toughen myself up. I cultivated emotional coldness, dissociation and dysphoria because I sensed those could protect me and see me through. I wasn’t totally wrong about that but I can see now how I wasn’t living in the doomed world I thought I was trapped in. I had more options than I realized at the time but it was too threatening to consider that possibility. For a long time, opening up, letting myself know I had any kind of softness in me, was far too risky and I couldn’t see what I’d gain from it anyways.
It’s been hard to give up the harsh approach that I initially adopted towards myself as young person. I’ve let go of it little by little over the years, slowly taking off pieces of armor bit by bit, particle by particle. I was hard with myself through most of my detransition. I had started to examine and tend to old wounds but I was also ashamed that my armor had apparently failed. If my transition was motivated by trauma, by how others had hurt me, that meant I hadn’t been tough enough, I hadn’t succeeded in turning into metal or stone and I was weak. I hadn’t been strong enough to be one of those butches who held the tension in her body without caving in. It seemed natural in a way to be suffering again, because being what I was had meant enduring one kind of suffering or another since I was a child.
I understand how a person can get stuck in cycles of suffering and putting up defenses to ward off worse kinds of suffering. That was my life for years. I did a lot of shit that helped me stay alive but also hurt me. Letting go of and growing beyond that has been challenging because it means letting go of who I’ve been, letting my sense of self be more flexible and less defined so I can learn to live a different way.
I don’t expect to be completely free of dysphoria any time soon. My dysphoria flairs up in response to real or perceived stress and danger and I’m unlikely to never encounter situations that trigger it. It still sometimes provides a sense of security and I can see how developing gender dysphoria has helped me adapt to living in this world. I also know that getting too caught up in it severely limits my life. Seeing it as a core part of myself or my experience of life hasn’t helped me. It helps to view it with compassionate detachment, not judging myself for experiencing it but also not latching onto it or making too much of big deal out of it.
Anyone who experiences gender dysphoria, whether they’re butch, trans, genderqueer, whether they have benefited from medical transition, detransitioned or pursued alternative treatments can get caught up in clinging to their dysphoria. Anyone who has gender dysphoria can come to over-identify or get obsessed with it.
Like other kinds of mental suffering, gender dysphoria can be curiously addictive and hard to let go of. A person can get used to it and come to crave the familiarity of it. It can certainly keep the mind busy, obsessing about body parts, dreaming of what life could be like with a different body or social role, agonizing over one’s presentation to get a desired response from other people or trying to dismiss those feelings and push them away or dissect them. Over time, it can get old and the more I’ve dealt with it, the more tedious and boring it gets, the more it reminds me of depression. Ruminating again and again on the same concerns, getting lost in the same fantasies and meanwhile time is passing, life is going by.
At this point I know I can look away, just like I can disengage from a train of thought that’s feeding a depressive mood but still, it can be hard. Because what am I going to see if I look away? How am I going to spend my time now? I know my gender dysphoria pretty well by now. It throws up some surprises from time to time but even those tend to follow a familiar pattern. There are other parts of me I’m still getting to know, parts that often make me feel afraid, vulnerable or ashamed. Parts I need to see and hold if I’m going to heal. Sometimes it makes sense to attend to my gender dysphoria, sometimes it has something I need to hear, sometimes listening to it is a part of healing. But I can’t relate to it the ways I have in the past. I can’t let it be a static mass that holds me down or a spiraling force field that hypnotizes me. I can’t get lost in it. I can’t believe on some level that it’s something that defines me.
Even as I learn from dysphoria and suffering, I can’t romanticize what I learn. Suffering is not ennobling in and of itself, I’m the one who transforms suffering into something that teaches me and makes me stronger. I have to if I’m going to live. But just because I’ve found a way to transform suffering doesn’t mean I should cling to it or celebrate it. The point is to overcome it and keep going. I alleviate my own suffering so I can be more present for myself and for other people because we are all suffering one way or another.
I practice letting go of my gender dysphoria and exploring the fears, anxieties and pain that it often works to cover up. I look at what I’ve hidden underneath my armor. I feel strong enough to go out into the world with less of it on and I can feel a difference in my body as I walk around in the world. My body feels more relaxed, holds less tension. It’s not watching out for the next attack. I have more energy to pay attention to the world around me and I notice more details, see buildings, plants and trees more clearly. I spend less time lost in my head, caught up in my thoughts and feelings, and feel more immersed in the surrounding reality. I feel more at peace in my body and more at peace with the world.
I don’t think so much about my sex or what gender I am and I pay more attention to living. I remember my past and the hard times I’ve lived through and what I’ve done to get through them and I feel compassion for who I’ve been. I let go of the shame and rejection I’ve felt toward my younger selves. I feel the pieces of myself and my life coming together, like new cells growing and mending a wound. I feel my life flowing, vibrant and strong.
I think about what struggling with dysphoria has taken out of me, about the years I’ve lost to it but at the same time I feel strong. I feel vast space all around me. Just because it has limited me in the past doesn’t mean it must limit me now. I know now that it does not define me and I walk beyond it everyday.