I received a couple of messages following my last blog post asking about dysphoria. One came from a cis-gendered person who wanted to understand more about what transgender people experience. Two others, trans sisters, expressed a frustration that I share; how do you explain dysphoria to someone who has never experienced it? Gender identity is such an innate thing, so inherent to our very essence that most people never have to think about it. It just is. Unfortunately, herein lies the issue.
I’ve given this a lot of thought in the past but I’ve never actually tried to describe it to anyone. Today I’ve put together those thoughts and I will give it my best shot. I write this with the perspective of trying to explain to a cis-gendered person (someone comfortable that their gender identity and body characteristics are a match). I think the easiest way to do this is with a visualization exercise. My apologies in advance, for simplicity sake I’ve stuck with binary gender roles, the topic of a non-binary spectrum is something for a later date. So here we go:
Think about your gender for a moment. Most cis-gender people can easily reply that they are either male or they are female. So what are you? You know this inherently, it’s who you’ve been all along. But what is it that let’s you know that you’re either male or female? Can you put your finger on it? Is it your body’s sex characteristics, the clothes you wear, or simply that’s what you were told you were from a very young age?
Now, imagine that woke up one day and you had the body of someone from the “opposite” sex. In your mind you still know that you are male or that you are female, but your body does not match. Imagine that everyone looks at you and sees you for the body you have. They call you by a name that matches your body rather than your own name that matches who you know you are. When you try to explain to people what has happened and that your body is wrong, they tell you that you’re mentally ill or that you’re just going through a phase. They say, “after all you were born with this body”. Even though you know that’s not right, they won’t listen.
Imagine how it would feel when you try to wear those clothes that you naturally have been wearing all your life. They don’t fit right. You’re told that you cannot wear those clothes because they are for members of the other sex. Instead you are forced to wear clothes that feel foreign to you. They fit in ways you’re not used to, show off or cover parts of your body that you wish they wouldn’t, and looking in the mirror you feel awful about your appearance.
Speaking of that mirror, look at your face and your body. You know it’s not yours so you feel disconnected from it. When you see your reflection, it is like you’re seeing someone else’s reflection. You’re almost surprised by the image you see when you realize that’s you. It feels so wrong, how can people see me this way? That’s not who I am. Why can’t I see me? These thoughts consume your mind when you look in the mirror.
When you’re with other people, you can’t act like your normal self. They tell you that you that you need to act properly based on your body. You scream at them that this is not you but they simply don’t listen. You should walk more feminine. You should be more manly. Imagine what it’s like to be told that when it doesn’t match who you know you are.
The people you’re used to hanging out with won’t socialize with you because they see your body and assume you’re not one of them. But if you try to socialize with people who have the same body characteristics as you, it’s awkward and difficult because you don’t connect with them. You can’t understand the way they act, the way they talk, or why they behave the way they do. You look across the room at the people you used to socialize with and you long to be in their circle again. To wear the clothes they are wearing, acting the way they do, doing the things they do. You understand them and they’d understand you if they’d just accept you in. But you’re not allowed to because your body says differently.
Do you rebel? Do you start wearing clothes and acting the way that feels right to you? Do you try to force your way into your old social circles. What’s the result if you do? You get bullied, you get taunted, you get threatened and you get beat up. People shun you. They insist you’re acting foolish, that it’s crazy, that you just need to accept that your body defines who you are not what you know in your mind is the truth.
Now, how it would feel if you were told that a doctor could fix this all for you, but it will take years of painful treatments, surgeries and medications to make your body right again? The expense will be astronomical and your health insurance won’t cover any of it. Your body will never be perfectly back to normal because medicine hasn’t advanced that far, but its still better than continuing to be in this body and treated like you’re someone else. If you choose to go through these medical procedures, you’ll be forever branded as different, a freak, a pervert. Your health insurance or doctors may refuse you routine health care because of it. You risk your family, your friends, your employer, everyone in your life completely abandoning you. Your own government tries to outlaw your very existence. How can you possibly decide between these two options?
Now think about the anxiety you’d feel as a result of this experience. Imagine that to stay safe you start dressing and putting on an act, trying to match up to the body that you now have. You stop telling people about who you really are because you get bullied or worse when you do. You hold the secret inside you, all to yourself. It’s a very lonely place when you don’t dare tell anyone. You feel depressed because you’re so isolated with this truth. No one will believe you when you tell them who you really are, about who you were before you woke up this morning in this body that is just plain wrong. You fear pursuing the medical solution to your problem because of the risks to your health, to your lifestyle, to your financial situation. So you hold it all in and fall deeper into depression, perhaps so bad that you start to imagine killing yourself as the only option to end the pain.
Finally, take those feelings, all that anxiety, all that pain, that feeling of no one realizing who you really are and not believing you when you tell them. That isolation of being alone in your reality with no one able to believe, understand or help you. Roll all those feelings together into a nice bundle and imagine that this is how you’ve felt every day for as far back as you can remember in life.
That my friends is the best way I can describe what dysphoria feels like. That is the struggle that the estimated .3% of our population who are transgender have to deal with on a daily basis. We are uncontrollably anxious, we are depressed, and we do feel very isolated from the world of “normal” people. Now you can end your visualization and return back to your real life, in your proper body, and please be thankful that you can do so with such ease. It’s not that simple for some of us.