Tag Archives: transition

22 Days of Musing: 17

17. Division of psyche.

Today I’m continuing on from what I was writing yesterday about the rather complicated question I’ve been asked a few times: has my transition had any positive effect on rectifying, or at least helping me to manage, my mental illness? I think the simple and brief answer would be yes. As I noted yesterday before deciding that I had too much more to write on this topic and calling for an intermission of sorts (so go now and refill your popcorn), I do feel more able to push through my anxiety now to express my feelings, whether that be in expressing love and caring or in engaging in verbal self-defence, and that’s an undeniable advantage: it’s an identifiable improvement in a specific aspect of my mental illness that allows me to live my life more effectively. But although my transition has certainly done some small things to ameliorate my state of mind more generally, particularly in the area of my anxiety, both the depression and anxiety do still remain to wreak their particular brand of psychic mayhem every so often. For many trans folk, the presence of a mental illness is largely caused by their dysphoria, their feeling of alienation from the body they inhabit, or the fear of how those around them will react to their coming out, or the clash between their perception of their true gender and the perception of stigma from broader society that causes them to engage in self-doubt and autoflagellation; for such people, the process of transition is one that brings substantial and effective relief from their mental illness. If you’ll recall the statistics I cited last night, a transgender person is six times more likely to be currently suffering a depressive illness than a cisgender person. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that depression in trans people is always and necessarily caused by being trans and the consequences thereof. I’m reminded of the medical maxim known as Hickam’s dictum, which states: a patient can have as many diseases as they damn well please. This idea is often proposed as an intellectual counter to Occam’s razor, the better-known axiom to many students of science (even though it comes originally, much as many scientists would be loath to admit, from theology).

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate.
Plurality must never be posited without necessity.
– William of Ockham,
Quaestiones et decisiones in quattuor libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi

In the medical context, the usual logical maxim of Occam’s Razor – which would counsel a doctor to seek a single underlying cause to explain the entire range of concurrent symptoms in a single patient – may end up failing (as it usually does when the hypochondriac seeks WebMD for an explanation of a range of apparent mild symptoms that would be exhibited only in, say, the early stages of kuru or pneumonic anthrax or something), because it’s statistically far more likely that a patient has two or more common diseases, rather than a single rare one. This isn’t to say, of course, that being transgender is a disease (it isn’t) or that there’s no relationship between being transgender and having depression (there is). But I suppose the point is that in my case, although my anxiety certainly stood as a grand obstacle in the way of my coming out as transgender, my mental illness is not really a secondary effect of my being trans and the social consequences of being trans, as it so clearly can be for many other trans folk; it’s more that my illness and my transness exist as two separate parts of my psyche (albeit parts that are in communication with one another, that influence and inform one another at times). Whatever it is that causes me to feel the blackness of depression, the challenges of being and coming out as transgender have only been a small contributing factor – if indeed they have contributed at all – which just means that I’ll simply have to continue to work on discovering what else the ætiology of my illness might be, what else contributes to it, what else triggers its symptoms, and what else might help to defeat it.

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22 Days of Musing: 16

16. A brain of many parts.

A question I’ve been asked more than once since having transitioned earlier on this year is whether or not the process has given me any relief from my mental health issues – whether the transition has enabled me to feel freer, more open with my life in a way that’s allowed my depression and anxiety to be ameliorated even in part. This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer, but I think in tonight’s reflection I might well try. Difficult though the question is to answer, it’s an entirely fair one: the fact that even under the law, QUILTBAG people in our society still don’t enjoy the kinds of freedom afforded to the privileged, the cishet upper-class male white Anglo-Saxon Christian (the recent and puke-inducingly-named Budgie Nine being classic examples), factors heavily into the appalling statistics for the state of their mental health. The stigma from society, both real and perceived, contributes to the oppression of QUILTBAG people and the deterioration of their psychological well-being. (Most of the stats I’m about to cite come from this link, in case you’re wondering.) In Australia, the rates of depression and anxiety in straight people are about one in seventeen and one in seven, respectively. In lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, these rates increase approximately to one in five for depression, and one in three for anxiety. Thirty-six percent of trans Australians currently suffer from depression. One in eight lesbian, gay or bi people have attempted suicide in their lives. Australian statistics on transgender suicidality aren’t available, but comparable surveys in the US indicate that two in five trans people have attempted suicide at least once in their life. Two in five. Sobering indeed; if the same rate applies to transgender Australians, it comprises a 14-fold increase in risk on a background rate of around 3%. All this is largely the result of stigmatisation that’s present everywhere and still seeps even from much of society that thinks itself progressive; for this reason, it does make sense that friends and others would ask whether being out of the closet – being able to be open and actively performative about my gender, rather than keeping it firmly under wraps and detesting myself anew every time the shame touched me – would assist my mental health. And there are certainly ways in which it has done so. I’m more likely to be frank and honest with people now than I was before; it’s something I still am learning how to do effectively, but I’d like to think I’ve gained certain aspects of confidence that I lacked previously. I’m less likely to tolerate people’s bullshit, more likely to call them out on it. (I’m just waiting for the day someone calls me a transphobic slur overtly and to my face. To hark back to that Pixar film Inside Out for a moment, the little fire-headed Lewis Black inside my mind has a seriously fucking itchy trigger finger and is just waiting to go verbally R. Lee Ermey on some arrogant bigot, with all the energy pent up from having to tolerate reading articles about institutional anti-QUILTBAG perspectives while not being able to reach into the Internet and smack Cory Bernardi and Miranda Devine and Lyle Shelton and Tony Abbott right upside their stupid fat heads.) And on a more genteel side but also related to that previous point, my ability to express my feelings to those closest to me has also improved beyond what I’d expected. I’ve always craved physical contact, and consider it one of the most direct and unmistakable signs of genuine affection of all sorts, but for decades I’ve felt immensely awkward about initiating it and paranoid about overstepping the bounds of social convention, most especially the social conventions that limit those who identify as male. Not so much any more, and that brings me a more reliable sensation of closeness to those I care about. Verbally, too, I’m less worried about being effusive with praise or compliment or affection. Telling someone how much I care, or that I love them, is easier now after opening myself up, and that’s been inexpressibly wonderful. And I think that’s a nice note on which to leave tonight’s reflection, so I’ll save the rest of that thought for tomorrow; there are a couple of tangents (hopefully interesting also to the rest of you) that I’d like to explore while I continue to talk about the relationship between my transition and my mental illness.

Once, twice, six months a lady

On Sunday of this week, the 11th of September, I realised that I had passed six months of being publicly out as a trans woman. My post to Facebook on the 11th of March was not the first time I’d told somebody I was transgender, of course; by that time I’d already been undergoing hormonal therapy for about ten months, and had told perhaps thirty or thirty-five people in total. Basically my close friends first, then my family, after having worked on the issue for some time with my psychologist and two doctors. (It goes beyond having “a doctor” these days for me; I seem to have accumulated a medical team instead. A GP who specialises in treating gender-variant people, an ordinary GP who I see for other issues, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a laser technician. Coo.) Six months is not very long, to be fair – I know trans people who have been out forty years or more – but still, this forms a milestone in my own journey, and a milestone that this time last year I was still terrified by and thought I would never have the courage to achieve.

On the whole, I’ve been far more lucky than most in my transition. Focused as my life is upon the academy, and of a fairly large city to boot, the people around me tend to have a fairly broad perspective, and are generally much more liberal (in the small-ell sense; my friends overseas no doubt find it a peculiar irony that the major Australian politically-conservative party are named the Liberals) than might be expected from the members of an “average” community. Moreover, we as anthropologists and archæologists spend our lives investigating the structures of and systems of interaction within societies, and when social roles differ from supposed norms, we tend to be curious and interested rather than horrified and disgusted by variations from those norms: we seek to be descriptive and talk about what is, rather than prescriptive and talk about what should be. For these reasons, I’m infinitely grateful to have happened to exist within the milieu I have when I finally realised that transitioning was something I wished to pursue. Though my transition has easily been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and continues in a variety of ways to be challenging and difficult (the breakup of my last relationship resulted from my partner’s inability to come to terms with my being transgender, despite the fact that I’d told her this fact and about my desire to transition less than a week after we started dating; I won’t lie, I’m still a little bitter), the friends, colleagues, and family around me have inundated me with nothing but support, love, endearment, and admiration. From some people it’s even reached the level of clear excitement, which is a little discombobulating, but equally lovely to experience! No doubt it’s a combination of being happy for me on the one hand, and being touched that I trusted them enough to tell them on the other. I’ve felt similar rushes of what I could only call excited love when my friends have entrusted me with their own stories, their own secrets. It’s an immense honour and a great gift when someone trusts me sufficiently to reveal their hearts to me, a gift far beyond any material object, and if that’s an honour and a gift that others have perceived when I’ve likewise shared with them, then they can rest safely assured that their feeling of being honoured and trusted is equalled only by my gratitude for their trustworthiness.

This rich support surprises me anew every day, and every time that I think about that support is another little nudge forward, another shot of gratitude that helps me moving myself forward even through rough times. (And lately these rough times have comprised the bulk of my waking life. While my gender transition is only relatively tangentially related to them, I also suffer from clinical depression and a social anxiety disorder that currently aren’t stable. Nonetheless, the support that my loved ones are giving to both my gender situation and my mental health struggles is in large part the engine that propels me through each new day. I’ll talk more about those anon as well.) And to be completely fair, apart from a snide comment I overheard on the train last week – in which one numb young shit asked her friend how to spell the derogatory word tranny so she could send it in a text making fun of me to a third and presumably equally small-minded friend; a request that, from my perspective, dripped with the richest of irony by exposing the same lack of education that probably yielded the bigotry it contained – I’ve largely been treated with respect and honour by the people I interact with. There have been issues of misgendering, of course, and standing at a broad-shouldered and fairly barrel-chested 6’1″ I’m not really surprised, even though disappointed and a little hurt every time. Even there, though, it’s usually from people who don’t know me and consequently are much easier to ignore or just get past, and from those who do know me, I never have any issue so long as I can see that an effort is genuinely being made. (Self-recognition and self-correction of a name or pronoun slip go a long way in that regard, though it really doesn’t have to be a big deal. In all honesty, a simple apology, a quick “sorry” with a correction of the slip-up and then just returning to conversation as normal is absolutely fine with me. I don’t want for you to have to be overtaken with embarrassment any more than you want to. We all fuck up from time to time, and Christ knows I’m still very much coming to terms with the change myself!)

And it does help me to think that when I attract stares and odd looks from strangers, even though I feel I’m now living as my most authentic self and portraying to the world the person that I feel I truly am and want to be, they’re staring because of my being transgender. I feel much pride in being a trans woman, and although I do wish often that I wasn’t so stereotypically masculine in my build, it does please me to think that when I attract stares from people, I may be one of the first trans people that they’ve seen “in the wild” (as it were) and can thereby show them that I’m just a person, just another human being with my own interests and desires and hopes and character. Another aspect of dealing with the stares and strange glances is that, in part because of the anxiety disorder I mentioned earlier, I always used to feel that people were staring at me anyway, was always afraid that people were silently standing in judgment of me. Even before I realised I was transgender, even before my transition began, I felt this was the case. It’s one of the reasons I got my first piercings – my left brow and ear, which I got at the same time at least two years before I ever began undergoing hormonal therapy (indeed, before I even came to the realisation I was transgender). And the strange thing is that, paradoxical though it may be in that I feel I truly am what many trans people phrase as living my truth, I weirdly feel better about being stared at now than I used to pre-transition. There’s a line that I think parallels this sense nicely, a line from the epilogue of what for many years has been one of my favourite novels – Tim Willocks’s Bloodstained Kings – in which the main character, Cicero Grimes, finally comes to terms with the deaths of his father and brother and leaves his city home for good:

He packed his Olds 88 with the things he needed, and a few of the things he wanted, and drove south, deep into Mexico, where the air was dry and the days were long and where he could speak Spanish and be thought of as strange because he was a gringo, and not because strange was how he was.
—Tim Willocks, Bloodstained Kings

I suppose I view myself in a similar light to Cicero Grimes: I’m quite comfortable now, after my transition, with being the target of stares; with being thought of as strange because I’m a “tranny”, and not because strange is how I am. (And believe me, I really am strange.) It lets me say to myself, “Well, if they’re judging you for being transgender, then they’re just bigoted and they are therefore unimportant.” It allows me in my turn to brush off stares as being the superficial responses they are; as the Klingon proverb says, ghIlab ghewmey tIbuSQo’ pay no attention to glob flies. And who knows? Perhaps those stares will encourage people to learn, to grow, to understand and come to an acceptance of not only me and other transgender people, but everyone in the queer community. These days – particularly with the heated argument across society about the Federal Government’s rotten-to-the-core proposal for a plebiscite on the topic of marriage equality, a plebiscite that I vented my spleen about just a couple of weeks ago – I feel more of that kind of understanding and acceptance can only be a good thing, and if my existence in the community as a trans woman can serve as a means by which to accelerate that acceptance for me and all like me, then let them stare.