Barely surviving

I’m going to say some things that might sound scary but let me be absolutely clear that I have no plans to commit suicide or anything drastic like that.

 

I’m sick and tired of barely holding on to life. I’m exhausted from just surviving and it’s hard to see a path to a place where I’m thriving.

Now I know part of that is my seasonal depression talking. I’m on three meds now to try and control it but the best I have at the moment is “not as bad as it was.” I’ve tried messing with them but it’s a dangerous proposition when I’m in the midst of it. The last dosage change I tried put me at too high a risk for suicide for me to continue.

And part of that is the mental and physical exhaustion of being disabled. My back and neck always hurt and that background pain is draining. And then there are periods like the weekend I just had where a seemingly simple task like assembling and hanging a medicine cabinet puts me in 24 hours of acute pain. And it’s demoralizing to know that you can’t even do basic things anymore.

Another part of it is trying to exist in a world that wasn’t built for me. Our westernized society still doesn’t know how to be inclusive of trans folks even on the most basic level. Even queer community makes it hard to be recognized if you are outside the binary gender construct we all take for granted. And when you can fight for decades for the most basic human rights and have those stripped away in just one politician’s term, it’s pretty demoralizing.

But the biggest part of it is the dysphoria I have around how my body is gendered. I have been on hormones for 2 years now and it has helped a lot, but I still can’t look in the mirror most days and see myself looking back. I see a face that looks hopelessly masculine to me, and I hear a testosterone shaped voice come out of my body that can be fun to perform with but still feels like a form of drag to me.

I want so badly to be ok with the body I was given, but that’s not how dysphoria works. I can do all the body positivity building I want and all that helps with is my weight. There is still a misalignment of who I know I am, and the body that others see. I walk around daily in a shell that causes people to make assumptions about who I am. And even when those assumptions are right, it usually means they are focusing on the wrong things.

At this point I feel like I am just barely clinging on to hope that bottom surgery will alleviate enough of this feeling that I can relax even the tiniest bit. I don’t know for sure if it will, but I also don’t know if I could keep going if I don’t try. So for now, I survive.

First surgery prep laser

I had my first laser hair removal session on my genitals today to begin prepping for bottom surgery. I’ve been dreading it all week because it is so extremely painful when I do it on my face that I assumed it would be even worse on such a sensitive area. But I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t know if it’s because the numbing cream works better on the thinner skin (it did last longer), or because it is a wider dispersal laser head but it was a breeze and over really quickly. It honestly hurt a lot less than waxing or sugaring.

Turns out the worst part of laser down there is the shaving. It is a pain in the ass (literally) to try to get it all and the aesthetician still  had to clean it up. I recommend having a friend or partner help you shave. The other part that sucks is the insurance approval process which took me three months of pestering.

But session 1 is finally over. I have 6 more months of doing this every 6 weeks and hopefully it is enough for surgery. I’m also going to finish laser treatments on my face since I had to stop because it is expensive to pay out of pocket ($300 every 6 weeks). But the stubborn hair patches that have come back are giving me too much dysphoria to keep waiting.

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My skeptical face as I wait for the numbing cream to work

Reflecting back on my beard

Last night I came across this photo in my Instagram history and I had one of those rare moments where I thought “Wow! That beard really was great sometimes.”

Caleb board portrait

To be honest, when I look at this photo I see an absolutely gorgeous queer person that I would date in an instant. But the problem is that it doesn’t look like me and never really did. What I see in the older photos of me isn’t the same person that I actually am inside. I may as well be looking at an old friend that I’ve grown apart from.

For a long time I despaired of ever getting my appearance and identity to match which is why I didn’t take any steps towards medical transition. I think now that I’ve done a lot of hair follicle removal and my facial features are changing, it’s getting closer. But I still have a hard time focusing on my face in the mirror.

My final jaw surgery, which includes some feminization of my chin, is in 3 weeks. Hopefully once I heal from that and get my braces off next year, I will be closer to who I am.

1 year without a beard

Today is the 1 year anniversary of me shaving off my beard. It was a big scary leap for me to give up something that had been such an important part of my identity for 12 years and accept that I would have to deal with more dysphoria for awhile as I dealt with the facial hair. But I’m so glad I did.

I’ve now had 5 sessions of laser hair removal on my face and spent over $2,000 in the process but all the pain, time, and money paid off because now I’ve gone a week without shaving and my face is still smooth! I have no more stubble or that dark shadow on my face and the amount of hair I have left to pluck isn’t any more than many cisgender women have to deal with.

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In other news, I’ve conquered two of my biggest fears around bathrooms so far. I’ve used a women’s room at a mall (with my spouse), and I’ve had a conversation with a coworker in the women’s room at work. Both things that I never would have felt safe doing with a beard.

This transition has been expensive and I’ve managed to make it this far with the help of my spouse but I still need to raise another $5,000 for my bottom surgery next year. If you are able to contribute I would really appreciate it. https://www.gofundme.com/f/haven-gender-confirmation-treatments 

Feminizing my voice

Sometimes I feel like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back.

A few weeks ago I started taking lessons on how to feminize my voice from another trans woman. Because unlike with taking testosterone which lowers your voice, taking estrogen doesn’t bring it back up. Once your voice has dropped, it takes a lot of conscious effort to retrain your muscles not to use that lower range and resonance. Eventually it becomes a subconscious thing but it takes months of hard work.

I’ve been avoiding doing this for a long time, partly because I’m not interested in passing, but mostly because I knew that focusing on my voice would trigger a lot of dysphoria. The reason I finally started is because I’ve realized that a big part of my fear of using the women’s restroom is the fact that I don’t feel like I can safely talk without creating a ruckus. Having a more feminine voice would open up more doors and make it easier to move through the world.

Trans femmes in particular also face a lot of subtle transmisogynistic messages, even in trans community, about how “scary” or “aggressive” we are, often based on our size or voice. And we can often be targeted and excluded because of it.

I definitely right about it being triggering. Paying attention to my voice and having to listen to recordings of it is really hard for me. When I’m in choir, somehow it feels okay to hit the very bottom notes. It’s really fun actually to be all rumbly and resonant. But that’s partly because I’m blending with other voices and it feels like I’m intentionally putting on a vocal costume and performing my voice in a particular way.

But when I try to consciously listen to my voice outside of that context, it is just a painful reminder of that choice that most trans people face. Do I put a lot of work into trying to pass, knowing it will only ever be semi-successful, in order to be safer or more accepted? Or do I “just be myself” knowing that I will forever be experiencing transphobia everywhere I go?

For my voice lessons, I was asked to pay attention to the voices around me and how they use their resonance in their body and sinuses. And then I was supposed to imitate various extreme examples of those such as cartoon voices to learn how to move and use those vocal centers. Which is great in theory but it also means a lot of practice time where I have to sit with a lot of discomfort.

Today I made the hard decision to put those lessons on hold. I’ve realized that I don’t have the emotional capacity right now to push through that intense dysphoria to do the practice necessary to make it worth my teacher’s time. My work has been stressful and demanding now that I am doing 2 and a half people’s jobs during a hiring freeze. And I already have to fight so much dysphoria with my preparations for jaw surgery and bottom surgery. I feel like I just have so much work to put in to transition at the moment (and so many appointment) and something had to give. So for now the voice lessons go on hold.

Luckily my voice has subconsciously raised a little bit from where it used to be. I still use a more masculine resonance but I speak more in a tenor range with an effeminate touch than my singing voice as a second bass would suggest. I guess I’ll take the little wins for now and try to go back to ignoring my voice until I am past some of this other transition work.

I need new genitals like, now

Content warning: I’m going to be talking explicitly about sex here so proceed at your own risk.

I can’t wait for bottom surgery. As in the idea of waiting another 11 months seems like torture. I need it so badly and while it feels good to finally have it planned and even some of the money raised, it still feels like forever away.

I tried for so long to feel comfortable with the body that I had, but I only had mild success. There were times where I was comfortable with partners who I felt truly saw me that I was able to have enjoyable sex, but for the most part it always felt awkward and performative. I wanted the connection and release so badly but the means I had of accessing that weren’t great.

The best sex I’ve ever had has always been with queer sex. The kind of sex where someone’s fingers or toy is inside of me and they are using their mouth in the ways that it seems only a queer person can. And the most comfortable I’ve been penetrating others is when I’ve worn a strap on. Otherwise being in that role feels weird for the most part.

This week I decided to try having sex “the old fashioned way” one more time to see if there was anything I’d miss about it. I took some generic Viagra because I can’t have those kinds of erections otherwise anymore and had some anniversary sex with my spouse. And while I love having sex with her, it just felt awkward and I was distracted the whole time by how uncomfortable I was. It felt like I was using body parts that didn’t belong to me but that somehow still transmitted sensation to my body. And not in the good way like I’ve managed to access a couple times. We eventually stopped and switched over to the ways we know we both like.

I feel like that was the moment that any last shreds of doubt I had were banished. I’ve proved to myself that my dysphoria really is “bad enough” to warrant the amount of money I’m spending and the amount of pain it will take to get my new vagina. Which is a terrible way to feel. Like you have to justify not wanting to be dysphoric all the time by degrees of severity.

So this week when I met with the PhD level psychiatrist to get my letter for the red tape of insurance approval, I was able to say with confidence that I know I’m making the right choice. And luckily I can also say that I have the right support in my life now to make that plunge. My work and my spouses work are both being very supportive in giving us the time off to go down to San Francisco for a month. And my community has been so generous in helping me raise $880 in less than a month already (plus a promise of airline miles) to put me well on my way.

If you are able to donate to support me as well, I would be very grateful. I can’t wait to finally get this surgery. https://www.gofundme.com/f/haven-gender-confirmation-treatments 

Some updates

There’s a lot going on in my life right now so here’s a little update.

This week I’m headed down to San Francisco to do consults with 2 possible surgeons for vaginoplasty (bottom surgery). I’m seeing Dr. Heidi Wittenberg and Dr. Thomas Satterwhite, the two surgeons I know of who specialize in nonbinary surgical procedures. Ironically, now that the procedure I always thought I wanted, penile preservation vaginoplasty, is possible, I’ve realized that I most likely want a standard penile inversion technique. Especially now that I’ve been on estrogen, my desire to use my penis has disappeared and my dysphoria around it has increased. I’ve also realized that I enjoy using a harness a lot more than my own parts and having a vagina with full depth for penetration is more important. I still want to talk with these surgeons specifically because they are specialists in a variety of techniques and can talk to me about my options in a way that isn’t focused on a binary transition path or assumption. I’ll post an update about what I learned when I get back.

I’m doing the research now on how to change my name and gender marker on my identity documents. It’s a way more complicated process than it should be with a lot of dependencies and some required letters from physicians. I thought that changing my middle name would be sufficient but I’ve realized now that in a lot of medical settings I still have to use my old name and it’s getting old fast. Now I just need to settle on a new middle name…

I’ve started trying out she/her pronouns again to see how I feel about them. Last time I tried it just felt like a painful reminder of how far I was from that ideal but I’m starting to find now that I’m pretty obviously a transfeminine person, a lot of people are defaulting to that and I think it might be easier to get people to use my pronouns if I switched, especially my parents.

I also just finished my 4th laser hair removal session for my face and I feel so much better now! I no longer constantly have stubble and I only need to shave what little I have every other day which makes my skin a lot happier too. I think I will probably only do one or two more sessions before I switch back to electrolysis to get the really stubborn hairs under my nose and under my lip.

I continue to hate my braces with a burning passion and can’t stand how my smile looks in photos right now. But with any luck, my next surgery will be in December and then I can get the braces off in June next year. I’m planning my next surgery for July next summer hopefully so this time next year I should be nearing the end of my intense phase of transition.

My libido is still abysmally low so I’m going to talk to my doctor at the end of the month about adding progesterone to see if that makes a difference. For some people it helps and others it makes it worse. The added bonus is that it might give me a boost on breast growth.

Well that ended up being longer than I thought but that’s what’s going on right now.

Dysphoric Bandaid Beard

There are times when I wish I still had my beard. In a lot of ways it was like a security blanket for me, allowing me to exist without having to constantly focus on my dysphoria around shaving and my chin shape. When I first grew it of course I had no idea what dysphoria was or why I hated my face so much, but I used it as a crutch for 12 years.

When I made the decision last fall to get rid of the beard, I knew that my dysphoria would get worse before it got better. And it most definitely has. It is starting to get better now that my growth rate and amount of active hair follicles have been reduced from laser therapy and electrolysis, but the first few months were hell.

Ultimately, the reason I chose to shave was because I chose to believe that it could be better eventually. That somewhere down the road I could be happier and less dysphoric than the low level that I was at with my beard. Sometimes it is hard to see through the high level of dysphoria I have now to that hope that I held for a better future. But I have to keep reminding myself that transition is just a stage in my life and the point of it is to pass through it to emerge from my cocoon as the beautiful butterfly I am.

I am lucky to be surrounded by wonderful people who constantly tell me how beautiful I am at every step along the way. But the thing is, attractiveness feels good but it doesn’t alleviate dysphoria. Dysphoria and dysmorphia aren’t the same thing. The only way to treat dysphoria is by addressing the medical and social needs around gender affirmation. Words alone can’t cut it. But luckily we live in an age where we have plastic surgeons who know what they are doing and are constantly refining the process to create and re-form the body parts that we need.

Thanks to a new trans friend for the title of this blog post and some of the thinking behind it. Maybe someday I’ll make the queer band to match.

Selfies are hard

Dysphoria is hard ya’ll. I took a selfie yesterday after my haircut that everyone agrees is objectively hot and at the time felt like a really good photo of myself. But today when I look at it I have a hard time not focusing in on how much more prominent my chin looks now that my upper cheeks are widened by my first jaw surgery. It gives the illusion that I’ve lost weight because my face comes more to a point but to my dysphoric brain, it seems like it REALLY comes to a point.

Luckily, I’m going to have my chin reduced slightly during my second jaw surgery, probably in December. It is nice to know that there is potentially an end in sight to this source of dysphoria. And I am chugging away on laser hair reduction which is slowly making that source easier to handle. But it is still frustrating to have my day derailed by those obsessive thoughts.

Next up on my to-do list – call my top two surgeon choices in San Francisco to set up a consult for my bottom surgery (vaginoplasty).

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Adding stories, not replacing

So I see a lot of trans people harp against the “wrong body” narrative. And in a way I get it, especially when that is the only narrative that cis people seem to be able to hear.

But the thing is, it is true for some of us. Particularly after puberty I frequently thought that I had been given the wrong body even before I knew what trans people were. An analogy I used yesterday was that it feels like I had the wrong hardware installed for my operating system. I’ve finally gotten the wiring right (estrogen) but I’m still working on replacing the casing.

We shouldn’t have to replace the “old” narratives of transition in order to expand them. What we need is more diversity of trans stories being elevated. Those stories are already being told but allies aren’t always listening and boosting those stories in the same way as the nice, neat, clear-cut narratives. As long time followers of my blog can probably tell, the real journey is messy. It doesn’t always involve absolute certainty about the steps and questioning your decisions is a normal part of any medical intervention or major life shift. Not following the cookie-cutter story should absolutely NOT be a reason to deny a trans person care.

So I invite you to listen to stories that challenge you. Narratives that don’t follow the path that you would expect. Parts of them may still fit the story we are used to but that isn’t the complete story either. We just need to expand our view of trans diversity. Because trans people are at least as diverse as cisgender people. We can be queer or straight or asexual. We can be binary or nonbinary or not even have a clear sense of gender. We can have dysphoria or we can simply find our path through gender euphoria. We can be neurotypical or neurodivergent. We can be fat or skinny or somewhere in between. We can fit a modern western story or follow in the footsteps of our transcestors who come from hundreds of cultures spanning thousands of years. Those things don’t need to be pitted against each other like some sort of competition for being the purest trans.

Your job isn’t to gate-keep and ensure we are absolutely 500% positive before we can receive the gender affirming care we need. Your job is to listen to us and let us guide our care. So listen to ALL of us, not just some of us.