Gender Dysphoria: A Day In The Life

I often find myself trying to explain to cisgender folks what gender dysphoria feels like. On one level it’s a futile exercise. If you don’t feel gender dysphoria, there is some level at which you will never understand what it feels like. That doesn’t mean, though, that people can’t empathize, at least, with the feelings it causes. To that end, I’m going to write out here a very honest, raw, and real description of what dysphoria feels like to me and the struggle it is to deal with.

It should be emphasized here that experiences with dysphoria are unique. This is a window into my experience. While I’m sure there are plenty of parallels with things others feel, (maybe even many or most others) this should not be taken as some claim of the definitive description of what dysphoria is or feels like. This post was inspired by a lovely friend of mine Ms Julian Grey in a private forum we both belong to. Her post is as follows:

OK – tv, music off – This is about gender dysphoria. About my experience. Others here are familiar and I urge you to chime in.

Gender dysphoria is it’s own special torture. And let’s get something straight, it kills. As surely as depression, as surely as cancer, it kills. For most of those who have it, it is devastating – day in, night out, it never stops and it never ends.

So what is “it”? Most of you know it’s a schism between what the mind insists is there and what we are born with for a body. But what does it FEEL like? The best example I can give is this: As a child I was serially raped by a sibling for 3 years. Worst part – we looked a lot alike. So for most of my life, when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t see myself; only the rapist. I wanted to carve off my face, burn it, cut off my head….

The body (or parts thereof) of someone with gender dysphoria is that repulsive and causes that much suffering. It is a life long travail. For me, I have found the things that work best; a truce between mind and body if you will. But it is that – a truce – a patch over a never healing wound with no pill to dull the pain.

I still reserve the option to transition fully physically. But like every trans person, I am unique and my decision rests on many complex factors. In the end, for me, transitioning or not is about my mental well being and I will do what I deem necessary to remain healthy.

I offer the above as an opportunity for understanding, perspective. I hope to hear the perspective of others who deal with gender dysphoria. Thanks for listening and being the great group of folks you are.

This got me thinking. I’ve been struggling pretty hard with dysphoria over the last few days and with the inspiration of Ms Julian, I’m going to try my best to relate the way it feels to me.

In a certain way, dysphoria to me can be compared to white noise. It’s a white noise that never completely goes away, but isn’t always so intense that it can’t be drowned out by other things. On good days, even the most basic distractions can help me forget that it’s there. On bad days, its so loud I can’t hear anything else. It makes me unable to hear when someone tells me that I’m beautiful or that my body is desirable. It makes me unable to hear myself or others speaking about the light at the end of the tunnel when I do finally get to complete my physical transition. The only thing I can hear is that awful white noise.

It whispers in my ear that I’m not actually who I’m supposed to be. It reminds me constantly that I’m not a “normal” woman. It reminds me over and over again of the girlhood that I missed, all the rites of passage young women go through that I never will, and the things I will never be able to do because of the limitations of my anatomy.

When dysphoria hits me, it almost manifests itself as physical pain. This is weird, because I know I’m not physically in pain. But the effect is similar. I become hyper aware of the part of my body that the dysphoria is centered on. When I feel pain, my immediate impulse is to move away from or avoid the thing causing the pain, because of course, at that point what I really want is for the pain to stop. Except there’s no physical source for the pain. This sometimes induces something akin to a panic reaction. There’s a source of the pain (or the pain like sensation), but no apparent outward cause to get away from.

My dysphoria actually centers as often on my breasts as it does my penis. I’ve actually had panic attacks over my chest. I get this overwhelming feeling that there’s a part of me missing. Many trans folks report feeling something akin to phantom limb syndrome, but for parts that were never there in the first place. It’s most often reported by trans masculine folks in relation to a phantom penis, but I’ve felt that sensation over my breasts. It’s literally breathtaking. I get panicky and it gets hard to breathe. Square breathing helps sometimes.

Another metaphor I like to use is that dysphoria feels like being constantly being stalked by a wild animal. This creature is always lurking just at the periphery of where you are. It stalks you 24/7 and attacks randomly. Sometimes it even waits long enough to attack that you start to forget it’s there. You can never forget completely though, because you know you’re always in danger.

You never know when it attacks if you’ll be able to redirect and distract it to make it go away, if you’ll be bitten or scratched, or if you’ll be utterly torn apart. You never know how bad the attack is going to be, so you can never let your guard down.

The thing that scares me the most is that this will be a lifelong struggle. There are dysphoria related problems I have that surgery can’t fix. To continue the metaphor, I may be able to declaw the creature or atrophy its muscles. I may be able to knock some of its teeth out. But it will be there stalking me my entire life.

My mind goes scary places sometimes. The worst bout of dysphoria I’ve ever had had me contemplating a scenario where I would call 911, wait until the ambulance is pulling into my driveway, and cut everything off. That way, at least I probably wouldn’t bleed to death, and I’d be rid of the thing that causes me so much pain. To be clear, I had no active want to do this, and I don’t believe I was ever in any real danger of doing it. But the fact that my mind even ran that scenario at all was terrifying,

I had my first actual flirtation with self harm recently. I was fidgeting around with this pair of tweezers I keep in my purse. Without thinking I started scraping them across my skin, leaving welts behind. I dug harder, ripping the skin off my arm. It felt good. I scratched harder still and drew blood. It was a small amount. It was enough to scare me into stopping. I don’t want to exaggerate what actually happened here. The practical consequences were some welts and scratches on my arm. I wasn’t in danger of causing myself serious harm or injury. But it scared me that I liked it.

Thinking about it later, it started to make some kind of sense. I’d rather be in pain I could control than pain I couldn’t. If I could make myself hurt worse than the dysphoria did, I’d at least be in control again.  

I posted on my Facebook page a few days ago about a fantasy I sometimes have. It’s one that in a lot of ways I feel bad for having, but I have it nonetheless. It involves every person who’s ever argued against the medical necessity of transition related care being forced to endure gender dysphoria for a day so they would understand what it’s like to go through, and how awful it is that the barrier to getting it is so high (impossibly high for some).

I don’t proudly wish pain or suffering on anyone, even the worst people. I simply wish changed minds upon them. It doesn’t stop me from sometimes wishing I could give this to the people in power so they might recognize how important transition related care is, and how vital it is for those of us who need it.