Final laser appointment

On Wednesday I had what I hope is my final laser hair removal appointment for my face, legs, and chest. I am so close to having my hair reduced to what is normal for most cis women after spending thousands of dollars out of pocket for “cosmetic” dysphoria treatments. This time I paid $1,400 just for one session.

As I was sitting there, gritting through the pain, I was really struck by how much pain and expense trans people have to go through just to treat dysphoria because we went through the wrong puberty. A puberty which is totally unnecessary with modern technology. I really wish more parents could believe their kids and more doctors would be willing to prescribe puberty blockers to teens. It really would save so much money and pain in the long run.

Despite how much it has cost, I am really glad I had the privilege to get that done. When I first shaved my beard, the dysphoria from the stubble was absolutely overwhelming, even when freshly shaved. I can barely stand to look at pictures from that time unless I was wearing a lot of concealer foundation because the whole color of my skin was off. Now I can shave the few remaining hairs once a week and hopefully not even that now that I’ve had my final session. If I have more hairs pop up later, I can get a couple hours of electrolysis to finish it off.

Shaving off my beard was so scary for me because of that phase I had to go through. And there are days when I can really admire how stunning it looked in contrast with my femme presentation. But overall I am really glad I look more overtly feminine now. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better but I am so glad to be past that part.

Finding Haven

Today I officially “come out” publicly as a writer. I am finally rebranding my blog to reflect what this is actually all about – Finding Haven.

My name is Haven Wilvich.

That may seem like a simple statement but it took me a long time and a winding path to get there.

I grew up in a Fundamentalist cult and a community that had very rigid views of binary, pre-determined gender and sexuality. I didn’t know any out gay people growing up and I didn’t even hear the word Transgender until I was in college. When I first came to my Christian university, I was still very much a model of the rigid beliefs that had been hammered into me over time. I was very conservative and the first time the LGBTQ group on campus approached me with a petition, I balked at it and turned them away (politely).

Shockingly, it was my theology classes the next year that helped me change my views. I had a series of excellent teachers who slowly helped me break down and analyze my beliefs non-judgmentally and without a pre-determined outcome. They gave me the space to eventually realize that I wasn’t practicing something I believed but rather parroting what I had been taught. So I opened my mind a bit and started trying to figure out what I actually wanted to believe.

It was during that time that I first saw an event advertised on campus for a panel of pastors talking about homosexuality in the church. I decided to push my boundaries and attend, hiding in the back row of a large classroom. What I saw for the first time there was passionate Christians talking about how queerness and faith didn’t have to be opposed but rather could be accepted and loved. I was intrigued and decided to start paying more attention to the LGBTQ group on campus.

The next event I attended was a Transgender Panel. It was my first time even hearing of the word and it definitely pushed my comfort boundaries. But seeing out and proud trans people for the first time was eye opening. I came away from that event resolved to learn more about the LGBTQ community and become an “ally.”

I still didn’t realize that I was trans at that point because I thought that to do that you had to look a certain way, be very feminine (binary), and “pass” as a cisgender woman. I knew that I would never be able to pass so I continued to ignore my latent gender feelings.

The LGBTQ discussion group that I began attending was called SPU Haven.

Over the next couple years I became a loyal member and began calling myself a “gender non-conforming ally.” I eventually moved into leadership of the group and that’s when the shit hit the fan.

You see, homosexuality at our conservative university was considered to be in violation of the “Lifestyle Expectations Clause” that they made all incoming staff and students sign. What “homosexual behavior” actually meant, no one knew. But it did mean that our group found itself the center of controversy.

The university Administration decided at one point that we were pushing the boundaries too much and told us that they were disbanding the group. That we “no longer existed” and couldn’t meet on campus. Well of course being the baby activists we were, we kept meeting but this time in a open space instead of a reserved room. It harmed our ability to actually be a safe space but it got their attention.

Word of this ban eventually reached the local news sources, then other news sources across the country, and finally a group of alumni who organized a letter writing campaign. It was an intense 6 weeks where I found myself on the cover of the school newspaper every week. But eventually we scared the Administration enough that they privately apologized and gave us back our meeting space. A few years later, the group became an officially funded club.

My activism history was shaped by that experience of having to fight for my space. It took me a long time for my work to become truly intersectional, but that group planted a seed and was incredibly important to who I became.

So when I was looking at choosing a new name for myself to reflect my feminine and genderqueer reality, I chose Haven. It means sanctuary, safe space, and respite. Which is what I strive to continue becoming.

How I knew I needed Surgery

Content Warning: I’m going to talk explicitly about sex in this post.

How did I know I needed surgery? It is a question I get a lot in different forms and it’s a good question, particularly for other trans people to ask each other.

My earliest inklings were from when I first learned what vulvas were. I was immensely curious as a child so I secretively turned to my local library and sex education websites to find out what women had that made them so amazing and supposedly so different. That’s when I found out the beauty that was the human vulva, vagina, and especially, the magical clitoris.

What was initially curiosity quickly turned into an obsession. And I doubt it was the same kind of obsession that my cisgender peers were starting to have as their libidos awakened. It crept into my psyche and my dreams. It wasn’t long before I was having both sleeping dreams and daydreams that involved strong, powerful women with both penises and vaginas. Because to me, the peak of human achievement would be having the best of both worlds. This was before I even knew that trans or intersex people existed.

It took me years of suppressed queerness before I finally admitted those dreams in group therapy as an early adult. And in the meantime I went through phases of hyper-masculinity as I tried to reconcile these desires to experience a vagina that kept pestering my brain. When I first had oral sex with a woman, the obsession only grew.

Eventually I finally got enough exposure to trans people that I realized I was one too. Not out of peer pressure like the media tries to paint it, but from seeing examples of people like me. I started out slowly and it took me awhile of my social transition before I decided to take any medical steps. You can see a lot of that progression if you read the early posts on my blog.

I had a lot of hesitation about starting estrogen because I was worried it would change how my already anxious/depressed brain worked. But once I started, I knew I could never go back. After the initial adjustment period, my brain had never felt more “right” and like I finally had the right operating system installed. But it did fundamentally change how I experienced sex.

I have always been hesitant and anxious about using my penis. But after starting hormones, there was some significant rewiring of my nervous system that took place and changed how I felt sensations. Suddenly an appendage that felt like a blunt tool now felt like a fine tip brush. It honestly felt like I imagine an inverted vagina would feel with a clitoris on the tip. My sensitivity increased immensely and I also lost all desire to use it for penetrative sex.

I had already started to think about surgery but my initial explorations had all been about whether or not it was possible to have a vagina and a penis simultaneously. I thought for sure that’s what I wanted because that’s what all my dreams still involved. I scoured the internet and couldn’t find anyone except naysayers who claimed it was anatomically impossible.

Finally, the first surgeons started to do what they called “penile preservation vaginoplasty” and my dreams were vindicated! Except ironically, by the time I discovered that, I was beginning to realize that it wasn’t what I wanted. I came to understand after almost 2 decades of dreaming that that form was more about what I was attracted to, not about what I wanted for myself.

Once I finally accepted that I wanted a vaginoplasty, the rest was just about getting through the medical gatekeeping. Last year when I went for my consult, I was sure that it was what I wanted. Now I am 120% sure and for months now I have been counting down the days (12) until I could finally achieve what I’ve secretly desired for so long.

I’ve been trying to decide for a couple years now if I am asexual or if I just have a low libido and as I think about life post surgery and all the sex I can have uninhibited, I think I finally have my answer. I just needed the right parts!

I’m in the home stretch now and I’ve started taking the pre-surgical meds. The Gabapentin is making my brain a bit hazy and I’m rather scatterbrained so hopefully this blog post makes sense. But in 6 days I pack up the car with my partner who will be my caregiver and her partner who lives with us and we drive down the coast to San Francisco.

12 more days!

Insurance approval

I know to most cisgender people this doesn’t sound significant but I just got word from my surgeon’s office today that I got insurance approval for gender confirmation surgery!

This is one of those things that should be a normal occurrence. But for trans people, we have had to fight so hard for generations to get these surgeries covered by insurance that it is still a big deal for us to have these basic rights. I remember not that long ago when my friends were going to Thailand because that’s the only way most people could afford to get surgery out of pocket. And because of that legacy, there are still so few surgeons in the US that even those of us in major cities like Seattle have to travel out of state and incur huge expenses to get these surgeries.

It’s also significant because of the amount of medical gatekeeping we have to endure to get there. I can’t think of a single procedure where a cis person has to get more than one letter of support. But most trans people require 3 letters from MDs, therapists, and PhD level psychiatrists to get this insurance approval.

For me, I got these letter last fall because I was told the surgeon was going to ask for insurance approval in late winter. But they waited too long to submit paperwork so I had to go get the letter updated because they needed to be within 6 months. Which meant that the first time around I got an insurance denial which was scary even though I knew why.

The point of this story is, if you have the authority to be a medical gatekeeper for a trans person, PLEASE make it as smooth as possible for them. There are a variety of reasons that trans people don’t want surgeries and shouldn’t need them to transition. But for those of us who do, we are usually overwhelmingly sure that this is what we want. So don’t make it harder for us than it needs to be. Trust us to be the experts on our own experiences. And if you get asked for a perfunctory piece of paper, just sign it.

41 days until surgery!

I’m down to less than 6 weeks before gender confirmation surgery and I’m so nervous! I’m not anxious about the surgery itself other than a natural concern about the rare complications. I’m nervous that something will happen between now and then to prevent me from getting the surgery. Because the idea of delaying it sounds like torture. When I did my consult a year ago, I was ready. And now I am wishing I had started the process sooner.

I’ve done literally everything I can do. I’ve bought medical supplies, collected comfortable clothing for the recovery, changed our original flight plans to a roadtrip, booked an accessible AirBnb, and even scheduled my pre-op bloodwork. But my brain can’t stop focusing on all the things that could go wrong.

What if there’s a new wave of COVID-19 cases now that we are re-opening businesses prematurely? What if I get sick right before surgery? What if I get down there and find out that the hair removal wasn’t sufficient because I missed 2 months due to COVID shutdowns? What if the doctor says that my weight is too much of a problem since I’ve put on 20 pounds in the last year?

The last one is the one I hate the most. I’m a very fat positive person and generally I don’t care about my weight. But last year I had a bad experience with Dr. Satterwhite when I consulted with him and he was hyper-focused on my high BMI. He claimed that if I gained any more weight it would be “unsafe” to do the procedure. Thankfully Dr. Wittenberg, the surgeon I ended up choosing, told me that they are more like guidelines for optimal results which I absolutely agree with, but my brain is still anxious about it. Fatphobia is one of the few remaining socially acceptable forms of overt discrimination.

In the end, there’s not much I can do about it. I know all the data about how fad diets don’t work and can cause more medical issues than they solve. And luckily the nutritionist/therapist I’m working with agrees and is helping me balance my food in a way that feels appropriate to me. But the voice of that fatphobic doctor still haunts me. I also wonder how many fat trans people he’s turned away and made believe that they can’t get surgery.

On a more positive note though, my job is being super supportive. They have hired new permanent and temporary staff to take on my workload while I’m gone with enough time to train them before I go. So now I know I can leave even in the midst of a busy period of running COVID research studies and know my work is in good hands.

Currently I am hoping to be able to return to at least part-time work after 6 weeks which is the minimum time my surgeon recommends. Since we are completely online now it should be more accessible. But there is a potential that I may need the full 12 weeks before I’m lucid and off pain meds.

For housing I was lucky enough to find a basement apartment owned by a gay couple to rent that not only is ground floor but has a kitchen and even AC! It was very expensive at $3,400 but it’s centrally located in San Francisco so I can easily make it from the hospital and to my follow up appointments without sitting in traffic. I’ll be staying for a full month since I need to arrive 5 days prior to surgery for my pre-op and stay for 3 weeks after for post-op check ins before I’m cleared to travel. I’m really hoping that I can handle the 800 mile drive home without too much pain since I don’t feel very safe about airports right now.

I’m in the final countdown period and I am so excited! Thank you to all my friends who donated over $2,500 to make this happen. And I couldn’t do this without the support of my wonderful spouse who will be my caretaker after surgery. I guess you could say it takes a village to make a vagina.

Giving up Control

Today I realized an important component in my coming out journey that I haven’t talked about a lot here – giving up control.

Growing up I was very much a control freak. I liked to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. I was obsessively clean about my own space to the point that my mom could come into my room and move one object and I would know the moment I walked in. I abused my authority as the oldest child to control my siblings unfortunately. I also had my entire life planned out, both long term and short term.

I know where that behavior came from. It was a way to reclaim a sense of my own control in a life that was controlled by others and was also pretty chaotic. My parents were very controlling of us in many ways with lots of rules and that was made worse by being in a fundamentalist cult that taught that as a moral imperative. They were also low-key hoarders and our house was always messy even if that was often hidden behind closed doors.

My first attempt to stop being controlling as an adult went horribly wrong. I tried to give up control by giving it to my ex-spouse who abused that authority and emotionally abused me. But in that relationship I learned pretty quickly that the only way to survive was to give up the idea that I could control anything in my life.

The only sure thing in life is that there will always be unexpected things that you can’t plan for. And oftentimes those can be good things if you are open to them. Like a casual dating partner turning into a wonderfully supportive spouse once you get the courage to leave your abuser.

But that mindset about giving up control was also key to being able to come out as trans. Especially as a trans woman, it can be a shock to go from a position where you are subtly and sometimes overtly given societal power to a situation where you are suddenly one of the most marginalized and powerless. And if I hadn’t primed myself to be powerless, it would have been pretty freaky.

I think a lot of us are finding ourselves feeling powerless right now during this pandemic. Everything is chaotic and out of control and very few people (in the US) have planned for something like this. And that vulnerability and constant vigilance can bring out a lot of trauma responses from people who have been abused.

Being treated as a man when you know deep down that you aren’t is absolutely a form of trauma. Especially in a culture where toxic masculinity runs rampant. And that abuse becomes more clear when you come out and aren’t supported, whether by the people close to you or by society at large.

So if you are finding yourself in some very dark emotional places right now, please have patience with yourself. We can’t control this but that’s ok. It is only in giving up control that we can find peace and acceptance of the world around us. That is a journey that I am still on but telling myself that on a regular basis definitely helps so I hope it helps you too.

Boob update

2 years and 1 month into hormones and my boobs are still growing! At this point I’m solidly a C-cup but they are pretty conical and haven’t rounded out so I don’t really have cleavage yet. Other than the shape and distance from each other, this is about what I was hoping for. It makes me so happy to see them in the mirror or my peripheral vision!

For my fellow trans health nerds who are wondering, I started by ramping up to 6 mg of oral estrogen sublingually spaced throughout the day and eventually backed down to 4 mg where I am now. I never added spironolactone (an androgen blocker) because my testosterone disappeared and never came back. In February this year, my estradiol level was 139 pg/mL (cis woman range is 12-498 depending on cycle) and serum testosterone was only 13 ng/dL (cis woman range is 8-48).

Do Trans Women get Periods?

Do Trans Women get periods? Absolutely.

As someone who is on my period now, I can tell you that it is very real and it sucks. I am ready to burst into tears at a moments notice and I could definitely bite someone’s head off right now. I’ve been tracking my mood cycle lately to confirm that it actually does follow a monthly pattern and my app was spot on this month. And it is synced up with my nesting partner so I knew it was that time without even asking her.

Do we bleed? No. But if you try to point out how “lucky” we are are some BS like that, I will slap you. Because that is a really sore point for someone like me who wants nothing more than to be pregnant. But I also know that it is unlikely to be possible while I am still young enough to do it because while uterine transplants are absolutely medically possible, they are only given to cisgender women.

The period is mostly caused by being on estrogen but I have always been sensitive to monthly cycles. Years ago before I had admitted to myself that I was trans, I noticed that my mood cycles were related to where my partner was on her period. But now that I am on estrogen it is a whole lot more emphasized.

And in case you think I’m making it up, you should read what other trans girls say.

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