Starting Electrolysis

I’ve passed the point of no return (queue Phantom of the Opera music). I’ve started electrolysis on my chin which means the beard is never coming back. I now have a quarter sized patch which is all inflamed at the moment where the hair has been permanently killed using a combination of electric current and heat to create a chemical reaction of lye to remove the whole follicle. And boy howdy was it painful!

I didn’t use a topical anesthetic this time and I definitely regret it. At first it wasn’t too bad. It was similar to tattoo needles but with the added weird sensation of radiating heat in your skin. But after a surprisingly short time, my body stopped ignoring the pain and by about 45 minutes I was begging for the hour to end. And the worst part was that it really wiped me out after. My body was just so exhausted that I came home and crashed.

Actually no, I take that back. The dysphoria caused by letting my stubble grow in for 5 days was the worst part. By this weekend I just felt gross and ugly in a visceral way. And when I added the pain to it on Sunday afternoon, it pushed me over the edge. All I could manage was getting high on pain relieving cannabis (legal here) and playing video games. Engaging my brain in Mass Effect Andromeda was the only way I kept from dissociating.

I feel much better today now that I’ve shaved. But it is odd to have a pink scabby spot on my chin that I’m acutely aware of. It is really going to take a long frickin’ time for that circle to grow to the size of my face. I’ve got a lot of sessions ahead of me but I’m glad that I found a trans esthetician to do it. I feel better about the sheer amount of money I’m going to be spending knowing I’m keeping it in the family. Hopefully next time with lidocane it will be better.

With the NYT article that is going around (which shows one valid point of view not representative of everyone), I think it is worth pointing out that the level of dysphoria I experience now is not something I expect to last forever. Starting my transition has made my dysphoria and mental health worse in some ways and better in others. It’s not a linear path but I do think that it is similar to facing any trauma – the only way out is through. The path to healing and authenticity is painful and dredges up a lot of feelings that have been buried. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it or that it is a disease that I am looking for sympathy for. Treatment does help reduce dysphoria significantly but it’s a long game. You don’t get fast results.

What it does mean is that we need to reduce barriers to care for trans people. I so often hear the argument that things like hair removal shouldn’t be covered because then all the cis people should get it too. But that comes from a lens of equality rather than equity. Trans people have the most barriers to healthcare of pretty much anyone as a group. There are not only barriers from gatekeeping but the added burden of increased rates of employment and housing discrimination that keep many trans people in low paying jobs without coverage. Hair removal for many trans people is a crucial step needed to reduce gender dysphoria and if I didn’t have the money and life circumstances to be able to afford it out of pocket I wouldn’t have the ability to improve that distress.

So today I’m thankful for all the people who have supported my journey thus far. And for my job with decent medical benefits that allows me to start planning for bottom surgery (after I save enough for all the travel and associated out of pocket costs). And for my incredible partner and chosen family I live and share costs with that makes it possible to live near Seattle and still have money for things like electrolysis. I hope every person can find the kind of unconditional love that I have.

The game of anxiety life

Life with anxiety is like a game of whack-a-mole. If you deal with one thing, another will just pop up. And adding more estrogen to my system shakes it up and switches the game to advanced mode. I am (re)discovering so many things that I thought I had dealt with hiding beneath the surface.

Resourcing myself

This winter was really rough for me. I wrote about my depression a little bit but mostly I didn’t have the mental energy to write a lot here since November. The short version is that the combination of the bleak political situation with the record rain and dark, long days we’ve had in Seattle forced me to confront the fact that my depression isn’t just situational. There are definitely things that make it worse but it’s clear that it is a bigger problem than just something wrong in my relationships or at work. My personal life is objectively better than it ever has been and yet I barely had the energy to get through the day most of the time.

But I did what I’m best at – I used my resources and courage to look for solutions. And luckily, I didn’t just look for a simple quick fix. It took a combination of a lot of factors to bring me out of it. I’m recording them here partly for my own sake so if/when this happens again I can recall what worked, but also to hopefully inspire others to take some steps towards radical self care.

First off, I have been seeing a great therapist since the beginning of last year who has helped me find ways to break patterns of anxiety and recognize my triggers early enough to help get out of the cycles. But even the best self soothing and awareness only seems to work for me when I’m dealing with the “normal” amount of mental health challenges for me. When I add the layer of depression on top of my anxiety, ADD, and PTSD, I get stuck.

So I found myself a psychiatrist (well technically an ARNP) and started working on finding the right antidepressant for brain. The first try with Lexapro was disastrous – I had a bunch of side effects including worsening anxiety. And even with the second try, Zoloft, it took a long time to find the right dose. But now things seem to have leveled out and I can tell there is a huge difference in my ability to self manage my mental health.

Another important factor was (re)engaging heavily in my core relationship building. Being depressed can take a heavy toll on the people around you and I know I was much more irritable for a long time and my libido was way out of wack. Things aren’t perfect but now I can confidently say I’m feeling a sense of secure attachment and I can see the growth and evolution of my relationships instead of stagnation. I have two romantic relationships that have passed the two year mark and I’ve built a chosen family around myself that can weather a lot of change.

One aspect I didn’t anticipate being such an important key was my physical health. I tend to be pretty good about going to the doctor but I had stopped going to the chiropractor last year due to money and schedules. My back and neck clearly weren’t ready for that though because as I was trying to track my mood for medications, I noticed an unusual pattern. My anxiety was peaking shortly after I arrived at work and again at the end of the day. It turns out that was when my neck pain was worst and it was so bad that it was breaking down my ability to manage my mental health. So I found a new chiropractor who I’ve been seeing weekly and it is making a world of difference.

Finally, at my therapist’s encouragement, I took steps to bring things back into my life that ignite my creativity and passion. I am starting a trans acapella group and even though we haven’t met yet, I can tell the excitement of that is giving my mental health a big boost.

The weather and longer days are of course helping too but between all these factors, I am radically better than I have been in months. My energy has returned, I don’t need to constantly take time every day for pain management, and I can be myself finally. This in turn gives me motivation to do more things that I love like open myself back up to new dating opportunities and see friends more. The positive feedback loop of well managed mental heath sure takes a long time to get going but I’m glad it has finally kicked in.

Antidepressants

Yesterday I did the big scary thing and met with a psychiatric nurse practitioner to explore antidepressants.

I’ve known I had an anxiety disorder since at least puberty before I knew about psychology diagnoses and medication. In my early 20’s it was clear that depression was part of that mix. I show signs of adult ADD and OCD as well but to what degree those are independent of the rest, I don’t know. For a sense of what that is like for me, see my previous post.

Despite knowing all that, I have avoided even thinking about medication for years. My mom has always tended towards naturopathy and pharmacophobia even though she shares the same mental health issues I do. I think because of that I have been scared to approach a medication that would put me in any kind of dependency even after I’ve seen how much it has benefited her to be on SSRIs. I guess it felt like admitting defeat to use a “crutch” like meds. I’d rather keep battling through on my own and try to find coping mechanisms.

But it has become clear recently that I’m not doing myself or the people around me any favors by holding out. It takes so much energy just to get through the day trying to be myself that I often don’t have the stamina to do the relationship building and activism that I want. And I have been around enough people who are on medications without shame now that I have broken down some of the phobias and misconceptions.

So today I took my first, very low-dose of Lexapro. It helped a lot to sit down and have a specialist really explain it all to me in a thoughtful way. The way he tells it, frequent depressive episodes train the brain pathways to be better at repeating that way of being and feeling, right down to modifying the epigenetic code. The reason antidepressants work is because they help you retrain those neurotransmitters into healthier patterns. It takes time but knowing that it doesn’t need to be permanent and there is actual hope for stopping someday really helps.

I was surprised that by the end of the conversation and even today as I took the first pill, I didn’t have fear around doing so. I’m actually rather excited about the possibility of feeling some relief and knowing for the first time that I can remember what it is like not to constantly fight my anxiety. We’ll see what happens now.

 

A cautionary tale

I’ve spent most of my life making decisions because I wanted to please others, make life easier for other people, or be likable. It’s been a consistent theme for me that has shaped so much of who I am, including why I am an administrative assistant today. My job is all about making someone else’s job easier. In the nonprofit world, that can be a good thing because I’m working for worthy causes and helping others use their talents. But in most areas of my life, it isn’t serving me well and ultimately it really isn’t helping other people in the way that I think it is.

I spent my childhood trying to live up to the standards of a fundamentalist form of Christianity.  It had very gendered expectations about my role as someone who was supposed to grow up to be the patriarch, decision maker, sole bread winner, and father. I tried so hard to live up to those images and in my various attempts I fell prey to some aspects of toxic masculinity. By the time I was 18, I was a poster child of obedience and conformity. I went off to college able to debate with the best of them on the apologetics of Calvinism and prepared with a stack of books about creation “science” to argue with my “liberal” Christian professors.

But I came to the realization at 18 that even within my closed circle of Evangelical friends, I was a real asshole and unpleasant to be around. In attempting to please my church and my parents, I had turned into a judgmental person stuck in black-and-white thinking. Because I wanted everyone else to like me, I resolved to change… or at least to be less vocal about my judgments and take more time to listen.

Luckily for me, my choice of an Evangelical liberal arts university gave me the opportunity to grow and change in a non-threatening environment. Within 2 years I had transformed into a liberal pacifist and thrown my conservative history behind me. But I hadn’t stopped trying to please other people. When my best friend expressed romantic interest in me, I ignored the warning flags about her personality and dove head first into an all-consuming relationship which found me married before my junior year at only 21.

I spent the next 7 years doing everything within my power to please her, bending over backwards and almost completely losing myself in the process. She was controlling, manipulative, gaslighting, and emotionally abusive. She used my self-abasing tendencies to her benefit and had me convinced that her opinions were right on everything. My feelings were unimportant. Under the guise of wanting me to “fulfill my true potential,” she molded me into the type of person that gave her the status of a successful married professional that she wanted to be in her life.

We had the beginnings of a sexual relationship when we first started dating but that all but ended once we got officially engaged. We didn’t have intercourse until 5 years into the marriage and she used that as a dangling carrot, always something in the future to be working towards if I did the things she wanted. The only reason we ever even tried it (very unsatisfactorily) was because she knew she was losing me. As a sexual person I was deeply unfulfilled in our relationship but whenever I would voice that it would become all about her.

Slowly she trained me to basically be her servant, fetching anything she wanted and meeting her every need. She demanded massages which began as an exchange but eventually became something I would just do for her. Even when I was working 10 hour days she would still expect me to come home and do all the cooking and household chores. I passed this off as a positive thing because we didn’t have gendered roles in our relationship, but really it was just abusive.

When I would try to talk about my needs and desires they were pushed aside in favor of her needs. If I used emotional content in a conversation my feelings were dismissed because she only believed in logic (until her repressed feelings would inconveniently bubble to the surface in which case I had to sooth her). I was always set up to fail when we argued because she had training as a debater. In public I was the dutiful husband and we were the “power couple” at our church, but in actuality, I had no power.

Despite all that, I didn’t talk about my problems to anyone else because I didn’t want to burden anyone. In my attempts to make others’ lives easier, I allowed mine to become a living hell of consuming depression. I would pathologically avoid being alone with my feelings because they would lead to very dark places. There were times I think that the only thing that kept me alive was that I didn’t want to die a “virgin.”

I tried so hard to volunteer and do good things during that time but I was unable to really be effective because I hadn’t taken care of myself first. And because daily life took so much work, I put my own self-discovery on the back burner. All my gender feels turned into a festering anxiety in the background.

After 5 years of a very unhappy marriage and couples therapy, it was so clear that things weren’t working that we were having serious conversations about divorce. But I was still so stuck in the model of meeting everyone else’s needs before my own, including not disappointing my parents who didn’t approve of divorce, that I agreed to stay. I did finally prioritize one thing though. It was important to me that I have a sexually fulfilling life which was never going to happen with my wife. She wanted any outside relationships to be a sex only arrangement but that’s not what fulfills me. So we compromised and I was “allowed” to pursue polyamorous relationships under some very strict rules and in secrecy.

Through reading resources on polyamory that focused on the importance of knowing your boundaries and finally seeing models for healthy relationships, I slowly began to come into my own and prioritize myself little by little. This resulted in a backlash at home as my wife could see her perfect arrangement slipping away.  But I was able to see the world outside the bubble I’d been isolated in for the first time and find people more like myself who were comfortable in their gender and sexuality.

When I finally came out as genderqueer and pansexual, she wanted me to keep it secret from all but a few confidants because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about my gender or her feelings about my sexuality. That was what finally started to break down my mental block around divorce and got me thinking about what it might look like to truly love my life and myself. Still, I was so afraid of being unloveable that I stayed in a marriage where love was conditional on my continued silence and suppression of my identity.

Polyamory isn’t easy, especially when you are starting out and have a lot of restrictions placed on you. My wife would yell at me if I was 3 minutes late coming home from a date and she wanted me to tell her everything that was wrong with the people I was dating and why she was better than them. But after a lot of dating attempts that never made it past the third date, I began dating a wonderful woman who encouraged me to voice my needs and set boundaries. It started out as a casual relationship with no expectations but within a couple months it was clear that I was in love.

That brought things to a breaking point in my marriage. I was starting to be happy and learning to say no to unreasonable requests and my wife couldn’t stand that. After 4 months in that relationship she changed tactics and was suddenly interested in sex. But it came with strings attached. She wanted me to choose between her (and a straight monogamous life) and polyamory.

Luckily by that point I had done enough self-work that I was able to connect with my feelings and consider what I actually wanted. My therapist asked me to focus on the sensations in my body as I imagined my future in both scenarios and immerse myself fully in the feelings of both options. It took an agonizing few weeks as I wrestled with that decision, getting pressure from my wife the whole time. I will forever be grateful to my girlfriend who stuck with me in a fairly new relationship through that uncertainty and allowed me to make that choice for myself.

In the end it was clear what I needed to do. As uncertain as my future was if I left, I knew that I would be forever unhappy if I continued to give so much of myself up to be in that marriage. Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also the best decision I ever made. I moved in with my girlfriend, temporarily at first, but I took steps to make sure that I didn’t fall into old patterns of pleasing others at my own expense. 18 months later it still takes a lot of work to undo those old patterns, but with the memory of those experiences still fresh in my head, I keep at it.

My life now is radically different, not just because of my lifestyle, but because of how I am treated by my partners and how I treat myself. No longer do I accept relationships where there is an unsustainable imbalance of emotional energy or physical labor. All three of my long term romantic relationships require investment, commitment, and a good deal of energy. But because I know what my limits are, where my boundaries are, and how to say no, I have the ability to do far more for others than I ever was before. That means seeking out relationships with people who also value consent and prioritize their own self awareness. It also helps that none of us rely solely on one person to meet all of our needs. We each have other relationships, both romantic and platonic, that support our emotional and physical needs. We have all structured our lives together in supportive community where vulnerability is valued and intimacy is not feared.

Now my life is my own. No one owns me no matter what happens, no one can tell me what I feel or who I am. And that is why it is so important to me that my gender isn’t about who I’m in relationship with (and how they define their sexuality). I won’t let it be simplified or hidden to make things easier for other people to understand or be more comfortable with. My gender is complicated and it can feel like it makes things “difficult” for others (and for me) but not living as my fullest self causes far more harm to myself and ultimately to my ability to actually help others. The airline announcements are true – you do need to put on your own oxygen before helping the person next to you.

A mental health break

I know it’s been awhile since I last posted. And I was going to try to come up with some deep gender insight this week based on all the thoughts swirling in my head. But instead I decided to be honest about why I haven’t written.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for my mental health. I have the interesting challenge of living with a combination of anxiety, depression, ADD, and OCD. I’m what you might call “high functioning” which can be useful but also means I often forget to engage in the type of self care that would keep me that way. But I have been trying to do more of that. To give myself a break from the chaos of unpacking my new home, to get off social media for a bit, and to do things like playing video games and watching TV with a new cat in my lap.

But it is hard to overcome the various external and internal messages that can trigger debilitating anxiety and depression. Last week I had a few days where I was really struggling with the “not enough” messages. I felt like I wasn’t good at my job and it was only a matter of time before they figured it out and fired me. I felt like I wasn’t a good partner and soon my partners would realize I’m actually really boring. And one day didn’t feel like I was trans enough to wear a dress so I wore a more masculine outfit which then caused me to later feel like I wasn’t trans enough because I wasn’t wearing a dress. It was an overwhelming day!

During that time I KNEW logically that those messages weren’t true. I get validation at work all the time that I’m on the right track and I’m good at what I do. And I know my partners love me and are choosing daily to be with me. And I’m writing a whole frickin’ blog about how “not trans enough” is total bullshit! But yet…

Luckily my therapist reminded me that those feelings are OK to have, even if they aren’t true. And that those kinds of doubts are even part of the official physiological diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” that I am submitting to insurance. Periods of transition and intense gender exploration can bring those more to the forefront and make them louder. But that doesn’t make them any less false.

I’m also in this place where the horribleness of the world (and particularly the U.S.) is really getting to me. I know some of it is that I’m just more aware now of the reality that most people have been facing their whole lives. But I still have a hard time figuring out if I feel depressed and despairing because the world is so terrible or if the terribleness of the world is just emphasized and oversimplified because I’m depressed.

So I’m here sharing this with you to remind you to take those vital mental health breaks. To engage in self care in a radical way that allows you to go back out into that terrible world with enough energy to face it. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself because without that you wouldn’t have anything to give back. It’s like putting on your own air mask before helping the person next to you.

One way I’ve been doing self care is by beginning to read Jeffrey Marsh‘s new book, How to Be You. It’s very affirming to read and I’m getting lots of ideas for new posts which I’m sure you’ll see soon. I’m also very encouraged by how much positive feedback I’ve gotten on this blog. After only a month and 8 posts, I’ve had 950 views from 370 readers. Thank you all for being there for me and listening to my ramblings. Until next time!