He Who Fights With Monsters

falling-man

I have not been posting much writing lately.

I was hospitalized (for the second time) on a psychiatric unit from May 9 to August 12, 2016. As I alluded to in previous posts, my time on the psychiatric unit was incredibly valuable with so many radical improvements physically and psychologically. I was allowed to use my laptop during off-unit privileges and I wrote extensively – in notes to myself and messages to friends – about the changes and insights that developed during my hospitalization. I occasionally posted on this blog during that time, but most of my writing remained unposted because there was simply too much to process so quickly. I had expected to maintain my positive trajectory following discharge so I had planned to revise and post my writing here shortly after leaving the hospital.

But now, trying to retrospectively capture the enthusiasm and excitement in my old writing feels forced and hollow. Over the past few months, most of the major improvements have deteriorated as rapidly and radically as they arose, and I have been left to watch my mind disintegrate once again. As this decline has progressed, my despair has been considerably amplified by the knife-sharp awareness of just how much I had gained in hospital and how much I am in the process of losing.

So I have avoided writing altogether, instead posting my drawings and my poems and my photos which have taken on much darker undertones in recent weeks. It would, perhaps, be something of a delusion to think that anyone has noticed the change in the nature of my posts. Very few people visit this blog, and of those that do, I doubt that most of them have the patience or interest to read my writing in its entirety. My closest friends have often criticized my writing in my correspondence to them as being too lengthy, too distressing, or too rigorously academic. I have no reason to believe that my writing here would be perceived any differently by an online audience.

Is sharing these thoughts a desperate self-pitying bid for attention? No. Because any attention granted in response to such a plea would be quite superficial and quite meaningless, so it would be illogical to seek that kind of attention. No. This is simply an honest account of my current experience. I value authenticity above most other personal attributes. To me, authenticity – and her sister trait, vulnerability – represent extraordinary courage: the courage to “endure the sharp pains of self-discovery” in the process of understanding one’s own experience, and the courage to share this experience with others despite the risk of invalidation and rejection that plague every potential human interaction.

One of the most confusing patterns that I’ve noticed as my depression has worsened during recent months has been the withdrawal of many of my closest friends. Formerly close relationships have become strained, distant, and detached. I have been trying very hard to understand what has contributed to this widespread withdrawal. At first I believed that I was the common denominator, and I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out what is so wrong with me that my friends are no longer willing to engage with me in ways that feel genuine. But now I wonder if it is less a problem with me, and more a problem with them. Perhaps the common denominator is their inability or unwillingness to tolerate the excruciating intensity of the sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, and meaninglessness that dominate my psychological landscape.

Unlike previous episodes of depression, my current experience is also dominated by anger, a towering and terrifying RAGE. Often this rage is directed at myself, rage like drops of blood attracting a predatory frenzy of depressive sharks. Sometimes this rage is directed at the world, rage like hand grenades exploding in the face of societal adherence to oppressive conventions that marginalize so many broken people. And sometimes this rage has no target, rage like a forest fire burning at the whim of wind and weather, the crackling searing heat omnivorous and destructive. But fires are essential for regeneration of forest vegetation. Maybe my rage is the first step towards some kind of psychological reintegration.

Direct feedback from my friends and my own observations during interactions with them suggests that humans are fundamentally distressed by intense emotions, especially anger, in themselves or in others. I am not sure why emotional intensity is so uncomfortable for them, and they have all been unable to coherently articulate the reasons behind their discomfort. But I wonder about several possible contributing factors.

1. I think many people retain a false and judgmental belief that intense emotion is necessarily the result of some kind of distortion or magnification on the part of the person expressing it. This belief may be the internalized result of an affect-phobic culture. This belief may also reflect the fragility of human egos finding comfort in a comparative notion that the absence of such painful intensity in themselves represents their own superior emotional regulation.

2. I think many people also believe that the expression of intense emotion necessarily implies a desire or expectation to reduce that intensity. Almost without exception, people automatically respond to someone else’s pain with advice and suggestions intended to help fix the problem or suppress the emotional intensity. I think this tendency reflects an unwillingness to accept their own powerlesssness. People seem largely unable to understand how their aggressive attempts to be helpful actually eclipse their capacity to empathize.

3. And I think that most people are afraid of truly empathizing with intense pain because doing so would require acknowledging their own innate potential to experience pain beyond their control. Such an acknowledgment would shatter illusions of personal agency. When somebody like me calmly and rationally outlines the meaninglessness and futility of life when all sense of purpose, satisfaction, and self-worth have been stripped away, people are forced to re-evaluate the framework they use to justify their own worth and purpose – they must then confront the threatening truth that these ideas are often built around tenuous and artificial self-delusions.

I have always tried very hard to avoid overwhelming my friends with the negative aspects of my experience. I have shared the fact of my depression with them, but I have intentionally minimized the severity of it, I have openly and deliberately invalidated myself in conversation with them, and I have often completely avoided mentioning my most distressing experiences. These behaviors represent my conflicted and evidently unsuccessful attempts to be authentic yet avoid provoking their discomfort. But as my depression becomes more debilitating and more painful, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to hide it. And as the intensity of my pain becomes more evident to them, the more uncomfortable they become and the more they withdraw from me. I have seen their faces fall, I have felt the cooling of the air between us, I have heard their static silence oozing through the speaker on my phone whenever I allow them to see a fraction of my truth. They cannot face my reality, so they retreat and withdraw. Their silence becomes deafening, and their absence suffocating.

“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche (Aphorism 146, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886)

[Translation: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you].

Depression is a monster. And I feel like an abyss. My existence is intensely painful. This pain is all-consuming, inescapable, and terrifyingly rational. I move from day to day accompanied by more distress than most people have ever known or even have the capacity to imagine. When I stop protecting them from me and allow them to glimpse the true extent of my hopelessness, they are horrified to find themselves gazing into the abyss. And they are even more horrified to find the abyss gazing back at them with a familiar face.

I never knew
I never knew that everything was falling through
That everyone I knew was waiting on a cue
To turn and run when all I needed was the truth
But that’s how it’s got to be
It’s coming down to nothing more than apathy
I’d rather run the other way than stay and see
The smoke and who’s still standing when it clears
Everyone knows I’m in
Over my head
Over my head
– Over My Head (Cable Car) (The Fray, 2005)

More Mirror Magic

more-mirror-magic

In my first mirror experiment, I was wearing a fitted tank top and baggy sweatpants, sitting cross-legged on a stainless steel shelf across from the mirror in my hospital bathroom. So my reflection focused on my face and upper body. I had intentionally chosen baggy pants and a cross-legged position to conceal my hips and thighs, which have long been a prominent source of body dysphoria. Perhaps that was cheating, a bit – after all, I had challenged myself to evaluate my mirror image as objectively as possible. Despite a little cheating, that mirror experiment generated so many important insights, allowing me to create a more positive and more realistic current body image as well as a more concrete idea of what my ideal body looks like to help guide transition choices.

Since then, I have repeated the mirror experiment countless times, for shorter periods. I pushed myself to continue stripping away the cognitive and physical illusions I have used for so long to detach myself from every aspect of my body. I pushed myself to look at my reflection wearing tighter pants, like jeans and workout capris. I pushed myself to change my position, sometimes sitting with my legs stretched out or dangling off the shelf, sometimes standing or leaning against the wall, legs apart and legs crossed. And I pushed myself to engage with my own image, not just in bathroom mirrors, but also in all the other reflective surfaces that bounce our selves back to us as we move through this fragmented world: the darkened window of a gift shop after closing, the smudged glass of a framed grad photo, the shiny plastic of a gas-station trashcan, the metallic blade of a new kitchen knife, the sleeping screen of an open laptop, the mysterious blackness of a stranger’s sunglasses or the familiar blue of a close friend’s eyes.

So my reflection has become a dynamic and ever-present companion. Reflection on reflection remains an intriguing process. And as I’ve expanded my mental library of my own reflected images, I have added incremental insights and deeper awareness to the major realizations from that first mirror session. These insights and awareness continue to solidify the growing comfort and gratitude for my body.

But this comfort and gratitude are continually challenged, often unexpectedly. Near the end of stay in hospital, I had finished my morning workout, taken a quick shower, towelled dry, and wrapped the disappointingly tiny hospital towel around my waist. I studiously avoided dropping my gaze low enough to risk seeing my bare chest. I stood with my back to the bathroom mirror and reached down for my stack of clean clothes. And I realized – in a heart-pounding moment of fear and curiosity, shame and acceptance, annoyance and awareness – that I was still cheating. So I straightened up and, in a clumsy bathroom pirouette with a frayed white-towel skirt, I turned around to the face the mirror without a shirt or bra.

I had not been able to tolerate the sight of my bare chest since I was in my early teens. When I turned around that morning, my eyes initially focused only on my face and arms and shoulders – anatomy which was comfortably familiar after previous mirror sessions – dancing deliberately away from the lower half of the mirror.

Still cheating.

So I forced my focus downwards and inwards. And – to my complete astonishment! – I felt only the mildest discomfort. I saw the unwanted female breasts. I felt disappointed by their presence. But behind them, I also saw the power in my pectoral muscles and I saw the gentle rise and fall of breaths moving through my chest.

Certainly, the presence of breasts was uncomfortable and undesirable. And if I could have snapped my fingers and created a flat male chest just like that, I would have done so without hesitation. But I knew that was impossible. And I know that getting a mastectomy will be a long, painful, and potentially expensive process that is also impossible in any short-term timeframe. So that moment of seeing my naked chest in the mirror helped me achieve a radical acceptance of those impossibilities and a neutral peace with my current reality.

I may decide to pursue top surgery in the future, but that choice – previously motivated by disgust and self-loathing – became less urgent and less desperate as I stood in front of the mirror. I am now less convinced that top surgery will ultimately be necessary, but I will be open to that option moving forward. I will also be open to this ongoing process of accepting what’s real and revising what’s ideal. And I will remain open to any further insights that my capricious mirror image chooses to share with me.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome –
– Derek Walcott
(Love After Love, from Collected Poems 1948-1984)

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 3): What You See

————
Part 1: Recognizing an Optical Illusion
Part 2: Deconstructing an Optical Illusion
~ Part 3 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
————

now-you-see-me-4

Following the radical shifts in perspective after the mirror experiment, I have been working through several new considerations.

The first consideration is an important caveat: all of these recent realizations – a more positive and more realistic body image, a concrete image of my ideal body to help guide transition choices, and increased gratitude and acceptance for my body – all of these realizations apply very specifically to my body as it currently exists. Had I attempted that mirror experiment at any other time over the past 10 years, I think I would have aborted the attempt within a few minutes because the disgust, self-loathing, and confusion generated by seeing my mirror reflection would have been intolerable.

But now, I am fitter, stronger, and physically healthier than I have ever been before. This is not to suggest that accepting your body is only possible if you meet externally imposed standards of fitness or conform to conventional expectations of attractiveness. Absolutely not. I am only saying that the increased muscularity and decreased body fat associated with a rigorous exercise routine are changes that have allowed me to finally feel comfortable in my own body.

This also is the first time that I have achieved a degree of androgyny sufficient to alleviate most of my physical dysphoria while also maintaining a healthy body weight. This is not to suggest that expression of androgyny excludes bodies that are thinner or heavier than mine. Absolutely not. I am only saying that finding a way to create a comfortably androgynous appearance for myself, without resorting to a dangerously low body weight, is a much healthier and more sustainable approach than my teenage anorexia.

I think it is also important to acknowledge that much of my gratitude for my current body comes from realizing that I have won the genetic lottery. As an XX individual, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a body that is capable of looking this androgynous without medical or surgical intervention so far. I have made considerable effort, through my workouts and my diet and my clothing choice and my haircut, to create this appearance. But that effort is only one small part of the story. I am lucky that I have the metabolism to lose weight relatively easily and maintain low body fat. I am lucky that I have the anabolic capacity to build muscle mass fairly easily in response to the effort I put in at the gym. I am lucky that my facial features are naturally androgynous. I am lucky that my chest has always been flat and has become even flatter after thousands of pushups and thousands of bench press reps. I cannot take credit for those factors. I can only be grateful for them.

The second consideration is that maintaining my body in a way that feels comfortable for me will require consistent ongoing effort. I have several options about what kind of effort this might be. I could continue my current diet and exercise routine. I could proceed with medical options including testosterone and mastectomy. I could work towards greater internal acceptance of the aspects of my body that I cannot control. All of these possibilities represent ongoing effort. All of these options come with advantages and disadvantages.

My daily workouts require a considerable investment of time and energy. Having started a new combination of medications to manage the debilitating fatigue of depression and having adjusted my lifestyle to incorporate an early morning exercise routine, the time and energy costs are no longer prohibitive barriers.

My diet requires constant awareness of calories, grams of protein, grams of fat. My diet also requires active tolerance of the often intrusive nature of this awareness. Many of my food-related thoughts and behaviors are habits deeply ingrained from a decade of disordered eating, and I do not recommend these strategies to anyone else. But I have accepted that these thoughts and behaviors are unlikely to disappear entirely. And while I don’t think the improvements in body image will lead to any immediate changes in my approach to food, these thoughts and behaviors become much more tolerable in the context of acceptance and gratitude instead of disgust and self-loathing.

Now that my ideal body is more clearly defined in my mind, I feel better able to evaluate the many different options for testosterone moving forward. Because I have realized that my goal is not complete physical masculinization but rather minor masculinizing adjustments to my current body, I think I would prefer to start on a low dose of testosterone so that physical changes occur very gradually. At this point, I have one particularly prominent question: In an XX person, would long-term administration of low dose testosterone ultimately lead to complete physical masculinization, but at a much slower pace than higher doses of testosterone? Or would long-term administration of low dose testosterone lead to partial masculinization that would be sustainable and non-progressive past a certain point? I am hoping very strongly for the latter. I have started looked for published data to answer this question, but so far I have only found articles describing the effects of chronic administration of high doses of testosterone in FTMs or describing the effects of short-term administration of low doses of testosterone in women (including the effects of exogenous testosterone administered to treat various medical conditions as well as the effects of endogenous testosterone in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome). However, there seem to be no studies describing the effects of long-term administration of low dose testosterone in female-bodied people without concurrent medical issues. I have only found a handful of anecdotal descriptions on personal blogs from trans people taking low doses of testosterone. But this is an important question for me, so I will continue my investigation.

The third new insight is that greater acceptance and comfort with my how my body LOOKS has been followed by much greater awareness of how my body FEELS. Prior to the mirror experiment, I was so detached from my body that I had very little awareness for how it felt. When prompted by my psychiatrist to identify physical sensations associated with certain emotions, I was completely unable to do so. The only time I ever felt any meaningful physical awareness was during exercise, as I have described with respect to running and boxing.

But since that mirror experiment, I seem to have developed an intensely heightened awareness of so many daily physical sensations. A shower used to be just a shower. Now a shower is a thousand individual drops of water, each one hitting my skin and trickling down my body. Applying hand lotion used to be just a necessary task. Now I am aware of how the knuckles and metacarpals and tendons of one hand feel inside the palm of my other hand. Clothing used to be just a set of pants and shirts and underwear. Now I am aware of how different types of fabric feel against my skin, aware of the pressure as a shirt stretches across my shoulder, aware of the gentle tension of cuffs around my wrists. Going outside used to be a retinal adjustment from dark hallway to sunny doorway. Now this transition is not just a visual adjustment but also a physical awareness of the change in temperature from hallway to door, an awareness of how the shadows feel when they dance across my skin as the sunshine chases them away. Waking up in the morning used to be an abrupt termination of a dream replaced by real-life thoughts. Now waking up is an immediate awareness of my whole body stretched out on the mattress, an awareness of the light weight of sheets and blankets surrounding me.

“You used to be much more… muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.”
– The Mad Hatter (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)

I really can’t describe this feeling any better than The Hatter. Being inside my body now is much more muchier. There’s so just much muchness.

I had been living with my parents before I was admitted to hospital but was unable to move back in with them after discharge, so one of the priorities was finding a place to live after discharge. Up until the mirror session, I had been thinking only in terms of apartments and rent and location. But now, I finally understand that I can live HERE, in my own body. It feels like authentic inhabitation of a home I didn’t even realize that I had.

The last new realization is also the most powerful. I previously described watching how women shift their interpretation of my appearance from male to female when they see me in public washrooms. I recently had the opportunity to observe this perceptual reversal in a dentist’s waiting room instead of a womens’ washroom.

I sat down in the waiting room to fill out a general history form, which required that I list my current medications. An elderly man sitting nearby saw me writing and said, “Whattaya doin’? Writin’ down the names of all your girlfriends?” His tone and posture seemed to suggest that he was making a conspiratorial joke, but I did not find his questions humorous at all. I was annoyed by the interruption, astonished by his presumption, and curious about his assumptions.

I was wearing jeans and a loose-fitting blue sweater, with my backpack on the floor beside me. I thought it most likely that his attempted joke hinged on the string of assumptions that I am male, straight, teenage, and obsessed with girls. I also considered the possibility that he perceived me as female and assumed that I am lesbian because I have short hair. I won’t list all the problematic stereotypes associated with those assumptions, but I will say that I have encountered all of them on multiple occasions before.

I continued writing without looking up from the page, and said, “No, I’m writing down my medications.” And then, because I was both intensely curious and intensely irritated, I looked up and asked him, “Do you think I’m male or female?” He frowned, and I watched his eyes roam up and down my body, eventually returning to my face. He finally said, uncertainly, “Ooooh… I guess… you’re actually female?” So it seems that he had indeed made that first series of assumptions: male + straight + young = girl-crazy. And while his assumption that I was a boy provided some validation of my physical androgyny, his comments also demonstrated incredible ignorance. So I shrugged, unwilling to definitively confirm either maleness or femaleness. But because he now saw me as female, I said, “Doesn’t mean I don’t have girlfriends.” He let out a short uncomfortable chuckle, and then stood up and moved to the chair as far away from me as possible.

And you know what? I did not feel the slightest hint of guilt about being the source of his discomfort. Nagging guilt about the discomfort that my appearance causes other people has plagued me in the past. But not anymore. Because I have achieved not only an authentic inhabitation of my body, I have also achieved an authentic acceptance of my ambiguous androgyny.

This here? What you see when you look at me?
This is not a deliberate deception.
This is not an intentional illusion.
It is authentic ambiguity.

It is not a palmed card.
It is not a crafty shuffle.
It is not a false cut.
It is an ace worn proudly on my sleeve.

now-you-see-me-1

“So come close. Get all over me. Because the closer you think you are, the less you’ll actually see.”
– J Daniel Atlas (Now You See Me, 2013)

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 2): Deconstructing an Optical Illusion

————
Part 1: Recognizing an Optical Illusion
~ Part 2 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 3: What You See
————

The Prestige

“Are you watching closely?”
– Alfred Borden (The Prestige, 2006)

In my last post, I discussed how the analogy of an optical illusion – specifically, the multistable perception that arises when viewing ambiguous images – has given me a more concrete framework to understand my experience of body dysphoria. Optical illusions have been described as an experience where “expectations are violated”, so I had challenged myself:

Does this multistable perception of my mirror image indicate the presence of some problematic expectations that my ambiguous androgyny somehow violates? Is it possible for me to deconstruct this distressing optical illusion to create a more comfortable, more coherent, and more stable cognitive interpretation of my physical appearance?

Certainly, part of the optical illusion effect comes from gender dysphoria itself. The inexplicable but undeniable distress I feel in response to seeing my female anatomy, and the detachment from my physical appearance that developed as a means to cope with that distress, both contribute to difficulty recognizing my mirror image as an accurate reflection of myself.

But now I think there was a second layer to that illusion: my own expectations about what male and female bodies are supposed to look like. My physical androgyny, deliberately designed to minimize female traits and partially successful in reducing the intensity of body dysphoria, became an optical illusion because it did not match conventional expectations of “male body” or “female body” and generated mutually exclusive alternating interpretations of “boy” or “girl”. “The perception of multistable stimuli can be influenced by contextual properties of the image, including recognizability and semantic content.” (Leopold 1999) My ambiguously androgynous mirror reflection became an illusion by violating my gendered-body expectations and refusing to align with any recognizable gender pattern in my mind.

Which leads to the third layer of this illusion: the insidiously deceptive illusion of opposites. For so many years, I assumed that because my brain did not expect to see a female body, it must expect to see a male body instead. This was an appealing and self-reinforcing assumption because a “male” body is a concrete and easily visualized image. Dozens of male bodies cross my sightline each day. My mind catalogues all their physical similarities, an additive assimilation of biased data to create an increasingly narrow idea of what makes a man a man. This process provoked a constant self-loathing comparison of my female body to their male bodies and a vicarious idealization of stereotypical physical masculinity.

A couple of months ago, I had several long conversations about my ongoing disordered eating issues and my experience of body dysphoria with a new acquaintance. When I described the optical illusion effect associated with seeing myself in the mirror, he asked, “Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror, to try to acclimatize your mind to the mirror image?” I immediately dismissed his suggestion, telling him that spending more time in front of the mirror would only prolong the uncomfortable optical illusion sensation.

But over the next few days and weeks, I found my mind continually returning to his question. Everything I hear, every word I read, everything I see – all of it, all the time – it just keeps echoing around in my brain like a constant cognitive echolalia. Questions always echo loudest.

“Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”

 “…spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”

 “…yourself in the mirror?”

I started to reconsider my original dismissal. I tried to imagine spending a longer period of time in front of the mirror. Anticipating the same discomfort and confusion that has always plagued my reflection, I remained rigidly resistant to this prospect. Until I finally realized: I don’t need to look at my reflection LONGER, I need to look at it DIFFERENTLY. I should stop trying to force the optical illusion into a logical conclusion. Instead, I need to try to see past the deception and reveal my brain’s expectations. I should stop letting myself get distracted by the magician’s misdirection, lulled over and over into seeing the impossible while knowing that it is impossible. Instead, I need to ignore the magician’s diversions and focus on the cold hard mechanics of the trick to see how it’s actually performed.

So began the mirror experiment. With an odd mixture of anxiety and curiosity, I propped myself cross-legged on the stainless steel shelf across from the mirror in my hospital bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror for an hour.

The first few minutes in front of the mirror were dominated by self-judgment. I felt so obnoxiously vain – with respect to Greek mythology, such intense focus on my reflected image is practically the definition of narcissism. But I was able to rationalize it by reminding myself that someone else had suggested this mirror experiment. After I let go of that self-judgment, the insights that arose during my time in front of the mirror were incredibly enlightening and completely unexpected.

As I stared at my reflection, I intentionally kept changing the lens through which I viewed my mirror image. I started with a third-person lens, trying to see myself neutrally, objectively, as an outsider. I wondered: What does my psychiatrist see when he looks at me? What do my friends see? What do strangers see? I revisited echoes from previous conversations, comments other people had made about my physical appearance.

“I see you as female right now because I’ve read your file and I know your age. You’re 24. But you don’t look like a 24-year-old man… probably based on the lack of facial hair. So if I just saw you on the street and didn’t know your age, I would assume you were an adolescent boy.” – a psychiatrist

“You think 80% of strangers read you as female and 20% read you as male? I dunno, McMurray… I think it’s closer to 50-50. Or maybe 60% would say you’re female, 40% male. There have been several times when we’ve had coffee where someone comes up to me after you’ve left and asked “Who was he?” or asked if you were my son.” – a friend

“Hey. I just wanted to say… you look so good in that tank top! Like, your shoulders are so jacked! Oh my god, I wish I had arms like that.” – an in-patient on the psychiatric unit

“Don’t take this the wrong way… but… your perception of yourself as ugly or unattractive is not exactly accurate… I think that might be an unrealistic and negative distortion. At least from my perspective.” – an acquaintance

Hearing those echoes and seeing the person in the mirror through this third-person perspective was like seeing an engaging snapshot of a stranger, appreciating their appearance and finding yourself curious about who they are and what their life is like. Such strict objectivity was surprisingly reassuring.

I mentally hit ⌘S to save an image of that objective snapshot, then discarded the third-person lens, toggled the microscope, slotted in a first-person filter, and reattached my “self” to the body in the mirror. As my first-person perspective came into focus, I felt the familiar flutter of distressing dysphoric confusion, but I hit ⌘S again. Then I opened up two Preview windows side-by-side to compare the third-person and first-person images.

Prior to this mirror session, I didn’t think that I had a distorted body image. I thought I saw myself realistically and just didn’t like what I saw. But this direct comparison of two different perspectives on my appearance illuminated several previously unrecognized negative distortions. I am not actually not as homely as I always thought, I am leaner and more muscular than I thought, I look physically fit and healthy. These realizations came with a deep sense of gratitude for my body and a brand new desire to treat this body kindly, no matter which gender its appears to be.

This direct side-by-side comparison also revealed a troubling cognitive sleight-of-hand: whenever I see myself, my mind immediately hones in on female anatomy and magnifies the size and significance of these female features while largely ignoring other aspects of my appearance. Being able to see myself in the third-person image without the mentally Photoshopped enhancement of physical femininity finally allowed me to appreciate how small and insignificant these female anatomical traits are on my own body.

The next step was to return to the original challenge I had set for myself: examine my expectations. I adjusted the microscope once more, retaining the first-person lens but changing the position of the focus to visualize the expectations underlying the outward appearance. It’s obvious that I do not expect to see a female body in the mirror, but do I really expect to see a male body instead? That’s an easy assumption, but is is accurate?

I have struggled for so long to create a tangible idea of my transition goals. Considering making masculinizing modifications to my body has always seemed appealing, but those options come with risks and side effects and I have been unable to clearly visualize the final outcome of these steps. So I have been overwhelmingly uncertain to what I extent I want to medically transition.

With the focus on my expectations, I opened up a third window in my mind: a CGI animation program. I imported the objective third-person image of myself and translated that into a 3D avatar that represents my current body. Then I started building an avatar to represent my “ideal” body. To do this, I had to disable the program’s automatic preset templates for “male” or “female” characters – templates generated from internalized expectations of what “men’s bodies” and “women’s bodies” are supposed to look like, expectations accumulated after nearly two and a half decades in a world that revolves around binary gender stereotypes. Without a 2D image or a preset template, I had to start from scratch on my “ideal” avatar, first building a basic genderless human body and then adding and subtracting anatomical features (a beard, a penis, a square jaw), adjusting ratios and proportions (broader shoulders, bigger deltoids, narrower hips), until my “ideal” avatar finally emerged with a startlingly concrete clarity. My “ideal” body seems to be one of nearly symmetrical androgyny: a lean and physically fit individual with moderate upper body muscle mass (prominent but not bulky), a smooth chest, a shoulder-to-hip ratio of about 1.2 to 1.4, a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.8, and a well-defined jawline. Beard and penis not required.

3D Character Model

Having created realistic 3D models of my current body and my “ideal” body, I aligned these two avatars side-by-side on the screen. I reduced the opacity of both images to about 50% transparency and dragged the “ideal” avatar over top of the “current” avatar. And then I looked for discrepancies, trying to figure out where the two avatars differ. To my astonishment, it became clear that the differences between my real body and my ideal body are far more minor than I had previously believed! My ideal body has a slightly more masculine silhouette than my current body (broader shoulders, more upper body muscle mass, wider waist, narrower hips) and slightly more masculine facial features. Otherwise, my real and ideal avatars are almost identical.

This realization was profoundly reassuring. I finally have a concrete mental image of what I want my body to look like in the future – I have an avatar to project forward in time. I also have a much more positive and more realistic perspective on my current body, a much more authentic acceptance of my current appearance, and an overwhelming gratitude for my body. My androgynous appearance no longer seems ambiguous, because I no longer have to force it to align with expectations about what men and women look like. My androgynous appearance is now unambiguously, unequivocally, unashamedly my own. “In addition to being associated with perceptual transitions during multistability, activity in frontal and parietal cortex can also contribute to percept stabilization.” (Sterzer 2009) I think these cognitive contortions through the looking-glass have finally stabilized my perception of my mirror image in a way that could be comfortable and consistent over time.

My mind lingered for a few more moments, visualizing my real and ideal avatars, regarding them both with dawning respect and gratitude and affection, feeling a growing groundedness inside these bones and vessels and muscles that are my home for life. And then, ⌘S one more time – these images are worth saving, remembering, cherishing – one by one I closed all the windows I had opened in my mind. After the software was shut down, the microscope dismantled, the lenses stowed away, I found myself with nothing left between me and my mirror image. And it was in that one raw unguarded moment that I realized: I DON’T WANT TO KILL HER. I had just spent a very intimate hour with this girl – I had seen every subtle change in her expression, seen tears of gratitude welling up, watched a bemused little grin flicker across her face, I had watched her body shift and stretch, had seen the athletic strength and flexibility behind even the smallest adjustments in posture – and I could not bear the thought of killing her. Reattaching my “self” to that thought, I realized: I DO NOT WANT TO KILL MYSELF. More than two years of suicidal ideation – varying in urgency and intensity but relentless in its constant haunting presence – evaporated in that single second. Just like magic.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal.

The Pledge is my female body: real, ordinary, medically unaltered.

 The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.

For years, my brain was stuck at the Turn, constantly creating illusions without really looking, desperately wanting to fool itself into seeing a body that matched my unchallenged expectations. I finally made those expectations disappear.

But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.”
– Cutter (The Prestige, 2006)

And now I’ve brought something back: a realistic perception of my female body, stripped of illusion and expectation, gently wrapped in gratitude and acceptance.

My body is my Prestige.

Abracadabra.

Prestige On Stage

————

References

Leopold DA, Logothetis NK. Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. 1999. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3(7):254-264. 

 Sterzer P, Kleinschmidt A, Rees G. The neural bases of multistable perception. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(7):310-318.

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 1): Recognizing an Optical Illusion

————
~ Part 1 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 2: Deconstructing an Optical Illusion
Part 3: What You See
————

my-wife-and-my-mother-in-law

Despite my detailed descriptions of the anatomic dysphoria associated with gender dysphoria, it has remained very difficult for me to explain my experience to other people in a way that is concrete and understandable to them. But the process of putting words to a such a vague yet distressing combination of thoughts and emotions has been extremely helpful for me, because it forces me to analyze my own perspective in a way that makes it more clearly defined in my own mind.

Anatomic dysphoria is often portrayed as the distress arising from a mismatch between physical attributes and an intrinsic cognitive “gender identity”. In a previous post, I described the problems with the concept of “gender identity” and argued against the idea that “gender identity” is an inborn, innate, and immutable property. So “gender identity” does not serve as a useful means of understanding my own experience. I have continued searching for other ways to conceptualize my physical dysphoria.

Re-reading previous posts on this blog and reflecting on the language that I use to describe my experience to others, I noticed that I commonly return to the analogy of an optical illusion:

“An accidental glimpse of this girl-face in the mirror feels like a baffling optical illusion, an odd reflection of a face I know so well but can never quite call my own.”

“I continue to stare at those reflections and images of myself with the unsettling mixture of curiosity, frustration, and disorientation that comes with trying to unravel a particularly puzzling optical illusion.”

I have also described the rapid and involuntary shifts in perception that occur when I view my physical image:

“My appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours.”

And I have alluded to the deliberate cognitive process involved in attempting to interpret my mirror image in a way that is more coherent and less distressing.

 “…my reflection jabbing back at me with the familiar unfamiliarity that haunts my mirror image. But this time I don’t try to fit those female fragments into a coherent structure.” 

 I have found only sparse references to this optical illusion effect in the writing of other trans authors, but what they describe about seeing their reflection closely mirrors my own experience.

“I know that what happens between my eyes and my brain and the body in the mirror is like some sort of twisted optical illusion trick.”Malachi

 “Were the optical illusions I saw reflected really me?” – Grace Stephens

 “I have entered an ambiguous time in my transition. Like the color of the tiles in the checker shadow illusion, how my gender is perceived is often entirely context dependent… When I look in the mirror, sometimes I can see two different versions of myself, depending on which cues I focus on. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘male’, I can see myself as I know myself to be, every week more aligned with my internal self-image. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘female’, I feel dysphoric and upset.” It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

“Every day, my face looks different… The feeling invoked when I look in the mirror is the same as when I view these [optical] illusions. They are confusing, disorienting, and unsettling. To me, these emotions are the defining characteristic of body dysphoria.” – Amy Dentata

In light of my personal experience and these sporadic references from other trans writers, I expanded my investigation of optical illusions. The results of my research suggest that using the analogy of an optical illusion to describe my experience of body dysphoria is extremely accurate.

One particular optical illusion that is especially relevant to my experience is the image called My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. This illusion closely aligns with my experience of anatomic dysphoria because it generates two very different interpretations of a human face based on unchanging physical features. The photo at the top of this post is my own drawing of this well-known illusion.

I recently used My Wife and My Mother-in-Law to help explain my experience of physical dysphoria to my psychiatrist. He admitted that he had seen the image before, but prior viewing does not detract from my explanation. I asked him what he saw when he looked at the picture. He said that his first impression is that of a young woman with her face turned away, but because he knows that an old woman’s face is also there, he can intentionally re-interpret the image to visualize the old woman. (The young woman’s chin becomes the old woman’s nose, and the young woman’s necklace becomes the old woman’s mouth). I asked him what he felt while looking at that image and seeing the young woman’s face alternate with the old woman’s face. He said he felt a brief and mild sensation of confusion and discomfort, but his mind naturally reset the lines back into the young woman’s face which restored a more neutral emotional response to the image. I explained that for me, the image never settles on one face or the other for very long, it constantly shifts back and forth between the young woman and the old woman, which makes the viewing experience very disorienting and confusing. Then I told him, “Imagine that the image doesn’t shift between young woman and old woman, but instead shifts between young woman and young man. Over and over and over. Imagine that the image never settles into a consistent comfortable interpretation. Imagine that you see this constantly alternating image every time you look down at your body, every time you look in the mirror, every time your reflection stares back at you from a cell phone screen or a darkened store window. Imagine that. That’s what my physical dysphoria is like, an optical illusion where my real image (young woman) and my brain’s expected image (young man) are constantly competing and my perception of the image is constantly changing to align with one or the other. I end up feeling disoriented and unsettled and completely detached from my own body.” He considered this – very carefully, very thoughtfully, as is his way – and then nodded. He truly seemed to have an accurate and empathetic understanding of my experience of anatomic dysphoria.

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law belongs to the class of optical illusions known as ambiguous images. (Podvigina 2015) Examples of other ambiguous images include the Rabbit Duck, Rubin’s Vase, Necker’s Cube, Winson Figure, and Spinning Dancer.

Many types of optical illusion create a perceived image that differs from the actual components of the figure based purely on the physical properties of the visual stimuli itself, properties such as shape, texture, contrast, and continuity of lines. These are often called literal optical illusions. Ambiguous images differ from literal optical illusions because the visual stimuli of ambiguous images allow multiple coherent cognitive perceptions to arise from the same image components. Literal optical illusions create a single inaccurate perception. Ambiguous images create multiple spontaneously shifting accurate perceptions – this experience is called multistable perception.

Multistable perception occurs when a static sensory stimulus is ambiguous and consistent with two or more mutually exclusive subjective interpretations; each interpretation is discrete and stable for a short period of time, but perception alternates between these different interpretations. (Leopold 1999, Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012, Podvigina 2015)

[Note: multistable perception can occur in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli, but this phenomenon has been most extensively investigated with respect to visual sensory input. (Schwartz 2012) The rest of this post will focus exclusively on multistable perception in a visual context].

Characteristics of multistable perception include:

  1. Exclusivity: conflicting visual representations alternate but are never simultaneously present. There is no “average” or “combined” interpretation. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012)
  2. Inevitability: alternations in perception are initiated spontaneously. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012) The alternation process cannot be completely prevented, but alternations in perception are subject to limited voluntary control and may be influenced by the intention of the observer; control over the rate of perceptual alternation and stability of each percept improves with practice. (Leopold 1999, Sterzer 2009, Podvigina 2015)
  3. Randomness: durations of successive intervals of transiently stable percepts are unpredictable and characterized by sequential stochastic independence. The statistical properties of multistable alternations show similar distributions of dominance phases (which percept is dominant) across different types of stimuli and between individuals. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012, Podvigina 2015)
  4. Dependence on awareness: perceptual reversals are very rare or even absent when observers do not know that alternative interpretational possibilities exist. (Podvigina 2015)

These traits of multistable perception also characterize my experience of anatomic dysphoria:

  1. Exclusivity: conflicting interpretations of my physical appearance seem to alternate but are never simultaneously present. I have been unable to achieve any consistent “average” interpretation of my physical features. My androgyny seems to be its own form of ambiguous image: androgynous ambiguity is consistent with two mutually exclusive interpretations – male and female – leading to multistable perception in my mind.
  2. Inevitability: these alternations in perception are initiated spontaneously. I cannot prevent them from happening whenever I see my body or my mirror image. I have limited voluntary control over which perception is dominant at any point in time.
  3. Randomness: the rate of alternation between conflicting perceptions of my physical appearance seems to be unpredictable and variable, which makes the experience confusing and unsettling.
  4. Dependence on awareness: perceptual reversals are very rare or even absent when observers do not know that alternative interpretational possibilities exist. I am constantly aware of multiple interpretations of my own appearance, so this trait is more obvious when I consider other people’s perceptions of my appearance. In situations where other people initially assume that I am either male or female, perceptual reversals occur only when the situational context later indicates that their interpretation of my sex may be inaccurate. The best example of this is when I’m standing alone in a public womens’ washroom. When women enter the washroom and first see me, their facial expression often indicates surprise (and sometimes alarm) because they interpret my appearance as male. Occasionally they ask me if I’m in the right washroom, but more often they step outside the washroom, check the sign on the door, and then, having confirmed that they are in a space designated for females only, they re-enter the washroom and re-evaluate my appearance. Now that they are aware of an alternative interpretation of my appearance, their facial expression shifts towards relief and acceptance as their mind realigns my features in a pattern recognizable as female. The Women’s Washroom Double-Take used to make me feel guilty for making someone else feel uncomfortable, but now generates more neutral interest as I observe their perceptual reversals in real-time.

“Ambiguous figures provide the experience of having one’s perceptual awareness switching between different options while at the same time remaining fully conscious that no physical stimulus change whatsoever underpins these vivid perceptual changes.” (Kleinschmidt 2012) This statement from an article reviewing the literature on multistable perception bears striking similarity to previous description of my own experience: “My appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours… My image remains familiar and recognizable, but constantly different… I know with certainty that it is not physiologically or anatomically possible for any human body to change that much in such a short period of time. I know this. I remind myself of that over and over. Yet what I keep seeing with my own eyes, right there in front of me, incontrovertible visual evidence, is this shape-shifting mirror-ghost of a body that I cannot imagine I actually inhabit.”

Unlike many optical illusions which create illusory perceptions primarily due to deficits in the visual system, ambiguous images (a form of multistable stimuli) are unique in allowing neural activity related to subjective conscious perception to be distinguished from neural activity related to objective physical stimulus properties. (Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012) Evidence from several lines of empirical neuroscience (including functional magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation in humans and non-human primates) suggests that continuous processes in the frontal and parietal cortex are involved in constantly re-evaluating interpretations of sensory input and initiating changes in subjective perception, which results in the rapid and spontaneous perceptual alternations characteristic of multistable perception. (Leopold 1999, Sterzer 2009) These processes occur unconsciously during normal vision (almost all visual stimuli contain some degree of ambiguity that is rapidly and accurately resolved by this processing). This re-evaluation of perception only becomes consciously apparent when ambiguities in visual stimuli are maximized. (Leopold 1999, Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009) Multistable perception thus appears to be one component of an adaptive global process that generates a unified and coherent interpretation of the world, even though the information available to interpret is often fragmentary, conflicting, or ambiguous. (Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012) Multistable perception represents a kind of “stable instability” in subjective interpretation. (Schwartz 2012) And it seems that physical androgyny represents a particularly ambiguous image that is difficult for many people – myself and others – to interpret coherently.

The experience of multistable perception shows considerable individual variability. The rate of perceptual fluctuation tends to be consistent for a given person but varies by as much as an order of magnitude from one person to the next. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012, Kleinschmidt 2012) Individual variation in the rate of perceptual alternation is associated with genetic factors, differences in brain structure (particularly in parietal lobe regions), and personal attributes including intelligence, creativity, and even mood disorders. (Leopold 1999, Kleinschmidt 2012, Podvigina 2015) Not only are there large individual differences in perceptual switch rates, there are also individual differences in preference for one percept over another – the preferred (dominant) interpretation of an ambiguous image is observed for a longer duration than the non-dominant interpretation over a period of spontaneous perceptual alternation. (Podvigina 2015) Certainly my personal experience aligns with this data. From my conversations with others regarding My Wife and My Mother-in-Law, it seems that I experience a much faster rate of perceptual reversal than most people: for me the image fluctuates very rapidly between the young woman’s face and the old woman’s face, while others describe something similar to what my psychiatrist described where perceptual switches occur less frequently and are more dependant on deliberate effort. It also seems that I experience less pronounced perceptual dominance than most people: I usually see the old woman’s face on first glance but during subsequent perceptual alternation it doesn’t feel like either face represents a more stable observation, while others generally describe that the perception of the young woman’s face is heavily dominant. So I wonder: do my individual characteristics associated with more rapid perceptual alternation and less pronounced perceptual dominance in response to multistable visual stimuli also contribute to my rapid shifts in perception and my difficulty maintaining a consistent interpretation of my own mirror image?

I think the optical illusion analogy is very valuable to help explain my experience of physical dysphoria. I have now refined this optical illusion analogy to refer more specifically to multistable perception that arises in response to viewing ambiguous images (particularly ambiguous images involving human faces). This new framework supports discussions with other people on the topic of anatomic dysphoria, and also provides a more concrete scaffold for me to construct a better understanding of my own experience.

Al Seckel, formerly considered one of the world’s leading authorities on illusions, referred to optical illusions as an experience where “expectations are violated” (TED, 2004). On my journey through Genderland thus far, I have radically re-evaluated personal and cultural expectations that I previously took for granted. I have deliberately distanced myself from restrictive and oppressive societal gender stereotypes and expectations. But now, I think I need to challenge myself even further. Does this multistable perception of my mirror image indicate the presence of some problematic expectations that my ambiguous androgyny somehow violates? Is it possible for me to deconstruct this distressing optical illusion to create a more comfortable, more coherent, and more stable cognitive interpretation of my physical appearance?

 “As much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
– The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt, 2013)

————

References

Eagleman DM. Visual illusions and neurobiology. 2001. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience 2(12):920-926.

Kleinschmidt A, Sterzer P, Rees G. Variability of perceptual multistability: from brain state to individual trait. 2012. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological 367(1591): 988-1000.  

Leopold DA, Logothetis NK. Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. 1999. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3(7):254-264. 

 Podvigina DN, Chernigovskaya TV. Top-down influences to multistable perception: evidence from temporal dynamics. 2015. International Scholarly and Scientific Research & Innovation 9(11):3849-3852.

 Schwartz J, Grimault N, Hupe J, et al. Multistability in perception: binding sensory modalities, an overview. 2012. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological 367(1591):896-905. 

Sterzer P, Kleinschmidt A, Rees G. The neural bases of multistable perception. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(7):310-318.

Present Tense

Clock (1)

Depression has a curious way of disturbing the passage of time.

On depression’s terms, time  s t r e t c h e s . . .  o  u  t  .  .  .  s   o   .   .   .   s    l    o    w    l    y    .    .    .    with a maddening and mocking languidness.

Remembering and sequencing the events of today becomes an overwhelming challenge, my mind trudging grudgingly through the heavy fog that clouds those recent memories. The last few days and weeks and even years are stacked haphazardly, an inseparable scatter of all things past.

More cruelly, depression amputates the future. Tomorrow and next year are equally incomprehensible. This missing sense of future is deeply unsettling. It is like losing your peripheral vision – only when it’s gone do you realize, with horror! – how casually you took it for granted, how much it used to guide your behavior and perception, and how without out it you feel lost in a narrow and distorted world.

I have also seen these wrinkles in time described by people with terminal physical illnesses. Most eloquent of these descriptions was written by Paul Kalanithi in the days leading up to his death from lung cancer:

“Verb conjugation became muddled. What tense was I living in? The future tense seemed vacant and, on others’ lips, jarring. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.”

The relentless suicidal ideation that accompanies depression seems, in many ways, very similar to the last months of a fatal physical disease. To outsiders, the most salient difference between those two is the illusion of choice.

I think that a coherent sense of future can also be a casualty of gender dysphoria, especially for those of us with uncertain transition goals and unpredictable transition outcomes.

I have had a hard time visualizing my future, as either female-perceived or male-perceived. Needless to say, this is a bit of a dilemma, as it can create the sense of moving into an enigmatic, inconceivable oblivion. Now, I don’t think it’s healthy to focus too much on the future, but I do think it’s normal to have some sort of future projection of yourself to hold onto – and I think that’s something that transgender people are plagued with – with not being able to visualize their future self during uncertain times, particularly when they are considering medical intervention.” – gendermagik

The point where depression and dysphoria intersect is a terrifying discontinuation of the mental and the physical, an inescapable Möbius strip of mind and body locked perpetually in the painful present tense.

The broken clock is a comfort, it helps me sleep tonight
Maybe it can stop tomorrow from stealing all my time
I am here still waiting, though I still have my doubts
I am damaged at best, like you’ve already figured out
– Lifehouse (Broken, 2007)

“You do not get the time back. Whatever time is eaten by a depression is gone forever. No matter how bad you feel, you have to do everything you can to keep living, even if all you can do for the moment is to breathe. Wait it out and occupy the time of waiting as fully as you possibly can. Hold on to time.”
– Andrew Solomon (The Noonday Demon, 2001)

Mirror Ghost Girl

Woman Looking at Reflection

Something I’ve noticed over the past few months is a shift in how I manage physical dysphoria. For the past five years, after gaining a lot of weight which accentuated my female anatomy, I coped almost exclusively though avoidance: showering in the dark, avoiding mirrors, deleting photos of myself, wearing baggy clothes, etc, basically pretending that my body didn’t exist.

But after a rigorous workout routine for the last 8 months, I have lost weight and built muscle and restored some of the physical androgyny that made me feel more comfortable as a scrawny teenager. I am able now to tolerate seeing my body or my reflection or my image in photos with less disgust. With this has come a shift from avoidance to compulsive body-checking and self-monitoring. Instead of avoiding mirrors, I now find it extremely difficult to pull my eyes away from my reflection.

This fascination (or perhaps obsession) seems motivated partly by simple astonishment and gratitude that I can actually tolerate seeing myself. But it is also motivated by a constant effort to reconcile that body as my own, which feels completely incomprehensible and beyond my power of imagination. The person I see in the mirror – the face, the body, the clothes – is all very familiar and recognizable, but in the detached non-self way that a close friend’s or sibling’s appearance is familiar and recognizable. When I see myself in a photo or in the mirror, I often notice myself thinking, “I suppose if I HAD to have a female body and could choose to look like someone, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to look like her.” And then I remind myself that I DO look like her, that it’s actually ME in the mirror or the picture. But my mind remains unconvinced, and I continue to stare at those reflections and images of myself with the unsettling mixture of curiosity, frustration, and disorientation that comes with trying to unravel a particularly puzzling optical illusion.

The other part of this is that when I see my reflection or even just look down at my body, my appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours. Sometimes it looks like I’ve gained 20lbs since morning and in my mind I immediately start making sweeping restrictive changes to my diet, only to see myself later in the day with the impression of almost unhealthy leanness and then erase all the dietary changes I just made.

More often it doesn’t look like weight gain or loss, it seems instead like a generalized skeletal reconfiguration, like all the ratios and proportions of my body (waist to hip ratio, width of my shoulders, angles of my face) have shifted to create subtle but – to me – obvious and unsettling differences in my appearance. My image remains familiar and recognizable, but constantly different, like looking in the mirror and seeing various digitally altered versions of your friend or sibling. Even when I mentally account for the differences in clothing, lighting, mirror distortion, etc, I can still see very clearly all the structural changes in my appearance.

This feels like a new experience that has emerged in the past few months, probably because it has been so long since I was actually able to see myself without immediate revulsion and withdrawal. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gone completely insane… I know with certainty that it is not physiologically or anatomically possible for any human body to change that much in such a short period of time. I know this. I remind myself of that over and over. Yet what I keep seeing with my own eyes, right there in front of me, incontrovertible visual evidence, is this shape-shifting mirror-ghost of a body that I cannot imagine I actually inhabit.

“What a strange thing a mirror is! And what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man’s imagination!”
– George MacDonald (Phantastes, 1858)

New York Times Trans Voices

The New York Times has an ongoing editorial series about transgender experiences (Transgender Today), with an online section for submissions from trans people to share their own stories (Trans Voices).

I found that most of the stories in that series described the experience of gender dysphoria in terms of social gender roles and traditional gender stereotypes, without much reference to the physical distress that is so prominent for me. The blog American Trans Man has an excellent series of posts describing body dysphoria (What Does Body Dysphoria Feel Like?), but I did not see my own experience represented there either.

So I wrote this piece in an attempt to describe my profoundly physical dysphoria, which was challenging within the 400 word limit. I submitted my story to the New York Times online in June 2015, however it was not accepted for publication. My original submission is below.

————

I am not a woman. And I do not know what it means to feel like a man. But I do know this: my brain believes my body should be male. I know this too: living with a female body is a thousand daily torments, a relentless rain of knife-sharp wounds, a constant cacophony of noise in my mind and a disorienting disconnection from my physical self.

An accidental glimpse of this girl-face in the mirror feels like a baffling optical illusion, an odd reflection of a face I know so well but can never quite call my own. The soft, hesitant, distinctly female voice that emerges from my mouth feels like some kind of cruel deception. The shape of my shadow, a perfect hourglass,  is a barbed and bitter insult. Menstruation brings with it a dark and bloody tidal wave of despair, an overwhelming urge to claw open my own abdomen and rip out the offending uterus with my bare hands. For years I have showered with the lights off so I don’t have to see this foreign female body naked, but even in the darkness I feel a surge of revulsion when my soapy hand slips between my legs or slides quickly over my chest. A kaleidoscope of images now… the absurd roundness of these girl-hips, the obscene feminine heaviness of my upper thighs, the fragile slenderness of my fine-boned hands, the ugly narrowness of my unmuscled shoulders, the terrible width of my flared iliac crests cradling a soft smooth belly, the raw red ring around my ribs from a too-tight sports bra… all inescapable, all excruciating, all wrong. WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! The same refrain always buzzing in my head, the same anxiety always crawling just below my skin.

All this I know, every minute of every day.

But I do not know what comes next. I am confused. I am terrified. I am drifting on a sea of fear and uncertainty, paralyzed by indecision. I feel a desperate urgency to make a choice, to finally find some peace.

Testosterone, mastectomy, hysterectomy. Those are the options that could tear my life apart. Those are the options that might mold parts of me into a more masculine form. But is that where I want to go? Will that ever be enough to stifle these sirens screaming in my brain? What does silence sound like?

————

“Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”
– The Duchess (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)