OK, so this is going to be the most sensitive and difficult blog thus far. I feel I do want to cover it, because I’m trying to observe my whole experience, and by doing so hope to help others either on a similar journey, or with a loved one, find their way through with least damage and most hope. I haven’t been able to address it until now, but I feel safe.
We are probably all aware now of the appalling statistics that trans* people as a group suffer way and above a higher suicide rate than any other minority. Approaching half have at least attempted suicide, and maybe three-quarters covers those who have thought about it. The actual stats don’t matter, the proportions speak well enough.
First up, let me position myself here. No-one wants ‘suicidal’ on their medical record if they can help it. No-one wants to admit being there if they can avoid it. There is even some kind of stigma in this, and with gender dysphoria already viewed and diagnosed under the heading of mental disorders (and it assuredly is not such), there is psychological pressure to be less than open. It took me a while to even talk about it outside therapy. But it is important, because I was there, and there were reasons.
It was three months after transition that my worst moment came, and thankfully I was already going to regular therapy, still hoping to rescue a marriage, and was helped just when I needed it. For a brief period I stepped closer and closer to the brink. I knew exactly what I would do; how, and why just didn’t matter. There was nothing else meaningful or better, to be honest, and the whole thing felt incredibly easy to do. Maybe if I had actually prepared for the moment I would have come to my senses, or chickened out. But at that point, there was no other meaningful future and nothing better. No; I did not think of the effect on anyone else. This was a place without answers because it was a place without questions. It offered an emptiness. There was no ‘next’. It was a placeless place, utterly devoid of anything. And therefore an obvious option for escape.
There is no need to elaborate my plans, the important thing now is that I didn’t do anything. I did work it through, I did bear the unbearable, and I even promised my therapist to keep myself safe. The way I put it is that I stood on the edge, but the wind blew just hard enough in my face to overcome the vertigo. I am thankful, and I feel confident now that I shall not easily find myself there again.
OK, so what happens to trans* people that we can find ourselves in such profound despair?
Many things, and for you it will be different from me, but let’s see if we can talk about some and pull them back into the light to see them properly.
1. Being trans is being different, really different
Once you know you are trans*, wherever on the spectrum, it isn’t at all like having to come out as L, G, or B. This isn’t just your sexuality, which isn’t overt for everyone to know, and about which you can choose to be discreet. You have to face seeing if you are right and comfortable with your newly-realised (perhaps uncertain) identity in a very obvious way. You cannot start living in a new gender role without presenting differently and trying, with no experience, to be unnoticeable. You know you will be obvious, be an object of opinion, and have to deal with a lot of explanation, gossip, back-chat, even real opposition and cruelty, or public – even physical – abuse.
Pressure: Coming out trans* is like being one of the audience, picked out, hauled up and thrust onto the stage in the middle of a play without a script or costume. Can you face it? What will the audience do? Are you strong enough?
2. Your family will not understand and will reject you
The seat of all your security, all your assured love, often resides with at least a few direct family members. Your children? Your spouse? Your parents and siblings? How can you explain to them in a way that you know they will all come with you, embrace you and offer help and support? The sad fact, and we all know this (which is why there is such fear), is that families do not understand. Some do, but many don’t. However close your family feels, however devoted, it is as unpredictable as a lottery.
Pressure: Who are you prepared to lose, what are the consequences, including your financial future, where you will live, what will you do? Is this a lottery you are ready to play?
3. People will not understand, life at work will be hell
When a work colleague turns up in a gender presentation you haven’t seen them in before, with a different name, and frankly getting a lot of it wrong, people are going to talk. They will have prejudices and opinions, many may be directly rude and unco-operative, others will simply be confused and uncomprehending. Even those who ‘accept’ your ‘decision’, you know will do so quite superficially.
Pressure: This is your livelihood, your status and social role. What if you feel forced from work, or can’t cope mentally and get pushed out? How can equality and diversity law really protect you except in a theoretical way? For all the stories of people who transition successfully at work, this is another straw on the camel’s back. Can you really go through with this?
4. If wrong-gender living has at times been hell, how do you know that this is going to be better?
Most of us at some time express the conviction that transition in the end was neither a decision nor a choice, but was thrust on us by the way we are and there being no other resolution in order to find peace within ourselves. But what if we get it wrong and want to go back? What if there is some other underlying reason for the way we feel? What if getting clinical attention is difficult? What if you have a blocking GP? And you hear of the inordinate wait that others experience getting seen. Can you face everything at once: being so different, thought of as bizarre, rejected by some of your family, probably your spouse, being constantly misunderstood and disbelieved, and all the while struggling to learn basic gender behaviours you should have learned long ago in growing up?
Pressure: Just because you are trans* does not make you strong, or even determined. It can leave you feeling quite helpless, undefended and exposed.
5. Will anyone ever love me again?
This is my personal black dog. It is the most difficult bit of this blog entry, so I must be careful.
Are you consigned to being neither one thing nor another, never again to be desirable or wanted, to be anybody’s friend but nobody’s lover? You know you may be a wonderful and loving person, you know what you can give, but if even the one who has loved you so much, and you love, rejects you, then who could ever want you ever again? Doesn’t everyone else just want someone normal?
Pressure: Stepping out of the circle of love, affection and intimacy is like walking into Siberia in a t-shirt in winter. Can anyone really, seriously consign themselves to that personal isolation? Will you only ever be wanted by seekers of the exotic, the curious and intrusive? What kind of cis-person can you possibly find? Mix that with a newly-ambiguous sexuality, and you can feel very lost and isolated indeed.
These points skim the surface, because they describe the main elements of the average situation. They are the plausible realities that for too many are very true, but go nowhere near the raw and pressing emotion and real psychological pressure. You can’t come out one day and take a holiday the next. Suddenly it is the deep end, not of a swimming pool, but the sea, rough and surrounded by rocks. It is too easy to be overwhelmed. But you don’t have to be. Let’s take it all to pieces and see what you can do.
A. Being different
Being ‘different’ is unavoidable, but there are many resources online to help you, lots on YouTube and dedicated serious trans* websites. You can find moral support with many unseen friends around the world even through Facebook. I would advise against anything more ‘personal’ though until you are really firmly on your new feet.
In many places there will be an accessible support group. They aren’t all good, and if you are trans* rather than a cross-dresser, make sure you don’t just get the group that meets ‘for fun and relaxation’. Do your best, because you will improve, and you may well be very surprised by the help you get buying cosmetics or even clothes. Bear with the awkward bits, like finding prosthetics, or wigs if you need to. You may feel you have to go to what you have regarded previously as less savoury places.
Avoid places where you feel exposed and uncomfortable until you feel better prepared and settled. If you know late clubs on a Saturday night are risky, don’t go. Maybe you do love clubbing, and maybe you see no reason why you shouldn’t. Just be fair on yourself, especially while you feel new and vulnerable. Ease your pressure. Above all, get used to being ordinary in your gender, and don’t overdo dress, makeup, mannerisms etc.
Learn to accept that ‘normal’ is a very arbitrary and narrow definition, and that you are part of the variability, not some freak. You are not alone. Go and find the stats about sex and gender, and be surprised. You aren’t so different after all, you’re just a late learner. Be kind on yourself. You should start to feel very ordinary after a few months’ commitment to living as you feel is right.
It’s OK to be acceptably different. Really.
Every member of your family is an individual, with their own social conditioning, life stories, opinions and philosophies. They are not all your family because they love you. Children are children and parents are parents, and so on. Only a spouse can be presumed to have any discretionary love, and that love may not be placed where you thought it was. You have to let people be people, even if they are your family. Believe me when I say you will find truer friends than you have known as you become established, with or without your family.
But all too often there is loss. And you can do nothing about it. So you are trans*? Your partner is cis-hetero? It may be the worst choice of anyone’s life, between authenticity of self and love from the other, but with which will you die happier? I know the answer to that; you must just believe it could be true, until you do. Being true to yourself above everything else reveals a lot more about your prior assumptions than you can imagine. How you see your need for status, recognition, or for possessions and friends may well radically change. So long as you can find a way forward to being secure enough, so long as you can actually survive, you will be surprised how being comfortable with your gender outweighs everything else and keeps you going.
Yes. You can lose your entire family, and survive. You matter, and anything that is contingent on you living a life that is untrue to yourself, whoever it is for, is not worth it; however enjoyable, comforting and secure it used to feel. You will grieve massively, but you can also learn to let go of it and move on. Really.
Believe in your own inner strength. After all, you have a deeper and wider view of life than cis people do.
C. Working life
If you are employed, you are protected in your employment from harassment, discrimination and prejudice. There is a lot of employment law and good practice on your side. Accept, therefore, that you are perfectly entitled to live and work as you wish to, in terms of identity. No-one has the right to expect you to do anything else, and they are not bigger or more important than you. Someone in a senior role has no more right than an ignorant sexist young person in the workshop, and if they bother you, you are in the right and action should be taken. Know and feel that you are protected, and believe in yourself.
Things do go wrong at work, but many people transition perfectly successfully in their jobs and are surprised by the level of respect they get. You will probably have to live with pronoun mistakes, jokes, overhearing others talk about you, and having to remind or correct people. Just do it all with dignity and integrity, and if you can, good humour. Other people need understanding too, and they haven’t done this before either.
Do not for one moment think that your gender status makes you inferior in any way. Rather, come to understand that this is a gift and a privilege, to experience life so broadly and openly, and be able to show that to others.
D. Frying pans and fire
Your progress and confidence will be hugely helped by knowing that the anxieties, fear, self-hate, simply not belonging, are over. Never deny how you have lived so far, because it will always be your history. Make peace with it. Life will change, as will some of the people you know and associate with. Embrace the new and don’t hang onto any old patterns that don’t help you settle. You will be aware of your lack of training in presentation in a different gender, but remember that confidence is nine-tenths of making everyone else secure with you. So assume your right to be yourself, and your right to be as present as everyone else, and claim your space in the world. Just because ‘you are still you’, doesn’t mean people won’t treat and see you differently; there will be swings and roundabouts, so go with the flow rather than arguing and fighting. You can do without it at this time.
A new life is quite possible. It might not be easy, but it is there. If you got this far, you are a self-aware survivor; believe it. So enjoy all the fun and good bits as much as you can and never, ever, feel guilty about it.
E. New love
Here I pat my own black dog on the head, and treat her as a patient, faithful friend. All I can say right now is that even if I never find an intimate friend again, I am still far happier as I am. But practically speaking, give this one time. You don’t always work out your own sexuality clearly or quickly when you move into a different hormonal regime: be prepared for surprises. So unless you want to invite hurts, don’t head straight for dating sites. You could be lucky of course, but it’s up to you. I found that I re-evaluated a lot of my previous thoughts about loving and being loved. I lost a love that I’d invested everything in, only to find it was contingent on being a man, being a husband; not being an individual, a partner, friend, companion and lover.
So find your true values, explore then and confirm them. Then live by them.
Above all, learn to trust that life is about belonging, being part of a much bigger world, seen and unseen, and that your survival is not just about your own capabilities. Much will be unexpected, so learn to live with gratitude for everything that makes you feel either where you want to be in yourself, or one step further towards it.
Dealing with despair
I started with the darker thoughts as a congregation that can bring you to despair. If they don’t or didn’t, that is good, but for too many it can get too much to bear, or seem too impossible a journey to see through. It can take you by surprise, as it did me. No-one understands suicidal thoughts. They are intense and private. But don’t let them grab hold, because there really are other ways of seeing things, and other escapes from your thoughts. You know when you are being pulled down; find something you can always hang onto when you need it.
I can show you that by breaking it down, each difficult part can on its own be seen to be survivable, and you can believe me or not, because all I have is my own experience. I can urge you to find someone to share your fears with, whom you can trust and who will listen. But really I just want to say don’t be overwhelmed. Your identity is your right, not the gift and permission of others, and there are very many of us the same. Yes we are different, but it can also in the end be experienced as a privilege. No-one can tell you who or what you are, that you are more or less worthy, so believe in yourself. You are a survivor, a thriver, but if you need help, please go and get it.
As a postscript I want to add some invaluable advice my friend Sam was given by a psychotherapist: when you feel like you should be dead, it’s because something in you needs to die, not the whole of you ̵ just a part of you. Sit with the feelings and work out what it is. Then let go of it and wait for the resurrection of new life within.