born wrong

“Born wrong” is a joke we’ve been making for years about our rescue St Bernard mix Kovu, a dog who was not bred with care. He’s got hip dysplasia, he sheds more than any animal I’ve ever met, he drools constantly. He has this habit of coming over to us on the couch and bumping into you with his head and snuffling you all over, which could be cute if he wasn’t always drooling. Since he IS always drooling, this wipes pretty impressive amounts of drool all over your body.

Drool isn’t just like a lot of spit, by the way. That’s what I thought it was going to be when I got him, but it’s more like spit mixed with snot. It’s viscous and it doesn’t dry clear. The strands collect his own hair, dirt, and wet chunks of whatever horrible thing he’s gotten into that day. They swing off when he trots around. Sometimes one just hits you out of nowhere.

He doesn’t listen, either. We’ve been trying for years to get Kovu to sit down before he talks to us on the couch, instead of coming over and wiping his slime mouth all over us and whatever notebooks, computers, sewing projects, etc we’re looking at. Every single time he does it, we ask him to sit down (it gets his head and drool away from us). He just looks at you. When you’ve got food, he sits real quick, but good luck the rest of the time. You can look away and completely ignore him and he’s still gonna put his big wet head on you for like, 10-60 seconds before he finally sits down, if he ever even does. Sometimes he just slimes you and then stomps off all bow-legged to go ruin some other corner of the house.

He’s extremely naughty and I love him very much.

When I was 18 and going to community college (which lasted like, 6 months) I took this color theory class for fine arts credits. It was after my mastectomy but before I’d been on hormones long enough to pass consistently. Most everyone in the color theory class thought I was a woman. Same in cycling, I think. I only passed in biology. I can’t remember how I felt about that.

So one of the big projects in color theory was a monochromatic self-portrait. I suck at human faces, could not stand to think about my appearance, and was tired of feeling conspicuously worse than everybody else in the class, so I painted Kovu instead. My artist’s statement was about what him and me had in common, which I think pretty much boiled down to “we both do our best and we still mess everything up”.

I would have just been diagnosed with ADD then, but I didn’t really know what it meant. For the first time, when I saw a psychiatrist with a flat chest and real straggly facial hair, the issues I’d had functioning at the same level as my peers in many areas weren’t explained away by how sad I was. I stayed on Wellbutrin, but he gave me Adderal, too. That was the end of the conversation. It didn’t even occur to me for another 2 years to look up “ADD adult women”- I was a man, and I was fine now.

I took the pills and could not believe the difference it made- I had one complete thought about the actual environment in front of me at a time. New thoughts followed in a logical order and at a manageable speed, instead of a half dozen scattered racing streams of anxious tangents overlapping each other. I got my homework done. I didn’t wander off. It just felt like being normal, more normal than I’d ever been before. The constant screw-ups slowed down. I didn’t microwave cups of noodles without water or lock myself out as often. Making fewer mistakes made me feel like a more lovable person. I just wanted to stop being the problem.

Part of why I love Kovu so much is that no matter how incredibly inconvenient he is to us, he never actually seems to think it’s his fault. He does the scolded dog look and all that sometimes when you’re really put out with him, but even then, it’s so obvious that he has no idea why you don’t want to be buddies right then. It’s just never occurred to him that screwing everything up could be connected to people being annoyed with you sometimes. Self-blame is entirely unthinkable to this dog, and I envy that more than I can even figure out how to express.

I feel consumed by shame constantly, all day, sometimes. Shame for things I just did, shame for things that I did last month, shame for things I did in 6th grade. Feels like I’m a big old carcass getting torn to shreds by a billion different shames, a whole ecosystem of lively and diverse shames. An awful lot of the time, all I can feel for myself is complete disgust. This has been getting better in the last year or so, but that’s really, really new for me.

Something I would have learned, if I would have been seen as a woman, if my doctor had known anything or actually given a shit, would have been that growing up female and attention deficit means growing up believing that it’s your fault you aren’t the same as your peers. Reading Sari Solden’s book  about this recently was absolutely crazy- it never occurred to me that I could exist without constant overwhelming shame over all the stuff I couldn’t always do right. Like, that was a new concept to me. I wanted that for myself, clearly… I wanted to be like Kovu.

A lot of my tumblr friends during the years when I was transitioning were “otherkin”: people who identified with some non-human entity so strongly that they felt it was more accurate to say that they identified AS the entity. I found these groups from others mocking them but ended up sticking around. We were all very traumatized and this coping mechanism never struck as all that much worse than any of the other weird shit we did. I didn’t argue with anyone about it but never did understand the necessity of leap between “identifying with” and “identifying as”, since they would all clarify when pressed that they knew they weren’t literally what they described themselves as, and were clear about it being a spiritual belief/coping strategy. An awful lot of otherkin I knew started out just doing a lot of roleplaying online.

I didn’t consider myself “kin” in any sense, but in a way, I envied them, too. Obviously that’s not reasonable or fair… all of us had horrible lives in a lot of ways. But secretly, I still loved the idea of actually convincing myself I was a dog and having my friends all agree. What stopped me from doing what some of my friends were doing wasn’t not wishing I was a dog. What stopped me was my fear of looking stupid.

Pretty much all of my otherkin friends also identified as trans. I saw them doing the same kind of clue-seeking looks into their childhood that take place in my process of justifying my transition to myself. Things like “I always loved playing in the dirt” were used to support a current identity as a certain Digimon or whatever. I could see the flimsiness of this logic even then. These people talked a lot about how “kin positivity”, but considering themselves non-human didn’t appear to be enhancing the quality of their lives in any material sense, at least as far as I could discern. “It’s a coping strategy for my trauma/mental illness and you don’t know my life” was pretty much always the end of any conversation about whether or not this was helping.

Even so… few months before I finally started letting myself question the efficacy of transition as a strategy in my life, I remember making this rambling post about how one of the reasons I identified as male and liked he pronouns was because it felt closer to being a dog than she pronouns or femaleness. That’s where my line of reasoning stopped, at that point. The broader context of the circles I was in allowed for me to say something like this without anyone asking any of the questions that the statement pretty much begs: why do you want to be a dog? What is that dogs and men have in common that you want badly enough to justify hormones, surgery, and everything else?

It would have startled me to hear, but I think I could have answered it, even then. Here’s some of the reasons I think I’d have given:

  • People expect less of dogs.
  • People are nice to dogs.
  • When dogs make a mistake, people don’t treat them bad for it.
  • Dogs get to go outside a lot.
  • Dogs don’t have to worry what anybody thinks of them.

I’m just noticing now is that all these things assume the dog (or the man) isn’t abused or neglected. “Always greener on the other side” thinking was a big part of transition for me. I was really into convincing myself that the outcome would get from these steps would always be the “best” one possible. With my double mastectomy, I knew that noticeable asymmetry, results very different from a male chest, nerve damage, and loss of nipple sensation were risks I was assuming, and if you asked me, I would have said that all of those things very carefully. I think I really did usually believe that (there were always cracks in my self-deception), but it was not true.

I was way too dissociated to truly engage in earnest with the subject matter: my own body. In no sense did I actually try to imagine the reality of living with so many of the experiences that I have no choice but to live with now.

My priorities were so different then. Having it “look good” and happen quickly was what I wanted most. The insurance I had would have covered an in-network guy, but the only review I could find of his work was that they had ended up going to Dr Crane for a revision anyway. I had been earning royalties since I was 16 designing print-to-order gifts and apparel with the intention of using it for surgery and for college, so with some help from my family, I could afford him. I knew Garramone had more male-looking results with chests the size of mine, but I didn’t want to fly to Florida.

Here’s an aside real quick… just googled his name to check my spelling and the description for his site includes a trademark registered with a national trademark office: “Top Surgery ® Florida – Dr. Garramone performs the best FTM Top Surgery ® Procedure, Periareolar, Keyhole, Double Incision, and DI offered in Florida”. I hadn’t been to his site in a long time. It’s a lot more transparent about marketing transitional surgery than I recall noticing in 2012 or whatever.

The way my chest actually looks now is not a possibility I had actually seriously considered, as far as I can remember, even though I don’t think it’s especially unusual as far as results go. I thought anything would be better than having breasts, but I refused to investigate my feelings about the individual outcomes contained within that “anything”.

Not that I’d feel any better if my chest did look identical to a man’s. I don’t believe anymore that cosmetic surgery can “go right”. Wanting to look different so badly that you actually pay money to be drugged to unconsciousness, cut apart, and wake up stuck back together by doctors (who get paid to do this all the time)… how could that be anything but traumatic? I understand that many survivors of cosmetic surgery disagree with me on this. They’re fully entitled to believe what they will about their own experiences, and about cosmetic surgery as a practice. But so am I.

My biggest hope for conversations about these topics isn’t that whoever I’m talking to agrees with everything I say. All I really want is to for us to be able to listen to each other.

For most of my transition, I would have completely shut down if I tried to read anything like the kind of stuff I write now. I remember trying to write rebuttals to feminist writing on transition that I found offensive but never being able to get more than a few words down, because the possibility that transition was not this saving grace made me too distressed to think straight.

I was extremely dissociated and absolutely miserable in my body. I had done an awful lot of things trying to feel better, and nothing had worked. I just wanted something to work. By the time it was becoming difficult to keep convincing myself transition had resolved these issues that were clearly still present, I had already invested so much. I didn’t want to die, and this had seemed like the only way to stay alive. It was really fucking hard to admit I was wrong. If I hadn’t been in a place with more stability and supportive women in my life than I’ve ever had before, I think I would have backed out. Actually facing my reality has been much, much harder than transition.

Lately I’ve been working on the way I tend to think or sometimes actually say “I want to die” whenever anything goes wrong, which got a lot worse when I went off Cymbalta. Now, when it happens, I remind myself that I don’t really want that. I just am feeling hopeless. I walk myself through naming what’s bothering me and making a plan to address it. That means taking steps like considering a transfer at work, quitting weed, trying to find somebody to talk to about my feelings, or whatever.

I’ve been noticing that for me now, the way I feel when I say “I want to die” is pretty close to the way I remember feeling when I was obsessively fixated on the whatever next step of my transition. It’s an attempt to find a shred of hope in hopelessness, to believe that something can relieve my pain, whether that’s suicide or facial hair. These thoughts are a feeble attempt to combat learned helplessness. They are a maladaptive expression of resilience in the face of a world that is built to destroy women like me any way it can. “If I’m the problem, I can fix it” lines of thinking justified my suicidal ideation as well as transition. My overwhelming self-blame seems like an attempt to claim control where I feel I have none.

Do I really have none, though? Not quite. I’m realizing that now, as an adult woman, I have a lot more control than I ever realized. I don’t have as much control as I want, and I don’t have as much control as I feel women deserve. Still, an awful lot of what has kept me still in fear is not material barriers. It’s the fear I have been taught since girlhood. Why bother locking women in if we’re all too scared to go outside anyway? Patriarchy has grown complacent in the totality of its reign over women. The more time I spend actively training myself out of learned helplessness, the easier it’s becoming to strategize around the obstacles that are not just in my head.

I don’t know. I meant to tie this all together more coherently but I’m kind of losing interest. The main thing is, I don’t think anybody is actually born wrong anymore, but that kind of thinking was a major part of why I transitioned. Now, I believe everyone deserves the quality of support and accommodations necessary for her to live as she is. I do not believe that the male medical industrial complex is a great place to find genuine healing from issues of profound and life-altering bodily dissociation/distress.

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