I thought I knew which parts of my lived experience were traumatic. I thought I’d done relatively well at sitting with my pain, anger and grief, between the years of self-reflection, attending support groups and seeing a psychiatrist. I figured I grasped what lasting impact trauma had left on me, that mostly I was down to predicting and identifying triggers sooner, learning how to avoid or manage them, and growing my resilience tools.
As I resolved my dysphoria and post-op depression, 2 things happened. The 1st was a lifelong dream of mental energy and time freed, instead of being trapped into surviving dysphoria. They were finally available to tend to other parts of my life far too long neglected. And certainly, that’s what happened to some of it. I’ve made definite improvements to my life in and I’ve crossed off a number of items from my bucket list.
Unexpectedly though, I also became fearful of doing things I’ve done without a 2nd thought in the past. It started off at a ridiculous level, I experienced vertigo while going down a small hill on a bike. I kept worrying I’d fall off the bike and hurt myself beyond measure. I started experiencing vertigo when rock climbing, an activity I’ve enjoyed for years without a hint of a fear of heights. I no longer enjoyed amusement rides, even though I’ve historically adored them. I’ve since addressed the increase in fear fairly well; I regularly go down steeper hills on my bike with only a fleeting concern, and I’ve resumed enjoying more amusement rides. While I remain scared of things that didn’t used to bother me at all, it’s down to an amount of fear over a more reasonable number of things, more in line I suspect with what often comes on as one ages, becomes “wiser” or more conservative in the types of risks one’s willing to take. I better appreciate how finite certain things are in my life, the longer time it takes to heal from injuries, etc. I mention this in part because I don’t think all these changes are strictly/necessarily related to trans stuff.
In parallel to this, and I suspected tied to it within my subconscious, I began experiencing waves of increase awareness of trauma I’ve been carrying but didn’t realise I was until after I resolved my dysphoria. I’ve been aware of impact (e.g. depersonalisation) from “more obvious” sources of trauma such as physical assault for quite some time. But over the last few years, it’s been more about recognising I struggle to receive compliments, and am solo poly in part because of past trauma.
I’m prone to extremes, and “compensate” by avoiding “slippery slops” to extremes I fear. An example: it’s not unusual for me to go an extended period of time without having sex, missing it so little if at all, that I genuinely wonder if I’m asexual or otherwise on the ace spectrum. Yet 2 extended periods of time during which I don’t have sex, may be separated by my having gone to some length to attend an event/space where I’m relatively certain to get laid (e.g. bathhouse, multi-day queer male gathering known for guys hooking up) and having “all the sex” (could be a series of 1 on 1, threesomes, an orgy or two, probably a combination of all of the above.) I don’t mind either pattern of behaviour, I’m not ashamed of them. The group sex convinces me I shouldn’t entertain committing to monogamy, but before I know it, I’m back to not having sex for 6+ months and wondering if I’m ace.
I’m the person who doesn’t have a dating app on his phone, because I can’t wrap my head around getting hot and bothered in a matter of a few txt msgs. And I’m the person who will have a sex marathon with a stranger I exchanged a gaze with while going down a bathhouse hall. If I’m dating romantically, I’m inclined to demisexual type of progression, exchanging a great deal of emotional vulnerability, before being even inclined to sex. It’s a stretch to claim a friendship with my comets (aka long distance sexual friends/fwb.) I care to the extent that I hope they’re well, and wish them all the best, but I probably haven’t given a sign of life, nor noticed the lack of life sign giving on their end if it was a year between txtng goodbye after a weekend getaway and saying “hey, wanna set up a weekend of sexual debauchery?” Apparently, I don’t do anything in between. I used to start dating casually, had relationships that started off primarily focused on sex, and then morph into a more romantic connection, and other variations. But somewhere along the way, the choices became “fuck like bunnies”or “go into date #1 with the intensity of sorting out if there’s compatibility for a committed long term partnership, and only once that’s sorted shall I be interested in sex.”
Is it because of the committed relationships I can admit I remained in despite recognising they were unhealthy because the sex was amazing? Is it in response to the 1 night stands/casual sex I had with acquaintances and friends, that ended horribly because the person thought they were okay with my being trans, but in the middle of sex is when they realised, nope, they weren’t okay with my transness, and they assaulted/punished me to nullify their earlier attraction to me? A little bit of column A and a little bit of column B, probably.
In parallel, I’ve offered to do and have done outrageous things when in the thick of New Relationship Energy. I spent money I couldn’t spare at the time to change my return flight, trading a week’s worth of precious time I get to spend with family (who I see on average 3 weeks/year) to surprise my then 1 month into our relationship girlfriend with a kiss at the stroke of midnight on January 1st. (If you suspect I lived to regret that quickly: did I ever.) I’ve been a hopeless romantic.
And I’ve yet to live with a partner. Closest I got a few times was being neighbours. I’ve had more positive experiences with flatmates than bad. I’m down with commitment and nurturing the growth of family (see: why I’ve immigrated.) But for some number of years now, if I think I might want to date someone, I more or less intentionally skip over New Relationship Energy. I sort out if yes, it seems like we could have a healthy, long term relationship, and if so, “skip” to the established relationship part (only, that isn’t possible, even if you neuter puppy love.)
Turns out I also acquired a fair bit of post-trauma stress around recurring experiences of lower key crap over years, in some instances decades. The impact of these things didn’t become obvious to me until these last few years.
A trans specific example is the amount of gaslighting I experienced from everyone who insisted I didn’t need (further) medical interventions. According to them, I needed to challenge the gender binary; I didn’t suffer from dysphoria, I was merely too stupid to realise I’d become a pawn to cisnormativity. In fact, I needed the medical interventions I got; I was dysphoric, it truly made me dysfunctional in an ever increasing way. Also, I continue to challenge the gender binary as I always have, because I’ve never fit neatly into it regardless of my medical history. But that’s not the point here. I’ve been told, over and over again, that I put myself (and trans people broadly) down when I discuss dysphoria. Many insist dysphoria is a socially constructed pathology to penalise trans people akin to hysteria created to pathologise women daring to challenge sexism, and that’s really messed with me over the years.
A great deal of transphobia and cisnormativity is gaslighting when you think about it. We’re told we don’t know ourselves bests, we don’t know what name to call us, we’re wrong about our gender and what we need to do for our well being. Woven into this, was unbearable amounts of infatanilisation, which is common place in the lives of dis/abled and/or otherwise marginalised people. This is seen in things like imposing asexuality unto dis/abled people (totally difference than people who are or chose to be ace, agency changes everything), by doing such things as not discussing sexuality, not teaching them safer sex ed, boy as an insult towards black men, calling women girl/baby, so on, so forth. My masculinity was often only accepted if it was in the form of boyhood, not manhood. For people who do this, it was fine that I socially transitioned, they might even tolerate my going on T, but I was not to grow out my sideburns, bulk up muscles, or get genital reconstruction, nothing that signaled I wasn’t just male, but an adult, whose life included agency in the sexual realm. So many well meaning cis female partners and friends who attempted to “bubble wrap” me from the realities of systemic and microlevel transphobia whenever they could as though I wasn’t aware of how bad it was, living it all the time. Instead of supporting me in developing coping skills, self-care and resiliency tools, there was this unspoken, yet loud fear, that I was one misgendering away from suicidal ideation, and thus, apparently, best served by being treated like a helpless newborn.
I was aware this was going on, and I challenged it over the years, but that was the angry part of my reaction, and only to the more blatant elements of this but the gaslighting elements were busy accumulating, slowly wearing me out in other ways.
There’s advocacy burn out, but that isn’t what I’m about to discuss. I’m burnt out of coming out and disclosing. Although I’ve been comfortable and dating as a solo poly person for years, I haven’t done a formal “coming out” as such. I don’t hide anyone I’m involved with in some capacity, but seldom do I mention my dating life to relatives. I deflect or only give a partial answer when they inquire about it, because I can’t be bothered to go through coming out to them again. I’ve acquired a lot of trauma from the accumulation of bad reactions to my prior coming out as queer and trans.
In my teens, the need to be recognised for who I was, who I loved was so strong, it felt nearly impossible to not come out as every and all opportunities. But over the years, between the steady flow of rejection over these coming outs, and the complex relationship I have to “community,” I seldom can justify coming out as or disclosing anything, be it my bisexuality, transness, being solo poly, or a few other things. I don’t feel “in the closet” when I don’t share about these parts of my life. I feel protected from acquiring more trauma. Much of my former burning need to come out was in part about needing to repeat how out, proud and loud I was long and hard enough so as to chip away at my internalised queerphobia. But now that this is gone, I care a lot less about what other people know about various elements of my life. I care a great deal about not adding to the trauma I carry.
I’ve found it oddly comforting to realise this is in parallel to my experience with dysphoria. As I described it elsewhere, a recurring pattern was addressing/learning to manage one trigger of dysphoria, only to have the clearing of the mental health space taken up by that, get taken up by other triggers intensifying or new ones cropping up. It felt defeating, made me wonder if I’d ever be done struggling with dysphoria. But here I am, that goal accomplished. I thought I knew the extent and depth of the trauma I carried. I was profoundly wrong. And I keep realising additional sources of trauma. But 2 things are different:
a. I’m starting off with some seasoned resilience skills
b. I have the successful-in-the-end model of how I managed to deal with my dysphoria
As overwhelming as it gets at times, I also recognise and give myself props for the moments I manage just to sit with the latest wave of increase awareness. I occasionally worry this increase in awareness and sitting with the reality of how much trauma I carry will bring back my dysthymia but so far, so good.
I know I’m not the only person to experience this, but I would really appreciate validation around this from anyone who relates.
All quotes are from Goo Goo Dolls