One of my first memories as a child is watching Bugs Bunny in the living room by myself. In the episode, Elmer Fudd is chasing Bugs for hunting season. At one point, Bugs dresses up as a woman and flirts with Elmer to distract him. I remember seeing this and feeling a kind of warmth in my belly. The feeling was fleeting but enough to stand out in my childhood. It would continue every time I would see a cartoon where the character switched places or dressed as the opposite gender. I would always secretly enjoy the feeling and then feel sad when it was gone.
In the first grade I had a friend a few doors down named Dustin. We always played together and being in the south, most games at that age were not gender specific. Fun mainly consisted of swimming in the creek or playing in the sandbox. One day Dustin asked me if I knew how to kiss. The only kissing I was familiar with was my aunt Nancy giving me pecks on the cheek. “Of course I do!” I responded. “We should practice kissing, but you need to be the girl if we do or we will get in trouble.” His logic made sense to me so I obliged his request. We went to his room and I stuffed socks in my shirt to look more like a girl. “You need lipstick,” he shuffled through his stuff and pulled out some Chapstick. I can remember the rush as I put it on and the anticipation of being kissed. We would make out in his room until our parents came around or something else distracted us. Each time I would feel angry that I had to stop and pretend nothing happened. Dustin moved away the next summer.
With him gone, I had a hard time feeling the rush and excitement that I had felt. Then one day I went to the attic and found some old dresses in a box. I would run my hands over the fabric and admire how perfectly made they were. The rush of putting them on and looking at myself in the mirror was like a drug. I started to crave it more. Once a week I would manage to be home alone for an hour and I would dress up. Looking in the mirror and seeing a beautiful young girl looking back just felt comforting.
“IT WENT FROM BEING A FEELING OF COMFORT WHILE I WAS EXPRESSING MYSELF TO A FEELING OF DISCOMFORT WHEN I WASN’T.”
I can’t remember when the feeling of guilt started, but I know it was around puberty. I would be frantic to get my alone time. The anxiety would send me into a tizzy waiting for the opportunity, but once the time came I felt like a princess at the ball. Then when my time was done I would put on my tattered jeans and tee shirt and the feeling of nastiness would wash over me. I felt physically dirty and awkward. This was when the dysphoria changed gears. It went from being a feeling of comfort while I was expressing myself to a feeling of discomfort when I wasn’t. At age twelve, I walked into the bathroom for the first time and did not recognize the person looking back at me.
Over the next years I would think about suicide everyday when I passed a mirror. I would go days without looking at myself. I would view my wants and urges as an addiction. The occasional purge of my private stash would allow me to stay “clean” for a short time. Over the years these periods of gender sobriety would grow shorter and shorter.
In my twenties, puberty had done its damage and even wearing female clothing did not bring me comfort anymore. I started venturing out in public. Once again I would feel the awkwardness and filth fade away as I walked unnoticed among the crowd. I would feel at peace sitting in the park and watching people walk by without a second glance. Life became unbearable when I wasn’t myself. I got to the point of using sick days and vacation from work to secretly have days as myself.
In my mid twenties, going unnoticed no longer worked to get rid of the dysphoria. I found comfort on the Internet, talking in chat rooms and posting under fake profiles. The desire and flirting generated by some well edited photos brought comfort and validation of my womanhood. Access to myself online allowed me a luxury I didn’t have before. I was finally able to access myself without having to be away from everyone. The validation of superficial attention was fleeting.
“ONE DAY I PUNCHED THE MIRROR IN MY BATHROOM SO I WOULDN’T HAVE TO LOOK AT MYSELF ANYMORE.”
The dysphoria would grow to an all-consuming point in my life during my early thirties. I could not find comfort in anything I did. One day I punched the mirror in my bathroom so I wouldn’t have to look at myself anymore. I buried myself in alcohol and partying. The only way to stop the dreams and torturous feeling was to drink until I blacked out. Then one day by the grace of god, I saw a small peanut. This little grey peanut awoke a part of me that I had never felt. I felt a longing deep down that I had never allowed myself to acknowledge. Staring at the ultrasound, tears began to run down my face. This tiny little grey peanut was my child. I knew that I loved it more than anything in this world.
Being a mom was what I was made for. The dysphoria came when people would dismiss me as a distant Dad or someone would talk about how my daughter needed a woman in her life. The dysphoria cut me to the bone. It worked its way into the most primal and vulnerable part of myself. The only thing that would make it subside was to spend time with my child. When I was around her I could be nurturing and loving.
Now living as myself all the time, the Dysphoria hits me in a different way. One moment I can see myself in the mirror, but hours later a glimpse in a store window will show me a man staring back. Mandy assures me that it is all in my head and that I do not look manly, but the damage is done. The bouts will last for days or weeks. Recently I decided it was time to fight it head on. Why does this invisible curse have all the control? Why does it get to decide what I see and when I see it? So after a conversation with my therapist, she asked me “What do you do to reaffirm yourself as a woman? What is your mantra that you repeat when you feel this way? What female things do you see in the mirror when you see yourself?” For the first time I realized that I needed to reprogram the way I look at myself. Instead of picking apart what I see that is manly about myself, I need to look at the things I find feminine and attractive about myself. It is still a fresh idea and a work in progress, but instead of taking the punches, I am actually trying to fight back.