Transitioning at 38—How It All Came Down
On a cold, cloudy summer day in Bismarck, North Dakoda, I stretched out on a firm hotel bed, chewing a Subway sandwich and flipping through the channels after driving seven hours from Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was the second leg of a three-day, cross-country drive from my mother’s home in Tennessee to my new home in Montana. Only four weeks ago, my feet plopped down on American soil after spending the last three years living and working in China. Now, I was heading to a new state to begin the next chapter of my life after landing my dream job of working in higher education.
Sipping on some red wine to ease away the day, I decided to watch a show on TLC about “trans kids.” That summer, I discovered the show, I am Jazz, and loved it, so another show about transgender children enticed me. However, this show was different. I admired Jazz’s spirit and courage to publicly share her story as a transgender girl; however, I wasn’t Jazz. She represented something external to me. As I watched the children grabble with their identity, initially, they, too, also felt external. That is, until they started discussing hormone blockers.
Immediately, I sat up, intrigued and mesmerized. I watched the children as they started maturing into their identified genders, inspired by their radiating congruence now that their bodies aligned with their soul. I grabbed my phone and texted my husband.
After a quick introduction to the show, I wrote, “If I could go back and go through puberty as a man, I would totally do it. I could have been a man this whole time.”
Always playing the supportive spouse, Joe just commented, “Yeah, I could see you as a man.”
I sensed that he merely assumed it was only talk, but tears welled up in my eyes as I pondered the life that I felt was robbed of me.
That night in the hotel with that show sparked the rethinking of my life. I continued making passing comments to Joe until one day he stated, “I think you’re transgender.”
Transgender? I wasn’t even sure what that term meant. Growing up in the 1980s, no one I knew discussed it. In terms of gender transformations, I had seen some transgender women on television; however, I didn’t connect it to gender identity. Likewise, with all the bad press about bathroom laws, the term felt scary to me at first.
Still refusing to admit that I was transgender, I proceeded to daydream about my masculine self, a self that I had always fantasized about in my mind. Whenever I listened to my favorite songs, I envisioned a male version of me singing in a rock or punk band. Now, I felt that the fantasy could be a reality. My excitement grew.
Joe was a good sport, making jokes about how people would stare at us now as two gay men. We have always been publicly affectionate, so we laughed about the ways our affectionate behaviors would make others uncomfortable when we presented as two men. Nevertheless, when I decided to purchase some men’s flannels, Joe’s typical support morphed into anxiety.
“I don’t think I can be with a man.” He said solemnly.
“If I was in an accident that disfigured me, you would still love me. How is this different? You should love the person.” I insisted.
“I don’t think I can do it.”
In retrospect, Joe always struggled some with any life change, and I feel like he wasn’t sure what to expect, so it scared him. Excitement sank into despair as I realized that all the daydreams of my new male self would vanish. There was no use in indulging such thoughts that could never be since I didn’t want to lose my husband. Depression sank in, but after a few months, I returned to living my life presenting as a woman as I had done for the past 37 years.
It was a good year before the topic emerged again. This time, it was Joe. He had discretely been reading a blog entitled, Accidently Gay, in which a person’s spouse transitioned to male and the spouse wrote about coming to terms with this change. Joe claimed that this blog helped him understand that the transition process is gradual, which would give him time to adjust to the changes. More importantly, he connected with another person who succeeded in maintaining a romantic and sexual bond with their partner. Joe asserted that he wanted to see a counselor to discuss his feelings about the possibility of me transitioning, and after only one appointment, he committed to the process 100%. I was elated! However, soon that joy dissipated. “Oh, shit! Can I really do this?”
Coming out seemed impossible, especially to my highly critical and not-so-savvy with compassionate words mother. I sat in the counselor’s office for over three months vacillating with this decision. Some days, I was bold and ready to let my light shine. Others, I was a pitiful pool of insecurity. Finally, I mustered up enough gall to admit to myself that I was transgender. Now, how do I tell everyone?
Scared that my current fragile state at that time could not handle an in-person confrontation with my mother, I chose to come out via email. Joe took the gutsy approach of flying to Florida to tell his parents in person. Hitting send on that email terrified me even though my mother was still far away in Tennessee. My mother’s words could fly over oceans and pierce deep into my soul, so I didn’t feel safe. Fortunately, she responded with support and acceptance, or at least at that time.
After overcoming the hurdle with my mother, coming out at work and to my sisters proved simple. While they were shocked, no one objected. Ecstatic to begin the process with this reinforced courage, I started my weekly testosterone shots four months later. Each Friday morning as I jabbed a needle deep into my thigh muscles, I felt that much closer to becoming masculine. Unfortunately, two weeks into it, things grew dark.
My doctor warned me that I may experience anxiety and mood changes as my body adjusted to the hormones and explained that this outcome is the reason that she wanted to start me on a lower dose. Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared.
When the depression and anxiety emerged, I felt like a dark, persistent voice hijacked my mind. This voice polluted my thoughts with negativity.
You don’t belong here.
Everyone can see your anxiety.
Everyone can tell you’re a wreck.
You should kill yourself.
My mind raced with these thoughts, and they became obsessions that I would daydream about all day long, even causing me to consider purchasing a gun at a pawn shot to make the option more real. I sat in my counselor’s office desperately trying to explain what was happening inside me but immediately recoiled when I felt that I made him nervous. I feared that he would take back his letters of support that I needed for my hormones and surgery; thus, I started shutting my mouth about it, hiding my internal terror inside.
One random evening as I sat emotionally suffering on the couch, I researched testosterone therapy and depression, which pulled up several YouTube videos on the subject. I chose the first video that portrayed a transgender man discussing how his doctor said his testosterone levels were too high, causing him intense anxiety and depression and making him feel as if he was losing control of his mind and body. As much as I empathized, a wave of relief washed over my body.
It’s just the hormones, I told myself. I just need to wait it out, and it will pass.
The following week, I informed my counselor of the video, which also seemed to visibly remove his own discomfort around the topic.
It would be another five months before my testosterone regime reached its therapeutic dose and my body adjusted. While knowing the situation was temporary helped, the intense anxiety that pumped through my temples and all through my body proved ruthless. My body felt shaky as if it had pop rocks exploding all through it, making me feel self-conscious as I stood before my classroom of students teaching. By 3PM, my brain and body crashed. With no more energy, the zombified depression sank in, leaving me cold and indifferent to the world.
Despite the turmoil, I dragged myself out of bed at 5AM daily to exercise. I cooked meals, I cleaned the house, I attended class for my second master’s degree, and I never missed a day of work. All the energy I had went into maintaining my life, for I was more afraid of giving in to the temptation of withdrawing from it.
It was April, and I was preparing for another weekend of college classes for my graduate degree when the endocrinologist called me to instruct me to lower my dose just a tad because my testosterone levels were too high. The next day, I lowered my dose. Within a week, I started feeling relief. My thoughts were calmer, there was less brain fog, and I felt hope. While it would still take another one to two months to fully recover from my depression, I started feeling like me again, which was the most welcoming, therapeutic sensation. This dark patch on this complicated journey was ending.
My hormone-induced depression lasted from October 2018 to June 2019. I share this part of my journey because going into it, I didn’t encounter anyone discussing this issue on the transgender male forums that I joined. Everyone seemed so happy when they started testosterone; hence, I worried that somehow, my reaction delegitimized me as a transgender person. Nonetheless, if I have learned one lesson during this process, it’s that everyone’s journey is unique. While this period of my journey was difficult, I am still much happier today living my life presenting as masculine.
I have been presenting as masculine and using male pronouns since June 2018, and I had top surgery in 2019 (a topic saved for another blog post). For me, I needed to undergo these physical changes first so that I could feel more comfortable in my own body. I know that for others, they may not need these medical procedures or may they may undergo other parts of their journey prior to beginning these medical processes. Unfortunately, not all can afford medical treatment or may be too fearful of the social consequences of transitioning. Therefore, I know that my story and journey cannot reflect everyone’s.
After I finished top surgery and had been on testosterone for over a year, I was able to start feeling good enough in my own skin to explore my new masculine persona. Originally, I just thought I was male. Now, I identify as transmasculine, nonbinary and am still undergoing (and enjoying!) the process of integrating my feminine and masculine aspects, a topic also saved for another post.
In the end, every journey worth pursuing is full of obstacles, but the reward of being myself and sharing my true self with the world and with my husband is worth the fight. I hope that my story can help others persevere, transgender or cisgender, on their journey to authentic selfhood.