Dulled Senses, Empty Body

CW: Discussion of dissociation, PTSD and effects of trauma

After a long weekend during which my illness and the weather has kept me house-bound, I am finding myself feeling and acting disconnected and detached. As part of my chronic PTSD, I struggle with dissociation, which manifests in varying degrees. At its most extreme, I feel physically numb and unbound by the normal constraints of time and place, unsure of where I am, who I am and what is happening. Today isn’t like that, but is instead a more subtle form in which I feel deflated, apathetic, mentally dulled and aloof. The more I try to find myself in terms of sensing my body, the farther from it I feel.

I’ve been in and out of crisis mode after a series of severe triggers last holiday season. I know that seeking accommodations at my job is likely to lead to a confrontation of some sort, whether it is in needing to advocate further for what I need or dealing with the fallout if I get what I’ve requested. On days like today, where I know a storm is coming but the weather is perfectly calm for now, I shut off to a degree that all of my creativity, spirituality and even my connection to my physical being feels severed. Internally, I’ve gathered all the valuables and am boarding up the windows and doors, even though I feel so calm in my actions that the shift seems invisible.

As I sit with this reality, the relational disasters I’ve endured make more sense. Someone triggers me, but only the parts of me who protect me fully perceive the danger. They scatter inside me and prepare to abandon ship, but I’m still listening to the band play and enjoying my dinner, oblivious to the coming calamity. When everything lists and panic ensues, I’m somehow already at the head of the line for the lifeboats, but can’t understand how the small gesture or unkind word was the tipping point. In other words, I perceive events through multiple filters, and have already pulled the plug without knowing I was about to do so, yet am conscious of my decision to jump overboard after a more minor rattling or shaking–
“the final straw”–occurs.

It’s terrifying to feel that the leavings I take are pre-ordained and mostly out of my control. Yet, I have not regretted very many of them, irrational though they seemed at the time. It is scarier still to feel hollowed-out in the moments between the initial decision and the final withdrawal, abandoned yet waiting to run. I think I’m afraid but I can’t feel fear, because fear could quicken my footsteps too much and I wouldn’t successfully plot my course. So instead I am feeling and knowing nothing but the awareness that an signal is coming and I will need to, with immense speed and focus, react to it when it occurs. I’m living wartime again, the battle of a childhood of indifference and hatred punctuated by sheer terror and violation.

Self-care is only conceptual to me right now. I can try to rest but will drift into flashbacks. I can reach out to a friend but may endanger my relationship by being easily triggered. My main coping skills are to immerse myself in television and stories, so that other people’s stories replace my singular one into which all the threads of my life weave and to gorge myself on unhealthy foods so that the confines of body become known to me again. I intensely and spontaneously craved junk food yesterday for the first time in weeks and couldn’t understand why, but its purpose now seems clear. I shut down to conserve energy for the fight to come, even though my methods likely soften rather than harden my defenses.

I will come back to myself and will come more whole again. I’m in a temporary state of dissociation after repeated triggers that overwhelmed my healthier abilities to cope. Were I hysterically crying or having panic attacks, it would be easier to first detect and to then address my needs. It is substantially more difficult to notice the lack of a normal reaction as opposed to an exaggerated one, but they can both be equally destabilizing. Have you ever dealt with dissociation? How does it tend to affect you? What do you do to cope with apathy and detachment?

Not Backing Down

I’m back at work and the misgendering is already in full gear. I also received several lectures about how asking people to treat me the same way I treat them (by gendering me correctly) is way too much to ask. It’s invalidation after invalidation. When I’m invalidated, I’m sent the message that I don’t matter and that the other person’s comfort is more important than the recognition of my full existence. The harm is multiplied when someone then goes into why what I am asking for is such a burden and so difficult for them to manage.

In sitting with these experiences, I feel prodded to share the pain that they cause me with the people who cause them. The issue with doing this is any guilt they feel will likely lead to increased defensiveness and additional invalidation. I do think that it is worth speaking about the dysphoria misgendering causes to a wider audience, as those who are capable of empathy and compassion will be motivated to stand in solidarity with trans people and to correct others who harm us.

One of the biggest costs I am enduring is increased isolation because putting myself in environments in which I know someone will harm and no one will do anything about it is Retraumatization 101 for me. My complex PTSD/dissociation issues are creeping into my experiences as an open trans person in that I am triggered by feelings of betrayal and elements of abuse when people carry on as though I am the binary gender I was assigned at birth. These same people ignore my mental health issues on the whole as well, so the layers of invalidation are starting to stack quite high.

As I sit with this experience for a longer period of time, what I realize is that the powerful vulnerability I set as part of my mission statement for 2020 has to be targeted in its application. I do not need to open up to the people who are hurting me. I need to open up to the people who can do something about it, namely to my HR department and potential legal resources at my disposal.

I don’t have an option to run away when my employment is at stake, so I need to assemble my game plan. What disgusts me in this is the fact that trans people can be stereotyped as being litigious, when, along with other marginalized groups, I’m coming to see the reason we may be viewed that way is that our attempts at soliciting respect through interpersonal means are completely disregarded. A person can only take so much mistreatment before they have to stand up for themselves. I have little faith in the legal system, but I know any progress I might make will pave the path for anyone who comes after me.

In considering what I am dealing with in the context of the many forms of oppression and marginalization that exist in American society, the commonality that I find is a commitment to responding to the whims and proclivities of those who already have a disproportionate amount of power. In my situation, those who are cis-het are sheltered from the consequences of their exploitation of those of us who do not or can not conform to their worldview. This toxic stew is further concentrated in the power of its poison for those who face racism, xenophobia and the like.

I feel so disgusted in knowing that the people who mistreat me have vulnerable young people who trust them and look up to them, ripe for harm as their unchecked prejudices and biases play out. As this feeling of revulsion rises in me, I always come back to the same thought: I can never slip fully into us/them; I am vulnerable to the same prejudices and biases and must be vigilant in my own inner work in this area. I must do better and I must do what I can to force those whose bias harms me to do better. We can only change ourselves, but we can seek consequences for bad behavior. If you are trans and/or non-binary, where are you at on a scale from acquiescence to riot in terms of how you respond to misgendering? Where have you turned to for support? How have you taken care of yourself in these experiences?

Trans-Androgynous, Non-Binary and More

As it’s the end of the year and I’m engaging in a lot of internal processing, I decided to spend some time reflecting on my journey thus far being out as a trans and non-binary person. I will be discussing my current way of conceptualizing my gender. I will also talk about both social and physical dysphoria and how they affect me.

Self-Understanding

It has taken me some time to find language to describe my experience of gender and I still don’t feel that I’ve quite come to a perfect phrasing. I label myself as trans and non-binary. In terms of being trans, even though I am on T, I feel that trans-androgynous fits me better than trans-masculine. I want my gender and sex to be read as non-binary, not as a man or a women. Although I connect with both masculinity and femininity, my primary experience of gender is outside of that framing. I don’t yet have a complete ability to describe what I consider this to be, I just know that it exists.

Community

I have significantly more social dysphoria than I do body dysphoria. For me, this means that I am affected by being misgendered more than I am by looking the mirror. What makes cis-centric viewpoints especially painful is that most cis people in my life try explain away the pain I feel when I’m misgendered, rather than validate my perspective.

Because of my social dysphoria, I find non-binary affirming spaces to be places where I feel more comfortable. Unfortunately, the only ones I’ve been able to find thus far are online. Many people in the queer community still divide trans people into trans-femme and trans-masc perspectives only, leaving those of us who don’t fall into this fuzzier version of the binary with limited places into which we feel we fit.

Gender is a primary way humans sort themselves, so, in interactions with people who don’t understand my gender, I tend to feel a sense of invisible alienation. Most people will place me on the binary without my consent and then react with shock or surprise when I remind them I don’t belong there. I am hoping my continued advocacy and attending pride events and such will help me connect IRL with others who can relate to my experience.

Embodiment

I’m taking both low-dose T as well as combination birth control. This isn’t a recommended HRT plan, but is necessarily for me because of the medical conditions I have. I feel quite a bit of conflict internally about being on T, as I don’t particularly want hair changes. I have gotten some but they are not yet past a point where I feel totally uncomfortable.

Even though I have issues with some of the physical changes associated with T, I absolutely love how my body feels on it. My physical stamina has dramatically increased and my chronic pain has diminished. I am quite short but have always seen myself as a bulldog; T is affirming my sense of strength and allowing my natural abilities at being handy/mechanically-minded to come through more fully. Many people describe a narrowing of their emotional range on T; mine has actually grown and I’ve been able to cry in situations where I would not have before. My viewpoint on certain situations has shifted and I feel more certain of myself.

Conclusion

On the whole, I experience a bit of ambiguity about some of the physical changes I’m undergoing. I have a decidedly stronger reaction to the social issues that affect me as a trans and non-binary person. I feel excitement about continuing my journey of self-understanding and coming to a more complete understanding of myself in terms of my gender.

At the Center (Daily Works of Art)

In the last half-year, there has been an internal shift unlike any I can remember experiencing. I’ve started T during this period of time, so I’m certain that coming into alignment with myself as a non-binary person has played role in this change. My image of myself has been transformed as I’ve created my present.

I’m a relationship disaster. I get close to people, building up connection and hoping that “this time” something will stick and it won’t go sideways. Every single time, though, that there is a breach of trust, when I feel betrayed, used or mistreated, my trauma surfaces to an insurmountable level and the whole thing breaks apart. My deep-rooted attachment issues win the day, no matter, it seems, how much I try to will them into the background or how hard I work in therapy to undo them. I get re-traumatized and cut more deeply after every experience. I do not heal and I do not grow in my capacity to love by failing at it. The only beings I’ve ever loved are my dog and myself. Relationships with others matter and I will continue to engage in them, but they do not complete me.

My career is equally unable to give me a sense of fulfilment or meaning, despite the fact that I know what I’m doing is valuable. Every trigger I experience there makes it harder to show up the next day. I wade through it, but I don’t derive my joy or sense of purpose from it.

I care about the human condition and the planet, but I’m not an activist. Even though topics such as human rights stir my passions and I advocate for equity, I am not enough of a True Believer ™ in any cause to dedicate my life to it. I find meaning here, but it is fraught with disappointment and despair to an intensity where it is not enough, on its own, to sustain me.

I’m left, then, with the possible sources that most people turn to for their deepest nourishment a shallow bowl of thin soup. Finally, after twenty years of suicidality and less-than-ness, knowing myself to be a loner, a Not a True Believer ™ and an unmet career potential achiever, I may have hit on why I’m here. This dish is a rich stew, with layers of flavor and body.

My core is my inner world. I know my interior to a level of detail I’ve rarely encountered in others. And yet, I scrub the corridors of my mind and sweep the reaches of my heart and still I uncover things about myself I didn’t know before. And I refuse to see the gift of self-knowledge through the lens of navel-gazing self-absorption. We die alone. Life is coming to that realization and finding a reason to keep living.

I haven’t found my inner world in order to escape there and shut myself off from reality. Instead, my physical experience is at the center of my inner world. I live embodied. No, I’ve found my core because it is the root of my spirituality and creativity. I have something to honor and something to express because, in knowing myself, I find my entryway to the universe. I do not live to romance a perfect love, to make the world a better place or to achieve a capitalist monument to money, fame or innovation. I exist to live present, sacred and as a witness to the present and the sacred.

I’m a nature photograph of only the trees and the mountain. No caption to draw attention to the threats of the future. No human figure outlined as the subject. No metaphor for the accolades I’ve garnered. Only the holy now and the lens to see it.

My way of being is not the best or the singular way through life. I fully support those whose center is the periphery of my image—the happy family camping, the environmentalist chained to the tree, the goal-setter summiting the peak. There is pain in finding my focus, because I think it is trauma more than biology that has led me to it. A life unspoiled as mine was might have a depth I cannot achieve in which everything I’ve described is blended into a harmonious entree. But my point is simply that I have something for which I exist, even if it isn’t typical, appreciated or noticed. I’ve found my purpose. Attempting to compel myself to locate it elsewhere is a distraction from my fundamental source of joy and hope. I’m in this light, of this breath, reflecting divine presence.

Taking a Self-Portrait (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

For a trans non-binary person who is now a few months on T, I’ve been taking surprising few photographs of myself. I think that I am scared about experiencing changes I don’t want more than I am focused on the ones that show up that cause me gender euphoria. This reflects my punishment-averse nature much more than it does my potential ambivalence about taking T.

My transition goal is to appear as androgynous as I can with some hints of masculinity (leading to me falling into the unfortunate “vaguely masculine” stereotype of non-binary people which ignores trans and non-binary femme people entirely). I think I’m already pretty much facially androgynous, so I feel uncertain about my next steps. In general, I love what T has done to my mind, my issues with my cycle and my energy level, but I have mixed feelings about its effect–present and future–on my physical appearance. On the other hand, I’ve been vibing on considering having people use “he/him” pronouns in addition to “they/them,” so I think there is some fluidity and ambiguity in terms of my end goals.

As I snapped a pic of myself, I immediately focused on any signs of aging and any negative aspects of my appearance. I had a full-blown eating disorder as a young adolescent and am extremely conscious of any signs that my weight has increased, so my eye was drawn especially to the puffiness of my cheeks. To me, beauty is reflected in one’s comfort with themselves. I am so comfortable with my personality and how I show up in the world, but I shrink back and feel exposed when any attention, positive or negative, is drawn to my physical appearance. This exercise has shown me the ongoing disconnect I have with my body. I want to trace the photograph I took and study it until I love it or at least until I know it as myself. How do you feel when you see yourself? If you appreciate your own appearance, especially if you did not do so in the past, what helped you achieve this?

Accepting My Situation (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

For today’s simple pleasure, I decided to contemplate and post about ways in which I’m coming to accept both myself and others (in different ways) as I grow into who I am as a trans and non-binary person. This involves both how I perceive myself and how I make sense of others’ (inaccurate) perceptions of me. It is encompasses my role within the queer community.

In terms of my self-perception, I find myself toggling back and forth between wanting the physical changes that come with taking T to happen more quickly, and being terrified that something will occur (mostly hair loss) over which I’ll have regrets. Again and again, I have to come back to trying to find solace rather than fear in the unknown. The mental effects of T have been amazing and have led me to want to stay on it for as long as I can.

Misgenderings abound. Whenever I try to talk about being on T with cis people, I am asking if I want to “go all the way” or “pass.” I try to explain that, no matter what my body looks like, it is very unlikely that I will be correctly gendered because of other people’s ignorance or willful denial of non-binary people’s validity and existence. I have felt drained and angered at times by the non-stop misgendering I encounter every day.

Yesterday, however, I felt a slight gentleness come over me when someone mislabeled me as my pet’s “mother,” as I realized that, with strangers, I’m finding little utility in fighting to be seen for who I am. My response is acceptance not in a “it’s okay for this to happen, nbd” kind of way but rather in a “this person’s misconception doesn’t define me in any way” sort of response. Cis people often show a reliance on childhood understandings of gender and an inattention to cis privilege that is pitiful to me; some people and situations are not worth investing in to try to persuade or educate.

I think what I am coming to understand is that I do not have to fight the gender revolution alone and I do not need to see myself as the sole bearer of responsibility for creating a safer environment for any trans and non-binary people who may come after me. I can be who I am and allow my understanding of myself to continue to evolve, and I can be selective in terms of who I engage with on topics related to gender. Accepting the realities of my current experience allows me to do. What in your life are you working to accept? What would be different in your life if you were able to take in what is actually going on?

Reading a Book Chapter (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

For the past several months, one of the books I’ve been perusing is Trans Love: An Anthology of Transgender and Non-Binary Voices, edited by Freiya Benson. As someone who is asexual, panromantic and rather love-averse, I’ve connected with some of the writings more than others so far in my reading, but have appreciated all of the authors’ perspectives. The chapter I read for today’s simple pleasure was written by Freiya Benson herself and was titled “Fucking Feelings.”

I think the name of the chapter could be taken two ways–how it feels to have emotional reactions to relationships, but also the feelings one has about having sex. The chapter interwove both strands but focused more on the first. I connected a lot with the author’s depiction of the highs that come with closeness with another person, and the lows that come when it ends. As she described it, “I don’t know where to put them [feelings] when they become memories.” (pg. 83). It feels good to know that I’m not alone in finding the grief and sense of loss that comes with attempts at love to be bewildering. For the time being, I think I’ve become self-protective and withdrawn from it. The chapter as a whole helped me further my self-reflection on the topic. What’s a good book chapter you’ve read lately?

Adopting a Rock (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

A green malachite rock.
Source: JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

I’ve decided to acquire a malachite rock for today’s simple pleasure. When I researched the associated spiritual qualities of the rock, the first statement I found described it as a stone related to transformation, which fits very well with where I am at in my life currently. I am taking low-dose T in order to medically transition to better suit who I am as a non-binary person and am adjusting much of my social life as a result of coming out as trans, so change is occurring both gradually and all at once.

Malachite also engenders protection, specifically of the heart, which I feel an increased need for because of the impact that being mis-gendered has been having on me as of late. My physical appearance has shifted slightly and I think people read me as decidedly queer, even if they can’t make out specifically what my identity is, and are sometimes unpleasant as a result. Glares and stares are not something I’ve experienced most of my life from strangers. I’m working to learn how to reflect back or bounce off the negativity in the sense of not allowing someone else’s rejection of me to influence me, but rather to see it as a manifestation of the inner hatred they’ve allowed to fester. I ordered a malachite bracelet and am excited to see the effects that the stone has in my life.*

*Personally I do not believe objects such as crystals have any intrinsic powers, but rather I use them to symbolize inner characteristics that I want to manifest.

Listening to Someone Inspiring (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

In honor of both today’s simple pleasure and National Podcast Day, I decided to listen to Gender Reveal by Molly Woodstock. The most recent episode tackles questions such as whether non-binary people can also be trans (answer is yes!) and what it means to be queer. Their podcast has been so helpful to me as a trans-masculine non-binary person, and I love that they elevate the voices of queer and trans people in each episode. What are your most inspiring podcasts?

Watching a Shadow (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

It is raining buckets outside, so today did not provide many outdoor viewing options for my observation. Instead, I used the light in my living room to notice the shadows. As I sat, I realized shadows imply form. They are created in the presence of both a source of light and an object. They focus our attention in a mystery or horror film because they give rise to the notion that something is there, something whose true nature cannot be fully discerned. They imply presence, but, in the absence of a direct view or a mirror, the presence remains without understanding.

I live with so many shadows of trauma in my life–they are cast long and in sharp relief, but the specifics of the events which laid them out are obscured in my memory. Snippets and feelings and pain are all that remain. Even if I am full of shadow, I live in light because I name the monsters. I let be known what I do know to be true.

What I cannot abide well are those who deny shadows, who pretend there are no monsters casting them and who seek to blot out any brightness that would illuminate their dark truths. When one of my abusers communicated their denial to me, they literally stated that there wasn’t even a “pinprick” of light that would show them what I was claiming happened had indeed happened. That metaphor kept at me for a long time, and, through today’s observation, I know why. Killing the light to deny the object to ignore the shadow, or vice versa is the modus operendi of evil and is anathema to what this world needs right now. Shine, stand and outline your truth.