I wanna tell you about the time I almost died


This is a post I wrote last winter, after I had made the decision not to transition.  I was saving it for a time when I had fought through the worst part of the depression and was open enough about being trans that I felt comfortable sharing it.

That time never came.  Instead, it's April and I'm a good quarter of the way to being a girl.  Life is odd like that sometimes.  But it would be a waste to throw away a heartfelt accounting of my experiences over the past year, so I decided to resurrect and rewrite the post in the context of everything that's happened since.  Enjoy!

I wanna tell you about the time I almost died

I never thought it would happen to me.  Not at this age.  But if I go back to the beginning that'll take forever.  So, let's start more recently...

♫ Tiiiime is on my side... ♫

Part 1. A Night In Winter

There's this video game you might never have heard of called Lost Odyssey.  It's about the struggle of five mostly amnesiac immortals to find their place in the world.  It's an Xbox360-exclusive JRPG with a few distinctions: it was one of the first to use photorealistic graphics; it was made by a team mostly consisting of Final Fantasy alums; it's one of the few Japanese-style RPGs with adult protagonists (by which I mean 30-plus-year-olds with adult relationships and families).

Anyway, you play most of the game controlling Kaim, the only immortal dude on the good guys' team.  He's pretty deep and solid for a JRPG lead.  Nothing about him is unsettling or offensive in any way, and in that regard, he's actually quite a pleasure to see in the lead role.  Which is extra convenient for me because I'm very "method" when I play games (video or tabletop) and I tend to identify very strongly with my characters.

So, anyway, I'm sitting downstairs at like 1 AM while my ex was on night shift (she was a medical resident).  And I'm playing this particularly tough high-end dungeon, trying to squeeze the last few reasonable percent complete out of the game.  And there's this one point where the party has to split up so that they can solve a puzzle and get around an obstacle.  So there's this cut-scene where Kaim talks to Seth (the female lead, despite the name) about how they're going to divide the crew.

Well, when that cut-scene exits, for the first time in a very long time, Kaim is busy standing on a pressure plate and suddenly I'm controlling Seth.  And when that happens, I feel the most astonishing thing: relief.  Like there had been this incredible weight on my body and I hadn't even known it was there.  And now it's suddenly lifted, and there's no good reason for it because the only thing that's different is that I'm...

And then it hits me, and I put down the controller and sit back in my chair and just sort of stare dumbly at the screen, thinking, "Like, really? This is how it happens?"  But it totally is.

Part 2. A Little Background

I said I wasn't going to go back to the beginning, and I'm not, but if I told you that one night playing a video game caused me to question a core part of my own identity you'd call me crazy.  I'd call me crazy too.  Mostly I'd just have ignored it.  The thing is, it wasn't an isolated incident, only the one that finally crystallized things; the last in a very long sequence of clues stretching back into my childhood.

There are a lot of people out there who identify really strongly with their gender, whether it's the one they're assigned at birth or not.  I was not one of them.  A lot of kids want to play with Barbie or He-Man or whatever and you just kind of know how they're gonna end up.  I played with chemistry sets and Capsela.  Some kids want to wear dresses.  I could barely dress myself.  But I hated playing sports, and my closest friend growing up was a girl.  For what it's worth, we used to play house together.

(There's a lot of other stuff from my childhood that I'm just not going to get into here. No, I was never molested. Some of it's just embarrassing, and other stuff might be seen as dumping on my parents, who have been nothing but supportive and don't deserve it even a tiny bit.)

Moving on...  Most of my close friends in college were women. I was the only guy they took along on "girls' night out".  I didn't mesh well with dudes.  I dated women.  I hung out with women.  I had one or two close guy friends, but we bonded over common activities - band, mostly, and sports teams we followed.  I never really opened up to them.

That pattern continued throughout my adult life (just look at my Facebook profile).

There's also the issue of how I approach fiction - interactive or otherwise. I've always gravitated towards stories with female protagonists. I write stories with female protagonists. When I roleplay, I tend to create and play female characters.  Not exclusively, and I always justified these things as "It's boring to read about/write about/play someone like just like me; plus, that story has already been done to death."

But when you get called out for it - a friend actually once said that "Dave is only gender-bending when he's playing a man" - you should probably take notice.

Again, any of these things in isolation; whatever. I'm "metro", or "gamma", or something.  Or maybe I like experiencing the "other" in fiction, or I'm sick of the same tropes and want to branch out.  Nothing you couldn't say about a million other dudes.

But then there's the friend with prosopagnosia who's learned to identify people through body language and mannerisms because faces don't compute.  They told me they were confused when they met me because they thought I was a woman, except that everyone was calling me "Dave" and "he" and I had a really deep voice.

Without prompting, my ex routinely asked me for fashion advice, knowing that my answers would be both (a) honest and (b) right.

And then there's the deep dissatisfaction I'd started to feel with my appearance as I got older, despite being what a lot of people considered to be a very good looking dude.  Guys get more distinguished and craggy as they get older - that's supposed to be a good thing!  But I'd always been pretty.  The older I got, the less the person in the mirror looking back at me looked like me.

I had just figured it was part of aging.  Just like I had figured that I hated shaving so much because... of... reasons.  Or something.

What I'm getting at is there's a really long list of things that, while on their own suggested nothing, taken together formed a bit of a pattern.  (And what I've listed here really only scratches the surface - there's tons more where that came from.)

Part 3. In Which Our Protagonist Experiences the Novel Sensation of Gender Dysphoria

The thing was, up until very recently, I didn't even have the concepts to process what any of this meant.  I wasn't gay, for sure - I'm exclusively into women, and have been since I hit puberty.  I only met a trans person once in college, during my sophomore year (I didn't even realize he was trans until well after the fact). Fifteen, ten - even five years ago, the idea that I might be queer wouldn't have made any sense to me at all.

That all began to change when I started learning about social justice stuff - feminism, LGBT activism, etc.  At the time, I didn't realize why I suddenly found it to be so important, just like how I couldn't grok the straight male backlash against it.  But I found sites like The Border House - which exists at the intersection of activism and gaming - strangely compelling. I played games by Anna Anthropy and Christine Love, who are brilliant and opened doors to parts of the human experience I'd previously had no avenues to.

And what all of that meant was that by the time that fateful night arrived I did have the tools to understand what I was feeling. And what I was feeling was terrifying.

Every group has some time dedicated to them.  There's Black History Month, for example.  Jews get top billing on Hannukah, Passover, and maybe on the High Holy Days.  There's St. Patrick's Day, Cinco do Mayo, Oktoberfest, and the Chinese New Year. Gay and lesbian folks have National Coming Out Day, celebrating something which can be scary or dangerous but is also very life-affirming and a necessary step forward for most people.

Trans people have the Transgender Day of Rememberance.  Because the most notable thing about trans people is that they die.  A lot.  Or else live in horrifying poverty.  Only about a quarter of U.S. states provide any legal protection to people based on their gender identity or presentation; being trans is legal grounds for termination in most places in the U.S.  Gawker ran a tournament to find the most crapped-on minority; trans women came in third to Native Americans and the homeless.  If Straight White Male is a the lowest difficulty setting in life, trans is Nightmare Mode.

So yeah - terrified.  Because I knew instantly what it was I was feeling, and what I was feeling was not going to be good for me.  You might imagine that suddenly realizing that I had this other part of me - something I'd kind of known all along but never really understood or completely acknowledged - would make me a more satisfied, self-aware, complete person.  It didn't.  It made me a wreck.  I started having bouts of depression and honest-to-goodness gender dysphoria.  Facing the mirror became even more of a challenge.

I constructed a person, still nameless, to embody the part of me that was making me miserable.  When I was having bad days, I joked that there was an angry lesbian running around my head with a field hockey stick, breaking shit.  Sometimes I actually visualized hurting her; beating her into bloody submission.  As horrible as that sounds it actually helped a little.

At least at first.

It got worse.  When I couldn't stuff her down anymore, I started researching options.  What would happen if she won?  What would I have to go through?  Hair removal, hormone therapy, vocal training, gender reassignment surgery, facial feminization surgery.  Tens of thousands of dollars, at least.  The research was fueled by morbid curiosity; I hoped that the daunting impossibility of the process would convince her it wasn't worth it.

What I actually learned was that it was doable, if I was willing to commit myself to it 100%.  People are capable of some pretty amazing things.

Part 4. The Edge of the Cliff

I was 36, married, with a job and a house and a spouse who was getting ready to finish up her residency and start her own business.  I wasn't some college kid whose whole life was ahead of them.  Anything I did would drastically affect our marriage - our future together.  A decision to transition - even if our relationship survived it - would be a huge financial burden at a time we might not be able to handle it.  It was a terrible idea.

Intellectually I knew that.  But Dana (the angry lesbian in my head had a name now) wasn't being reasonable.  I told my wife.  Freaked her the fuck out, but to her credit, she took it remarkably well.  I told her that I needed to figure things out.  I went to therapy.  The therapist agreed that, yeah, I had a bit of a sticky problem there, but "it's not a problem until it's a problem".  So I waited.  And it became a problem.  So I decided, okay, I can take a little step.  I can do electrolysis.  I hate shaving anyway, and there's no harm in a little cosmetic alteration, but it would work both ways because a lot of trans people do that as a first step (facial hair being a huge impediment to passing).  That would take six months to a year, during which time I could think a bit more deeply about my decision.  Maybe I'd be satisfied with just a little feminization; a face and body that were more androgynous than female.

I came out to my close friends.  They all accepted me, which was a relief.  I found out a lot of them were queer too!  Life is funny like that.

I started doing more cardio; dropped weight.  As the facial hair came off (it's a very slow process), I started to think of myself differently.  Dana wasn't a separate person - she was me and I was her.  I found myself practicing my "girl voice".  When I closed my eyes, the self I saw in my head started to diverge more and more from the one I saw in the mirror.

But the human body is nothing if not perverse.  I realized that my hair was thinning.  I'm not sure why I hadn't noticed it earlier.  But it was there, as plain as, well, the hair on my head.  I panicked - I needed more time!  Tried a few herbal things, then Propecia.  It turned out I was already so full of girl juice that anything that mucked with my hormones would immediately start to turn me female - the very thing I was trying to hold off!

My low point was over Thanksgiving.  I flew up to Boston to see my friends and family, suffering the full effects of depression and anxiety, supercharged by the drugs I was taking.  I was a wreck the entire time.  I'd never been that depressed in my entire life.  I had no idea what to do.  I considered starting hormone replacement as soon as I got back, just so I wouldn't have to suffer as long.  When you're in that kind of deep, dark place, any escape is appealing.

Part 5. Full Circle

Late on the last day I was in Boston I talked to a good friend on the phone.  She told me something profound - something that ultimately changed my life.  She said, "I think you've lost sight of who you are.  But the thing is, in life we choose who we are."  I had been so focused on what I was feeling that I had given my headspace completely over to Dana.  I was choosing to go to a place where, when I closed my eyes, I was her and not the person I had been for thirty-five years, before I'd even known she was there.  But I'd been really good at being that person!  There was no good reason to throw all that away, I thought, I just had to figure out how to reconnect - to push Dave to the front.

I thought I could still choose to be Dave.

At that moment, I rededicated myself to being Dave; who was male-bodied; who was the person I already knew how to be.  I would actively try to hold that self-image, and I would do things to bolster it.  When I got home from Boston I shaved my hair, got a membership at a real gym, and made plans to get the rest of my life on track again.

I was going to kill Dana for good this time.


Back at the start, I said I was going to tell you about the time I almost died.

Like Detective Hobbes' cunning plan to kill Azazel, my plan had a single, glaring flaw: you can't choose not to be trans, any more than you can choose not to be gay. (Or for that matter a mutant.)  I lasted a sum total of six weeks before I crashed - and I crashed hard.  Like "worst depression I've experienced in my entire life" hard. Like "had to leave work to go home and lie down for two hours so I could function" hard.

It got so bad that my ex - who had made the decision she couldn't be married to a woman - told me I ought to consider transitioning after all, because there was even less point being married to someone who was miserable all the time. I took her advice and it was like the floodgates had opened. My depression lifted. I had my first "real-life experience" (though it was a private audience, facilitated by some awesome friends). My therapist gave me the green light, then my doctor. In less than two weeks I was on hormone replacement and feeling like a human being for the first time in literally years.

Yeah, my marriage is done.  It's sad, but we were better friends and roommates than we were lovers anyway, and the things it would have taken to keep me sane even if I weren't trans wouldn't have made her happy at all.  We're in the process of separating amicably as I write this.  And the separation has given me more time to spend with my friends, who have collectively been my rock these past few weeks.  I've received nothing but support at work, from the gaming community, and from my family.  I'm incredibly grateful!

Best of all, when I look in the mirror, I am starting to see the person I'm supposed to be.  Sure, she's still buried under some facial hair, but that's rapidly being uprooted.  My skin is softening and my cheekbones are coming out.  My body is changing shape.  My hairline is advancing (I'm sooo lucky) and the thin patch in back is starting to fill in a bit - I may never have as much hair as I want, but I suspect I'll end up with more than I need.  And if any of the hormonal changes don't quite cut it, well, I just tell myself, "I'll fix it in post" - cosmetic surgery is just so advanced these days!

Now I said that what my friend told me was profound and it was.  It just turns out she was only half right: it's not that you get to choose who you are; it's that you get to choose whether or not to be the person you really are - your true self; your best self.  And in the end, that's what I did.

And yeah, it's too bad about Dave.  But when you mess with me, you gotta realize...

♫ Tiiiime is on my side. (Yes it is!) ♫