When life hands you a hand grenade…

I’ve never added a content or trigger warning to a post before, but please be aware that this post contains discussion of mental health issues, and suicide.

I want to refer you to another psychologist.” I’d only been seeing her for a couple of months.

Three months earlier:

We were getting ready for church; my wife told me “I didn’t get any sleep last night. You were snoring so badly”.

Something broke in me. The stress of the previous few months brought by the changes in the company I work for; I’d spiraled into a deep depression over the previous few weeks.

Now I was hurting people, even in my sleep. The thoughts had dogged me for days but when she told me that, I knew for certain:

My family would be better off without me.

I told her to go on ahead to church, that I’d be a little late. She left with the kids.

I left a few minutes later, then stopped and fueled up the car. I didn’t know what I was going to do, only that I was going to drive for as long as it took, and make sure that no-one would stumble across my remains.

A coward, I texted her. I sent her the master password to my password manager, and where she could find all the details she’d need to access all my accounts. I apologised for my cowardice, and ruining her life. She was angry; my willingness to break the promise I’d made to several people, including her. What it would do to our children. I knew they’d be better off without me.

I drove; I refused to answer her calls. The text messages kept coming.

She asked me to turn around, to come back. I kept driving. The further I drove, the harder it was to keep going. Slowing… 80… 60… 40km/h.

I pulled off the road, unable to drive any further; my face and shirt drenched in tears and snot, body wracked with uncontrollable sobs. She kept texting me, gently talking me down from my irrational tree.

I drove back to the church and sat down with our pastor. I told him the truth, what I’d intended to do, the pain I’d just inflicted on my wife. He bound my wounds with his words, and wisely told me that I needed to see my doctor – immediately.

I did. I let others guide my steps over the next few weeks. I told the GP that I thought my anti-depressant might be wrong for me, as I’d become suicidal. He told me he believed my dosage was too low (he was correct). He wanted me to see a psychologist, not just the counsellor I’d been seeing.

I went and saw my counsellor; I’d promised him that I wouldn’t consider suicide without talking to him first, and I’d broken that promise. I told him the whole story. He encouraged me to follow the doctor’s advice, that someone else may be able to provide a different perspective. I found a psychologist who specialised in autistic patients, and got a referral.

I’d been seeing the counsellor since 2011. He had been both a missionary and a minister. Over the previous few years he’d helped me unpack a lot of the religious abuse I’d lived through, to deconstruct many of the destructive beliefs that I’d grown up with. He’d helped me see my abuse of food, alcohol and porn as coping mechanisms within the wider context of the damage that had been done to me.

Beyond the depression and anxiety, beyond wrestling with the abuse, though, there had been an undercurrent running through my life since my preteens. Occasionally, it would break the surface, and I would reflexively recoil. It had been my hidden shame for a long time. In 2012, it ceased to be an undercurrent, and broke through my defenses like a storm. When the first waves hit, I didn’t want to tell him. The shame was too great. I knew that to tell him this would rupture our relationship, that he wouldn’t want to counsel me any more.

I couldn’t hold it in.

“God loves you for who you are, and this is part of who you are. This is no surprise to him. Accept this part of yourself, and just ride the waves. Don’t embrace it, don’t fight it, don’t be ashamed, just be.” In fear and trembling, I trusted his words and followed his advice; after a month I realised the waves had receded. The feelings, so powerful, were just… gone. Well, not quite. The undercurrent remained.

Ten months had passed when the waves returned. The emotions, more intense. They lasted longer; again I waited. Six weeks later, they had receded.

The last few months of 2016 was one of the most intense periods of my life. Autistic, I don’t handle change well, particularly when it’s thrust upon me against my will. The upheaval in my job was extreme. In early 2017, almost ten months after my previous encounter, the swell broke again. This time, however, it wasn’t a wave.

It was a tsunami.

I tried to ride the waves, but the shore was gone. I attempted to withdraw into myself; I did not recognise myself – yet somehow, I did. A self I had seen in the mirror in an intense dream, a few months earlier. I awoke from that dream with an overwhelming homesickness for a place I’d never been.

As everything I thought I knew about myself was washed away, I chose to go it alone. This time, I couldn’t tell anyone, not even my counsellor.

With the storm pounding my emotions, and the dinghy of my job seemed to be sinking beneath me, I spiralled into depression.

During my first session with the psychologist, we talked about how & why I’d become suicidal; the way that the amount of change in my job would be difficult for a neurotypical person to navigate, let alone someone autistic. I was in way over my head; I felt that I lacked the qualifications and experience for the position I’d been put into. We worked on strategies to reduce my stress, and deal with the change in healthier ways.

However, I couldn’t -I wouldn’t- tell her my secret.

Then, in the next session, it just poured out. I told her my secret, my shame, how something that had been previously manageable was now overwhelming. Over next few sessions, we went through the events from my preteens, through my teenage years and beyond. The emotions and experiences I’d never told anyone, that I’d wrapped in chains and dropped into the deep. The sense of my body not fitting, that seemed to be more than just my terrible body image, more than just sensory issues stemming from being autistic.

We sat there in that little room; she in her office chair, facing me. I sat on the left hand side of the soft & comfortable couch, as always, twisting and untwisting my fingers.

“I want to refer you to another psychologist…” she began. “I want you to see a someone who specialises in autism and gender issues. I’ve seen this before. You’re not alone, and it’s not uncommon. There’s a statistically higher incidence of gender variance among autistic people.”

She continued: “I believe you have gender dysphoria”.

“Gender dysphoria (formerly gender identity disorder) is defined by strong, persistent feelings of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one’s own assigned sex that results in significant distress or impairment.” (Link)

A couple of weeks later, I started seeing the new psychologist. Once again, I was sharing things with a stranger; speaking of recurrent emotions and feelings enveloped by a deep sense of shame – and failure. I’d prayed & been prayed for. I’d tried repenting, rejecting, rebuking, burying the emotions & desires. I’d tried to seek my identity in Christ, and only Christ. I’d tried to “take all thoughts captive”, but these were constant escapees. Alcohol helped to bury the emotions, until I was drinking more nights than I was sober in any given month. As of the date of writing, I’ve been 470 days sober.

Throughout it all, this deep sense of incongruence remained – and had gotten worse. The psychologist took the pieces of the puzzle and put them together; the emotions and patterns of behaviour that I’d been hiding throughout my life confirmed her predecessor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria; as such I am, by definition, “transgender”.

Not because of “cultural Marxism” or because it’s supposedly “trendy” or “cool”; because it fits the diagnosis.

Transgender. I find I’m holding a hand grenade without a pin.

I didn’t choose this. I didn’t want it. I could do without the emotional pain, and the turmoil it’s brought into my life. I’ve been struggling with and hiding “it” for most of my life, before I could even understand what “it” was. Society told me that for a boy to want to do “girly” things was shameful and so, at eight years old, I became ashamed.

Many of the things that we have to deal with in life, we have no choice. Circumstances thrust upon us. Being autistic, growing up in a cult-like environment, depression and anxiety. These are all things I had no choice in. Accepting and dealing with these things, in a sense, had little tangible impact on my sense of self. I became a healthier version of the person everyone knew.

But this? It explodes my concept of self. Not only who I thought I was, but who other people thought I was.

Maybe I could reject the “label”, but the underlying factors that lead to me sitting in that room? They don’t just go away.

Oh, I could go back to denial; force everything back into a box, wrap the box in chains, drop the whole thing into cement and dump it into the ocean, but that’s unlikely to work. Many people with far more life experience than me have told me as much.

“It’s just mental illness!” It’s not, but what are the options for dealing with it?

  1. Repression/denial. I’ve tried that for most of my life, but it results in the emotions leaking out in other ways (and can often lead to #3).
  2. Reparative Therapy (aka “conversion therapy”). The success rates for transgender reparative therapy are about the same as they are for being gay: virtually zero (OK, 0.5% – link). Reparative therapy, however, is more likely to lead to…
  3. Suicide. The suicide attempt rate among trans people in a US study was found to be 2-4x higher (41%) than for gay, lesbian & bisexual respondents (10-20%); the overall rate for the US population is 4.6%. (link)
  4. Transition. This is the gold standard medical & psychological treatment when nothing else works. It’s complex, painful and not something someone chooses on a whim or for fun.
  5. Acceptance & counselling. This is what I’m doing now.

If you believe sex and gender are different words for the same thing, this won’t make much sense. For the better part of 35 years I’ve tried really hard to make that equation work… and here we are. Have I not prayed enough? Read my bible enough? Confessed my sins enough? I’ve done all of those things, over and over. Have I not had enough “deliverance ministry”? (I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime and beyond, thank you very much).

Is it autism & sensory issues? I hoped it was just this; after trying to force it to fit into that box, while it undeniably overlaps, it just doesn’t fit. The sensory issues, too, are usually part of being autistic. There are fabrics I hate, some that I love. Frustratingly, a lot of men’s clothing is made out of material and fabrics that are uncomfortable at best, and at worst are like wearing a mixture of hessian sacks and sandpaper. Clothing rarely fits me properly. My job requires me to regularly wear clothing that makes me want to rip my skin off by the end of the day.

Is it my body image? It’s terrible and with a bad dose of body dysmorphia. I’ve written about it before, but in spite of my assertions in that piece, I’ve not managed to overcome the shame. I have a lifetime of societal messaging telling me that to be fat is to be repulsive… unattractive… ugly. This is where the dysphoria overlaps with my body image and dysmorphia issues.

Autism & body dysmorphia & gender dysphoria; I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of the world’s worst Venn diagram. Worse still, these things are interconnected. They can’t easily be teased out and processed separately.

It’s difficult to describe what gender dysphoria feels like; like trying to describe the smell of blue, the taste of purple.

The best metaphor I have: it feels like an overwhelming homesickness for a place I’ve been told I don’t belong, and I’m not allowed to go.

I am, after all, both a husband and a father. I have all the primary and secondary markers of being male. The genitals; the body & facial hair, male-pattern baldness. I have high testosterone levels; after I told my GP, he ordered blood tests for oestrogen (normal) & testosterone levels (apparently, one point off further investigation because they were so close to the upper limit). I’ve read so many books about how to be a good man, a good husband, a good father.

For all of that, I have little sense of “maleness” or “masculinity”. I was raised as a male. However, autism -in males- is primarily defined as a social disorder; I also grew up & worked in a socially restrictive environment, thus my socialisation as a male was atypical. In turn, my father’s socialisation had also been restricted; the masculinity he modeled to me was, in many ways, atypical of his generation. When I first encountered a more “typical” masculinity in my late teens, I was utterly shocked by the way the men I was with talked about women as they walked past.

Most of my life has been spent trying to feel what I “should” feel; to be “a man”. I had few friends throughout my school years; the friends I did have were a mix of male & female. The majority of my social group during the last two years of high school were female; I usually felt (and feel) more comfortable around women.

In my late teens, I hung out with a group of guys who regularly worked on cars together. The experience was alien. I’ve since tried joining men’s bible studies and cell groups at church. Individually, men are OK, but I invariably feel awkward and out of place in a group. The more “macho” or “blokey” someone is, the harder it is for me to feel comfortable around them.

So much of my expression of “masculinity” has been performative. I’ve either been trying to act the part of what I’ve interpreted a “man” or masculinity to be, or trying to fit the “programming” society has deigned to be “normal” for my sex. It doesn’t come naturally, instinctively. I won’t say “never”, because there have been times where it feels like everything lines up. The inside and the outside – momentarily – matches up.

Does this mean I “feel” like a woman? I don’t know. It’s complex; could I ever really know what feeling like “a woman” is anyway?

What I do know is that my body doesn’t, -never has- felt like it “fits”. I despise my body, hair on my arms, legs, back & face where I don’t want it; in a bitter irony, hair missing from my scalp & constantly reflecting a “maleness” that feels alien. My size, my shape… the way I move. The sense of incongruence goes to my bones.

Being drawn to more “feminine” things in terms of physical expression; colours & styles, make-up, jewellery, clothes. I’ve pushed those impulses & desires down repeatedly, burying them because they’re unacceptable for me to explore for myself. I will note that men’s clothing usually has one advantage over women’s clothing: pockets. (Yes, really)

Emotionally? Upon telling my GP, who I’ve seen regularly for almost a decade, he responded “This makes so more sense of the way you’ve reacted over the years; you just don’t react the way men usually do”.

There are days where I feel a powerful desire to express myself in a “feminine” way. If I’d been born female, “Rochelle” instead of “Warwick”, no-one would bat an eyelid if one day I wore a dress and heels and makeup, the next day, jeans and a t-shirt. I was born male; the name my mother chose for me went unused. To feel those desires is “shameful”. I’m 183cm tall, overweight and balding, so I don’t express myself that way. To do so in public would open me up to alienation, rejection, ridicule from strangers, who suddenly feel empowered to commentate one’s life.

However, to suppress those emotions that I’ve been told I shouldn’t even have – that takes a heavy ongoing emotional & psychological toll.

Being a woman is more than dresses and makeup. How dare I even desire to appropriate that which was not given me by birth? Who am I, to question the “choice” of a sovereign God to give me what is (most likely) a set of XY chromosomes? Why do I long to be seen as a woman? Not a “supermodel”, not to turn men’s heads, but just a woman (as if any woman is “just” a woman!)

Why would I seek to flee my “God-given” ‘manhood’? To argue with the lived experience of 43 years of being treated as male? To abandon the privilege that comes with the primary & secondary sex characteristics typical of XY chromosomes?

Does biology define identity? My biology is the cause of my autism. Should I identify as autistic because of my biology, or is it just part of what makes me… “me”. Some biological studies seem to indicate that the brains of trans women and men bear more structural similarity to the brains of their identified gender than their biological gender. If my sense of gender is biological as well, and conflicts with my body’s expression of sex characteristics, which should get priority? The ones that make other people comfortable, or the ones that make me more comfortable & happier?

“It’s just feelings. You control your feelings, not vice versa. You just need to reject the lies.”

For how long? How long does one fight to keep ‘feelings’ at bay? There is a cost to that, one that comes with compounding interest.

One that you don’t have to pay, while insisting I should.

“You’re a man, just be one”, someone told me. What does that mean? Do all men put on a performance to try and make their inside looks like it matches the outside? Is there something that “comes naturally” that I’m missing?

There are days where it does feel like the inside and the outside match. Those days are uncommon.

Sometimes I’m fine and something will trigger the dysphoria and everything comes crashing down around me. I don’t like to go out much any more because of this.

This is a lot to take in, I know. I wish I could just “be“. For me, however, to just “be” breaks social, cultural and relational expectations. It will, demonstrably, invite abuse from strangers. Potential alienation from friends and loved ones. Rejection & judgement from faith communities that now accept me.

This is not a final statement of “identity”. None of us is in stasis, remaining at a fixed point. I don’t want my life to be about, and to be defined, by this one aspect of who I am, who I appear to be right now. Nor is it a template to, or of, the identity or beliefs of other transgender people. There is a lot more that I could write about, but this is heading towards a small book at this point.

I’ll probably write another post, more of a Q & A type thing, but for now, let’s get the big questions out of the way:

“Do you identify as ‘transgender’?”
– Kind of a loaded question, but not in any “identity politics” sense. I identify as me. I’m a Christian, a husband, a father, autistic – and, it seems, transgender. It’s another part of who I am.

“Have you told your wife, kids and family?”
– I’ve told my wife, my kids, and many of my family members. If you’re a family member finding out through this blog post, I’m sorry. I’ve tried to tell all of my family members individually, and face to face; I didn’t want to tell anyone over the phone. It’s a complicated thing to explain – it’s taken the better part of a week to write this post.

“Are you going to transition?”
– I don’t plan to; transition is one of the treatments for gender dysphoria, but it is by no means the only treatment. Transition is also an extremely complex subject loaded with a lot of baggage and a lot of assumptions that need to be unpacked. I’m seeking wholeness, and peace. There are several other things that I’d like to address towards that goal that aren’t about gender. It’s also important to me to honour the promise I made to my wife, when we wed. This doesn’t just affect me, I won’t make a unilateral decision that impacts on her.

“Are you gay?”
– No.

“What about pronouns? Do I have to call you she/they/zir/something else?”
– Whatever pronoun you’re already using for me is fine. If there’s a change, I’ll say so. There’s a whole other blog post just in this.

“What are you going to do?”
– I’ve started by telling the truth. Lying to myself and trying to pretend this isn’t part of me hasn’t worked, and created more pain.
– I’m working on losing weight and also dealing with my body image / dysmorphia issues. I’m hoping that maybe dealing with that will reduce some of the emotional pressure.
– Accepting that this is part of what makes me, “me”, and continuing to see the psychologist. I can’t deal with this alone.

“How can you say you’re transgender and a Christian?!? It’s SIN!”
– Dealing with this and trying to work through and move beyond the damage of my upbringing to a healthier, authentic faith is a hard row to hoe. That too is a whole other blog post (or more). In short: if you want to proof-text, there’s one verse that you could try and apply by taking it out of context. If you really want to pick a fight over it, I’ll meet you behind the sports shed after school. If I’m not there, start without me.

Someone once said (usually –incorrectly– attributed to Einstein): “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. I’ve spent years doing the same thing; it hasn’t worked. Now I’m trying something different: honesty and radical transparency.

I fear that to be open about this will lose me friends, maybe even family & loved ones. However, I’ve lived in constant fear -particularly of the opinions of others- for much of my life. I’m choosing to no longer make my decisions based on fear and shame. I’m not seeking a path to popularity and acclaim, I’m seeking wholeness; in God, in self, in relationships. Wholeness doesn’t come through denial of the things that are within.

In Matthew 22:37-39 Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’“.

How can you love your neighbour as yourself, if you hate yourself? For most of the last 35 years, rejecting and hating this part of myself has done nothing to temper it or remove it from my life; it’s only led to further hatred of myself as a whole. Time to try something new.

I’m sure you have lots of questions; so do I. I only have some of the answers.

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