When Gender Dysphoria Felt Like Going Insane
It’s so much more than “being trapped in the wrong body.” It was a soul-deep, psychological sickness that nearly destroyed me.
Trigger Warning: This piece discusses suicide ideation, emotional abuse, eating disorders, and gender dysphoria.
Tom and I had been living together for nearly a year when it happened. Over the summer we had been almost literally attached at the hip, subletting a studio apartment and playing N64 together all night on the couch. I loved him passionately and fantasized about merging my soul with his completely. I couldn’t get close enough. I wanted to disappear into him. No amount of time by his side was ever enough. Then one night in the fall he told me that we needed to spend more time socializing with other people. He said he needed male friends. I absolutely lost my fucking shit and nearly wrecked my car.
Before I met Tom I told people I was asexual, and for all practical purposes it was true. There was nobody I wanted near me, nobody I wanted to touch. My body felt alien and disgusting to me, and other people were depressingly normal and dull. Other than one short-lived relationship with a BMX biker in high school, I had shown no interest in dating anyone. I saw what straight, cisgender relationships looked like. A lot of being teased in the lunchroom in front of all of your friends, and disappointing fumblings in attics and garages. A long unsatisfying march forward — kids, marriages, divorces, messy homes.
Something about Tom had been different. He was curious and neurotic. He had a quick wit, but could also be incredibly tender. When he got drunk he asked men to kiss him. I loved that about him. And his interest in me felt special; he really recognized my intellect and drive, the power I had. At first he didn’t really treat me like an attractive woman. I was more like a wild animal he’d taken in. That suited me.
But the closer I got to Tom, the more obsessive and needy I became. I wanted to sleep by his side every single night, even when the relationship was new. I wanted sex every night, though it was hard to work out the logistics of that when we lived in four-person freshman dorm rooms. Our friendships with other people eroded. Then we moved in together and spent a whole summer side by side, barely seeing anybody else. I can understand now why that got grating for him. But at the time I couldn’t see the problem. My need for his love and attention was insatiable.
That fall, we moved into a larger apartment with two of my friends. I felt that would balance things out, give us a connection to the rest of the world. But Tom lamented he was still lonely. Specifically he said he needed male friends. There’s a special connection that guys have with one another, he told me. You wouldn’t understand. So he scheduled a board game and whiskey night with an acquaintance of his, a guy named Kit.
There’s a special connection guys have with one another. I couldn’t stop thinking about Tom’s words. What the hell was I lacking? What kind of magical quality did this Kit guy have? Tom barely knew him. Plus the guy sucked. Kit was condescending and not as intelligent as he thought he was. He once went on a rant about his belief that he could beat any woman on earth in a physical fight. Christ what a moron, I thought.
It drove me absolutely insane to think Tom wanted to connect with this sexist pig in some special, male-only way I never would experience. I couldn’t understand what I lacked, what made me incomplete. When I thought about it, I paced our apartment breathing heavily and pulling at my scalp and crying, my attachment system worked full-blown distress. I felt like I was being abandoned or killed.
I’d tried to be the perfect partner to Tom. And it really hadn’t been hard. We played the same video games, drank the same beer, made the exact same kind of drunken homoerotic overtures in frat houses on the weekends. We shared an interest in politics and philosophy. We were both academically driven troublemakers. I was low maintenance, unfussy, and direct in my communication. If anything I was more masculine than him. What was the special male quality that I lacked? Why wasn’t I enough? Why couldn’t we live in a world of our own making?
In the days before Tom and Kit’s hang out, I obsessed over my insecurities. I cried and clung to Tom and demanded that he explain what he’d said. What was so special about having male friends? If there was something about being a man I couldn’t comprehend, I wanted Tom to explain it to me. Help me understand. Help me connect to you. But he shrugged me off. He told me not to worry about it. He could just cancel their plans, he said.
“No, no no, you should spend time with him if that’s what you want to do,” I said, though I was still crying and couldn’t look him in the face. “You need time with other men. That’s what you said. There’s a special connection between guys I can’t provide.”
I didn’t want to be controlling and manipulative, though I recognized my emotional explosiveness was. I hated the thought of Tom spending time with Kit, but I knew better than to prevent him from doing it. I kept excusing myself to leave the room and cry and hit myself in the head. I felt utterly rejected and unwanted, and the worst part was that I couldn’t understand why it was so acutely upsetting. His words had bore a deep hole into me that made me seem crazy, and I hated that about myself.
The night that Kit came over, I told Tom I planned to stay far away. I didn’t want to see him. Couldn’t bear to hear the two of them laughing and clinking glasses. Tom told me I could stay but I said no, I absolutely need to leave. There was a special bond men shared that I would never understand, and I didn’t dare get in the way of it. I refused to be the chagrined girlfriend in the other room. So I got in my car and went for a drive. I had no idea where I’d go, what I’d do, or how long I’d need to keep my distance. I just knew I needed to put several miles between us before completely losing my shit.
I don’t remember that night very well, except that it was painful and long and punctuated with sudden awareness of just how off-the-rails I had become. I drove around Columbus numbly, cluelessly, crying and shaking and screaming to myself. I drove to the mall and couldn’t bring myself to walk in. I was too upset, couldn’t stop crying, needed to keep talking to myself, sorting out my fuzzy, sad feelings. So I circled back around Ohio State. I drove over the Olentangy river and into the agricultural campus, where everything was terrifyingly dark. I could melt into that darkness. I down the street to the big Target. Parked in the lot. Crying. Crying. Furious. I felt completely unhinged.
“There’s a special connection between guys,” I kept repeating aloud to myself. “I just wouldn’t understand. I’ll never understand!” Then I slammed the heel of my hands on the wheel.
The winter before this, I’d met all of Tom’s old friends from back in Colorado. We’d gotten snowed in together and drank for days and days while watching Christmas movies. His best friend and I talked about Freud and Jung. I listened when they complained about their girlfriends’ confusing pitiful desires. Getting along with me was effortless. I was so easy to love, so smart and interesting yet so undemanding. I cried and drove into the main campus, pulled into a spot in the parking garage near the library. I curled up, pressed my head to the steering wheel and willed myself to disappear. I was never going to be enough. Could never pass across the veil.
Almost all my friends were guys. I never saw myself as any different from them. I was active in the Skeptic group and the New Atheist movement, very masculine “intellectual” communities that suited me well. I was a libertarian and carried a knife in my pocket. When situations got tense I was the one who stepped up. I could get aggressive when needed, smooth things over with an irate drunk, ward off the cops. I was the one who killed the spiders in the house. I paid my own bills and Tom didn’t. Who was the man here? What did I lack?
It made no sense. I kept turning Tom’s words over and over in my mind. All I could hear was ignorance, and a fundamental rejection of who I was. I’d told Tom before that I didn’t feel like a woman — I told that to anybody who’d listen — but the meaning didn’t register. I lacked the words for what I was. Everybody did at that point.
I believed that the world could be better and bigger than gender, that all those silly categories didn’t have to matter or poison our thoughts. That it was foolish and maybe even evil to impose meanings on people based on their bodies or the way their face looked. But in a single sentence, Tom communicated to me that he didn’t believe in building a better world. He’d prefer to stay within the lines, and reify them. I would forever be a different kind of person than him, cleaved off from the person with whom I most desperately wished to connect.
I tried to stop freaking out but it didn’t work. The tears and shaking would not cease. There was something special between guys that I would never understand. Tom was never going to really understand me. I’d never had a prayer of connecting to anybody else before that, so now I really felt doomed. My desperation was shameful and I wished I could cut it out of myself.
I pulled my car out of its parking spot and sped down the exit ramp. I was full-on screaming to myself at this point. I wanted to inflict destruction and pain in whatever ways I could. If I couldn’t destroy the gendered, hyper-categorized world, if I couldn’t shake Tom out of his belief in special sanctified manhood, then at least I could hurt myself. I turned each corner in the garage without slowing or thinking. I gritted my teeth. Hit the gas. Slammed into the rear of a sedan that was backing out.
The force of the accident jolted me back into reality for just a second. My hyperventilation and sobbing ceased. I sat there dumbfounded, hands shaking, as the car I’d struck pulled back into its spot. It was a beat-up old car, the type a broke college student drives, so it was impossible to tell how much damage I’d done. The kid was too clueless to be mad. He thought maybe the accident was his fault. I didn’t correct him. I left before he could think to exchange information.
The accident could have been a wake-up call, I guess, but it wasn’t. It just made me hate myself more. I was an insane freak who needed their boyfriend too much, who was jealous of his friends and had no idea how to keep their own mind occupied when they were alone. I drove down High Street, into the Short North. Nearly crashed into somebody again when I took a right at the red light without checking my left side first. As I drove along, I gazed out my window at the happy couples eating on patios, and the gaggles of twenty-somethings hopping from bar to bar.
Ohio State is a bro-y, hyper-straight campus, but the Short North neighborhood was where all the queer arty kids found a refuge. I looked longingly in the windows of art galleries and darkly lit, trendy spots like Surly Girl Saloon. I could feel my body finally calming. It’s not that seeing gay people exactly brought me solace. It just gave me something concrete to mourn. Tom and I had a few lesbian friends, and they didn’t understand me any better than he did. To them I was just another straight woman. If I’d tried to explain to them how I felt, the tempest roiling inside me, they would have just seen a pathetic, needy girl who was a fool for loving men.
It was infuriating, having these labels and meanings ascribed to me for reasons I couldn’t control. I wanted to escape all of it. Yet no matter what I did, no matter how resolutely I stood in my selfhood, people kept reasserting the boundaries that cleaved me off from parts of myself. Whatever special bond men shared, I’d never be able to feel anything like it. There was no group I could speak about belonging to with the reverence Tom had. No class of person I’d instantly trust. It was like I lacked a soul or something.
I sat in the car, completely drained, energy pouring out of me for hours. My head thudded and I was dehydrated from all the crying. This was a problem that will never resolve itself, I thought to myself. I returned late at night, tail between my legs, and never spoke of where I’d been or what I’d done.
For many years I have tried to avoid thinking about that night. I had danced right up to the edge of emotionally abusing Tom and barring him from having his own friends. I didn’t do it, ultimately, but that didn’t change that I wanted to. That I knew how being megalomaniacally jealous felt. The alternative I chose wasn’t better. I should never have been behind the wheel of a car in the emotional state that I was. If I’d been just a shred less lucky, somebody could have seriously gotten hurt.
Of course, a part of me deeply wanted to get hurt. Or to hurt others. There were huge explosions going off inside me, and I wanted to make them real. All my life, my selfhood was constantly being erased and destroyed. It seemed fitting to want to destroy the world in return. I became terrified of the harm I was capable of, and that meant I put up even more walls, avoided connecting with people as deeply as I had with Tom.
When cis people imagine what gender dysphoria is like, they tend to think of a plaintive, quietly sad trans person looking in the mirror and grasping at some unwanted body part. I’ve been in that position, too. But in my case, the worst dysphoria has been social and relational, not physical. It’s also been much harder to understand or to name. Dysphoria isn’t about having the wrong body. It’s about feeling so trapped in a society-imposed role that you can’t imagine a future for yourself. It’s insanity and panic and hatred.
Dysphoria made want to claw my skin off and smash my car into an unyielding wall. It kept me from eating or going to the doctor. It made it impossible for me to express my attraction to other people, or to cope with being found attractive. The desperate things dysphoria made me do left me believing I was an evil person who couldn’t be trusted. It rendered me a ghost, a lingering hint of humanity that could not actually make meaningful physical contact with the world.
Back then, when I had no clue what I was and saw no way out, all I could do was attach obsessively to men who seemed to have the grounded, socially recognized identity I lacked. When they inevitably failed to pass their identities and social recognition along to me through osmosis, I’d extravagantly self-destruct. Today those urges are still with me. They don’t hold quite the same allure as they once did, because now I can put a name to how I feel, and I have found others who feel the same way.
I am alive and okay because I’ve forged the kind of special connections Tom talked about. I feel a bond with trans people that nobody else can understand. Sometimes I connect in a similar way with cisgender men, particularly gay and bisexual ones who are willing really see me. These bonds make me feel a little bit more real. They quiet my ever-simmering desire to express my existence by being bad and reckless. I can’t undo the damage of all those self-destructive years though. I’ll never forget how it felt, hating myself that much.
It’s been a long time since I’ve acted the way I did on that horrible night in college. But I don’t want to distance myself from the person I was anymore. I can’t. Transphobes wish desperately for people like me to recede into nothingness, to detransition or undergo corrective therapy or simply be legislated out of existence. And being publicly trans is hard. I’m not always accepted, not always seen. There are parts of the country and areas of the world I simply cannot visit, if I don’t want to be psychologically thrust back into the state I was back then. There are so many people who are still eager to behave as if my identity is fake.
When I feel myself beginning to internalize their hatred, and sense a desire to hide and conform rising up inside me, I have to think back to the person I was fifteen years ago. Things are never going to be easy for me, but I’m so thankful that now I can identify the source of the pain, and form special connections with those who really get it.