Mental Illness Has Impacted My Transgender Identity

Once upon a time, I wrote an article about how I wasn’t completely happy with my hormonal transition. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of shit for it – because dog forbid I have complicated feelings about my body completely changing.

One commenter, I guess in an attempt to insult me, told me to get a therapist and that I was INSANE (emphasis theirs). What they didn’t realize was that they were correct about one thing – my feelings about my transition were absolutely informed by mental illness.

Frankly, I’m annoyed with neurotypical trans people judging my experience of transition – because comparing our experiences completely ignores the reality that I struggle in a way they never will.

What I didn’t mention in that article is that I was diagnosed with OCD after a spiral of obsession that all but drove me to the edge. And what was I obsessing about? My gender identity.

Some folks with OCD – particularly those with the pure obsessional form – find themselves obsessing about sexual orientation or gender identity. Imagine a straight person completely tormented by the idea of being gay (or a gay person obsessed with being straight), or a transgender person, like me, spending hours and hours in a panic, obsessed with the idea of being cisgender (and, yes, vice versa).

The thing about these obsessions is that there’s no concrete evidence that the obsession is grounded in reality.

I’d identified as transgender for four years, and up until the obsession started, felt secure and happy in my identity. I didn’t want to detransition – the thought of doing so horrified me. I was unbelievably opposed to living as a cis woman, which had never felt right in the first place. And my dysphoria was improving slowly but surely with my transition.

The obsession didn’t make any sense. It was just a track on loop that said, “What if, what if, what if?” But it felt like I couldn’t stop thinking about it, no matter what I did.

My therapist said that the obsession was triggered when I was supporting a friend through detransition (which I was happy to do – I love this person, and I support folks making whatever decisions they need to, including detransition!).

The fear that I might experience the despair that they were experiencing had set off an obsession – and it’s an obsession I still battle with months and months later.

When the obsession started, I was initially afraid to disclose to anyone that it was happening. I was afraid that they would invalidate my transgender identity, question the sincerity of my gender, or ostracize me from the community.

And I felt like I couldn’t tell clinicians, because I was afraid they would impede my access to top surgery, which I badly needed.

But imagine my relief when my therapist, who specialized in caring for the transgender population, recognized that my OCD was impacting my transition. I was able to access medication to help manage it – and from there, I connected with another transgender person with OCD, who had endured the same kind of obsessive spiral that I had.

Nowadays, the obsession comes and goes, and I feel more secure knowing that it isn’t a reflection of my identity but rather, an aspect of a disorder.

To be honest, when people commented on that previous article, telling me that I was less of a trans person because I had mixed feelings about my hormonal transition, I was angry. Angry because they had no idea the kind of hell that OCD put me through, making me irrationally obsess about the most fundamental part of who I am for nearly every waking hour of my day.

Lucky you, I wanted to say, that you’ve had nothing but positive transition experiences. Good for you?

The reality is that mentally ill trans people like me have a distinctly different experience of transition.

I’ve talked to trans people with generalized anxiety, who overthink and worry about every aspect of their transitions. I’ve talked to (and personally experienced) the detached, unstable sense of identity that trans people with borderline have coped with. I’ve talked to trans people with depression who, in the midst of an episode, felt too empty to connect with their transness. I’ve talked to mentally ill trans people who have had their gender identities completely written off as a delusion.

And I’ve written about survivors of trauma and mental illness who don’t even realize they are transgender until much later in life, because survival was their first priority – and because trauma can delay many aspects of self-actualization.

To be clear, being transgender is not a mental illness. But I absolutely believe that mental illness can impact our experiences of being transgender.

When neurotypical transgender people judge my experience of transition, I can only roll my eyes. What a privilege, to not live through the complexities, the complications, and the anguish of trying to manifest your truth through the trauma of mental illness, not to mention the actual barriers that prevent us from accessing care.

If we are acknowledging that things like race, class, and gender impact the oppression that transgender people have been dealt, I’m asking that neurotypical transgender people recognize that perhaps their experiences are different from mentally ill trans people – and that mental illness does not invalidate our identities, or make us less valid as transgender people.

I’m just going to say it, straight up: I think it’s ableist and fucked up to tell mentally ill transgender people like me that if they aren’t happy about transition or secure in themselves, they aren’t transgender at all.

I believe that we need to hold space for mentally ill trans people to navigate their identities. To stop saying that questioning, doubting, or fearing their transness makes them inherently less than – because that experience is not only normal for any and all trans people, but especially real for many trans people with mental illness.

We need to make room for mentally ill trans people (and really, all trans people) to be stressed about transition, fed up with transition, exhausted by transition – because we don’t always have the capacity to deal with these kinds of changes when we’re just trying to survive.

We also need to recognize that mentally ill trans people are some of the most vulnerable in our community, because struggling with any kind of dysphoria (emotional, social, physical), transphobia, or erasure only jeopardizes our health even further, endangering us.

And we absolutely need to acknowledge that there are mentally ill trans people who can’t transition or don’t want to – full stop.

So yes, irritating commenter, I’m insane. Har har, you got me. Mental illness has undoubtedly shaped my sense of self and my experience of transition, as it has for many trans people.

Chances are, with the prevalence of mental health struggles in our community, if you aren’t struggling with mental illness yourself, you know and love a trans person who is.

But if we continue to marginalize mentally ill trans people, I’d venture to say that we aren’t much better than the cisgender people who marginalize us.

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11 thoughts on “Mental Illness Has Impacted My Transgender Identity

  1. bobcabkings says:

    Sam, all I can really add is that you are absolutely right on all counts. A mental illness impacts any and often every aspect of a person’s life, and issues of identity, which are so basic, perhaps most of all. You were very lucks to have a therapist who knew how to interpret your OCD symptoms in the context of your transition. I imagine, unfortunately, that such are few and far between. Thanks for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hart says:

    Thank you for posting this. Speaking as a Transman living with Bipolar I often get the feeling like I’m an embarrassment to the trans community because I happen to have a mental illness. A dirty secret of sorts. That I invalidate their experiences by calling myself trans, which has struggled with being called a mental illness, by in fact having a mental illness. The two are mutually exclusive.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. frostflickan says:

    Thank you for this, again a great text to read. I’m trans with Aspergers, ADD and anxiety. I might have PTSD and/or Borderline but I haven’t got that on paper yet. Anyway, I realised I was trans ( and that I had Aspergers and ADD too) as an adult, and I think that’s because my painful childhood with bullying, bad relationship with my parents and so on. Too much shit do deal with to realise that at the time.

    You are an inspiration for me, and I love reading your blog entries. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. SeeQuinn says:

    What about being in a mental health institute struggling with gender dysphoria? I haven’t come out yet and am really struggling. Any advice?
    Great post, by the way, it’s really something that has helped. It should definitely be talked about more in our community.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. emhjorth says:

    Thank you for writing this. I’m nonbinary, identify as transgender, and recovering from anorexia. I’m currently trying really hard to figure out if surgery is the right way to deal with (a particular part of) my dysphoria considering my eating disorder, and reading your piece here was very validating.

    Liked by 1 person

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