Dysphoria is a new word for me. I even just double-checked the spelling in Google because I’m not used to it. It is essentially defined as extreme discomfort. Gender Dysphoria, by default, is extreme discomfort as a result of the gender or sex you are assigned at birth. I believe where most people do not understand the legitimacy of the Transgender plight is found in their inability to imagine being born in the wrong body. I am not saying I understand it entirely either. How could I when I haven’t experienced this myself? I like my boobs and my societal training and expectation of looking and being female. I imagine Gender Dysphoria is like putting on all your clothes backwards. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the discomfort of your jeans having too much fabric in the front and not enough in the back. You can’t unbutton them or pull down the zipper to use the bathroom. The tag of your t-shirt rests on your chest and itches. Your hoodie, if worn, would cover your face and block your view. The worn spots where your knees have rubbed the denim raw are not where they should be. Your right shoe is on the left foot. It’s not comfortable. Those of us not suffering from Gender Dysphoria don’t have to experience the phenomenon of our skin being on the wrong body form, of trying to sew a dress on the mannequin of a male body. I don’t know what this is like, but when I watch Katie have bouts of depression caused by it, I know that it’s real. I have the luxury of taking off my clothes that are on backwards with ease. There might be medicine to balance the depression, but there isn’t medicine to change the perception of our own bodies. Only a combination of therapy, hormones, and gender re-assignment can do that. And only the person who is suffering can know. It is not for any of us to question it.
On Monday, I had my writing class and didn’t get home until 9pm. I asked Katie how her day was. In the living room, I could see the remnants of boxes where barstools once were and attractive barstools by the counter where ugly ones once stood. Katie responded, “I’m not great.”
I walked towards our bedroom and could see mountains of laundry and an anxious Katie attempting to fold her way through it. I’m still learning how to read the signs of what Katie needs in these moments, or what is even going on. For context, I spent 4.5 years of my time with Katie watching moments of depression, naming these moments her Mopey Zoo Lion, and never knowing their cause. Katie spent 32 years experiencing them and not knowing what they were or how to communicate them to me. As bad as I am at knowing how to help her, Katie is equally bad at recognizing them and then explaining the cause. That said, we have gotten better. She has made so much progress. She can’t always tell me in the moment as it’s happening what is going on, but we do talk about them eventually, most often the next day. The time between her feeling dysphoric and the discussion afterwards has shrunk considerably and I credit therapy for that. I also credit a lot of fucking hard work by both of us.
Katie explained that while putting the barstools together, the cats were all over everything as cats do. She explained that traffic felt louder. That nothing was going right. That every time the cats jumped in and out of the box, small pieces of styrofoam went everywhere, driving her crazy. You know those days where you wake up grumpy and everything feels louder than usual? That was this day for Katie. During our therapy session the next day, Katie explained that she kept disciplining the cats as quietly as possible to not confuse the neighbors. I must have looked confused because Katie followed up, “Their names are Charles and Carla. People probably think we are really angry at our roommates. What if they call the cops?”
As Katie’s partner, I want to help ease her discomfort. I want my spouse to not feel anxious and if the solution is something I can help with, my immediate response is to do that. Most of the time, my impulse is to probe her on what’s wrong. I’m someone who has to talk things out or cry to feel less anxious and I used to think this applied to everyone. I’ve learned that I need to be less “solve the problem” and more “how can I help you?”. That said, I’m still not great at the latter. I jokingly suggested we have sex – maybe her anxiety just needed to be worked out, right? Katie wanted to shower and melt into the hot water. So, no sex.
I then had the flash of genius! You see, I’m going to Vegas this week with 3 women who are fitness fluent and tiny. It is not that I don’t like my body, but I haven’t been on the fitness train this month and I’m feeling insecure about any pool time. I ordered 2 new swimsuits from Target to help with this. I’ve found that new, well-fitting clothes make you feel good no matter your percieved size or body insecurity. Thank you, Stacey and Clinton for really driving that message home on What Not To Wear back in the day. I heard they are bringing back a revival – anyone else as excited as I am?! I digress.
I had tried on the swimsuits, but one of them just didn’t look flattering. It’s more retro and has two fabric patterns that cut at a weird place on my body, making the parts I’m most insecure about look even bigger. There’s a reason the model on the Target.com page was a size 2/4 with a flatter chest – that isn’t me. Because I plan to return the suit anyway and I thought that maybe Katie’s anxiety and grumpiness could be because of the dysphoria, I suggested she try it on. Why not, right? Maybe seeing herself in feminine clothing will bring out Katie and eliminate what I’ve come to know as the days where Kyle is more physically visible. Plus, Katie could try on a swimsuit in the comfort of our home, with only me. My hope was she would see the light of summer through the darkness of the moment she was having.
Katie took the swimsuit and went into the bathroom, which I found interesting. She wasn’t changing in front of me. Through the reflection of a mirror, I could see her adjusting the straps on. I could hear the struggle as she tucked her penis in so that a bulge wasn’t at the bottom of the suit where it wouldn’t be for anatomically female bodies. “Tucking” is also new for me. I didn’t even know it was something Katie considered doing until we were in Disneyland last month and I noticed her Women’s Jeans didn’t seem too tight there. (Yes, dudes, girls causally look that direction as much as men look at our boobs. The double-standard is real. The only difference is, women less often feel empowered to take advantage by grabbing them without permission.) As quickly as my train of thought went towards the tucking subject, it was brought back to the sounds of the swimsuit being peeled off of her body. She didn’t even show it to me. This wasn’t going well.
Katie showered and when she was done, she got into bed, I asked her what happened with the swimsuit. She told me she couldn’t look past the bottom of it not looking like it should. She told me she’s never hated her genitals until that moment, until they betrayed her mental gender identity. This breaks my heart. I can’t fix being uncomfortable in her body. I can’t fix the mental game or the time it will take to make this better. How am I supposed to be there for her when all I can do is talk through things and buy more clothes? It’s really hard and the worst part is, who else really gets this? Who else but those of us who intimately know someone who is transgender can give us advice on this?
I told Katie I was sorry I suggested the swimsuit, that I thought it would help. I also asked her why she didn’t show it to me. Katie thought for a moment, and told me she just couldn’t face me in that moment. I pointed out that this was part of a pattern. I watched her face go through the motions of deciphering what that means. I followed up, “When you are feeling dysphoric, you resort to an internal battle alone, instead of letting me try to help you.” I continued, “how would you really know if the swimsuit looked bad? You haven’t worn one before and your perception of your own body is a bit flawed”, I joked, trying to lighten the mood. I told her that I understood that the bottom didn’t look how she wanted, but at some point, if she felt comfortable, I wouldn’t mind if she tried again so that, as an impartial observer, I could identify the parts of the swimsuit that looked good, that she liked. That way we can find one that’s better next time. At this point, I was tired from the day and the loss of sleep from stupid Spring Ahead. I told her we didn’t need to talk about this anymore, that I didn’t have the energy. We could discuss it tomorrow in more detail in our therapy session.
I turned on something on Netflix to fall asleep to and as I drifted, Katie got out of bed. She walked toward the bathroom and I could hear the same sounds of spandex trying to stretch over a form it’s meant to stay stuck to in water. I heard her struggle with her private parts, trying to make smaller what she does not mentally or anatomically identify as female. The light in the hall got brighter as the bathroom door opened and she walked back into the room. Katie’s hands were cupped in front of the bottom of the swimsuit, making obvious an insecurity in the same way I fold my arms on top of my ribs to hide my stomach when I stand. I focused on all that was so great about the suit and her body in it. I’m not just saying this because I love my wife and would say anything to make her feel good. Katie looked great in it! Katie is the size 2/4 woman on the Target website with no boobs. My future with her is becoming less kaleidoscopic, less fragmented shapes of light and more focused. I’m going to be married to a 6-foot tall, blonde and confident woman. I pointed out that the shape actually works for her. That we could always buy shorts to wear with it in the meantime. I don’t know if she fully believed me, but she smiled and retreated back to the bathroom to take it off and put on her pjs.
I am caught in the moment of feeling conflicted by my experience. On one hand, it is so weird to be giving my wife advice about body image and swimsuits. On the other, this is so normal. How is this my life right now? I miss Kyle less than I did in the beginning. Somehow, the idea of Kyle has really morphed into Katie. It’s a paradox. It’s confusing. It’s my life and I know I love her. For now, I have to trust that.