On Dysphoria

An essay on not feeling yourself.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in starting to explore trans theories and experiences is that the nature of dysphoria is nebulous, complex, and difficult to put into words.

I’ve struggled for years with a lot of the classic hallmarks of depression–anxiety, apathy, substance abuse, mood swings, self loathing, & suicidal thoughts, to name a few. I was never a really happy-go-lucky kid, but I can remember that a lot of these feelings really started to dominate my consciousness as my classmates and I entered puberty in middle school. Thinking on this, I think it makes a lot of sense given that puberty marks a major shift into the gendered spaces of the adult world for children. But at the time, in a small town in rural Ohio, I had no way to intellectually link my sadness and death wishes to anything about my identity, especially in terms of gender.

It’s weird now to reconsider a lot of the shitty feelings that have dominated my psychic landscape through the lens of what I’ve learned about dysphoria and the slippery way it slides into everything a person can do. I have a lot of regrets and remorse and shame about things I’ve said and done in the past. From my new perspective, where I have a name for a concept that seems to embody everything I want to fly on my freak flag, so much of the shit I was never able to figure out about myself makes sense.

I still have a knee-jerk reaction to this where I refute any attempt to explain myself with dysphoria because obviously I’m actually just a worthless piece of human garbage. I sometimes feel like I’m bending over backwards to make sure I’m not using dysphoria to excuse or justify shitty things I need to take responsibility for. I think this a function of my inclination to scrub the rose color off of any new pair of glasses.

But I also know I need to learn that dysphoria might be what enables me in a lot of my negative behaviors and thought patterns because I basically decided I was already spiritually and emotionally dead around age 15 and, from that point forward, my life was basically just waiting for death to catch up to me on the physical plane. That’s really no way to live.

I think I’ve rediscovered an impulse that most people take for granted; it’s a drive to find a way to live, in the abstract sense of the word that connotes comfort and sustainability and the pursuit of happiness instead of just the acceptance of misery. That impulse is a big part of what’s motivated me to push towards honesty and embracing myself.

If you had told me even a year–hell, even six months ago–that it’s okay to want to be alive, that it’s good to enjoy life, that feeling positive sometimes is an acceptable thing for a human being to do, I would’ve paid lip service in agreement and had an internal breakdown in which I squashed all of those ideas as possibilities for myself because I’m unworthy of anything good in life.

Understanding that I was reinforcing these attitudes in myself, that I was the reason I hated myself has been a sort of revelation as well. It’s strange now that even as I’ve started to come out to a limited inner circle of people in my life, I wear a vague sense of depression as armor to prove that I’m actually struggling. That’s not to say that I’m not actually struggling or that I don’t feel like a total shit stack sometimes. But even when I don’t feel that blue, I erect a facade of anguish even as I attempt to tear down the foundations of my own internal sadness.

I think that, for now, being able to maintain that mask–the one of the sad closeted trans girl–has a certain utility in helping friends to understand what I’m going through and giving me a little emotional distance from them. But ultimately, it doesn’t fit into the scheme of sustainable, functional livelihood I want to create for myself.

I don’t know that I can really imagine a life where dysphoria and depression don’t impact me on a regular basis, but it is heartening to imagine one where coping with them is something I can do with practiced methods, where they are not shadows that lurk over my shoulders on a daily basis. Because that’s what dysphoria is to me. A creepy feeling like a gust of wind in a dark alley, one that alters the climate on what might otherwise be a totally normal day.

Sometimes, it wakes up with me. Sometimes, it finds me in the mirror in the bathroom. Sometimes, it just passes me by on the street, in a store front window or a stranger’s eyes, but then it follows me around the rest of the day.

I used to not understand why these feelings seemed to find me like rain finds Seattle. I upset myself trying to fight them. Or felt so overwhelmed by the shit in my own head that I had to make strategic negotiations for getting through little interactions like buying coffee or small talk with co-workers. But that didn’t stop me from wallowing in them and resisting the efforts of others to pull me to my feet.

Now that I know myself better, I find I have a lot easier time identifying these feelings, where they come from, and when I need to do something to manage them. It’s my hope that as my journey progresses, this trend continues. I don’t know that the shadow will ever leave me, but I think I might not notice it so much if I turn towards the light.



Copyright Lucy Diavolo.


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