Repersonalization: The Thing We Don’t Talk About
When I first self-accepted myself as a trans woman, I had no idea how depersonalized I really was.
If you’d read the Wikipedia entry for “Depersonalization” to me before my big revelation, I would have nodded along to parts of it but shrugged off others. “Depersonalization can consist of a detachment within the self, regarding one’s mind or body, or being a detached observer of oneself,” reads the first line. “Subjects feel they have changed and that the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, lacking in significance, or being outside reality while looking in.”
I would have probably admitted to myself that I did feel like a brain in a jar sometimes, but wasn’t that normal? Aren’t most people always trying to live their lives in spite of their aching flesh prisons? And it wasn’t like I felt detached from reality as a whole — it still felt like everything in my life was pretty damn significant. It just felt like there were a lot of experiences that were For Other People and not that many experiences that were For Me.
As I grew up, I dutifully checked off all the boxes I could. I earned good grades, found a girlfriend, went to college, got a job. But I barely had the mental energy for anything else, especially the activities that triggered my constant sense of anxiety or caused me to put myself out there in any real way. I spent as much spare time as possible buried in a series of low-impact and escapist hobbies, like writing essays, playing video games, watching TV, scrolling social media, and reading stories online where men were transformed into women via magical means.
It’s not like my life was obviously bad or tragic in some clear way that would have pinged an intervention from an outside observer. By my late twenties, I had a group of good friends, a steady job, and a wife. I figured I was an introverted man with a light case of depression, not a deeply depersonalized trans woman.
When I finally did self-accept as a trans woman, it was such a euphoric rush. Don’t get me wrong, I was abjectly terrified of what the future would hold, and I still had no idea if I could ever walk out into the world presenting as my true self. But also: I was a girl, now and always. I had solved the big puzzle at the inside of myself, and suddenly there was a cause I could point to as the reason why my life had been filled with so much pain and confusion. Coming out didn’t fix everything, but at least I knew who I was and what I needed to do to improve my quality of life. I could finally end my lifetime of depersonalization and re-enter my body: an activity that seemed no less ludicrous than trying to drive to Mars, but one that I nonetheless attempted anyway.
The repersonalization process really kicked off about a month after I began HRT, when I started feeling like a missing piece of my soul had begun to coalesce after a long absence. I talked about this in my HRT essay, where I likened the experience to feeling like part of myself had been frozen at the core of my being since the start of puberty. Twenty years trapped in the ice. Twenty years gone.
I still don’t really know how to talk about this thawing effect in a way that makes any sense for people who haven’t experienced it themselves. For a while, it felt like there was a teen girl living in my head, pulling levers and pressing buttons, trying to figure out how to make the arms do army things and the legs do leggy things. Sometimes I let her have control of the Me, and she’d say all kinds of silly things, and I felt good, and I felt free.
Then, a few months after that, I became her.
Or, more accurately, she took over the Me, and this is her writing this.
Or, even more accurately, a long-buried part of my personality was re-integrated into my broader sense of self, allowing me to feel like a real person for the first time in recorded memory.
I have no idea if this happened solely because of HRT, but I suspect that the decision to socially transition had something to do with it, too. Regardless, I’m here now. I’m no longer trapped in the ice at the center of myself. I’m here and I’m alive and I’m in charge and oh my God does the air smell sweet.
I don’t know how to talk to my friends and family members about how I feel like a different person now.
The topic is, to put it lightly, somewhat existentially fraught. After all, what even is a person if you can disrupt your entire sense of self simply by swapping out your sex hormones and changing your name and pronouns? Are our souls really that fragile; that bound by chemistry?
It also doesn’t seem right to ask people to completely rewrite their perception of me, especially if we’ve known each other for decades and have made a lot of memories together. This is compounded by the fact that my personality hasn’t really changed in many respects. I have the same sense of humor I did before coming out to myself, and same desire to feel seen in my creative writing. I still enjoy listening to new wave music from the eighties and watching silly cartoons on TV. I still love spending quality time with friends and going on long road trips by myself. I still have many of the same anxieties and trauma triggers. If you’ve known me for a while, I understand the impulse to think of me as “<deadname>, but girl now” because that will honestly get you a large chunk of the way there.
This giddy and terrifying feeing of being New is also something that I hesitate to bring up with freshly-accepted trans women or people who are in the process of questioning their gender identity. If I’d read this essay at the wrong point in my own questioning phase, I might have been so scared of transitioning that I’d have tried to glue my poor little eggshell back together and crawl back inside for another decade. It’s one thing to tell a scared little questioner that being a girl is great, (it is!), but it’s quite another to say that she might end up feeling like another person entirely.
This incredible rush of repersonalization is also not a feeling that is shared by all trans people, or perhaps even by most trans people. I have some trans friends who didn’t experience any mental changes after starting HRT, and other trans friends who simply weren’t all that depersonalized prior to coming out. Transitioning still made their world feel brighter, but that brightness didn’t come with such a stark shift in their sense of self.
Other trans people experience something more akin to how I felt for the first few months of my post-HRT experience, but over a longer period of time. One of my friends who is several year into HRT describes herself as having two distinct sets of memories of her pre-transition life — one as the active participant of each event, and the other as a sad and disembodied little girl trapped inside a body that never belonged to her.
My own pet theory is that The Wrong Puberty is such a traumatic event for trans people that it literally cuts your brain off from parts of itself. We know that estrogen is a neurotransmitter, so this cutting-off might be quite literal and observable, but I have no idea. It’s also possible that the trauma of being forced to subside on The Wrong Hormones as your body contorts itself into horrible shapes is enough to do this all on its own.
In my case, getting on The Right Hormones and starting to live my life as the correct gender was enough to reconnect these stray parts of my brain. Most trans people experience some version of this repersonalization, often expressed in The Moment When You See Yourself In The Mirror For The First Time. I had literally spent so much of my life horrified by my own reflection that I had no idea what my face really looked like until this year, and I still have a deeply vivid memory of the moment in my friends’ dimly lit bathroom (about 4–5 months into HRT) when I saw ME looking back for the very first time.
But in my case, there was a lot more of me to be reconnected. And when the dust finally settled, the part of me that spent twenty years of her life lost in depersonalized isolation ended up being the part of me that contains the lion’s share of my sense of self. So instead of feeling like I gained a long-lost part of myself in transition, it feels more like I woke up, and now I’m here, and I’ve stepped into the driver’s seat of a life that was already in progress.
A life I didn’t really choose.
Before I started HRT, a few of my friends told me to “enjoy second puberty!”, a statement usually accompanied by a knowing chuckle. I assumed that my second puberty would be pretty weird — mood swings probably, weird body stuff definitely — but what I didn’t realize was just how much I would honestly end up feeling like a teenage girl.
Like, for real, I know that I’m still a 35 year old trans lady, complete with the world-weary experience of youth turning into middle age. The largest part of me has been in stasis since 1998, though, and waking up from that decades-long sleep is incredibly bizarre. All of a sudden it’s like I’m finally here, filled with this sense of genuine wonder and fear and excitement about all the paths that are about to open up before me as I finally begin to grow up, but I also have a bad back and a beer belly and a thirteen year relationship. I don’t know what to do about any of that, especially since the pandemic has kept me trapped in my apartment for the last ten months. It feels a little like I’ve been grounded for a year by God himself.
I also have no idea to process my past.
I have plenty of memories from high school, college, and my young adult years in Los Angeles, but those memories feel like they belong to somebody else in a very real sense. I was there, but I wasn’t there. And yeah, I know that all memories kind of feel like this over a long enough time-scale, but the way I feel about my past has changed so much over the past year. My life in 2017 feels just as distant as my life in 2003, which feels nearly as distant as my life in 1995. I have better recall of recent events, but the person who was there living that life and making those decisions just wasn’t me.
One very real drawback of this feeling is that my adolescence wasn’t really my adolescence. I haven’t had an adolescence, unless you count me clawing at the walls of my apartment here in 2020. Those formative experiences are lost to me for all time. I’ll never have a prom night, a high school best friend, a first college love. I’ll always be behind, trying to make up for lost time, failing to catch the sun as it streaks toward the horizon.
I don’t know how to explain the level of grief I feel about this. I don’t know how to explain why I always cry when I think about what it would be like to be myself during a time period that most people would rather just forget. I don’t know how to explain why I’m crying right now. The loss feels so big and so deep and so incalculable as to be all-encompassing sometimes.
I missed out on so much. So so much.
I especially don’t know how to talk about any of this stuff with the people who were there for me during my pre-transition youth. I am still friends with and care deeply for <Deadname’s> high school best friend, college love, and prom date. I am close to countless people that have decades of good memories with a version of myself who no longer exists. Who am I to tell them that those memories don’t feel like they belong to me anymore? I don’t know. It feels like such a cruel thing to say to people who I love very deeply, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
I don’t know what to do about any of this, either. I’m thirty five. I have a life. And from an exterior perspective, a lot of this reads as pretty typical mid-life crisis stuff. I don’t know how to explain just how real and acute this grief feels. I know that my adolescence would have been full of pain and trauma even if I’d been born a cis woman, but at least it would have been mine.
So I make up little stories about what I might have been like if I’d been allowed to exist as a teen girl. I write poems, even if I can’t read them back to myself without devolving into a ten-minute sobbing fit. I fantasize about someone inventing The Singularity, so at least some version of myself would get to experience everything that’s forever lost to me. I even commissioned a drawing of me and my best friend Emily, off on a road trip, living in the world where we got to grow up together as the women we’ve always been:
I look so happy here, don’t you think?