Depersonalization in transgender autobiographies: Jamison Green, Imogen Binnie, and more

Zinnia Jones

(Depersonalization is a dissociative symptom experienced as sensations of feeling “unreal”, distant from one’s emotions, separated from the real world, and robotically going through the motions of life as if acting out a script. Learn more about depersonalization in part 1.)

 

“Much closer to the surface”: In search of Eve

In the 1988 book In Search of Eve: Transsexual Rites of Passage, several trans women who were interviewed about their medical transition reported changes in their emotions upon starting hormone therapy (Bolin, 1988). One described estrogen as “a tranquilizer”, but only in the sense of a “quieter” to her nerves, without being sedating.

All cited evidence of the tranquilizing effects of the hormonal therapy. In this regard, Eunice, a preoperative transsexual who had been taking hormones for six years, stated,

“From the beginning I’ve noticed that estrogen acts as a tranquilizer, not to the point of a soporific, but merely a quieter to my nervous system. I do not become agitated as easily as before. Of course I assume part of the effect is psychosomatic. Also, my emotions are much closer to the surface.” (p. 130)

This sense of being closer to one’s emotions was shared by other trans women, who felt their emotions became much more prominent than before and that they had “increased access to feelings”. These women were not disturbed by this, but rather appreciated these new emotional changes.

While hormones may have a tranquilizing effect by reducing anxiety, transsexuals noticed increased emotionality, “crying at the drop of a hat,” and the prevalence of feelings to a far greater degree than before hormonal therapy. It is difficult to sort out the biological from the cultural because women’s emotionality is an obvious cultural stereotype. Transsexuals, however, did not regard this negatively but rather took a positive stance on increased access to feelings. (p. 130)

These reported symptoms – a sense of getting closer to one’s emotions soon after starting HRT with easier access to their feelings, which they regarded as a favorable change – are consistent with numerous other transgender accounts of the remission of depersonalization following hormone therapy.

This is a real psychic experience that cannot be confused with some merely performative conformance to cultural gender stereotypes. If anything, depersonalization is what feels like acting out a constructed role – the absence of depersonalization feels like freedom from that constricting role. When trans women express their feelings, when trans women cry, we are doing this out of a genuine experience of emotion, and sometimes the intensity and sheer reality of this experience is still novel to us. Often, we’re gracious even to be able to experience emotions such depth, when our feelings seemed so flat and dim and false before now.

 

“A potential ‘life'”: Claudine Griggs

In her 1998 book S/he: Changing Sex and Changing Clothes, Claudine Griggs points out that starting hormone therapy is often accompanied by a rapid feeling of relief (Griggs, 1998).

…HRT often provides immediate psychological relief, though it may be weeks or months before the first noticeable physical response…. (p. 13)

Her experience also reflects the lack of agency feelings commonly experienced by sufferers of depersonalization, as well as their social and occupational impairment. Griggs soon finds that since transitioning, she’s taken much more of an interest in her education, her career, and her future.

An interesting change occurred once I opted for sex reassignment. I began to worry not solely about becoming a woman, but what kind of woman I was to become. I contemplated vaguely a potential “life.”

For the first time, I bought clothes that were appealing to me and wondered: How will I appear in that dress or blouse? What kind of makeup is best? Is that nail polish too dark? Which hairstyle will be complimentary? What work should I do? What should I study in college? I asked other women for advice on dress and manner, practicing their instructions. (p. 13)

 

“This is what normal feels like”: Jamison Green

Jamison Green, a trans man and past president of WPATH, wrote in his 2004 memoir Becoming a Visible Man that his first injection of testosterone was accompanied by emotional effects that set in within a matter of days (Green, 2004). His descriptions reflect other trans accounts of coming out of depersonalization: Green is astonished to realize “what normal feels like”.

Samantha and I drove home the next day. I still felt nothing. Michael had given me some syringes and told me to give myself another injection in two weeks. I regarded my body with some trepidation, as if I expected it to go out of control, to surprise me with its Mr. Hyde transformation. Still nothing. About three days later, as I was walking down the hall at work on an interdepartmental errand it suddenly hit me, but in an unexpected way. I found myself thinking: “So this is what normal feels like.” I had to stop moving and just sense myself from the inside out. Anyone seeing me there would have thought I had forgotten something, would have imagined that I was recreating my previous steps in my mind to remember where I had left something. It was true thast something was gone, but an invisible something new was in its place. I felt centered and balanced and whole for the first time in my life. I had never realized before that I didn’t know what this felt like. “Wow,” I whispered. “This is what normal feels like.” (pp. 96-97)

 

“Without any real investment”: Imogen Binnie

In a 2014 Lambda Literary feature, Nevada author Imogen Binnie described the emotional impact of discontinuing estrogen for fertility reasons (Binnie, 2014). She notes the unpleasant effects on her mood, and describes her emotions as a “pain body”, explicitly stating that she once again feels “emotionally numb” and “going through the motions” of being a person. Again, these experiences of feeling numbed, robotic, emotionless, and scripted are characteristic of depersonalization.

I give up on the Internet and read Hellblazer comics on my tablet computer thing. It’s getting late. We Do Science, which means I come into a teacup and then Alex uses midwife tools to look at gametes under a microscope. I’ve been off hormones for six months: modern parthenogenetic science aside, we’re lucky as two women to be able to make babies together without help. Being off hormones is the worst though. It’s the reason I’ve been in a bad mood since last June and it’s the reason I’ve had too much anxiety to check my email or even think about working on my thesis for two months. If the hormone profile in your body feels good to you, I don’t recommend fucking around with it unless you have a pretty good reason. Which I do! But that doesn’t make it easier to feel like my emotional body- my “Pain Body,” to use a term from an Eckhart Tolle book I haven’t read–has reverted to what it was when I was twenty-two, in the closet, emotionally numb and going through the motions of being a human being without any real investment.

 

“Nothing ever fixes that”: Juliet Jacques

Guardian columnist Juliet Jacques is best known for her coverage of the experience of transitioning in the U.K. In her 2015 book Trans: A Memoir, she describes her disinvestment from life, feeling it all to be “pointless” as she is “always bored”. She feels isolated, with a lack of connection binding her to the rest of the world, and has become so used to experiencing this that she “can’t tell anymore” whether she’s feeling depressed or not.

I took a deep breath.

‘Ever since school, I’ve felt that life is pointless,’ I said. ‘It may be depression, I can’t tell any more. I’m always bored, tired, unable to enjoy anything. Nothing ever fixes that. I don’t fit in anywhere, especially work, and it’d be better if I left, but I can’t afford to. I’m never satisfied with anything I do and always feel I have to justify myself.’

‘To other people?’

‘And to myself. I feel so isolated, so rootless.’ (p. 113)

 

The resonance of history

As someone who spent decades suffering depersonalization before making the connection with my transness, I found it deeply validating to discover so many stories throughout history of trans people who experienced gender dysphoria in the way I did. Finding the words for these emotional symptoms has challenged me for years, and it was so affirming to see that other trans people were similarly trying to untangle this experience 60 years ago and beyond. From the rise of color photography to the first summit of Everest to the advent of WPATH, long before any alleged contemporary “trend”, depersonalization has been a symptom of gender dysphoria for a substantial number of trans people.

This understanding of depersonalization as a distressing symptom common among gender-dysphoric people lends a moral urgency to transgender awareness efforts and access to affirming healthcare. This is an experience of gender dysphoria that is different and less widely recognized than the conventional experience of obvious discomfort with gendered features of the body and clear desire to present as another gender. But it’s an experience that countless trans people across decades have shared: transitioning and finding unexpected relief from lifelong suffering. Gender-affirming treatment is associated with a measurable reduction in depersonalization symptoms, and it’s easy to see why. For many of us, this isn’t about becoming a different person – it’s about becoming a person for the first time. 

Have you had experiences similar to these? Tell your story in the comments!

Support Gender Analysis on Patreon


References

  • Binnie, I. (2014, February 9). The Banal and the Profane. Lambda Literary. Retrieved from https://www.lambdaliterary.org/
  • Bolin, A. (1988). In search of Eve: Transsexual rites of passage. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Green, J. (2004). Becoming a visible man. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Griggs, C. (1998). S/he: Changing sex and changing clothes. Oxford, UK: Berg.
  • Jacques, J. (2015). Trans: A memoir. London, UK: Verso Books.

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
This entry was posted in Awareness building, Depersonalization, Gender dysphoria, Psychology and psychiatry, Transgender medicine and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Depersonalization in transgender autobiographies: Jamison Green, Imogen Binnie, and more

  1. Kacey says:

    This is excellent and totally my experience of starting oestrogen. Ive also now started tapering down my dose of venlafaxine which, although making some parts of living harder, has allowed a further increased movement of emotional response. From deeper and hidden, to the surface. Again, it happened after starting oestrogen as described, i am happy about this.
    Ive looked to see if any other trans folk have experiences of coming off anti-depressants without much luck but i would be interested to hear from any.

  2. Pingback: Depersonalization in transgender autobiographies: Christine Jorgensen | Gender Analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *