Themes of depersonalization in transgender autobiographies: Jan Morris

The nature and impact of depersonalization

Zinnia Jones

Depersonalization is a dissociative symptom that encompasses certain feelings and experiences of oneself or the world as “unreal”. While the perception of reality remains intact, it is subjectively felt to take on a distinct character of flatness or lifelessness. The world is experienced as having a “dreamlike” quality, blunted and drained of vividness, and separated from oneself as if by a skin, veil, glass, or fog (symptoms collectively known as derealization). A sense of distance from one’s emotions is a core feature of depersonalization: sufferers are aware of their feelings, but may not experience them as “real” (emotional numbing – “I know I have feelings but I don’t feel them”). They may describe themselves as emotionally “dead” or feeling like a “zombie”, and perceive themselves as having a lack of agency in their own lives. There is a feeling of existing as a detached observer of one’s own thoughts, emotions, and actions, with a sense of “going through the motions” of life (detachment from self). For some, this is perceived as a kind of disembodiment, such as a feeling of seeing oneself externally in a kind of “out-of-body” experience (anomalous body experience) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Steinberg, Cicchetti, Buchanan, Hall, & Rounsaville, 1993; Sierra & David, 2011).

These feelings and sensations are noted to be particularly difficult to describe or convey to others; this fundamental alteration in the “texture” of conscious experience can generally be explained only by metaphors or “as if” statements. Some may not necessarily realize that they are experiencing a distinct and genuine symptom, believing that this is simply the normal feeling of life. For many, they’ve never experienced anything else.

This is not an innocuous condition. Sufferers find depersonalization to be highly distressing, not in spite of their alienation from their emotions, but because of their alienation from their emotions: “the distress is described as arising from the unpleasantness of the depersonalization experience itself” (Medford, 2012). The pervasive sense of disengagement from one’s life can result in what might be expected from perpetually feeling that life has little purpose. Those who experience depersonalization have elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and social and occupational impairment: they may feel that there is no point to career or academic pursuits. They are more likely to be unemployed, more often single, and more likely to live with their parents (Michal et al., 2016). Students with depersonalization show greater rates of academic underachievement and unhealthy avoidant coping strategies (Michal et al., 2015). Most worryingly, sufferers of depersonalization show a highly increased rate of suicidal ideation, active suicidal desire, suicide planning, and previous suicide attempts (Michal et al., 2010; Tosić-Golubović, Žikić, Slavković, Nikolić, & Simonović, 2017).

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In our own words: Transgender experiences of depersonalization

Introduction: Symptoms of depersonalization

Zinnia JonesDepersonalization is a cluster of mental and emotional symptoms generally described as feelings of unreality, with sensations that the world and one’s self are flat, lifeless, distanced, or emotionally dead (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Sufferers report experiences such as feeling that they “have no self”. They “don’t feel” their emotions; they often feel split into two parts, with one participating in the outside world and the other inside observing and commenting; they may ruminate constantly with a compulsive inner dialogue of self-scrutiny (Steinberg, Cicchetti, Buchanan, Hall, & Rounsaville, 1993). They experience a lack of agency in their own life, and can feel like a “robot” or “zombie”; they feel as if they are simply going through the motions or acting out a script. They may have obsessive thoughts over the nature of existence and reality (APA, 2013).

They may sense that they are almost physically separated from the world by a glass wall, veil, fog, bubble, or skin; their perception of the world becomes somehow colorless or like a picture with no depth; they experience the world as “unreal”. Their emotional numbness becomes a bodily sensation and they feel as if their head is filled with cotton. They may struggle to imagine people or places vividly (APA, 2013). They feel that they are disconnected from life; while they can still think clearly, some essential quality seems to have been lost from their experience of the world (Medford, 2012). Continue reading

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When it’s not “just autism”: ASD does not rule out gender dysphoria

Zinnia JonesAs both transgender identities and autism have received increasing attention in recent years, a growing number of misconceptions have proliferated about the relation between these phenomena. News outlets run stories with questionably phrased headlines such as “Are autistic children more likely to believe they’re transgender?”, suggesting that trans people’s genders are simply a matter of a personal “belief” that could be either true or false. Other online publications claim trans people may be “suffering from a mental disorder which could have been treated in another way”, and that their apparent gender could instead be “an autistic obsession”. I’ve personally heard from several trans people whose progress in transitioning has been delayed or obstructed by therapists and doctors who believed it was possible that their gender was not genuine, but rather a result of being on the autism spectrum.

Such practices do not reflect what is currently known about individuals with both gender dysphoria and autism. The assumption that a trans person’s gender has emerged from aspects of their autism, rather than this straightforwardly being their gender as in allistic individuals, is largely unfounded. There is a kernel of fact at the center of this speculation: those with gender dysphoria have an elevated likelihood of being autistic or exhibiting autistic features, and autistic people are also more likely to be dysphoric or gender-variant (May, Pang, & Williams, 2017).

But the observation of “some of these people are on the autism spectrum” is distinctly different from the claim of “some of these people are on the autism spectrum and their autism is causing the false appearance of a transgender identity”. A significant proportion of trans people are autistic. This does not therefore mean they aren’t trans. Continue reading

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August 2017 State of the Gender Address: A politics post

Heather McNamaraBy Heather McNamara

Since life in the United States under this new reality show star regime has transformed our already pitifully short 48-hour news cycle into more of a 48-minute news cycle, I thought I would start a monthly roundup of news stories that affect transgender people and cis women.

To be clear, a lot happened in the world of race politics, flooding, nuclear war, and sundry types of doom but I’m going to focus this news roundup on gender and on the accomplishments of trans people and cis women. Continue reading

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The “Lesbophobia” Scam

Heather McNamaraBy Heather McNamara

Those of us who have been in the trans activism game for a while are familiar with the mental and linguistic gymnastics that TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) perform in order to justify transphobia while simultaneously pretending they’re not transphobic. One of their little terms, however, recently went relatively mainstream as blogger Claire from SisterOutrider leveled it at bestselling author (and one of my favorites), Roxane Gay. That term is “lesbophobia.” Continue reading

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