This is dedicated to all who suffer from gender dysphoria, to give hope to all who endure in silence, who cannot give voice to their pain, who do not dare to speak, who attempt to take their lives, who see no way out, and to demonstrate to everyone else how terrible it can be for we who live through this extreme conflict of self.
I once again found the bear trap had snapped firmly onto me.
It was one year ago, today. I had my first ever appointment with an endocrinologist. I bawled through the entire appointment. My new doctor gave me time so she could get to know me. She patiently listened to me tell her how I worked so hard not to transition, how I still did not want to transition, and how I saw no other way out of my mess but transitioning.
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I have written about the suffering that crushed me in 2013, the result of the extreme internal turmoil that left me constantly lamenting, “You hate being a man. You can’t be a woman. Just kill yourself.” I have not explained all of this thoroughly enough.
You might recall the statistic: 41% of people on the transgender spectrum will attempt suicide—from those who have a gender identity question, to those for whom it develops into gender dysphoria, to those who attempt transitioning, to those who transition. This, alone, should speak to how difficult it is to live through the incongruence, the extreme conflict which it is to have a body and brain that do not match; to be seen as one sex but feel like another.
It is far from only the internal struggle. Indeed, if not for the outer forces—the potential for being rejected and misunderstood; of losing a job or a home or both; the risk to one’s emotional life, economic life, the loves in one’s life; rejection by one’s church; every last sphere of life—if not for all of these, the internal struggle would be so much smaller, the attempted suicide rate way easier to stomach.
As much as I pondered killing myself, I was not going to do it. As a Christian, I would not test my Lord that He would give me eternal life; it’s His call, not mine, when I die. As a human, I would not do that to my family and everyone else, who would be left with the worst of emotions, and especially to my Julie, who would have to make it in life on her own. And, frankly, I could not bear to hurt myself.
Even more than killing myself, I thought about running away from home. Sundays came to be the hardest day of the week. I loved leading worship, proclaiming Christ, and teaching Bible class. When I came home at noon, I crashed horribly. I hated myself the worst. Outside of church, I could not sustain the good feeling I had when leading the Lord’s people. Often, during worship, my mind slipped away to the coming gloom, and I felt like a sham of a person.
So, Sunday afternoons were spent planning my getaway. On Monday, whenever Julie might leave the house, I would quickly throw together some things and take off. I would drive to who-knows-where. I would only check in with Julie after I got far enough away, and only so that she knew I was safe.
Several things kept me from running away. I’m so stinking practical that I could not bear the thought of wasting money on hotels and dining out all of the time. Besides, I knew that, eventually, I would have to come home and face my life. Thus, I was able to conclude that running away, like suicide, was no answer.
What did I have left? Since transitioning was an impossibility—this was the mind-set I worked so hard to retain, that my becoming a woman was the stupidest idea on the face of the earth, and even when I would decide that I would have to transition I would work so hard to change my mind—the only other option I could fathom was to enter a psych ward of a hospital.
Here is what I want you to know about how horrible my life was in 2013, and that what I experienced was what thousands of precious people go through who have gender dysphoria.
My mind was on fire.
I have never had a tumor growing in me, so I don’t know how that feels. I have never delivered a baby, so I don’t know how that feels. I have not experienced many of the things which bring the worst pain to the lives of people, so I don’t know how they feel.
But what I know about delivering a baby is that after hours of pain one has a gift of joy. And what I know about tumors is that there are plans for addressing them. And what I know about every other malady under the sun—even the ones which become lifelong plagues, and those which end in death sentences—is that people can tell their families about them, and they won’t be shunned or hated or misunderstood for having them, and even when there isn’t a cure there are many and various ways to treat them, to ease them, and they will be respected for having the surgery or taking the medicine.
Forgive my presumptive arrogance: Because of its uniqueness, my pain was worse.
My pain took me into the wilderness. And feeling like there was no one on earth who could understand, no minister who would think me anything but a sinner, that I had a condition which my family and friends might not/would not respect for its seriousness, in this wilderness I found myself tightly ensnared in a bear trap.
And so I suffered. I hurt the same each new day as I did the day before, yet I wouldn’t die. I just kept on suffering. I bled, but the blood would not run out. There was no end in sight, no expectation of help, no hope that death would come. And there was nothing I could do about it.
That’s how the world looked to me: I was lost in the wilderness, tightly ensnared in a bear trap.
Thankfully, I had Julie, but I feared wearing her out. I undertook therapy, to see if I could learn some skills to abide in my male life. I regularly spoke with a pastor, for spiritual strength. I would wind up speaking with many pastors, and placed myself under the care of several of them.
I took refuge in my work. I still loved being a pastor, and I adored the people of my congregation and the village in which I lived. I did not want to leave there until I retired at a good old age or, as I came to joke, when my friends at Ramsey Funeral Home would have to come and pry my dead fingers from the pulpit.
But I could not work twenty-four-hours-a-day.
I cried constantly. I would finally tell my congregation that I cried more in 2013 than in the first fifty-six years of my life, combined. That is no exaggeration.
I cried when I got up in the morning. I cried when I got dressed for work. I cried when I came home from work. I cried when I prayed. I cried when I was driving my car. I cried in my therapy sessions. I cried when I tried to go to sleep at night.
My mind was on fire. The bear trap tightened.
Before I had begun telling pastors about myself, the thought of telling them crushed me. Then, the pastors I had come to tell, who had influence over my professional life, completely did not get me. They were sympathetic, but they didn’t get me. In the end, to them I was struggling with a sinful situation and I had to get my healing from Christ. Their answer to my plea, “What am I supposed to do with myself? If I can’t transition, how am I supposed to ease my pain?” was always, “I don’t know.”
I would rather be told that I have a terminal illness than to hear “I don’t know.” At least with that I would know where I stand.
Every two or three days, especially from winter of 2013 through that autumn, before they became less frequent, I would fall into a complete meltdown. The bear trap was at its tightest. I was filled with pain. With anger. With rage. I had nowhere to go with everything that was inside of me. I couldn’t transition. I had to transition. I had to figure out how to be a male. I couldn’t figure out how to be a male. I couldn’t kill myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself. I wouldn’t run away. I kept planning my escape.
There was no end in sight for my pain. In my mid-fifties, I was still young, still wanted to be a pastor, still wanted to be a husband and father and grandfather and brother. I didn’t know how I was going to be that person. I hated myself, and then I hated myself for hating myself, sniveling ingrate that I was.
I came to say that I suffered a nervous breakdown right in front of everyone, and no one saw it.
In April, I started therapy. I had a marvelous therapist. I felt like I exasperated him with my bawling, pain-filled sermons about myself. He worked hard for me, but he could not remove the bear trap.
He taught me that only I could remove the bear trap. Only I could walk back from the wilderness.
At times, I had a meltdown on my bed. I would kick, and scream, and pound my pillow. I would holler my prayers to Christ, begging His mercy. After an hour, I would collapse in exhaustion and fall asleep.
At times, I had meltdowns when Julie was home. These usually took place in the living room. I would either pound away at the arms of my chair, or I would fall to the floor and writhe in pain. I put my pain into screaming words, as if blowing it out of me would finally get rid of it.
I never put myself into physical danger, so Julie would sit by, observe me, and wait. When I had exhausted myself, she finally spoke. Then we talked. Always an hour. Often two. The same stuff, over and over. New stuff, as it arose. We addressed it all. The profound love and respect we already had for each other grew in a way that cannot occur unless a couple does the hard work of suffering together.
I would beg her to commit me to a mental hospital. Many times, I pondered driving to one and committing myself. I saw it as a reasonable form of running away. And if I wound up in the hospital and I came to tell my world what landed me there, then maybe, just maybe, they would have sympathy for me. Maybe, just maybe, if I were hospitalized for a good, long time, they would feel sorry for me. Then, maybe, just maybe, because I was this completely screwed up person—this man who was their minister in the stead of Jesus Christ, who led them with integrity, who spoke by the Spirit as one who had authority, to whom they looked in tragedy after tragedy which continued to befall our congregation and community—maybe, just maybe, they would have sympathy for me. Maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t hate me.
But Julie would not do it. Julie would not commit me. And when I was tempted to drive myself to Bay City or Port Huron—to the psych wards where I had ministered to some of my members—when I thought of placing myself in one of these places her reason for not doing it rang in my ears and kept me at home.
We were convinced that they would so heavily medicate me that I would basically be left in a stupor, that it would take the most serious sedatives to douse the fire in my brain so that I could relax
But the drugs would not cure anything. They would only delay any decisions I had to make. They would leave me in a spot where I was useful to no one—only a blithering idiot, one who could do no more than watch TV.
Drugs. Mental hospital. Suicide. They’re all just other forms of running away.
Another form of running away: One evening, I tried to get drunk. It was during tax season, when Julie was not getting home till 11:00 p.m. or so. We had a bottle of wine. I drank the first glass very quickly. I poured a second. I began to sip it. The alcohol hit my brain. I’ve never been drunk and that first feeling always makes me stop. I started crying so hard that I flipped my La-Z-Boy onto its back, and I spilled onto the floor. I lay there and bawled. I couldn’t even ease my pain with alcohol.
By summer 2013, I finally agreed that I possessed the keys to the bear trap. That’s keys, plural. It would take me two years to finally grab onto these to where they did not slip out of my grasp.
Doc, my exceptional therapist, then Julie’s echoing him, encouraged me that I was the only one who could decide about my life, so the first key was that I could not make decisions based on who would be hurt or by whom I might be hated.
Another key was educating myself, learning that I had a real, physical condition. Once I knew that the origin of my suffering was not some nebulous mental illness, I was able to take control of it.
Another key was Julie and I talking through every last detail as to how we would proceed, figuring out my retirement and our future, how we would tell people and the order in which we would do it, striving to know how each would react so that we were ready for this largest hurdle (and after we got the first few under our belt, we were 100% correct as to the reactions of everyone).
The final, most important key was the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence, His always holding my Lord Jesus Christ before my face, and the excellent theology in which I had been trained, which I had proclaimed and taught, which I believed. I found myself trusting in Christ more deeply than ever, that He loved me and that I was proceeding under His good and gracious will.
I continued to suffer, but it gradually eased. Even at the three year mark, this past winter, I would feel the grip of the bear trap; old wounds would bleed. When they have, I’ve used the keys to free myself.
Through it all, I have taken refuge in Christ and in many of His promises, including this one: “God keeps his promise, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your power to remain firm; at the time you are put to the test, he will give you the strength to endure it, and so provide you with a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13b).”