Dysphoria, gender fog and significant events

This is the fifth in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

In my observation, when a trans woman experiences one of the significant gender events I discussed in the last part, it can bring up a lot of feelings. This can have a major impact on our gender dysphoria: each significant gender event produces strong feelings of anticipation, gratification and disappointment. Each of these feelings by itself can produce peaks of dysphoria, and they are accompanied by an intense focus on the event that increases the baseline of dysphoria for that period.

These events can be so significant that we get excited. Very excited, as in unable to sleep for nights beforehand. We can spend a lot of time thinking about the event: what to wear, where to go, what precautions to take. We can feel frustrations with make-up, clothing, padding, wigs. We can feel impatient with the lead time, and want to get it over with so that the event can start. These frustrations, this impatience, feeds gender dysphoria.

The events themselves can sometimes be disappointing. The disappointment can come from interactions with other people, who may treat us like men, disrespect us, discriminate against us, harass us or even attack us – or simply not find us attractive. Or it can come from not liking what we see in the mirror or a photograph, or how our clothes fit. These disappointments feed dysphoria.

The events can be gratifying: we can have our femininity, our status as women, our attractiveness confirmed. We can simply have a good time. But even that gratification can feed dysphoria, because we often want more. If we have success, we want to build on that success. The event can be a high, and then we can experience withdrawal afterwards.

Whatever happens before, during and after the significant gender event, we spend a large part of that time focused on the event, thinking about what will happen, what is happening, what has happened. Just the fact of thinking so much about gender and about our own gender presentation can increase the chance that we will feel dysphoria.

Finally, this intense focus on the event can impair our judgment. This is widely recognized by trans people, and I call it “gender fog.” When we are in the gender fog, we often make decisions that we would not have made at other times, decisions that we sometimes regret later.

This state of intense focus can begin up to a week before the significant gender event, and last for up to two weeks afterwards. This means that for just one event we can spend as much as three weeks focused on gender expression, increasing our dysphoria, and with potentially impaired judgment. If we have these significant gender events less than three weeks apart, we may be constantly in this gender fog.

This concludes the fifth installment of the Slippery Slope. You can wait for the next installment, or read on in the full article.

Anticipation and gratification

I’ve gone out in public presenting as a woman a few times this summer, which gave me the opportunity to examine my feelings around those types of experiences. One observation is that what I’ve been calling “gender fog” has at least three distinct phases to it: the anticipation of a significant gender event, the event itself and the reaction to the event. I’ve never experienced one phase without the others, but the feelings I feel in each phase are somewhat different.

20140927_192035

The anticipation phase is the most uncomfortable for me. I experience intense excitement, insomnia and difficulty concentrating on anything other than the upcoming event. I find myself planning and rehearsing and rehashing all the details: what I’ll wear, where I’ll go, who I’ll see, and so forth. On the day of the event, I may have shaky hands and low appetite.

The excitement may taper off as the event begins, particularly if what I’m doing is not all that exciting in itself. But the feelings of satisfaction and gratification may grow, even if my feet are hurting or strange men are making me uncomfortable.

After the event, I tend to feel a certain satisfaction. I feel particularly gratified if the event goes well, but usually I feel some gratification even if the event wasn’t particularly satisfying. I often replay the event in my mind, focusing on the most gratifying details: who said what, who did what, what looked good on me in the mirror.

In this gratification period I also find myself thinking about future events: what else would be fun to do? If I see a pretty woman on the street, I may compare myself with her, and feel a desire to be out there on the street looking just as pretty as her. If I bought new clothes, I usually try them on at home and think about when I could wear them in the future.

The gratification period is also when I think most about how “easy” the event was (often because I’ve filtered out the difficult parts in my memory) and how much fun (often because I’ve filtered out any unpleasant parts). I find myself thinking about the possibility of spending longer periods as a woman, or doing it more often. If it begins while I’m still presenting as a woman, that’s the time when I may do something unwise, like the time I went home to the South Bronx without changing first.

I’ve toyed with the idea of separating the notion of “gender fog” into two feelings: anticipation and gratification. At this point I’m leaning towards simply talking about them as two distinct phases in the gender fog process, but I might change my mind about this.

How I deal with gender fog

A friend of mine showed a friend of hers my previous post on gender fog, and it got me thinking that it’s time to write a blog post about dealing with gender fog. As you can see from my previous post, it’s not like I’ve mastered the thing: it still can give me insomnia for days. But I have developed some coping mechanisms that I find useful, and maybe they’ll help you too.

To recap: Gender fog is a feeling that some transgender people get leading up to, during and sometimes shortly after, a significant gender event. What makes an event significant is highly subjective and personal, and dependent on the situation. Between the time when the event is planned and when it happens, I experience an intense excitement, often so intense that it interferes with my sleep. During that time I find myself planning and visualizing and rehashing every minute detail of the event, no matter how mundane, and often have difficulty concentrating on anything else (like work, friends or family). If I share my focus with friends or family, no matter how tolerant, they tend to complain that I show little interest in them or their needs. I sometimes lose my perspective on my own life and make decisions that I later regret. So what do I do to keep this from getting out of control?

  • I give myself breaks. Gender fog is very stressful, and in my experience it impairs my judgment. I need time when I’m not going through it, to relax and clear my head. In my experience it gradually subsides over the following week. After ten days it’s completely gone. I want at least ten gender-fog-free days, so I try to have these significant gender events at least a month apart.

  • I try not to do anything too special. I get so excited doing the same thing every month or so – going out for a walk and a little shopping, generally – that meeting up with a friend is a big deal. As I said above, what makes something a big deal is going to be different for every person and every circumstance. But compounding new things (“This is the first time I’ve gone out in three months, and I’ve got a new coat, and I’m meeting a friend, and we’re doing karaoke”) seems to make the gender fog worse.
  • I set goals and limits ahead of time. These may not be set in stone forever, but if I can say, “I’m going to go to the bar and have two drinks and then go home,” or “I’m going to spend no more than a hundred dollars on clothes,” it helps to keep things in perspective.
  • I try not to deny myself. Setting limits is good, but in my experience, one of the worst things for gender fog is the feeling that I’ve been restraining myself and keeping myself from doing whatever it might be. When I finally get a chance to do that thing, it releases my inner toddler, who does the thing as long and hard as she can. So I try to find a way to keep that kid happy.
  • I try not to plan too far in advance. The longer the time between the decision and the event, the longer the fog lasts. A major mistake this past time was deciding on Saturday that I would be going out the following Thursday. In the past, if I decided just a day in advance that meant only one sleepless night. If I can swing it, a spontaneous same-day decision is ideal.
  • I warn my loved ones. When I tell my wife I’m planning to go out, she knows that there will be a while when I’ll be distracted, and a time when I will be self-centered. She knows not to take anything too seriously at that point. It’s only fair.
  • I’m prepared to back out. In the past I’ve changed my plans because I realized that things were getting too intense. I went out by myself instead of with friends, or I wore something a bit less sexy and revealing, or lower heels. Sometimes I just cancelled the thing altogether, or went in guy mode, and went out later when I could do it at shorter notice. My friends have always been cool with it.
  • I’m aware of the gender fog. I’ve been through this before, and I know that my judgment is not at its best. As Slartibartfast said, “Do not agree to buy anything at this point.” I do, in fact, buy things, but I try to stay within my preset spending limit, and I generally succeed. I try to never, ever, take major risks, or make any major irreversible life decisions while in the fog. Sometimes I just tell myself, “Oh, I’ll decide that next week,” and then I usually wind up saying, “What was I thinking?”

So those are some of the things I do to deal with gender fog. I’d be interested to hear what your experiences with gender fog are, and if you’ve come up with any strategies that I didn’t mention here!

Gender fog feeds dysphoria

I had a really tough bout of gender fog this past week, and I have two thoughts from it. One quick thought is that it really makes a difference how far in advance I plan an event. In this case I decided to go out to the Queens Pride House transgender support group presenting as a woman. I decided almost a week in advance, which meant a week of insomnia and distraction.

Photo: Pauline Park
Photo: Pauline Park
The second thought is more complex: it’s that gender fog leads to gender dysphoria. Over the past week I spent a significant chunk of my waking hours, and a lot of the time I was supposed to be sleeping, thinking over and over again about what I was going to wear, what I wasn’t going to where, what the weather would be, when I was going to change, who I might run into, who might be at the support group, what they might say, what they might not say, trying on outfits, practicing my voice, and so on.

I don’t want to suggest I was worried about any of those things. I mean, you always want to think about safety, but it was care, not worry. The rest of it was excitement, the way I feel the night before a trip to Europe.

As I was having those thoughts, getting dressed and putting on my makeup, I had a lot of opportunities to think about the obstacles and challenges. If I had a smaller belly I could wear this dress. If I had narrower shoulders I could wear that dress. If I had spent more time wearing pumps or sandals in the sun I wouldn’t have those tan lines. If I didn’t have so much facial hair I wouldn’t have to wear all this makeup. If I got my ears pierced I could wear a wider variety of earrings.

I also felt a bit annoyed about all the time and energy I put into one night. If I went out again I would have to do the makeup and clothes, but I wouldn’t have to shave. I would be able to get more of my time and money’s worth for all the clothes and makeup and voice practice I’ve done.

And every once in a while I got annoyed with my facial hair, with my big arms, my crotch bulge, my deep voice, my tan lines, my belly, my narrow hips. I thought how much easier it would be if I had real breasts, and years of socialization as a woman.

In other words, I had gender dysphoria – discomfort with the masculine gender role that I live in most of the time, and body dysphoria – discomfort with the male aspects of my body – caused by the gender fog. Caused by my feelings and thoughts about this outing. Caused by my decision to take this outing, by my own plans. I increased my dysphoria through my own actions.

Of course, I think about all the people I know who have transitioned. They’ve told me that even though some obstacles (shaving, bulges, tan lines) go away, others remain, and new ones appear. Family problems, job problems, discrimination, safety. In the light of transition, things that had never bothered them before take on new significance.

All things that I took into account nineteen years ago when I decided not to transition. It was a good decision and I don’t see myself changing it.

But if I did this more often, I’m not so sure I would hold to my decision. If I never let the gender fog subside: if as soon as one event was over I had another one planned a week or so later, if as soon as I got used to one trans activity I pushed the envelope, if I spent every day and night thinking about trans stuff and how much more I could do, I think it would get too much.

I could see my dysphoria increasing, and my desire to be a woman growing with it. I could see myself getting my ears pierced, getting my hair removed, insisting on changing at home. And then I could see myself going out more often, pushing the envelope harder. The fog itself was pretty unpleasant; combine it with enough dysphoria and transition looks like a big improvement.

And that’s why, when some of my friends from the support group asked, “Will we see Andrea again soon?” I had to tell them they probably wouldn’t. They’ll definitely see me (they’re a great group of people, and their support is a huge help to me) but probably not in a dress. That was way too much gender fog – and too much dysphoria. I made my decision nineteen years ago, and I’m not going to put myself in a position to revisit it.

What gender fog is and is not

Gender fog is a state of mind experienced by many people in response to a significant gender event. It is characterized by intense excitement and a focus on the gender event.

Last September I couldn't hold the phone straight long enough to take this selfie.
Last September I couldn’t hold the phone straight long enough to take this selfie.
The event that brings about the gender fog can be anything; its significance is entirely personal and specific to the moment. It can be something that happened in the recent past, like being referred to with a particular pronoun, or something in the present, like wearing a particular outfit, or even something in the future. like a planned party. It can even be just thinking about something that happened in the past, or planning something for the future. What produces gender fog one day in one person may be totally uninteresting to another person, or even to the same person a month later.

Some indications of gender fog include shallow breathing, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, and a lack of interest in anyone or anything outside of the context of the event. In extreme cases, people (okay, I) have reported insomnia, buzzing in the ears and nervous tremors. The most common feature is that the person will simply not shut up about that event and how wonderful they feel.

Here are some things that gender fog is not:

  • Gender fog is not a sign of your gender identity, authentic self, inner woman, masculine side or any other part of your essence.
  • Gender fog is not specific to people who transition. From what I can tell, it is found throughout the “transgender umbrella,” among transsexuals, transvestites, drag queens, butch lesbians and others.
  • Gender fog is not happiness. I hope some day you’ll experience enough happiness to be able to tell the difference.
  • Gender fog is not relief from dysphoria. It is not sustainable. It will fade soon enough, unless another significant gender event happens. And if the same event happens too often, its significance will fade and you’ll have to do something more significant, and so on.
  • Gender fog is not safe. The intensity with which we focus on the event and our gender issues when we’re in the fog make it hard for us to maintain perspective and to keep our safety.
  • Gender fog is not pleasant for those around you. Just ask them.

Be careful out there, folks…

See also: How I deal with gender fog.

The times when you don’t want gender fog

Tomorrow I have a chance to wear a great dress I picked up at a thrift store last year, but I’m not going to do it. The problem is that my students need me to have a clear head tomorrow, and just thinking about wearing the dress makes it hard for me to think clearly about anything else.

10332972_10203549535520539_897630833_oThe dress is really pretty: a black cotton-silk wrap with a full mid-calf skirt and flower prints along the hem. When I bought it I didn’t expect to have many occasions to wear it, but the price couldn’t be beat. Then my friend Alice invited me to go see “Casa Valentina,” and I can’t think of a more appropriate place to wear it.

Unfortunately, my final exam is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. Even though this was the first class I’ve come out to and they’ve been cool about it, I don’t think it’s the time for me to wear something so dramatic. They need to concentrate.

I wasn’t seriously thinking of wearing the dress to class; my actual plan was to go to my office downtown and change there, but that would mean carrying a lot of bulky clothes and shoes around with me in addition to the exam papers and my tablet. So I had thought of bringing the clothes to my office today.

The thing is that I need to concentrate too. Supervising an exam is not that demanding, but I do need to pick up the exams, be on the lookout for any foul play, and answer student questions. I also need to be able to think clearly afterwards, so that I grade the exams fairly and speedily. And for all that I need to not be gender-fogged and I need to be reasonably well rested.

As I started to think about packing a bag, I felt the rush of gender fog hit me. I was excited and a bit jittery, and I had a hard time thinking about anything else I had planned for the day. I decided that if I did wear a dress to the play, I wouldn’t plan it out over two days. And still, my thoughts kept coming back to the play, and every time I felt the same rush. I’m feeling it now as I write this.

This is just not a good week to have gender fog. Hopefully I’ll have a chance for a less exciting outing soon. Maybe I’ll even get a chance to wear that dress some time, and maybe I’ll be able to manage it so that the gender fog isn’t overwhelming. But this week I need to get work done, so I’ve decided not to wear it tomorrow. And that’s okay.

I broke a promise

Years ago, I promised my wife I wouldn’t go out in our neighborhood, presenting as a woman.

It was 2001 and we lived in the South Bronx. Everyone agreed it was a dangerous neighborhood, particularly for women and people who were seen as “faggots” or “travestis.” We had a neighbor who was a trans woman, and we never saw anybody attack her, but we didn’t want to take any chances. We talked about it, and we agreed.

Not going out in the neighborhood meant that I couldn’t go out at all. I stopped by the “LGBT Community Center” one day. I figured that a safe place to change was a basic service to the “T” community. The receptionist told me, “No, we don’t let people change in the bathroom, because they make a mess with all the makeup and stuff.” (They have since changed their policy, and you are allowed to change in the bathroom.)

And then one late summer day I was at home. I’d been laid off. I put on a skirt and heels and admired myself in the mirror, and then I started to take them off. No, I said. Fuck this.

I stripped down to my underwear and put on a layer of foundation makeup. Then I put on some androgynous pants and a T-shirt and packed a bag. In Riverside Park I put on lipstick and earrings. In a Barnes and Noble women’s room I changed into my skirt and heels. Then I got on the subway and walked around Midtown.

008_DR-1It felt so good to be walking around as a woman. I felt pretty and free and excited. I didn’t want it to end. And then it came to me: why should it end? Everyone here sees me as a woman. My neighbors will see me as a woman. None of them will recognize me! Nobody in the South Bronx will attack me, because they’ll see me as a woman!

And that’s how I broke my promise to my wife. How I went against my own better judgment. I got on the subway in my skirt and heels and lipstick, with my guy clothes in a shoulder bag. Half an hour later I walked up the stairs and click-clicked my heels down the Grand Concourse to my building.

Then I remembered the older guys that hang out in front of my building. They’re an interesting combination of doorman, neighborhood watch and senior citizens’ club. They weren’t there when I left in the late morning, but of course they were there in the late afternoon. They held the door for me, and I scooted inside.

Clicking around the corner I came face-to-face with my next-door neighbor. “Hi, Myrna!” I blurted out in my perky women’s voice, before disappearing inside my apartment. Why, no, I’m not your neighbor, I’m a complete stranger who just happens to know your first name!

As it turns out, there was no fallout from that incident. I ran into Myrna a couple of weeks later, and she said, “I saw your … sister?” I said, “Oh, you mean my cousin!” Her son helpfully translated, “Ah, la prima!” which suggested that I had been the topic of their dinner-table conversation. The guys at the front door asked my wife, “So you live with your … brother?” She said, “No, my husband.”

And that was the end of it. Nobody attacked me, nobody harassed me. Everyone was just as friendly as before. That’s not the point, of course.

The point is that it could have been worse. My wife and I sat down and made a sober assessment of the state of our neighborhood and the risks of going out in public there. I was frustrated with that, which is reasonable. In a thoughtful, sober state of mind, I would have gone to CDI until I had a chance to move to a less notorious neighborhood, and in fact that’s what I later did.

The point is that I took this sober assessment and threw it out the window. And that’s an example of gender fog.

Gender fog update

It’s really hard for me to write this post, because it’s not my highlight reel.

I worry that someone might read this and use it to undermine my credibility on issues that are not really related to it. I worry that people might make incorrect assumptions about me based on this.

Still, I think it’s important to post this. Not very many people are writing about gender fog. But I’ve talked to other people, and I know I’m not the only one who feels it. So here goes.

As I wrote back in July, I went out in public as a woman and had some serious gender fog. I actually had difficulty sleeping for two weeks. I finally decided to go out cross-dressed again, and the night between making the decision and going out was the least restful of all. After that I had one more difficult night, and then my insomnia returned to its baseline.

x
I couldn't hold the phone steady for long enough to take a picture. That's how excited I was to go out for the second time this year. I don't want to get that excited.
Last Saturday I went out for the third time this year, and this time I only had trouble sleeping the night before. Since then, I’ve been back to normal. I don’t know for sure why I had such a strong reaction back in July, but I have a few guesses.

When I went out in July, it was the first time in two years, and that made it much more exciting. In August and again this weekend, it had been a month or less. It was still exciting, but not exciting enough to keep me up for several nights. So that was a factor.

I also got a lot of affirmation in July. I spent the afternoon with one of my best friends, and he was really nice to me, even though he’s going through a lot of his own issues. He said I looked good, said he didn’t know how anyone could have read me. He picked out clothes for me to try on and gave me helpful feedback. He asked thoughtful, sympathetic questions about my trans feelings and experiences. I also dealt with security guards who were uniformly polite, friendly and gender-affirming. I ran into a co-worker who said I looked great.

The second time I went out this year, I made the mistake of riding Citibike in the heat. My friend is out of town, so I went to regular middlebrow stores, where people didn’t pay much attention to me, and probably less than normal because I was sweaty. I had a nice conversation with the same co-worker, but it wasn’t as exciting the second time.

This past weekend, I got sirred by the woman in the dressing room at Burlington Coat Factory. I had a nice time and got some fun clothes, and had a short conversation with my co-worker, but overall it wasn’t that exciting.

The combination of novelty and affirmation was probably what made my gender fog so intense in July. Since the intensity was unpleasant, I need to manage those and try not to get so much of both at the same time. I’m planning to make my outings a bit more frequent (every month or two) without doing anything too exciting. I’ll let you know how that goes.

What’s keeping me awake at night

I have real reasons to be happy about my excursion on Saturday. I have a great friend. My co-workers are super cool. But that’s not how gender fog works with me. Instead, it keeps me up all night thinking about things like this:

I'm so hot.
I’m so hot. Don’t you think I’m hot? I’m in soft focus.
  • I’ve lost so much weight! I wonder if I’m a 38C or a 36D.
  • That guy who held the door for me totally didn’t read me. I bet nobody did!
  • I definitely fit in with all those cute tourist women. I was prettier than a lot of them.
  • I could rock the dress that woman was wearing on the subway yesterday.
  • Would the brown skirt I bought go better with a black top or a white one?
  • I so want to go out in that green dress. Maybe this weekend. Can I get the time off?
  • Makeup is such a pain. I wonder how much laser costs.
  • Can I really wear a strappy sundress? I’d definitely need to get rid of my T-shirt tan lines first.
  • I could have gone to work in a dress yesterday. No, maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea. Well, at least I could’ve gone to the coffee shop in a dress. Who cares what my neighbors think?
  • Is my video camera good enough to make a haul video?