By Jayne Noel
Over two years studying for my MFA degree, I created hundreds of pages filled with thousands of sentences made up of hundreds of thousands of words. Not a single page is as difficult nor a sentence as emotional as what I wrote just before I started school in January 2017. Not because the words were difficult to find, but because the ramifications were hard to deal with.
I am a woman.
I don’t just think I’m a woman and I didn’t decide to become a woman. I am a woman. The more I say it and live it, the more it resonates with my internal being, carving a space for me in a world where I never thought I fit in. I need to back up a bit, however.
Throughout my life I endured this inability to fully fit in the roles set out for me, unsure why I didn’t feel like I was ever doing the right thing or acting based upon what society wanted. I tried to fit in. I tried to act masculine. I recall the failed week at football in high school, the years in a fraternity, and the times I behaved in a way people expected, but I never truly belonged. And while there were great benefits for some of these actions – the fraternity did forge friendships that have lasted years and helped me become a more sociable person – I still felt like an outsider as this planet saw me as something I never was.
This changed in May 2016, just before my wife and I took a vacation overseas. I have a strong fear of flying, one that prevents me from living a full life before a flight rather than avoid traveling altogether. The problem reached a point where professional help was the last resort. I told my wife “I need to stop living in fear and get over my problems.”
What I did not know then was that this fear had more to do with the fear of losing control, especially when it comes to who I am and what I am supposed to be. One of these sessions started the journey to discovering my womanhood.
It started like the previous sessions; I complained about work and about how I tend to hide my true self from others to avoid political discussions. And then the therapist asked what else in my life I hid. A flood of memories came to the surface. Memories of a doctor’s visit where he asked if I ever felt like a girl. Memories of questioning how it felt to wear women’s clothes, of wearing skirts, dresses, among other articles, and how they felt on my skin and how normal it was to put them on. These thoughts rushed out of a vault locked away from society and into the open vastness of my mind, right there for me to sort through, keeping me from finding a safer, less straightforward answer. Instead of coming up with something that would suppress my true self, I admitted my questioning of gender and preference for dressing as a woman. I recounted the story of a doctor’s visit just before high school.
I needed a physical before starting my freshman year at high school. There were two interns conducting the exam, checking my pulse, hearing my heartbeat, looking at everything they could without needles. There was a moment when they were checking my development as an adolescent where things shifted from routine to unusual. One intern checked my groin, contorted his face, then asked the other take a look. Moments later, the two stood outside the room, conferring with the doctor. I can’t remember his name anymore, but I remember he looked into the room, nodding his head as the interns spoke, and then walked off. A few minutes later, he returned, shutting the door behind him, leaving just him, my mother, and me.
The doctor said there was cause for concern because I was not developing properly, that he wanted to run some tests to figure out why. Then he asked something doctors really should avoid asking, especially to a child with a parent present. These words have been ingrained in my mind the moment he uttered them that day: “It’s possible you weren’t born a boy, but a girl.” I cried that day. My mother cried that day. The doctor, empathetic that he was, followed up his remarks with a question, whether I ever felt I was a girl. My mind raced and came up with the only honest answer I could find: I just want to lose weight. But the truth was more complicated than that.
Looking back at that day, I continued exploring with fascination of what I was feeling when he asked if I felt like a girl. I wasn’t ashamed of the prospect, nor was I embarrassed. Instead, I felt guilt. Guilt because I didn’t have a better answer for the doctor. Guilt because I felt exposed more at that moment than any other I can remember growing up. Guilt because I could not even feel normal during a routine physical.
After multiple blood tests, MRIs, and bone scans, the doctor decided my pituitary gland was not working, though test results came back less conclusive about other things. While there was truth in the diagnosis – the system that starts puberty did not function on its own and needed help through hormone therapy – the labs also showed a hormonal imbalance towards more estrogen, pushing me over the male/female binary line used in the mid-1990s. Several shots of testosterone and my body started changing like the bodies of millions of kids every year. And yet I could not feel normal.
It took more than twenty years before those dark memories, seemingly locked away forever, came to surface. And during the four months I examined what it meant to felt to be out of place in the world, what it meant to have these possess femininity – not being effeminate but embracing the emotions and feelings that connected me to the feminine spirit that dwells within all of us. What I discovered is that everything that felt wrong after that fateful question wasn’t a result of the doctor’s concern, the tests, or a host of other possibilities. I didn’t fit into this world because I never answered that doctor with the truth of wanting to possess a different body.
It’s funny, when I think about how I spent most of high school, all of college, and parts of my adult life telling people that I regret nothing. Every action and every word have led me to where I am, and I cannot regret any of that.
Yet I was lying to myself and everyone else with that bullshit.
I regret not being able to tell the doctor the complete truth. I regret that I couldn’t be honest with him then in the same manner I am only now being honest with myself. I would have told the doctor I didn’t feel like a boy. Because I am not one. No matter how hard I try to deny it, I was born a girl. And after exploring all of these angles and recognizing I am a girl, I am ready to be that girl. I am ready to live the rest of my life as Jayne. I say this because I am tired of not being honest with the world, with myself. I need to move forward to living as the woman I am, with the name, pronouns, and demeaner that reflects my honest, female self.
The hardest part of this isn’t telling the truth, though, but realizing how the truth impacts so many people. I readily embrace the hard reality that exists reading that someone you’ve known for so long embodies a new identity. When I realized this for myself, a deep depression overcame me. I spent many weeks contemplating if living was even worth it. The guilt I felt in that doctor’s office more than two decades ago amplified into a shame that overwhelmed me. I thought no one would want to be near me because of this. I would lose my friends, my family would disappear, my wife would leave me.
Why live when there is nothing to live for? Why move forward when all you can think is how different, how abnormal, you are, with people wanting to harm you because they can’t understand or don’t want to understand what it means. Then there was the exhaustion and heartache it caused my wife as she went through this with me, trying to keep me alive while I internalized my fears and frustrations over being so different, as the illusion I was living not so long ago dissolved before me.
There is a saying that you cannot realize how dark it is until someone turns on the light. For me, that light came in the form of my wife, who stood by my side – even when there was no logical reason to be there – caregivers who worked hard to help me, and a very small circle of others who were nothing but gracious, guiding me out of my pit of despair and into a Light I did not know possible. I am discovering a side of me that I have kept hidden from literally everyone, myself included.
As I said, this wasn’t something I decided but what happened. The only choice I made was whether I would continue living an unhappy life where no one can figure out what mood I am in and if I am worth hanging out with or if I live an honest life where laughter and happiness comes easily, where people know when I am in a good mood and am enjoying something.
My emotional health transformed since that day. Laughter and playfulness bubbles at the surface, ready to pop out like the jack-in-the-box doll that pops up when the song ends. I am a better spouse to my wife, supporting her in ways she has never felt supported. My dedication to personal betterment strengthened, with more focus on standing up for what I believe in instead of letting others dictate my actions. My acupuncturist once commented how happier I’ve become as my female self than I ever did presenting as a male. One of my therapists has said I am more available this way.
That is not to say this is all a joy ride. Far from it. There is still a lot of anxiety of how people will react. I fear rejection from others because they don’t understand or want to understand. Every time I step out into the world as my true self, I take the risk that someone will find out and want to physically harm me, or worse. I fear rejection, guilt of disappointing others in a way I never wanted to. And while I am taking a huge risk by being true to myself, I also know the consequences of that risk can be devastating, losing friends and family who don’t want to interact with someone like me.
Why take the risk then?
Because it’s hard to go back into the darkness when you realize how warm and comfortable the Light feels. There is nothing lonelier, more depressing, than feeling like I was isolated in a crowded world, and there is nothing more freeing and enjoyable than realizing what it means to actually be my honest self for the first time. I will gladly take on the challenges if that means I can actually embody what it means to be me. Just one moment in this Light is better than never feeling that kind of warmth, that ability to not have to question why life doesn’t feel right. I don’t know anything more worth the risk than being myself living a full, honest, comfortable life when we aren’t given that much time to experience everything this planet has to offer.
There is one last, important thing to know about all of this: I am still me. My personality hasn’t changed, just improved. My desires in life haven’t changed. What I enjoyed before I enjoy today, I just enjoy them as my true, lighter self.
Jayne Noel started her writing journey as a college reporter during one of the most significant moments in U.S. history, September 11, 2001. This led her to politics and government writing before switching to creative writing, an MFA in Creative Writing from the Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University, and many long hours trying to start a publishing business. She is a resident of Chicago, devoted to her wife, and loyal to the Chicago Cubs.
Written for the From Darkness to Light event. If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more information Here. But first, leave a comment and let Jayne know what you think about her words, and be sure and visit her over at the Jayne Noel Writer Page when you’re done.