Transformations

It’s been two years since I regularly wrote on this blog — or really anything of substance, at least by my own standards. I’ve thought a lot about where this writer’s block must have come from and, more importantly, how I can smash it. It’s hard to find a clear answer to such a question, but in asking it — and discussing it with my therapist — I’ve slowly come to a degree of self-awareness in several key respects.

Let’s start with the obvious one. If you knew me, say, before June of this year, you knew me as Oscar, variously referred to as Catweazle, Hipster Viking or really anything beard-and-long-hair-related. Those of you who didn’t know me closely might even have assumed that I was quite a masculine man, given my predilection for facial hair and loud music (clichés, I know).

During the years in which I worked towards my PhD, I’d been suffering from low-key depressive episodes, along with stress-related complaints. Not to mention severe doubts about my own academic and creative capabilities, and my future career as a linguist. Now, mental health problems during a PhD are unfortunately a well-known phenomenon (see Leveque et al. 2017, reported here), and I can’t emphasise enough that if you’re suffering from such issues, you’re perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean you’re unfit for the job, even though I did think that about myself at the time. Nevertheless, it’s vital to confront your mental health issues, talk about them with people you can trust, and make sure they don’t sabotage what you are working towards. In my case, having a supportive partner, nice colleagues and very supportive supervision also helped me pull through.

Despite these hurdles, I defended my PhD successfully in October 2015, at which time I had also been able to land my current job at the University of Antwerp, after a year of financial precariousness. However, it was after finishing my thesis that my writer’s block kicked in. Initially, it’s understandable. I’d just written a 200+ page book, so naturally some of my creative juices were running low. Sadly, I waited and waited for them to be refilled, but little inspiration struck. My hobby blogging on games and music began to suffer, as did my academic writing. My depression and anxiety also got worse, finally leading to stress-related breathing problems and two trips to the ER in the past winter.

It was in that period that I began to question whether perhaps there was something going on with my gender that was causing my distress. I’d known a number of transgender people through the internet since several years, and I knew that I was open to their experiences; I considered that openness to be a natural curiosity into human nature and diversity. Last year, though, I started wondering if there was something more to it. I’d asked myself the question before, but had always firmly pushed it to the back of my mind. After all, I had the sense that I was OK with being a man. In a way, this is true: I was OK with being a man. The thing is, sometimes ‘just OK’ doesn’t cut it, and one’s relation to one’s own gender and body is such a case.

I was living under the wrong assumption that transgender people had always known they were transgender. In media, many stories are about trans children, teens, or young adults who have been struggling for years. What I didn’t know is that there are quite a few people who only realise at a later age that they are trans. Also, crippling gender dysphoria — i.e. the strong sense of disconnect with one’s body — is not a symptom for all trans people. Once I learned this, I quickly became more accepting of my own ‘transness’, and this feeling has grown since speaking to other trans people with experiences similar to mine. More information about indirect dysphoria can be found in this insightful article by Zinnia Jones.

In June, I transitioned socially; that is to say, I started dressing ‘like a woman’, I shaved my beard, I often wear make-up, and I took a new name: Odile.* *Full name Odile Aurora Oscar Strik. I decided to keep my old name in there, because I actually rather like it. Since then, I’ve felt more comfortable in my body than I could have ever imagined. Rather than intense gender dysphoria, my experience of being trans often involves gender euphoria, the feeling of finally feeling (more) at home in one’s own body. Now that I am feeling a renewed connection to my body, dysphoria sometimes rears its head too, still, but it is more concrete, and easier to relativise than the diffuse depression that haunted me throughout the past years.

With transformations of appearance and psyche come transformations of practice. My resolution is to face my writer’s block head on, and start blogging here regularly again, ideally on a biweekly basis, on things that occupy me. As before, this can be related to the games I play, philosophical and psychological issues, literature, language, and so forth. But also about my journey as a trans woman and about politics — because that is a thing I wish to be less silent on. Until then!

❦ Odile