Tag Archives: Health

Testosterone Myths

I remember when I first realised my partner Robin might take T (testosterone) I was totally freaked out.

“You don’t need to act like any more of a man than you already do!” I whined, terrified that in changing his outsides to be more manly, I would lose from him some of the softer side of his already pretty blokey behaviours. “What if you get aggressive?” I pleaded. At one point I remember having a particular freak out and telling him I wouldn’t stick by him if he took that drug.

Oh, the shame.

And frankly, the unnecessary stress I put myself through because of a whole chunk of lies society tells us about testosterone. Now, a little more learned on the subject, I sigh inwardly when I watch a film and see the male protagonists’ adolescent, competitive bragging put down to “testosterone”.

T gets a really bad rap, and it also excuses a whole lot of crappy behaviour it isn’t responsible for.

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So first, let me tell you what it’s like living with a trans guy who has been on T for a couple of years.

Right from the start: So much calmer. Yes, you heard me right.

Robin has always, like me, been a little high strung and occasionally temperamental, but since taking T he has calmed right down. I’d like to say he’s happier, but that’s complicated. Life hasn’t been easy, with two of us transitioning. But he is less temperamental than he used to be, he really has chilled out.

The only exception was a few months in, he seemed edgy and grumpy and out of sorts and I thought to myself oh, aye, is this the T finally showing its true colours?

Turns out his T levels had dropped really, really low. A quick boost and he was right as rain again.

A year and a bit after Robin started on T, and a bit more than a year ago, I followed suit, and have experienced similar. I wouldn’t say I am calmer, exactly – I used to bite down my anger way too much, and these days I’m more likely to express it, to say “back  off” to someone who’s out of order rather than patiently explain myself ad nauseum. I don’t think it’s the T making me like that, it could be a growing sense of male entitlement or simply confidence as I feel more me. I’m less of a pushover, and I think that’s probably a good thing, although I have some way to go on that. One thing’s for sure, there have been no uncontrolled, T fuelled rages, no noticeable changes in my personality or who I fundamentally am. Maybe I am a bit more centred and growing into myself, but the changes are subtle.

And honestly, throughout life people change anyway, with or without hormones.

Of course, not all guys report this calmness, but most of the ones I know do. I worry about T’s bad rap, though, because just like it falsely legitimises crap behaviour in cis guys, so it can in trans guys who probably need to get counselling or anger management or do some anti-sexism work rather than blaming their shitty attitudes or bad behaviour on T. When Chaz Bono complained he was finding women’s voices more irritating, for instance, he blamed his “increasing maleness”, when a more likely culprit could be sensitivity to sound, a sensory problem common in trans people and exacerbated by stress. That or he’s just plain sexist.

And then there’s the sex drive thing. Yes, it does increase, and some guys don’t quite know what to do with that. Again, male mythology plays a part in this, as trans guys think they’ve developed a “male” sexuality with all the narrative baggage that comes with that. Having not (in some cases) enjoyed puberty first time round, they may have missed that burgeoning sexuality in their teen years, and think this is something exclusive to men (it isn’t).

Often, we’re just not quite ready to share this emerging sexuality with partners, we need to explore it on our own, along with a changing relationship with our bodies. It settles down, but my gosh we have such a dim view of men and their control over their own sex drive (poor helpless babies, my ass) that it can be almost frightening to feel like your body has been “taken over” by this drive. The mythology is at least as powerful as the increase in libido, and takes a bit of coming to terms with.

There is nothing exceptional about a male sex drive, and men’s sexual violence and objectifying behaviour has everything to do with rape culture, with notions of power and dominance, and nothing to do with testosterone or body parts. Studies show social and environmental, rather than biological, causes for human violence, including male violence. Meanwhile, guess what? Sex drives, violence, masculine traits and everything else are on a continuum, there are no binaries.

So, guys and enbys taking masculinising hormones: No excuses. it isn’t your hormones, it’s your socialisation, your trauma, your unchecked privilege, your sexism, your unsifted baggage. Roid rage happens to guys down the gym because they’re not being carefully, medically dosed and hormonal fluctuations indeed can cause problems, as can taking testosterone when you already have enough of it. Messing around with artificial hormones, taking them off prescription is not to be recommended, but if you’re transgender, and your brain maps onto a different hormone than the one running through your veins, T just might help (and it might not, and you can stop taking it if it doesn’t).

Hidden disability and its losses

When I look at the way disabled people are being persecuted to their deaths in my own exceptionally wealthy country, I wonder if disability is getting left out of our discussions on social justice. When we reel off our well rehearsed lists of intersecting oppressions, disability is often missing. This has led me to reflect on the impact of my own disability, and how much I discount it (and hide it).

Here’s my list, which feels pretty scary to put out there – ME/CFS, depression, autism, ADD, attachment disorder, PTSD, dissociation. Some of these have been medically diagnosed, and some realised through non-diagnostic psychological therapy. I may disagree with the construction of some of these labels, I certainly oppose any label with “disorder” in it, but I still feel their weight.

Photo0475I often spend time reflecting how lucky I am. I think it’s important, reflecting on privilege, being aware of your advantages. I grew up middle class, well educated. I was white. But home was not remotely safe, and school was where I was bullied for being different – traumatised, aspie/ADD, trans, and poorer, more neglected and scruffier than the other kids in my posh school.

Life continued with its benefits and losses. Family trauma led to me leaving home at 17 and becoming homeless, living on the breadline well into my 20s and becoming dependent on substances to cope. My good education meant that I was eventually able to get myself to university as a mature student, where I learned a lot and had access to free therapy. My poor health meant I was unable to complete the degree, and to this day (nearly 2 decades later) have never earned enough to start paying back my student loans. But having been to university still broadened my horizons.

I have ended up with a complicated relationship with privilege, where I have often discounted my own struggles because there are always people much worse off. I’m sort-of posh and sort-of university educated, but my mental and physical health has weighed pretty heavily in counterbalance to those privileges. It has created a wealth gap that we all just take for granted. We expect disabled people to have to struggle financially.

Hidden disability is ignored and dismissed and often I’ve struggled to get people to believe it’s there. Because it is inextricably bound up with trauma, it’s also too easy for people to say it’s “all in the mind”. Well, some of it really is neurological, but saying “all in the mind” makes it sound like a choice, and then people don’t have to take it into account. People are often quick to assume you’re shirking or lazy or melodramatic or manipulative, because they simply cannot see the pain or difficulty you’re having, and they require a proof that does not exist.

It doesn’t help that like most army brats, I was raised to be a brave little soldier, and showing my vulnerability is no easy task.

I have rarely been able to work full time, or managed to continue in employment without chunks of time off to recuperate. I’m in one of those off-times just now. Being on the cusp of disability, I’ve been able to claim sickness benefits for short periods, but always under duress to get back on my feet. The walking wounded, I always feel thankful for how relatively unscathed I am, but at the same time sometimes I just want someone to let me ride on the stretcher for a bit.

The underlying problem, I am beginning to realise, is that our current culture trains us to see ourselves, and our problems, in competition with each other. Some folks take the “my problem is bigger” approach: “Why should I care about your broken ankle when I have a broken leg?” “I bet it’s not broken really, it’s just twisted” . . . “and anyway, mine was a really, really bad break”. But as a counsellor, I actually see far more of the flipside of this – people discounting even the most horrendous of their own problems because there is always, inevitably, somebody worse off. This is what I tend to be guilty of. In doing this, people are often avoiding the discomfort of being vulnerable. It’s called not dealing with your own shit, and it isn’t as virtuous as it appears. But it’s entirely understandable – we believe somehow we can make a bargain with our minds to minimise our pain through a process of denial, as if “positivity” is all about pretending.

[Image: quotation reading "That quote, 'the only disability in life is a bad attitude', the reason that's bullshit is ... No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. Stella Young on how 'inspiration porn' gets it wrong"

So, here’s the thing. I am a very lucky person, and I know that. I grew up with enough to eat, with the enormous benefit of being white. With praise for my “masculine” qualities, with intelligence, and the ability to articulate myself, and the benefit of a good education. I am disabled but I am also brimming with able privilege compared to many.

But I increasingly suspect that in order to live in a compassionate world, we need to learn to give due consideration to every stubbed toe – we should learn to stop measuring other’s distress against our own and be able to wholeheartedly empathise with how it feels to suffer migraines and bad backs and brain fog and depression and eczema and IBS and asthma and ingrown toenails and griefs and traumas both large and small. I will support you to grieve for your broken iPhone and not compare that to my lost family, because no two problems are ever comparable, and all feelings matter. Being able to tune in to each others differing experiences is never wasted.

I am slowly learning not to dismiss my own pain and trauma in the face of the overwhelming suffering and oppression I see around me. It makes me a more compassionate person when I learn to offer myself that same compassion. Lately, my physical health and depression have been so bad there have been lots of days when I have wondered if I can carry on working or even functioning. There are days when I have cried out for a carer, knowing full well there really is nobody out there better off who can swoop down and lift my burden off me. I tell myself I have to be strong, but the reality is being strong is exactly what gets us into this pickle.

We are none of us strong, we are all of us vulnerable, and often there are difficulties we don’t see in the faces of those who we set up as “the lucky ones”. I will continue to own my privilege, as we all must, but I also need to learn to own my vulnerabilities, and I am increasingly realising the importance of that. Compassion is not a commodity, it isn’t in short supply, or more valuable if we ration it. Capitalist, austerity-based models of caring do not fit our hearts. We can afford to be as generous as we possibly can be towards our own, and each other’s, suffering.