A dark grey human fotm on a light grey watercolor backdrop.
What it feels like to not feel. Credit: Amy J. Ko.

Dark thoughts in trans solitude

Content warning: this reflection discusses binge drinking and suicidal ideation. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Trans Lifeline for support. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

I’m quite an introverted person. I get along fine in social settings and can manage fine with chit chat. I can meet new people and usually build a connection without much social anxiety. I know some tricks for making people feel welcome. But all of these things are effortful and exhausting. My natural preferred state is quiet; my preferred form for social interaction is a calm dinner with, maybe one or two other people. To sustain myself, I generally need as little social interaction as possible.

And yet, despite my introversion, for a long time “as little as possible” didn’t mean alone. In fact, for most of my life until this past year, I’ve aggressively avoided being alone. As an older child, when my parents left me unattended, I was always with my brother. The school bus was a social place, school was a social place, and I spent time after school with friends. Even late at night, when many people often find themselves alone, I spent long nights talking to my brother in our room. Avoiding solitude as a child wasn’t that hard.

It wasn’t until my early teens when I had my own bedroom that I began to have time alone with my thoughts. I remember one of those first nights after setting up my new bedroom, how much of a struggle it was to lay in bed and try to sleep. Every time I got close to quieting my mind, dark thoughts would surface: you’re trash, you’re disgusting, you’re wrong, you’re ugly, you’re broken. I would push them away by occupying myself, writing in my diary, reading a book, playing a video game, and sometimes even doing math homework ahead of time. Those nights alone taught me a critical skill for regulating my emotions: drown them, as quickly as possible, with anything that would mask the toxic transphobic inner monologue in my mind.

I got good at muffling these self-loathing thoughts over time. I learned to sense the precise moment at which I was exhausted enough that I would just instantly fall asleep. I’d stop mid-sentence in a book and jump in bed, and catch the wave of drowsiness into slumber. I’d write in my diary in bed so that the moment I felt my eyes droop, I could just drop my diary on the floor and sleep.

College made this much easier. Throughout my first two years, I always had a roommate in student housing, and there were always dozens of other students engaging in midnight hijinks. I no longer needed to fill my mind with other things; I would just lay in bed and listen to the drunken laughter, and watch the shadows dance underneath the gap in our door. Then I met a nice girl, fell in love, and made sure that I’d always have someone in my bed who would fall asleep after me.

At one point we decided to go to a Unitarian Universalist church, to connect with our community and our spirituality. I remember one Sunday the pastor let someone else run sermon, and he taught us to meditate. It was the most frightening moment of my life, having to sit with my thoughts for 5 minutes in a vaguely spiritual place. In that quiet, my mind howled: You’re an abomination. You’re an accident. If there is a god, he should have aborted you. If people knew your secret, they’d kick you out on the street and beat you. I remember doing my multiplication tables to crowd out the insults.

My girlfriend and I made a baby. When she was born, I soon realized that I wouldn’t need my mind tricks for quite a while: I’d get exhaustion for free, and probably wouldn’t be alone with my thoughts for years. While it might be odd to some parents, I found a kind of peace in my daughter’s first five years, with the crying, the constant housework, and feeling like I never had any time for my thoughts. I committed deeply to parenthood, both because I loved it, but also because it kept me from having to hear myself think.

When I’d travel to conferences as a Ph.D. student, I lost this cover. But conferences offered their own distractions. I could stay out late at bars with colleagues, or go on long walks, adventuring with friends. Sometimes sessions or dinners would go late into the night, and by the time I was back in my room, I was barely conscious enough to get ready for bed. I’d return home and be delightfully worn for a week, hearing nothing from my morbid mind.

At some point, all of those layers of silencing began to fall away. My daughter had her own room and was sleeping through the night. My wife started working some night shifts as a nurse. At some point, she stopped coming home after work, which I later learned were stretches of bipolar mania. I went on an internship and ended up with my own room for the first time in years, and filled my sleepless nights chatting online with strangers until I collapsed. At the end of the summer, I came home to an empty house, except for my father, who stayed to himself, stunned by the sudden dissolution of my marriage. Suddenly, I was a separated parent, with few friends, and nothing but my thoughts.

With nothing to mask them, they spoke sharply and clearly: you are a creepy transsexual and you should die; you deserve to be laughed at and killed; you might as well get it over with. There’s a knife in the kitchen. I’d go to the kitchen late at night after my father had gone to sleep and stare at the knives. I’d turn, and look at the large bottle of vodka on the top of the fridge, and tell myself that I didn’t need to die, but my brain did. I’d drink myself into a stupor and then go to sleep. I’d go to school the next day and consume myself in work, pretending everything was okay. None of my tricks worked anymore, but nearly stopping my heart each night through Asian flush seemed to work just fine.

When my wife told me she wanted a divorce, I told her I wanted to be a woman. That didn’t go so well, and I didn’t eat for five days. I remember sitting in a chair in my bedroom and not moving while she tried to feed me soup. I loved her, and I didn’t want to lose her, but I also couldn’t imagine being alone with my thoughts for any longer, especially now that I’d shared them. They were too loud, too devastating. Somehow, she pulled me from despair for long enough that I managed to write a dissertation and find a tenure-track job in academia, which kept me occupied for another ten years.

Eventually I came to terms with those dark thoughts, and realized they were lies. I wasn’t ugly, or an abomination, or a mistake. Those were things that movies, television, and the people in my life taught me. Those were ideas I told myself to not have to face the reality of my transness. Once I came to accept them, being alone no longer brought on suicidal thoughts. Instead, solitude began to feel peaceful.

Still, they left a residue of anxiety. My (second) wife traveled to see family this week, and I couldn’t help but feel a mortal fear about her departure. What if I dangerously self-medicate again? What if I fall into a deep depression? What if all of those horrible thoughts of self-loathing come back? What if I really am a disgusting monster?

I dropped her off at the airport, and none of those things happened. In fact, I drove home in silence, without the need for music, radio, or podcasts to fill my mind. I just listened to my thoughts—about my day, about myself, about my cat. I woke up each morning this week, looked in the mirror, and saw who I really am: a smart, cute, caring, consciousness woman who’s suffered a couple decades of socially-induced gender trauma. She doesn’t need to die; in fact, she wants to live! And she’s never been more at peace with her thoughts.

If you’re having dark thoughts, don’t be alone with them. Call Trans Lifeline: no cops, just nice trans people that want to listen and help. If you’re interested in my other reflections on gender, see my other posts and filter by ‘gender’. Writing them have helped me overcome self-loathing; maybe they’ll help you too.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.