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On silver linings

I’m not a stranger to avoiding leaving the house or shunning social gatherings. As a trans man waiting for top surgery, my dysphoria hit a peak and my mental health hit a low. Recently divorced, I found myself living alone for the first time in my life. This wasn’t exactly a winning combination of factors.

by Thomas B

I never thought I’d be grateful to have experienced dysphoria. Let me explain.

I’m not a stranger to avoiding leaving the house or shunning social gatherings. As I trans man waiting for top surgery, my dysphoria hit a peak and my mental health hit a low. Recently divorced, I found myself living alone for the first time in my life. This wasn’t exactly a winning combination of factors.

I couldn’t cope with being naked, so showering became an issue. I’d avoid it as much as possible and only when it had been several days would I brave it, looking upwards at the ceiling throughout with my mirror covered so that I would not accidentally glimpse my body. I would avoid getting up out of bed because if I didn’t get up I didn’t have to encounter my body or deal with my feelings of anxiety and depression.

Because I was depressed, I found it hard to find the motivation to leave the house at all. The fact that I hadn’t showered acted as further motivation to stay home and go nowhere. At the time I lived on the seafront of a small coastal town. Where I had previously loved walking along the beach, I now had to force myself out of the house to even go for a walk.

One thing that did motivate me to go out was the pursuit of food. So I could go to the supermarket. To give myself a reason to leave the house, I would intentionally leave things off my shopping list. This way, I knew that I would have to leave the house at least one more time in the week to buy more milk, bread or whatever I needed. I would make sure my trip to the shop took me along the seafront. Going to the shop gave me a reason to shower, albeit with head aloft so as to minimise my encounter with my own body.

There were countless days where I just couldn’t focus. I certainly couldn’t concentrate on reading a book. Instead I’d watch a whole load of TV – thank goodness for Netflix. I’d been given a huge dot-to-dot book for Christmas – the kind with thousands of dots per picture. On those days I could concentrate, I would do a dot-to-dot. It occupied my mind because I had to concentrate on it and it also gave me a sense of achievement. Making Lego Star Wars models gave me a similar sense of achievement.

Every day I would write my achievements on a post it note and stick it on the fridge. On some days I would only write that I’d got out of bed, but when you’re depressed it is a real achievement to get yourself up and out of bed. On better days I’d be able to write that I’d got out of bed, been for a shower and walked to the shop. On a great day I’d add that I’d also done some Lego.

As I recovered, I gradually became able to write that I’d been to the cinema or that I’d been to watch some friends do sports. I took online courses to get my brain fired up and rating to go again. I started to make social arrangements and sometimes I’d even follow through and go and meet that friend. Lifelong social anxiety added an extra layer of complication to that one and is something I’m still working through today.

The struggle was real. A struggle that kept me off work and at home for 6 months in total. It was less than 3 years ago, but it feels like a lifetime away already. I don’t often think about that time, but at this time of social distancing I’ve found myself thinking about it. And feeling weirdly grateful. I’m already a pro at social distancing. I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own company, know how to occupy myself at home and without social interaction. I’ve had the practice.

The difference is that these days I don’t need to force myself out for a walk. I don’t live on the coast any more, but I do live near some woods. With a podcast for company, I’m out every day for a good hour’s walk. I do now seek out social interaction beyond my small circle of close friends and seem to constantly be in Zoom group catch ups, joining in with quizzes and having “virtual lunch” with colleagues. I’m not saying that it’s easy, but I know I’m finding social distancing easier than most. For once, I feel that having experienced depression and intense dysphoria has given me a strange sort of advantage.

One thing that has always helped me through tough times is remembering that this is only temporary. My wait for top surgery was temporary. Social distancing is temporary. Things move on. Things get better.