This is what dysphoria feels like

August 12, 2014 § 22 Comments

Because so many people who want to know more about trans rights, and be supportive, don’t really know what dysphoria is, or what it can do.

Because so many people who want to derail or dismiss discussions of trans people and our existence believe that they can ignore it, or somehow explain it away.


Have you ever broken a limb and had it in plaster? And when you went to move it you couldn’t – when your brain told it to function it failed? When you looked down and expected something – preemptively felt it – your eyes contradicted you, the limitations of your embodied self clashed against the self that your brain expected to be there?

That’s how dysphoria has always felt to me.

It was stumbling with shock when my arms brushed against my breasts (and I struggle to write the word my next to breasts because they never were mine) – because I couldn’t feel them properly, couldn’t fit them into my body.

It was dreaming of myself in a body that made sense, and waking up utterly confused, and then indigent, and then terrified.

It was crafting my outer self into something far away from what I expected to be there – because it was better to see a strange object in the mirror, and feel like some kind of alien riding in a foreign vessel, than it was to try to reconcile my skin and my mind – because how could I?

It was needing a flat chest and muscles – not because that’s what men should have, or because it’s ‘unfeminine’ – not to prop up my love for real ale and leather and cigars, or to prevent me from baking or wearing makeup – nothing so ridiculous – but so that I could lie in bed and fall asleep without the claustrophobic panic that comes from wanting to rip out through your own skin.

It was something that resisted intellectual and psychological analysis to extinction – I could and did theorize to the best of my ability, but nothing could touch it – though I did learn a lot about myself along the way.

It’s something that stills stays my hand, when I reach up to scratch my cheek and find smooth skin – after half a lifetime as an adult unable to grow facial hair, my hand still expects to feel it.

It was forgetting that my body had ever been different, the minute I came round after top surgery – because it didn’t ‘mutilate’ my body – the surgery uncovered the body my mind had always known to be there, and had been desperately searching for.

It’s the mixture, now, of parts of my body that aren’t right – and parts that are gloriously, beautifully, MINE.

It feels nothing like low self-esteem, or the self-hatred of my appearance I can feel when depressed.


To have someone dismiss dysphoria as ‘all in the mind’, a mental disturbance – it feels as wrong as it does when someone claims that the pain I experience from bipolar disorder isn’t real because ‘it’s just mental’.

My brain is my body as much as my hands, my legs are.

When I respect what my body as an holistic whole needs – that’s when the dysphoria can be solved.


My body needed something of me that is considered transgressive, dangerous, difficult – sometimes disgusting – by too many people. I had to follow that through, or I couldn’t be here now.

I’m happy to talk gender theories, gender structures, hierarchies, dissolution all night long – but I need it understood that I didn’t change my body to fulfill a certain niche gender role. I did it so that I could breathe.


You can’t talk about me being trans without talking about that.


§ 22 Responses to This is what dysphoria feels like

  • Sandy Hope says:

    So beautifully expressed, thank you for putting this into words

  • krisalex333 says:

    Mutilate? Never. Reveal? Yup. Take care.

  • Benjamin says:

    “…but so that I could lie in bed and fall asleep without the claustrophobic panic that comes from wanting to rip out through your own skin.”

    *this* So, so, so much this.

  • Unquiet says:

    “To have someone dismiss dysphoria as ‘all in the mind’, a mental disturbance – it feels as wrong as it does when someone claims that the pain I experience from bipolar disorder isn’t real because ‘it’s just mental’.

    This reminded me of Christopher Hitchens, writing on death: “I don’t have a body, I am a body.”

  • Mladenka Majic says:

    Thank you for putting into words that a person who doesn’t have these problems can understand. I have never been judgemental with anyone I have a few friends who struggle to cope with their gender issues and until I read ur article I thought I understood but after having read your words I have been left enlightened and I am truly great full for I am now in a better position to support them thank you thank you thank you!!!

  • Karen Hofmann says:

    So well put! I try to get people to visualize floating in space where there is no light, no up, no down, no sound, no sense of physical self, not even feeling your own fingers, no sense of time, only a sense of self-awareness with no body… perhaps this is forever… perhaps this is hell… and you try to scream but you have no body, and there’s no one there to hear you in this infinitely dark and silent nothingness… and some wonder why we feel depressed!… Karen

  • KF says:

    Thank you.

  • vreer says:

    That something is “mental” doesn’t make it less true. My problem with “dysphoria” as a term is mostly 1) its general and wrong use in diagnostics. 2) the narrow meaning of the word, being related to deep depression more than anyting else, while people often describe their feelings so much more differently. But the feelings of releif when waking up after a wished for medical intervention is absolutely real. No doubt (or I should doubt myself 😉

  • Maria says:

    Vary well written and also very true, I struggle daily with the feelings you described in my own way and nothing upsets me more than when someone says I understand and don’t get me wrong im not saying they don’t try to… but it really is something that you have to live through to understand.

    That said this is most defiantly the most apt description I have come across so far. It sums up the way I feel almost to a T.

    But it is still just a fraction of the feelings and while it is apt it is only a segment, I don’t think a cisgendered person will ever truly understand us… I just hope they can learn enough to accept us.

    Maria XXX.

  • […] cell phones, or carrying children’s toys. Guns aren’t for black people, either.” This is what dysphoria feels like – An explanation that was enlightening for me, so I share it in the hope it may enlighten […]

  • […] it’s a life threatening condition.  I defy anybody to read CN Lester’s piece “This is what dysphoria feels like” without feeling empathy and support.  If “cis” means “not trans,” and […]

  • J McK says:

    Ah, the joys of trangst! Those dark and lonely nights when you want nothing more than to rip your own skin off, but you daren’t tell anyone outside the community. Within the community you can name it and get a grim nod, but owt deeper is triggering and nor would you want that done to you. When the trangst is strong it is our own private hell.

  • WolfieKate says:

    You have managed to put into words exactly how I feel. I just have to find a way through this to achieve the peace that you now have. How I wish the world was a more enlightened place.

  • […] This post by CN Lester describes what dysphoria feels like […]

  • […] This post by CN Lester describes what dysphoria feels like […]

  • Naomhán says:

    Reblogged this on Tír na nÓg – A Journey to Androgyny and commented:
    Excellent description of body dysphoria. Have a read if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like.

  • VX says:

    Reading this after seeing you retweet that recent blogpost by Julia Serano regarding autogynephilia.

    Am nearly 6 years on T myself, 5 years post top surgery and undergoing treatment by St Peter’s Urology Clinic for the rest of it. I’m living very happily after having nearly ended my life due to dysphoria years ago, my dysphoria being that crippling.

    And yet, according to a cis “expert” James Cantor, our transitions are due to the same autogynephilia/extreme gayness model as Blanchard uses for trans women. Either we’re extreme lesbians or we sexually get off on the idea of having male bodies, or we’re doing it as a way of youthful rebellion. Trans people who claim they’re experiencing dysphoria must be liars as everything is about the sexual fetishes:

    Julia did a great job of debunking Cantor et al. from a trans woman perspective. I wonder if you know of any trans man literature debunking this?

  • […] who write about their gender dysphoria often invoke metaphors to describe it. Lester has written of feeling like “some kind of alien riding in a foreign vessel,” and of having a deep desire to […]

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