What do you do with a gut feeling when you’re trans and OCD? Even though I often have doubts, I’ve never really lost the ‘feeling’ that I’m trans – it’s easy to overthink things after all. My experience of transition is relatively short, covering about the last six months after years of compartmentalisation, and even now I’m still waiting for several big changes to arrive. Mostly I’ve been experimenting, and trying to normalise things that started off being daunting. Along the way I’ve had counselling and had mostly positive coming out experiences, to which I’m very grateful. However, I’ve also been coping with how my long-established OCD habits and thought patterns make transition difficult.
My OCD is fairly severe, and includes counting, washing, checking, and ‘spiralling’ worries. Often my brain will go to the worst possible outcome, while a lot of my day is spent holding down anxiety through rituals. Still, I function in a fairly stressful full-time job, hold down a flat and have a decent grip on most things in my life. What fuels my OCD is a fear of change, of routines broken and regret – being in control means sticking to rigid thought patterns and rituals that reassure me and my brain.
Being transgender while experiencing OCD is tough. My OCD loves order and repetition; dealing with transgender feelings is all about uncertainty and change, while transition is a series of risks, forwards and backwards steps, and accepting failure. When I started to push at the idea of transitioning as an actual possibility, I soon noticed that OCD made things harder, but also had some side-benefits that are frustrating but oddly positive. These are some of the main problems I have when my OCD and transition run into each other:
- Symmetry and order: if you’re a trans woman, shaving your face every day is an unfortunate reality until you have laser treatments. For me, it’s worse as my OCD makes something as trivial as shaving a trigger for irrational fears and anxieties. So I have to deal with fears about accidentally shaving away my long hair, messing up sideburns, and missing spots. I still shave, but I’ve made it into a fairly exhausting ritual that currently stops me from quickly shaving before work in the morning. OCD makes it tough as I fear making a mistake that will throw off my sense of things being right, but also means I have to deal with being unshaven and self-conscious more than I probably should.
- Fear of change and reassurance: as much as the thought of social and medical transition is a positive one for me, I’m also scared of regret and a thousand ‘what ifs’? What if I change my mind? What if there’s other reasons beyond being trans that have me thinking the way I do? What if I’ve convinced myself of it by just thinking about it all the time? I imagine the majority of trans people have this fear, but for me it’s typical ‘worst case’ thinking, where the possibility of being wrong limits me and I have to return to excavate my gut feeling to try to reassure myself that I’m doing the right thing. In this way, I’m scared that I’ll never be able to take a genuine risk. I’ve even recently found that a great coming out experience was soured by how I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I thought I would. When you build something up so much in your mind as potentially ruinous, you’d think that the other person reassuring you there’s no problem would be fine. Instead, the fact that it was so ‘normal’ set me off into spiralling thoughts and anxieties: why wasn’t I more emotional, and what does that mean? And that’s difficult – my tendency to over-analyse means that I struggle to understand a middle ground – if something’s not euphoric or disastrous and just fine, then I have doubts.
- Anxiety over failure: my OCD is often wrapped up with perfectionism and having problems with mistakes and learning processes. So far this has mostly made things like clothes-buying and makeup more stressful than they need to be, as I obsess over clothes sizes, buying the wrong things, or just doing things wrong. I don’t have a problem anymore with buying clothes or trying them on, and being annoyed with inconsistent sizes and fits isn’t that unusual for anyone. Still, having to plough on regardless despite knowing that I’m actively making mistakes with some small victories along the way is a positive thing.
While these problems may seem trivial in the face of what other trans women deal with, I tend to find that OCD just makes everything that much more of a struggle in terms of changing routines and learning new skills. But…there is an upside.
OCD makes me slow down: my fear of change and making mistakes means that I’m unlikely to rush into anything without over-analysing it to death. I’m still worried about irreversible choices, but being permanently indecisive can be just as bad. What OCD does do is test my inner resolve – if I still have a gut feeling and see something like transitioning or just being trans as ‘right’, then maintaining that in the face of the OCD part of my brain is a good sign. Even when OCD makes me think that by obsessing over whether to transition has actually made me force the idea into reality, even though it might be the wrong decision!
OCD can distract from the big stuff: getting caught up in trivial stresses ironically makes some bigger things more manageable. I had no problem going to the GP’s for a referral, or seeking counselling – I’m still not out to most people, but I know that I can talk about being transgender or the possibility of transitioning in an objective way. Also, fears over getting trivial stuff wrong are more about not achieving or maintaining something I actually want – it’s a fear of not being able to transition ‘properly’, not whether those things actually feel wrong. I don’t question wearing makeup or buying female clothes – I question how I do it.
For me at least, being transgender and OCD is about accepting a lack of certainty – it’d be great if there was a way of having that concrete reassurance to fall back on, an ultimate check that the OCD part of my brain craves. But that’s not the case, and I have to accept that complex emotions, doubt and anxiety are all part of being transgender and ultimately transitioning – there’s no straight lines, no landmarks with a guaranteed emotional experience. All I can rely on is the persistence of my gut feeling, of having bad days and questions, and then suddenly experiencing dysphoria again or being inspired by something online.
OCD is tough in any situation, but it makes an essentially uncertain thing like transition with its lack of immediate comfort zones more of a challenge. However, I’m not going to let OCD thoughts cripple me with indecisiveness and worry – the rigid thinking and desire for things staying the same that OCD thrives on are countered by the many potentially great aspects of change that transition brings.
by Jennifer James (@jenjamesexe)