[Author's note: This is a follow-up to my first post on The Border House. There are many ways to transition and not all of them involve hormones. While I want to share my journey, I don't want my transition to be read as an archetype for others.]
Transitioning legally, hormonally and socially is like playing a classic Japanese role-playing game. At the start, you “gain experience” and “level up” at an exhilarating pace. Last August, I came out to my friends: Level 2! Last October, I came out at work: Level 3!
In November, I reached the bottom of the dungeon (the endocrinology department at the Emory University Hospital), beat the big boss (my long-awaited doctor’s appointment) and obtained some sweet loot: a prescription for spironolactone (a testosterone-blocker) and estradiol (a form of estrogen). This single victory merited a massive experience boost: Level 3 to Level 7 all at once!
As time wore on, however, these monumental moments spread further and further apart. This February, I legally changed my name: Level 8, I suppose. I got an F on my passport last month: Level 8 and a half? I changed the name on my car title. Hooray? How exciting…
It feels like I’m grinding now. About six months into hormone replacement therapy (HRT), physical progress is frustratingly incremental. Everyday, twice a day, I pop that same pair of pills. Everyday, I brush my hair out to see how long it’s gotten, tugging my bangs down over the tip of my nose. Everyday, I examine my body in the mirror hoping that I will be surprised by what I see.
They say a watched pot never boils. But when you’re the pot, it’s hard not to watch yourself. This is simultaneously the blooming spring of my transition—the moment when noticeable bodily changes are starting take effect—and the onset of its long winter—the time when I soberly remind myself that the physical effects of HRT require two years or more to unfold.
Once I was the flashy hero, slaying dragons, clearing dungeons and buying new armor. For six months, I frantically set up court dates and doctor’s appointments. Now, I fight tiny battles everyday, correcting someone’s pronoun usage or (finally) buying a hair dryer. To use the language of Dragon Quest, I’m only fighting slimes nowadays; the bosses have already been defeated.
When I beat the main quest in Dragon Quest IX, I pored through walkthroughs and FAQs, picking out the ideal gear for each of my characters. But when I realized what materials I would need to craft that gear and what I would have to do to obtain those materials, I gave up on the project of outfitting my dream team.
I played through a few of the procedurally generated post-game levels (“grottos”) but my interest quickly diminished along with the rate of return on my time investment in the game. Like many, I’ve given up on grinding in video games. Why spend four hours gaining one level when I could start a new game and spend one hour gaining four levels?
But my body is not a cartridge that I can stow on a shelf. I can’t buy a new one in order to feel the rush of progress once more. I’m stuck in the post-game, chipping away at the more quotidian challenges of being transgender in a cisnormative world.
To speak euphemistically about a sensitive subject, I’m still eyeing some fancy gear down the road. But the item I want is rare, costly and difficult to construct. It’s a weapon with amazing stats and an astonishing price tag, much like the coveted but impossibly out of reach items found in every Dragon Quest shop. Every so often, I count my gold, look at that price tag and put my nose back to the grindstone. Someday.
Middles are an awkward and undervalued sort of temporality. They lack the excitement of beginnings and the catharsis of endings and yet the inexorability of their passage is precisely what enables that excitement and that catharsis.
I’m in a middle now. I’m an unfinished product, a work in progress. I’m still caught, painfully, between the idealized image of myself that I project to the world and the brutal reality that greets me in the mirror’s reflection.
I need to realize that middles can be exciting too. Middles are a time when plots thicken, when new characters get introduced, when dramatic twists occur. I’m sure I’ll be relieved when these first few years of HRT are over but, for now, I can take some consolation in the slow, beautiful strangeness of my changing form.
Perhaps there’s a more optimistic way of conceptualizing this awkward middle, another temporal framework that could alter my perspective.
Instead of focusing on grinding, then, let’s say that I’ve completed the tutorial of a sandbox game. I’ve already worked my way through the pedantic, hand-holding early missions: I know how to walk in heels and I learned how to sign my new name. I even figured out how to apply liquid eyeliner after numerous failed attempts with comedic results. I had a lot of help from dear transgender and cisgender female friends in figuring out these basics.
I still have some waiting to do, yes, but I am also free to explore a new territory that’s opened up in front of me, whether I figuratively imagine it as Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV or as the surface of Mars in Red Faction: Guerrilla. In fact, my own experience post-transition is not so far removed from my character’s experience in Saint’s Row: The Third: we both sing along to the radio, try on a lot of clothes and goof off with sex toys.
With the tutorial behind me, I can enjoy new modes of relating to others, new languages of identity and desire, new sensations and, yes, new outfits when finances are permitting. I’ll get to my next big goals in due time but, for now, I’m trying to get lost in optional quests because, in Skyrim as in life, side missions are sometimes the most significant endeavors we can pursue.
One of the reasons why I am so grateful to be on the other side of the tutorial, then, is that I can proceed with the pleasurable business of living, laughing and loving in a world that feels so much more open to me than it did before. The world might not have changed very much but I am changing and I finally get to play.
Dante Alighieri opens The Inferno with these famous verses: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” In the middle of my transition, I feel a little lost but I’m ready to take some steps in the dark.