This is a personal article about the intersection of being on the spectrum and … I’m not sure what to call myself at this point, but I’m neither straight nor cis. Sometimes I just use “queer” as another term for “whatever”.
Can you live with your gender?
I’ve spent my puberty (since about age 12) and most of my twenties in rather agonising gender dysphoria – if you haven’t heard about this, it’s a technical term for the feeling of really, really disliking the biological sex of your body.
My body is biologically female, and as soon as my secondary sexual characteristics developed in puberty, I felt shaken, betrayed, violated, in a sense psychologically annihilated – my body was suddenly forcing me to become someone I wasn’t.
I didn’t realise at that time that it wasn’t necessarily my body so much as the social expectations attached to it – after all, ok I may not have liked the shape and new extra functions which my body suddenly developed, but I do believe a physical change as such, naked, devoid of meaning and implication – becoming taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, or even growing a sixth finger or second stomach – is perhaps easier to cope with than one that people somehow assume now defines all aspects of you you are.
Childhood with Legos, snails and marbles
For me the shock was even greater because in my childhood, I was left alone about all this nonsense.
I was born in the Socialist Republic of Poland (now non-existent) – it was totally usual for kids to wear unisex clothes, or for girls to wear boys clothes if that’s all you could get (no shopping malls available). Nobody cared.
It was also usual for kids of all genders to run around outdoors freely. Nobody bothered me – it wasn’t “ungirly” to spend the whole afternoon strolling the outskirts of the village, exploring the bugs populating the meadows or climbing through fascinating industrial ruins.
My dad is an electronics engineer (and frankly looks like a picture-book aspie, too, though he doesn’t know the concept) and taught me soldering diodes, programming a first few lines in PASCAL, and what quantum physics is (not that I understood that :)) when I was probably around 6. We spent the summers swimming in lakes and building tree-houses in the forests, foraging for berries and mushrooms (traditional pastime), and such. My parents and their friends also liked to get the guitar out and sing popular songs, which I enjoyed a lot and soon taught myself (the guitar, flute, and some electronic keyboard; I can’t sing).
That was before everyone had youtube, or even a CD player.
Frankly, I miss these times and sometimes still listen to those songs – but recordings aren’t the same; they sing it all wrong.
* * *
I generally liked building things from cardboard and random materials and drawing, for example making up fantasy species of animals and sketching and describing them. Once my parents and grandma allowed me to paint the entire, huge balcony window with watercolours in a fantasy world with nature, houses, animals (they later just washed it off with water – I suppose they did it when my mum was about to clean the windows anyways). That was so much fun and great to look at.
I also had dolls, although I never played any pretend games with them – was more interested in the various miniature accessories, furniture, houses, cars they had, and enjoyed carving such myself or building stuff from cardboard. My grandma also taught me to sew (she hand-sewed clothes for the family), and I enjoyed it briefly making miniature clothes.
I liked collecting all sorts of seashells, from various species of molluscs, and I also enjoyed observing snails in my grandma’s garden, and building Lego mazes for them, hiding food and seeing if they’d find it. That was probably my favourite game, along with another Lego game I made up with a friend in which we’d build complex mazes with mechanical contraptions that had to be navigated with colourful glass marbles in a specific way.
I could usually outsmart the adults at this.
My mum recently told me I was outsmarting adults at visual puzzles when I was two.
Violation, betrayal and humiliation
So, on this background, imagine the shock that fell on me when suddenly … my whole biology started, was I was told, subordinating itself to the task of having babies. That wasn’t something I’d ever thought about, but when I did, the only reaction was absolute panic (and perhaps repulsion/disgust/”wrongness” – I don’t feel that when other female-bodied people have babies, but at the fantasy of me doing that – yes).
I didn’t want to use my body for this. I wanted to use it, as I had done all my life so far, for running, jumping, hiking, climbing, building, rough-and-tumble, and – heck – I would have certainly preferred to get the extra muscle strength that testosterone offers over – periods, breast, babies. God, yes. And suddenly – which I picked up on – being considered weak, or somehow incapable in areas in which I totally was capable – not just sports and technical dexterity, but also spatial thinking (still one of my major strengths), maths, navigation, later driving, roaming alone as I had done since childhood, and what not.
Generally, I felt like people suddenly started treating me like I’d become an idiot, or disabled (I’m not sure how else to express this – I don’t know how people with visible disabilities experience that, but I mean people underestimating you, condescending, infantilising).
The worst of it was probably that suddenly people expected me to care about being pretty … or to be pretty. I’m not sure there could have been anything that I was less interested in – all I wanted from clothes was for them not to itch (sensitive to tags, itchy scratchy seams, getting my chin stuck in zippers, etc.) and not to restrict my movement. I couldn’t care less and didn’t see the point of putting mental energy into this.
On top of that I found this humiliating – why did people suddenly care about such trivial superficialities rather than – the stuff I create, or what I’m interested in?
I picked up on the idea that suddenly my value and definition had become that of a decoration – at least that’s the conclusion I drew from people suddenly commenting on my appearance, and expecting me to care, or to play other (stereotype) games that were either incomprehensible or absurd to me.
It was all a mix of profound humiliation, a sense of violation, betrayal (what had my body done to me?), finally isolation, confusion and despair.
From child to daughter
The most excruciating part of this was, honestly, probably that my dad played a big part in it. I figure that when I started looking female, he suddenly re-classified me from “child” to “young woman” and felt the obligation to raise me as that – based on a very crude, simplistic, almost naive stereotypical understanding that he’d picked up from home.
This also shattered me, as suddenly I felt like I’m not “one of his folks” anymore – suddenly there’s some gulf between us, I’m on some other category (that my whole being screams is wrong), and I get treated and talked to in the most bizarre and (for me) humiliating and exasperating ways. Like being bought jewellery (what am I supposed to do with that?) instead of fun mechanical devices or physical games. Being pushed to wear impractical clothes. Being pushed to be nice, and implicitly subservient to men (they wouldn’t call it that, but that’s how I’d describe the era my parents came from).
* * *
On top of it, I started getting infatuated with girls (which my mother noticed before I did).
Also at a point in my childhood, my family had emigrated to Germany – but this is a whole other side-plot.
And, as I just discovered recently, I’d been an empath all along – feeling many of the feelings and traumas of the people around me in my own body, without understanding what’s going on, and having plenty of mystical experiences on top of that (at one point I was scared of being schizophrenic, as that’s the only “logical” explanation I found; next to being natural-born shaman material 🙂 ).
Digging myself out, slowly
I don’t think I’d be exaggerating by much in calling this initiation traumatic. In fact, I started developing eating disorders when I was around 14 and self-mutilating behaviours at 17.
This morning I’ve just re-read the typical characteristics for borderline personality fun, and I think at that time (and into my mid-late 20s) I’d fit them all – instability, intense love-hate switches in relationships, abandonment panic, self-harm, impulsivity, tantrums, constant sensations of maddening emptiness, serious issues over identity, a harrowing hole at the centre of my soul, feeling like I literally don’t exist or am a phantom (I assume that was dissociation) – on top of still being autistic, gay-ish, gender dysphoric, and a child of immigrants who had a tough time; and don’t even mention seeing spirits.
Now I’m 33 and I’m still digging myself out of this. Crazy enough, I’ve managed to resolve an eating disorder and most of the explosive tantrum flights / extreme vulnerability to triggers on my own, without a decent therapist. Studying psychology books like crazy, learning mindfulness and bodywork techniques and ways of working with trauma on my own. Because in my youth I didn’t realise that there is actual support and that I needed it (and still do in part, but heck – it’s late), and nobody offered it in an appropriate way. When I realised in my mid 20s, I either couldn’t afford or organise it.
I was mostly alone with this, picking up bits and pieces of support – and puzzle-pieces to understanding what’s going on – from kind humans along the way. I also learnt ways of relating, ways of expressing warmth, and basic self-compassion and self-acceptance – here and there, in the weirdest relationships, in the weirdest places, countries and circumstances.
Admittedly, I do sometimes (when I need to top up on that) derive self-respect or even pride from the fact of – being alive, relatively sane, and occasionally content, creative, loving.
Although, as my understanding of all this reached deeper, this feeling has shifted to just deeply respecting life – because it wasn’t me strictly speaking that brought me through this; I sense it was some deep instinct that’s inherent in living things.
I’m in awe about this underlying, gentle intelligence that’s in nature and in me (humans in general); I’m not sure I’d still be here if it hadn’t given in to its guidance on and off, over my intellect and knowledge.
Something that you could see in terms of the unfathomable adaptability and creative obstinacy of living beings (yes, I’ve studied biological systems science at a point, so I talk weird like this) just as well as you could sense it on a spiritual level.
And that’s another intellectual and philosophical joy for me to ponder regularly.