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Prozac made me cisgender, I say to my therapist inside of her bright blue office-box, barely big enough to hold all of these painful jokes and thoughts.
Flashback. It’s August of 2015, well before my venture into Prozac, and I’m rolling around in my sheets in the sunlight. I live on the top floor of a disgusting old mansion with seven friends and my partner. Outside my window is Dawson Street, gritty and quiet. I’m relieved. I now know a name to put on the dissociation I have always felt from my body, and my anxiety during nudity or sex.
Soon enough, I come out as transgender. Everything, for a while, is new and embarrassing. I’m in constant confrontation with other people’s mistakes and apologies concerning my new name or pronouns. I want to tell people “it’s okay” before I even introduce myself.
People say that when you are around a calm presence, you become more calm. Similarly, when you exude anxiety, it is felt by those around you. Humans form collective emotional force fields, and our emotions travel, bouncing back and forth between bodies. We co-regulate; we share ghosts. Energies. That summer I wonder if people’s anxious reactions to me are causing my own anxiety.
But I think anxiety is innate in me. For most of my life I’ve been scared – really scared – of both material things and things that exist only inside of me. Both rational and irrational. Choking. Aneurysms. The government downloading my internet history. Heartbreak. Leukemia. Aliens. Being trans. Dementia. Climbing the steps by myself.
Serious panic used to shoot through my whole body when I climbed the steps alone. There was always someone chasing me and that someone was just as real as my own self. When I was a child, my fierce little legs would only dart, never walk, up the creaky wooden stairs of my childhood home. The walls were painted a deep, dark red ever since my stepdad moved in, and the hallways felt like intestines. The rooms were organs of an alcoholic – messy and chipping, full of love but falling apart. Now I live on the third floor of an apartment building and up until recently, I still dashed passed the ten black apartment doors, stirring up the air freshener and dust with my feet.
You are not your thoughts. You are not your thoughts, I sing to myself like a mantra, for years, as my thoughts lay siege on me. It isn’t until I’m 22 years old that I see a doctor for my mental health. The doctor talks about options for hormone treatment but that feels too big, too soon. She also says the words “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” and refers me to a specialist not far from where I live. I never call him, but I do get a perfect little prescription bottle that I cling to tightly.
Having OCD looks many different ways on different types of people, as any diagnosis does. I understand it as an extreme version of anxiety, causing uncontrollable thoughts and sometimes manifesting in physical compulsions. It feels like being on a 90 mph Ferris wheel without a place to hop off.
Some people, foolishly, think that since I have OCD, I must be incredibly clean and hygienic. This isn’t the case at all. It does mean that for all of high school, I had the invasive image of mysterious, pale hands holding scissors in front of my eyes and cutting my eyeballs in half. I had this thought over and over. It crossed my mind so many times that somewhere along the line it stopped bothering me, and consequently my brain stopped producing it.
But I do still have repetitive, unpleasant thoughts – often less extreme than the scissors fantasy. The thoughts may be about a disease that I probably don’t actually have, or invasive images of my partner having sex with a cis-male, or images of me with the body and gender I want. This is OCD, too.
Four months after the doctor’s visit, I’m on tour with my band in an enormous yellow van in New England. I take my first pill because I feel like I’m going to break in half. I’m sick for weeks when I start Prozac. I’m heartbroken-sick and anxious-sick, and literally having-diarrhea-every-day-sick. As we drive from town to town, the traffic is awful and the scenery is hardly beautiful. We are all some form of unwell and the August heat is unbearable. The windows in the van only crack open and the air conditioning is broken like some type of cruel joke.
During the week that I’m on tour, I’m anxiously waiting for something to happen to my body or brain but I mostly feel overwhelmed and sad. Still, I meet a girl named Emily who makes me feel big feelings in Brattleboro, Vermont. Her hair is curly and brown and beautiful. She wears hiking boots in the summer. I’m obsessed with her.
She only has a flip phone because she’s skeptical of the surveillance that smartphones bring.
“It’s just not necessary for my life. I won’t invite the state to track me, to profit from each phone call,” she says, certain, calm and decisive.
We’re sitting in the kitchen of her house cooking pasta after one of my band’s shows and I watch her move around the kitchen with amazing grace. The room is dimly lit and I look down at the table when I have nothing to say. My lust for her is enormous. I lust for it all: the mountains, flip phones, the life in Brattleboro that I won’t ever live. It’s colorful. It’s overwhelming. Even this makes me obsess. I make lists in my head of how I can take a little part of this moment with me. This feeling isn’t pleasant, but it’s raw.
That was my brain before I came upon Prozac. Intrigued, amazed, loving, dramatic, hard to take care of, needing of support. Frequently dysphoric. My brain usually felt like a balloon expanding with air, getting ready to POP.
Six months later I’m biking on my way to buy wine for my friends. I feel casual like I’m sitting in an armchair on top of the world with my legs perfectly crossed. I feel graceful like Emily. I notice new things about my neighborhood. There are trees here and people with stories and lives that are not weapons. The sky is pale blue and lovingly frames the red-brick buildings like a canvas. I do not feel raw, but I feel calm enough to notice the small details of the world surrounding me. It’s pleasant.
Prozac gives me presence. It makes the little things matter so much less and the big things feel manageable. But the depth of a moment, a crisis, the feeling of dysphoria, is flattened out like a tabletop. I kiss a girl and feel nothing in my gut. I’m convinced it’s good.
For the first time ever, it feels easier to believe in myself than to not believe in myself. I introduce myself loudly and proudly. “My name is Elias, my pronouns are ‘they/them’” I say, or if I’m feeling bold: “he/him.”
On Tuesday nights that winter, I get out of my writing class and wait at the bus stop. I shiver and feel the cold. I feel my feet on the ground and then I get on the bus and feel the seat below me. I go home and I make dinner. I love doing the dishes. I spend time alone without fear. I walk, slowly, carefully up my apartment steps. I smell the weird cologne-like air-freshener in the hallway. Sometimes I’m sad, and that feels great too. I’m much less needy and everyone seems to like me more. I think, this must be how normal people feel.
When I’m on Prozac I live in my body because the alarms in my head are soft. It feels fine that I have a less than flat chest, so I hardly ever put on my chest binder. My mind is quiet and even feels feathery sometimes, brushing over me with kindness. My body doesn’t feel inadequate or brutal. I don’t obsess compulsively over being something that I’m not.
Prozac made me cisgender, I say to my therapist inside of her bright blue office-box. My therapist laughs, which is the response I hoped for, and she says, “If Prozac actually made people cisgender, they would be putting it in the water.” And I laugh too.
Prozac did not make me cisgender. I still don’t identify as a woman. I still really don’t like being called “she.” But being on Prozac showed me something terribly sad and informative: For much of my life, my transness was hopelessly bound up with my anxiety, and my anxiety was bound up in my transness.
Of course, there are one thousand reasons why transgender people are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Systemic violence, lack of representation, physical harm, microaggressions, erasure. To say the least: Even well-intentioned people feel anxious around us, which gives us that ghostly, contagious type of anxiety.
I considered that I could be cisgender when my anxiety and OCD symptoms lessened because I did not know how to separate those two crucial parts of me out from each other. How do any of us separate mind from heart, from body? But being trans is so much more than being mentally unwell.
Being trans is complex; sometimes euphoric, sometimes calm. Being trans means waking up in the morning and putting on my favorite black jeans and turtle-neck sweater. It means singing songs with a cracky, deep voice. It means packing or binding sometimes. It means allowing myself to be feminine sometimes. It doesn’t mean I need to always be mourning what I am and what I am not.
With the help of a therapist, medication, a queer community, myself, I realize this: trans people can be happy too.
It’s August again. I’m coming back from summer travels and settling into my new bedroom. I’ve harnessed a sense of stability. I’ve been walking calmly up steps and taking my shirt off in front of other people. I’m convinced it’s good. But buildings look more like cardboard and the sun feels less like a star. That is to say, some of the aliveness of my life is gone. I never, ever orgasm anymore. I miss the desire that used to come alive in my body, as my pulse and my heart climbed mountains and dove into valleys every time someone took my clothes off. I miss how my body would react to people like Emily and new places like Brattleborro, VT.
And just like that, I decide to come off the Prozac. As a way to mark a new period of my life, I paint my bedroom lavender purple. As I sloppily move the paint roller all over the walls, I skip my first dose.
I’ve been on and off of medication since. Sometimes I feel like I absolutely need it to feel like I can function in this world. Other times, I want the colors to wash over me – the painful, strange, invasive, colors, even when they’re uncontrollable. The wonderful thing is, now I get to choose when that is, and unfortunately, and beautifully so, it doesn’t make me cisgender at all.