(or, Embodiment vs Dissociation: round four, fight!)
So I’m in gestational month seven, now, a weird time where I never know whether to say I or we. There’s a part of me that is not entirely me, a part of me that will become not-me very soon. A part of me that has the hiccups as I type this, rhythmically thonking their tiny shoulders against my front pelvic bone as they jolt and spasm and grow a set of human lungs.
Not my lungs. But a set of them.
A feminist upbringing in a staunchly pro-choice household trained into me the reflexive position that this is my body, that everything within my skin is mine. Ten years of being trans, out, and grouchy about it made me even fiercer in assertions of bodily ownership, autonomy, selfhood. And meanwhile there was the eating disorder, more than a little about bodily control; and the recovery from that, which navigated bodily understanding and ownership. This is my body, me, mine, myself.
And yet, the trans discourse that shaped me in the mid-20teens included a lot of distancing from body parts: I learned to speak of various bits as in me, but not of me. This is my chest, I own it, but the fact that it is shaped in a certain way does not say the usual things about me. Is it mine? Sure. Is it me? Well…
I remember really drilling down into this in chats with friends about hypothetical post-top-surgery arrangements. What do you want to do with the extra bits? Do you ask for them back? Do you never want to see them again? Do you want to bury them, burn them, set them in a boat and give them a tiny Viking funeral? Are you saying farewell to a part of you, are you honoring your past self, or are you discarding completely irrelevant medical waste?
Last week, my midwife asked me the same set of questions about the placenta. I wrote, do I have placenta feelings? in my notes.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. go the hiccups inside of me. I don’t have the hiccups. My lungs, my ribcage: I know them well, after binding my chest for a decade and training myself in breathing exercises for much longer than that. (Yoga, swimming, wind instruments. I can hold a note longer than most people I know, binder or not.) My lungs are grown. I’ve got a little cramp today, just next to my sternum; probably the additional weight on the pectoral. There are hiccups, but they’re not mine.
So much of transitioning has been an assertion of control over my body. I took hormones so my chest got smaller and less dense; binding was easier and quicker and painless. I lifted weights and stretched and set goals for personal strength. I sang karaoke and reveled in the lower pitches I could hit. Every two weeks I sat down in the bathroom and took deep breaths and stuck a needle in my thigh so that I could make myself into a more true version of me. So that my actions would do something to my body. After years of routine dissociation and habitual refusal to acknowledge chronic pain, hunger, or skin-crawling discomfort against most of my clothing, I finally had some ownership over my own bodily sensations. I started to eat when hungry. Rest when in pain (though this cost me at least one job.) Make my own clothes.
I can eat what I want, now. I can bind my chest comfortably, effectively, in patterns and colors that make me feel like me. And I can stretch when a pain twinges, shift positions, take naps when I need them, consult with queer n’ trans pros about my yoga routines.
Thunk, thunk. I don’t control the sensations. Not the hiccups, nor the kicks, nor the sharp twinges on my sides or the weight on the bladder. There’s a slow burn sometimes, down the center-front line through the bellybutton, as the muscles I once worked hard to develop separate down the middle. But I never really controlled my dysphoria, either; I just developed good mitigation strategies.
It’s weird but very lovely to think I’m choosing these processes in very much the same way. Inducing pregnancy wasn’t quite so simple as an oil-based injection every two weeks, but it was just as intentional. I picked a course of action, knowingly altered my body, tracked the changes, developed some hilariously terrible body odors. Found myself by turns pleased and startled by the way my body has responded to my intentions. I like the way my hips are rotating and changing how I stand to support the proto-human. I’m having fun with a lot of the movement, the weird lurches and the little shifts and the steady press against my right side. I like it when a cat curls up on my belly and purrs and there are kicks back in response. That’s amazingly cool.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Hip soreness, acid reflux, feet going flat. I don’t like sneezing and losing control of my bladder. And you know, I also didn’t enjoy the facial hair I got from T, or some of the feelings I got from being called sir and he. (Oops, I’m still non-binary. That was fun to find out.)
And then there’s the big one, the mixed one, the thing I have thought so long and hard about that I made an entire clothing company for it: The Chest. Testosterone did some things to my chest, which I had wildly mixed feelings about. Pregnancy is also doing some things to my chest, mostly in the opposite direction (but not all!), and so of course I have bemusedly mixed feelings about all of those, too. At this point I might be a bit tired of having feelings about my chest.
Which doesn’t really stop them from happening. So I find myself regressing, sometimes, into the numbing dissociation of the years between puberty and transition. Oh, body’s having a sensation? Cool, I’ll just check out for now. Body can feel a thing, I’ll be back later. Nipples? Never heard of ’em. Skin sensitive? Huh, that’s weird, must be happening to someone else. I made a sincere effort in the mid-20teens to break this habit and be a Good Binder Tailor Role Model, but it sure has come roaring back.
And, well, this is a problem. We took Ash Dasuqi’s trans-friendly and firmly queer Embodied Birth Class for upcoming parents a bit ago. It was incredibly useful, especially for those of us trying to avoid hospitals during a Covid-rich and infection-prone time. (Knock on wood.) One of the key notes I took from those sessions, circled and dotted with exclamation points, is just how bad bodily dissocation can be for nonmedicated labor. It turns out I’ll need to be aware of which sensation is happening where, so that I can change position and move accordingly and breathe into it and get this kid through the drop-ball puzzle of my skeleton.
So. If I want to get this kid out from under my skin with both of us intact, I’m going to have to stay in touch. In contact. Aware. Experiencing.
Which means it’s time to go back to 2014, and the checking-in habits I originally developed for binder safety. Oh, my chest is doing a weird thing? Well, what is it? What can I do about it? Cramps, itchiness, soreness, strain? Can I wear a binder today? If I don’t wear a binder today, will it be better or worse? Can I look at my chest, feel it, try to make decisions about lotions and soft shirts? Is it better to do that first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, right after taking off the binder for the day?
Sometimes I can tell it’ll hurt to bind, so I don’t start. Sometimes I can’t tell it’ll hurt until I start, it hurts, and then I stop. And… sometimes it’s great. When I’m binding on a comfy day and I sneeze or cough, the spasm doesn’t hit my bladder. It stays contained within my supported chest. I love that. You can best believe I’ll be using that postpartum a lot.
Plus, it helps with the sternum cramp.
So I’m making a few binders for myself this week, size and a half bigger than what I wore last year, modded in a couple other ways. I’m using Star Net for best texturing. It’s the shortest I’ve ever had, the first I’ve ever made for myself that’s tapered. And it’s front-zip, for easiest release.
I made a hip-hugging support belt last month, too, but the client didn’t like it. The edges dug into my stomach when I sat down, and someone who isn’t me kicked hard ’til it was gone. I refit the belt and it worked okay for a couple weeks, but now it’s the wrong size again.
Still. I’m trying. Modding it again, changing materials, seeing what I can work out. We try to satisfy picky clients, after all.