Survivor’s Guilt

I try not to get either too personal or too political in this blog.  This post will be both, and I apologize in advance. There are things that I really don’t want to talk about.  However, the movement to pass what they are calling “Leelah’s Law” has convinced me that I cannot in good conscious stay silent any more.

I have told very few people about the period in my life when I believed that I was transgendered. I am relatively open about my history of mental illness, but talking about being an “ex-transgendered person”, not to mention my own convictions regarding the effectiveness of surgical reassignment, seems to be asking for trouble.

I realize that going public with my experiences and convictions will make me a target–ironically with many of the people who form the core audience for my books, since my fiction deals with sexuality and identity issues. But I’m not making a living from my writing in any event, a boycott would be unpleasant but not financially crippling.

I, personally, was in therapy for gender identity issues in the early 1980s. At the time my life was a mess, due to a number of self-destructive behaviors.  Alcohol, drugs when I could get them, irrational bursts of violence, an inability to keep to any kind of a schedule.

I had been experiencing feelings that I was in the wrong body since childhood.  I had read everything I could on the subject, both memoirs and clinical research.  I could see my own life in the writings of Christine Jorgenen and Rene Richards. The therapist whom I was seeing reinforced my delusion that all of my problems were do to my being male when I really wanted to be female.  I fit all the right boxes on the checklist.

She encouraged me to begin what she called the process. I received a prescription for female hormones, although I wasn’t able to afford to get it filled. I was able to afford some electrolysis on my beard and still have some funny patches of bare skin on my face.  My focus was on simply finding a way to get the money to make the change.  My therapist encouraged me to try to find relatives willing to underwrite the expense.

Fortunately for my long term health, my behavioral issues and self-care grew so erratic that I was unable to continue therapy. Things got really bad for me for several years–well, most of the 1980s–and I ended up living on the streets, first in Missouri and then in Southern California. At the time I blamed everyone and everything else, looking back now I can see how I wrecked my life with a consistency that seems deliberate.

It wasn’t until I was living with a similarly damaged woman in California and we were trying to care for an infant daughter that I started to take the steps necessary to secure some kind of financial stability. My mental issues, however, were still unresolved.

In the early 2000s I started therapy again, this time as an attempt to convince DFS to return our children, who had been taken from our home. Fortunately–and by blind luck–I was assigned a therapist who specializes in early childhood trauma and was able to correctly diagnose me with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

After several years of cognitive therapy I am now comfortable with who and what I am–for the most part. As much as anyone is, I suppose, and more so than many. I have a full time job doing maintenance and I write. I’ve published three science fiction novels that draw heavily on my experiences with dissociation.

Reading the experiences of people who have undergone gender reassignment surgery has made me realize how very lucky I am that I wasn’t able to raise the money to have my own body altered.  Many are, like me, dissociative, and it’s clear that surgical reassignment is contraindicated for dissociation.

The long term prognosis for patients of surgical reassignment is difficult to assess.  Some clinics report that up to 90% of their patients cannot be reached for followup. Of those that can be reached, most report no change in symptoms related to comorbidities–that is to say, people who have problems with alcohol and drug abuse, sexual addiction, self-harm, or social pathologies prior to surgery continue to have those problems following surgery.

The suicide rate for gender reassignment patients is actually higher following surgery.  That fact has become so obvious that an attempt is being made to reframe the statistic to blame bullying or some form of social pressure.  I don’t believe that accounts for it at all, particularly taking into account the high profile transsexuals who have taken their own lives following nigh-universal praise in the media for their choice.

I believe that gender reassignment surgery is bad medicine.   I believe that it is not an effective treatment for the conditions that it claims to address, and in many cases makes a person’s problems worse.  The rate of patients who regret the surgery and seek to reverse it may be as high as 20%. Certainly the number of clinics which now offer reversal therapy would indicate that the number of patients who regret the surgery is far higher than advocates of the procedure would have us believe.

I can’t say that it doesn’t help anyone.  It may help some.  It is very clear, however, that it is misapplied in many cases.  In my own case I am sure that it would have been a tragic mistake.  I didn’t need to change my body–I needed to learn to accept myself as a human being and to deal with the unresolved issues from my early childhood.  Cognitive therapy–“talk therapy”–gave me the tools to do that.

The legislation that people are calling “Leelah’s Law” would criminalize the therapy that I can say without hyperbole gave me my life back.  I don’t know the details of the therapy that the young man in question received–neither, of course, do the advocates who have made his death into their rallying cry. Clearly the therapy did not save his life.  It may have contributed to his death.  There are, sadly, many bad therapists.

Outlawing any therapy that encourages a patient to accept his or her birth gender rather than seek to change it is simply unconscionable, however.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Who I am and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Survivor’s Guilt

  1. MzSusanB says:

    It takes strength and guts to state your opinion and cite your experience. I applaud your bravery and honesty, and proud of you for sharing.

  2. I’m glad to hear you are healing and am glad you came out on the other side of it to tell your story. It’s only when we get honest with ourselves can we make any sort of progress. Thank you. ❤

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I think honesty is very important.

      • tannerakane says:

        Hence my words bad therapist. I can provide insight because I’m a transgendered woman. I agree there are many misdiagnosis happening and I stress the fact few therapists are qualified to discuss and diagnose gender disorders, which by the way aren’t psychological.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Gender disphoria can also be a symptom of a mental illness that is psychological, as it was in my case. My concern is that there are therapists who are too quick to confirm the patient’s self-diagnosis of being transgendered without investigating other possibilities first. I know that the one I saw thirty years ago did not make a thorough effort to rule out psychological disorders prior to recommending me for hormone therapy.

  3. ameliabishop says:

    Wow. Thank you for posting such an intimate and honest revelation. I am so happy you are doing well now and feel comfortable in your body and in your life ❤

    I have never heard any stories from people who have benefited from conversion therapy, so that was interesting to me as well. Unfortunately, all the stories I have heard are from people who were deeply hurt by it.

    I was not aware that Leelah's Law was intended to stop people getting therapy, though. I understood it to be against people (mostly young people whose health care decisions are not under their own legal control) being forced to undergo conversion therapy. Surely, in your case, a decent therapist would have been able to diagnose your issues and treat your underlying problems, essentially your mental health, without dealing with gender issues specifically? And if, in fact, the problem was unrelated to gender, you would have come to your own decision about your identity once your mental health was in a more stable place? Perhaps I don't really understand what conversion therapy is.

    In any case, it seems you are doing well and that is the important thing. And I guess the lesson is that there are no easy solutions, and that the path to heath and happiness rarely simple.

  4. tannerakane says:

    Misha, a person is transgendered or not. There’s no such thing as an “ex transgendered person”. Bad therapists tell people they are not, leading to the belief. The psych field is filled with people who create “conditions” for no reason. Few are qualified to discuss and diagnose transgendered patients.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      My point is that I am not transgendered, but I was misdiagnosed. The evidence is that a great many people have been, and sadly many do not realize it until after surgery, when irreversible damage has been done to them.

  5. Very brave post, Misha; hats off to you for putting this together. I’ve never actually come across someone who was misdiagnosed as being transgendered, so this made for a very enlightening read.

    One question: did you specifically undergo conversion therapy at any point, as opposed to receiving treatment for DID? Because if not, then I don’t think Leelah’s Law would have affected you.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      My therapy wasn’t called “conversion therapy”, but the wording of the law is pretty vague.

      “In this resolution, the term “conversion therapy” means any practice by a licensed mental health provider, health care provider, or counselor that seeks or purports to impose change of an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, including reducing or eliminating sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward a person of the same gender and efforts to change behaviors, gender identity, or gender expression.”

      The end result of my therapy is that it did impose change on my gender identity and gender expression. Would it have been actionable under this law? Who knows–it would take a legal battle to find out. And that’s my point–the law would discourage therapists from discussing the matter at all, because even if they manage to avoid being charged, the legal fees would bankrupt them.

  6. Kurobana says:

    I agree — surgery is an evil and you should only do it if it’s necessary. I have a friend who’s trans and I support her in doing all the non-surgical things, but when it comes to physically changing her body, I advise against it because 1. surgery hurts 2. the scars don’t go away 3. if you want to go back, you can’t… or, you can, but it’ll be more pain and money spent…

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the surgery is evil, but I do think that too many people are going into it unnecessarily and without a full understanding of the risks.

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