Things were going okay. The anxiety I’d tied to my body image was at an all-time low. My goal of blending in, to just be a face in the crowd, seemed to have been met. My heart didn’t pound when I left the house, anymore, and my breathing didn’t quicken. My stomach no longer turned, and my tremors no longer controlled my hands.
All this, these victories, were won over the course of several long months. Each battle physically and emotionally wrecked me. Even so, I won, and that’s what mattered. I was no longer a prisoner of my own anxiety.
Unfortunately, the gains brought on by those months, those trying periods of my life, were short-lived and easily reversed. It only took one night.
I met a friend for dinner. We had a few drinks, and made our way to a dive bar in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. This bar came at my suggestion, a place I used to go for cheap beer with cheap friends. This was a place of casual hang, home to a typically pleasant atmosphere. Never too crowded, but never quite empty, this place was a gem.
The memories of this gem were quickly overridden seconds after walking through the door. “Hello, sir; ma’am. I can’t tell which is which, ” a man in his late forties slurred at the two women who had just entered.
“Hi,” I said, nodding at the man in hopes that he’d go away.
As we waited for the bartender to make her way over to us, the man continued staring at my friend and me. I could feel his eyes, burning holes through me, analyzing me, trying to figure out what exactly I was. Before he had a chance to follow up with another gender-insensitive comment, my friend and I made our way to a table across the bar.
We continued the night, sipping our respective drinks of choice. All was salvageable. So what if some guy couldn’t figure out whether I was a guy or a girl, at least he didn’t call me a name.
A drink or two later, another man approached our table. Scruffy hair, patchy stubble with unruly eyebrows, the man in his mid-20s asked to join us.
“I’m actually with a frie-” Before I could finish the sentence, he’d pulled up a chair. Moments later, my friend returned from the bar, where she was picking up a refill.
We did our best to ignore our new tablemate, hoping that if we went on with our night as if he wasn’t there, he’d get bored and leave us alone. No such luck. As I had in the evening’s beginning, I once again felt the stare of someone trying to read me. It burned, and it ate away at what was left of my confidence.
A moment later, the man interrupted our conversation.
“You two are transsexuals, right?” He asked, surprising me with his ability to ask inappropriately personal questions. My heart began beating out of control.
“Yeah. So?” My friend fielded the question with more grace than I would have been able to cobble together.
“I thought you were girls,” the man said, digging himself in deeper with every word.
The man, now with a puzzled look on his face, says, “But you’re really guys, right?”
“No. We’re women.”
“I get that you’re trying to look like women, but– you’re guys, right?”
“We’re not just trying to look like anything. We are women.”
“But what were you born as?”
At this point in the conversation, I began to mentally check out. I simply couldn’t process the string of invasive questions and rude assumptions. For the sake of self-preservation, I needed to shield myself.
I ordered another drink. Finishing it, my friend and I decided that it was a good time to make our exit.
The night ended, and my friend and I parted ways with the promise to see each other soon. I woke the next morning feeling ill, quite obviously the result of the previous night’s alcohol consumption. As time went on, as the physical effects of the alcohol wore off, I began to feel something else new and altogether disheartening: my confidence, built over so many months, had been utterly shattered.
My hands shook. My heart raced. I felt sick to my stomach. Panic attacks washed over me with greater frequency than ever before, and there was nothing I could do about it.
It wasn’t necessarily that the words of either man at the bar directly hurt me, it’s that they planted a seed of self-doubt in my mind, strong enough to tear me apart. How exactly does the world see me? Is everyone simply being polite?
Since that night, every time I’ve left the house, I’ve found myself experiencing a surge of anxiety. I panic when I think about my everyday life. From riding the train to using the restroom, I can’t help but wonder: what do these people see me as? Most aren’t as brazen as the barflies, and wouldn’t dare ask someone whether or not they’re a man or a woman. And so, I’m left wondering whether I’m seen as a woman, a man, a freak, or some combination thereof.
As 2013 comes to a close, I’m left with the hope that the new year brings renewed confidence, a settled stomach, and an end to my hand tremors. I’m resolving to become a more confident person, to rebuild my defenses. I’m resolving to live without fear.