Transitioning is hard, even in the best of situations. But there are plenty of things that can go wrong, and when they do, it can be devastating. My name is Rowan Marie Hand, and I am a transgender woman. This is my story.
It’s the year 2000. I’m 16 years old, and I just watched a certain French film about a young boy who wanted to be a girl (more accurately, it was about a young girl who didn’t want to be a boy). It was playing at the local theater, to a nearly empty room. The movie itself wasn’t a masterpiece of cinematic genius, but something in it resonated with me. That was the first time I realized that there were others like me, and that there was hope.
Back up a bit. The year is 1995. I’m 11, and I’m at my friend’s house. She and her little sister want to play dress up. I “begrudgingly” agree to be their model, and they gleefully put me in a pretty dress, inexpertly applied makeup, and a costume wig. I make all the appropriate noises of protest, but in my heart I am elated. Here I was, dressed like a girl. But this can’t be right. I’m a boy, aren’t I supposed to hate this?
A little more. It’s 1989. I’m 5 years old, and in kindergarten. It’s play time, and the boys and girls all have their toys to play with. I want to play with the girls, because their toys look like more fun. But the teacher scolds me, and forces me to play with the boys. I have fun anyway, but I am a bit resentful that I couldn’t play pretend with the dolls like I wanted to.
One more time. It’s 1984. A baby has just been born. The doctor takes a cursory glance at one tiny part of the baby’s anatomy, and triumphantly proclaims, It’s a boy! Everyone is happy and everything is perfect and fine. I’m just an infant, I don’t know what the heck is going on, so I cry. Little did I know that that moment would shape the rest of my life in many ways, some of which are irreversible.
Now let’s go forward. 2002, a year and a half after I saw that movie. I’m in 12th grade at a private boarding school. I’m in my boyfriend’s dorm room, and I’ve been mulling over things in my mind for a while. I did research, found the right words, and now I knew what I was. And it was time to share that knowledge. “H?” I inquired, getting his attention. “There’s something I need to tell you.” He raises an eyebrow. “I’m… I’m transgender.”
H looked at me for a full minute. He seemed lost. Then he broke into a grin, kissed me, and said, “Does that mean I’m bi, and not gay?” He was a great guy. But, as happens sometimes, he moved back home at the end of the school year, and we never saw each other again.
That summer, I came out to my mother, who said she’d known for years. I cried, she cried, it was all very emotional.
Three years forward. I’m 20. Both my parents, and my sister, know now. I’m in therapy, in accordance with the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, and my therapist just wrote my letter of recommendation. I have everything in order, and I travel to an endocrinologist (hormone doctor) in Philadelphia to get a prescription for Estradiol. He asks me a few questions, about children and marriage and where I want to go with my life, and at the end of it all, he says no. Not in so many words, but the gist is, “you’re not trans enough.” All that time spent in therapy, all my yearnings and desperate needs, dismissed by a man with a clipboard.
I was devastated. My identity, my life, was invalidated by this man who knew nothing about me beyond the stereotypical questions he asked. I cried the whole ride home. After that day, I decided if I couldn’t transition, if I couldn’t be a woman, I’d just be the best man I could be. And so began the long, dark period of denial.
I spent the next seven years in agony. I grew an impressive beard, lamented over my hair loss (and covered it with an endless series of bandannas), and immersed myself in “man” culture. I smoked a pack a day, drove fast, and overall I was kind of a jerk to people. I had a few girlfriends, a few boyfriends, but nothing was fulfilling. I went to tech school to learn how to work on cars, hated it, but stuck with it because it was a man’s career. I was suicidal pretty much constantly through that period, but I kept going through sheer stubbornness.
Finally, in 2012, I had that ray of hope. A friend of mine, who was also transgender (and one of the few people who knew “my secret”), came up to me and asked if I was okay. I insisted I was, but he pressed, saying that I’d seemed really down and hurt, and he asked if there was anything he could do. I broke down, and admitted that I was miserable, and that I wanted to die. Then and there, he made a pact with me: we would transition together. I shaved the beard that day, and never grew one again.
We made our appointments, for the same day, at a well known LGBT clinic in Philadelphia, and I quit smoking. I didn’t want any complications with the hormones, and nicotine was a known risk when taking Estradiol.
The day of our appointments came, and I got dressed up in a nice outfit, a cheap wig, and too much makeup. I drove us down to Philly, found parking, and we checked in at the clinic. I was vibrating with nervous energy as I waited for my name, my long-preferred but never-used name, to be called. Eventually, the door opened, my name was called, and I went in.
In the exam room, we went over my medical and sexual history, I was asked a few questions, and I had the opportunity to tell my story about the endocrinologist. The doctor gave me a shocked look, and said, “we’re sending you home with a prescription today.” Elated hardly covers my mood at that point.
I had some blood tests done, and came back to the waiting room with a prescription for Spironolactone, a common testosterone blocker, to start me off. I was to come back for a check up, and to get the other prescription, for Estradiol. Estrogen. The “girl hormone”.
My friend’s experience was similar, though he had to come back to be taught how to inject his testosterone. We both left with our heads in the clouds. As we drove home, we kept breaking into song and laughing. This was one of the best days of my life.
The next few months were a blur. As the HRT (hormone replacement therapy) did its job, I started to notice the first little hints of development. I reveled in the changes, even when they hurt. Growing boobs hurts, did you know that?
But not all was well. Unbeknownst to me, or to anyone, there was something inside my body just waiting to tear everything down around me. And every day that I was on HRT, the danger grew.
For over a year, however, everything was great. Maybe not perfect- as it turned out, I had some psychological issues that were being masked by the nicotine, that came up after I quit smoking. But I dealt with them, got on medications to deal with them, and everything went back to relative normalcy.
Until, that is, the night of December 1st, 2013. I had just come home from a friend’s house, where they were throwing a party, and I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed. Sitting on the toilet, I suddenly felt the right side of my body go numb and limp, and I pitched forward onto the floor.
Luckily, I remained conscious, and was able to pull myself across the floor, and into my bedroom, where my phone was. I dialed 911, and told the person on the other end what I had feared: that I was having a stroke. I pulled myself to a sitting position, my right arm lying useless by my side, and I screamed for my dad, who was downstairs. He came running, and I explained what had happened, tears in my eyes. He stayed with me until the ambulance came.
At the hospital, I met a neurologist, who told me that I, indeed, was having a stroke. They injected me with a drug they called a “clot buster”, and I almost immediately felt a tiny amount of feeling return to my limbs. It hurt. A lot.
I spent the next week in the hospital, being tested and poked and prodded. Some of the staff called me Rowan; some did not. I tried to stay positive, and found it easier than I expected. I realized that I had no expectations for my future any more, and every day I woke up alive was more than I could hope for.
I got some answers. I had a small heart defect, a “patent foramen ovale” that was basically a hole between the atria of my heart. This hole let a clot slip through, a clot most likely caused by the high dose of Estradiol I was taking at the time. They took me off HRT immediately, which I protested but not too loudly, and gave me Warfarin to keep my blood from clotting again.
The following two weeks were in rehab, where I learned how to walk again. By the time I left, I could walk, albeit clumsily, without a cane. My hand was still fairly useless, and remains significantly limited to this day.
Eventually, I got back on Spironolactone, and later a low dose of Estradiol, this time administered through a patch, not a pill. Not once during my hospitalization, recovery, or after, have I had any desire to go back to that sick parody of masculinity I had been living before I transitioned. It simply was not an option. I continued my transition, seeing the stroke as nothing more than a bump in the road. But I have been very careful to avoid any such bumps since then.
That was four years ago. Since then, I’ve started living as a woman full time, I’ve had my name legally changed, I’ve had tons of laser hair removal and hair transplants (which were woefully inadequate- now I wear a weave), and now I’m living as authentically as I can. I am who I want, need to be. Nothing will ever take that away from me. Nothing.
About the Author: Rowan Marie Hand is a married 30-something from Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and their pet roommate. She is a published author, an accomplished seamstress, and a prodigious doodler. http://www.facebook.com/rowanmariehand