Riding the Hormonal Roller-Coaster
by Alex Weirich
[[Written by Alex in the late 1990s or 2000. Converted to HTML and posted by Jed in 2019. During that conversion, I made only one significant edit, removing two sentences that I thought Alex’s father might be unhappy to see displayed publicly. I also added a couple of links, and corrected the spelling of enanthate. Bits in single square brackets were written by Alex; bits in double square brackets were written by me. Side note: I’m not sure whether the references to “Jed” in this piece refer to me or to another friend named Jed. —Jed]]
[[Content warnings: Description of a nonconsensual sexual experience that reads to me as a rape, though Alex doesn’t call it that; explicit discussion of masturbation; description of needles and of a mishap with a needle; description of the effects of too much testosterone on a body and psyche not prepared for it; description of bad behavior by an endocrinologist; description of not being able to afford adequate physical and mental healthcare; description of asexuality that can be read as implying that there’s something wrong with it; use of the terms FTM, femme, and normal; some internalized ableism. —Jed]]
As Terry Pratchett once observed, no story ever really begins at the beginning; there’s always something before the beginning that affects the story. Every story begins in the middle. The middle of this particular story came at the end of the Summer of 1990. I’d graduated from college, and had just put in a summer of absolute hell as a camp counselor before starting graduate school in the fall. So there we were, my father and I, sitting at the kitchen table one August afternoon, when I decided to bring up a matter I was a little curious about.
“Um, Dad…? I was kinda wonderin’ something… You know, um… [pause, embarrassed silence] Well, you know how I grew like six inches a year for two years, back when I started college? You know, started off 5’ 1”, ended up 6’ 3”?”
[nod, expectant and understanding look]
“Well, ummm, it’s like this… I was wondering… well… part of me never got included in that growth spurt.” [vague gesture at my lap] “Is that normal?”
[surprised and somewhat indignant expression] “Hell, no! [[I elided two sentences here. —Jed]] Are you sure…?”
[emphatic nod on my part] “I’m sure. It’s the same size as when I was eleven, Dad.”
[worried, thoughtful frown…..]
And so, out of rather offhand curiosity, began a series of medical exams, blood tests, and eventually an MRI series that came up with the rather astonishing fact that my chromosomes were not in order. I’m XXXY, which was why at age 22 I still hadn’t ever had to shave, looked like I was 14 years old, and had not the slightest clue what a sexual urge was. Sure, I’d dated in college – a little. I had these amazingly platonic/romantic relationships that disintegrated utterly once it became clear that I had not the slightest idea that a bed was for anything other than sleeping in. I gave great backrubs that persisted in being just backrubs. A friend that I’d dated for six months slept over one night, and that’s all I did – sleep. I had no clue.
So – Fall of 1990. I began graduate school, was teaching freshman composition, got involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism, and had a few talks with an endocrinologist. The endocrinologist was very reassuring – “No problem. Easy to fix. We just shoot you up with triple doses of testosterone the first few months, then back off to a normal dose, which you’ll need to continue with for the rest of your life. Absolutely nothing to worry about.”
With the benefit of hindsight, that last sentence makes me want to puke.
My body started undergoing some bewildering changes at a speed that would shame Walt Disney time-lapse photography. I had never paid much attention to locker-room conversations in high school, so I had no frame of reference for what was occurring. All I knew was that suddenly my body was acting really weird. My voice dropped a full octave to its present James Earl Jones bass; I gained thirty pounds of upper-body muscle out of nowhere; I shaved twice a day; I was laundering my sheets on a daily basis. At triple-doses, hair-trigger is not the word for it. I went from not understanding what masturbation was for to not needing to because sleeping on my stomach did the same thing for less effort.
My psychological support that fall was my college friend Rick, who gradually became accustomed to 11 pm phone calls asking if this or that physical change was “normal”. At $50 a visit just to say “hello,” I was reluctant to ask the endocrinologist; the times I did, I was essentially blown off with “play with the dosage until you find what works.” No guidelines; no reassurance; no interest in my particular situation. I had always been phobic about needles and shots, which I had to quickly overcome. I was shooting every ten to fourteen days, testosterone enanthate, through wide-bore needles. Either you get over being phobic very quickly or you crack, was how I looked at it. The day a quadricep spasm broke the needle off in my thigh was the acid test of needle-phobia – I got up from the toilet seat, limped to my toolbox in the living room, got the needle-nose pliers, limped back, and pulled out the broken needle. And then I fixed a new injection and shot up, since the first one hadn’t been completed.
That fall, however, the physical weirdness was far from overwhelming. I loved teaching; grad school was just enough of a challenge; the SCA was fun. I was making new friends, and overall was pretty happy about life, right up to the point where one of those friends decided that I was her own personal private piece of virgin meat. Since this story will end up being long enough without gory details, I’ll summarize. “Kelly” and “Arthur” were a married couple in the SCA, part of my new circle of friends. One night “Kelly” asked if I wanted to go get some ice cream after the meeting, and over ice cream asked if I wanted to be her lover. Stunned, I fell back on my only polite way out – the truth. I told her of my rather unique situation, explained about the shots, figuring that this would serve as a polite but not ego-damaging “no”. Instead, it merely dunked me in metaphorical A-1 sauce. I started getting a lot of attention from Kelly, which I was too naïve to interpret properly. The fact that she came into my (unlocked) apartment when I was in the shower – and didn’t leave – should have tipped me off. Eventually I was held down on my own couch and forced. I was twenty two. I had never done more than hold hands.
After that I didn’t worry about politeness anymore when I said “no”. I was utterly confused by what had occurred, but not so confused that I had any desire for it to happen again. She was married; I had said no; therefore It Was Wrong. What was less easy to sort out was the fact that it had felt physically pleasurable. This whole physical craving / physical pleasure aspect to things made everything more complicated. I continued to fend Kelly off over the next several months while I got on with the rest of my life; eventually she got the hint. I continued to make friends in the department, around town, in the fencing club, and so on. And I started to notice small bits of personality change here and there.
It’s odd trying to chart personality shifts from the inside when you’ve just changed social groups. Your friends, the people that normally serve as your “reality-check,” are all brand-new, just meeting you for the first time, so they aren’t in a position to warn you. The only way you can usually do it is in retrospect. Even so, I began to notice things here and there. I’d become more quick-tempered, more prone to jump in with both feet and argue with someone, especially academically. I’d stopped crying, something I used to do very easily when angered, frustrated, or depressed. Now, I couldn’t cry, even when I wanted to; I had to find other ways of letting things out, and eventually settled on whomping trees with an aluminum baseball bat in order to release anger and frustration. At one point I rather cold-bloodedly seduced the girlfriend of one of my colleagues – pretty much just to see if I could. That was a year after the shots started. In just over a year I’d gone from a person who was described by his college friends as “solid,” “dependable,” “chivalrous,” and “the most honest person on campus” to someone with severe mood swings and a pretty damn stained moral code. All of which, I was repeatedly told by friends and medical professionals, was “normal.”
Here I will hit the fast-forward button a bit, skipping over mononucleosis, the loss of my assistantship, the two-year relationship that eventually broke up, and a long downward mental and financial spiral. We pick up again at a traffic light where Our Hero, biking to work, is cut off by a cursing 280-lb. man in a half-ton plumbing supply pickup. The driver of this truck has some rather firm opinions about public roadways, bikes, and the combination of the two. He speaks profane fluently, and roundly curses out all bikes and those skinny geeks who ride them. The light changes to green, and the truck peels out, smoking his tires. Our Hero sees red, and peels out after the truck, just plain smoking. Pedaling his twelve-speed at 35 mph; he catches up to the truck and proceeds to ream the driver out, from right alongside his window, in traffic, questioning the driver’s intelligence, manners, parentage, and fighting ability – especially fighting ability. Fortunately the plumber does not feel like fighting; each person arrives at their respective place of work without further incident.
I got to work, opened the store for the day, sat down with my morning bagel… and immediately got the shakes as realization hit. I had, moments ago, wanted nothing in the world but to drag that man out of his truck and beat the holy shit out of him. I’d wanted it so badly I could still visualize it. That morning was when I knew I had a major problem going on, that my personality had been radically affected by the testosterone shots. I reflected on the little things I’d been noticing over the past few years, including a fear that my intelligence and creativity had dropped measurably. I made an appointment with the endocrinologist as soon as I got home that night. When I went in to speak with him, I explained the changes I’d noticed, up to and including my new violent streak that I had (until that morning) been rechanneling into beating up trees. He shrugged, and indicated that he was an endocrinologist, not a psychologist. Not his department; not his problem. I pleaded with him, trying to make clear the extent of my worry. He advised me to look in the phone book under “psychologists” – this at a time when I was making part-time minimum wage. He again repeated his injunction to simply “vary the dosage and find out what works,” which I’d done. He continued to treat the situation as if it were a pure plumbing issue, and I was somehow suggesting that he be concerned with the magazines in the bathroom or something. Faced with no help from the doctor providing the medication, no money, no insurance, no anything, I did the only thing I could think of – I stopped taking the shots.
My best guess is that it took about three months for most of the testosterone to work itself out of my system, and another 6-12 for it to be as gone as it would get. I didn’t tell anyone that I’d stopped, but within just a few weeks my female friends were remarking that I was “easier to be around these days.” Of course I asked why; none of them could ever point to anything specific. One of my good buds, Lisa, said I felt “less threatening” – not, she was quick to add, that I’d ever done anything or said anything threatening before… it was just “an aura or something.” I was still out of school, but felt my creativity and IQ come back up; I dropped the upper-body muscle, unfortunately. Also unfortunately, I still continued to have to shave, though less frequently. I was able to cry again; the fits of red rage disappeared. I won’t say “and he lived happily ever after,” because it just isn’t so. Being off the stuff is a mixed blessing in all sorts of ways.
Having a “normal” upper-body for my size was really nice while it lasted. I turned into quite the jock in grad school – biked ten miles a day or more, taught fencing, did some heavy-weapons fighting with the SCA – but now I’m back to my pipe-cleaner-armed self. Can’t retain the muscle mass one bit. This caused some trouble when my repeated knee injuries finally needed surgery – I worked my tail off in physical therapy, but couldn’t build the leg muscles back up above a certain point, no matter how hard I tried. I wear twin knee braces now if I need to do any real walking, and on bad days I use a stick. I have to wonder if that’d be the case if I’d still been on the testosterone.
Gradually my sexual ability faded. Not the drive, just the ability. It’s a source of mild but continuing frustration, not to mention a bit of a barrier in having any continuing relationships. And speaking of relationships…
In college, my platonic relationships were all het, since the only models I had to go on were what I read – and medieval literature isn’t brimming with same-sex love affairs. When I was on the shots (effectively, going through puberty but a bit late), I basically kept going with what I was familiar with and surrounded by, which was all straight. Once off the shots again, and single, I slowly started realizing that yes, in fact, I was attracted to guys as well. It was a while before I’d admit it, but I finally did. That was at age 28 – six years after the initial shots. I’ve only just started addressing it face-on this past year, though – getting involved in the community, coming out to one or two more friends every month, learning a little bit more all the time. Am I bi because of my XXXY chromosomes? Beats me. Did the testosterone push me in a straight direction, and I only realized my orientation after it was out of my system? Good question. Unfortunately, I can’t answer it. There are arguments, counter-arguments and evidence all over many sides of both those questions. What I do know is, here I stand, and this is who I am at this point in time. The questions I need to deal with are some of the same questions that anyone in the FTM community faces.
I just learned from Jed this year about the dangers of osteoporosis when you don’t have normal hormonal levels. I haven’t been back to an endocrinologist yet, but that alone makes me wonder if maybe I should. I still like to camp, hike, and do all sorts of other outdoors stuff, knees or no knees. But I don’t relish the though of finding out that, yes, osteoporosis is in fact a problem when I’m halfway down inside the Grand Canyon and my wrist breaks. My rational side says to go find a new endocrinologist and get some facts. But my emotional side…
I got burned and burned badly by the unethical prick I saw the first time. Like the personality changes, it’s only in retrospect that I see how bad it was. At no point was the hormone therapy presented as an option; it was simply “Oh, you’re not normal. We can fix that.” No analysis of alternatives; no weighing of “If we do X, this will happen; if we don’t do X, these other things will happen.” I was treated like a malfunctioning toaster. This makes me more than a little reluctant to risk more trauma by putting myself in the hands of another guy who may well be just as bad. I’m a graduate student; I can’t afford to shop around to six different offices, searching for just the right person. But, as any reader of this journal knows, it is vital to find a doctor who will respect the patient as a person, who will actually listen to concerns, and who doesn’t feel like forcing every patient into the “normal” mold right off the bat.
That issue of “normalcy” is the big swirling cloudy final question. I’ve never had any illusions that I was normal. In high school, I used to make jokes about my half-elven blood, since everyone else was aging and changing while I stayed my thin, impish self. When I found out about my less-than-normal chromosome structure, I got an explanation for some of my difference – but it was treated as something “fixable”. It wasn’t until just this past January that I found out that there are entire organizations, support groups, communities that celebrate these sorts of differences, encourage the exploration of identities that don’t fit neatly into the pigeonholes society provides. Am I a little bitter? Sure I am – I never had any real opportunity to take conscious charge of my position as a crosser of boundaries, someone who lives in-between. It’s been a few years now since I quit the testosterone, and I still have a cellar-level bass voice, still have to shave every other day. My body isn’t changing back; on the outside, I’m undeniably male. But how do I identify? I’m attracted to men and women (mostly men of late); I’m neither a classic Dave-Barry-style “guy” nor a femme [Jed, some help with the terms in this part would be a big help… --Alex] I’m not especially fond of tractor-pulls or Streisand. I listen to Springsteen one day, Cats the next. I feel in the middle somewhere. It’s natural for me; I’ve always been a bridge, a go-between, understanding both sides of any given coin but living somewhere in the milled edge.
Staying there could be one heck of a trick, though.