Before I thought I was a man, I thought women’s hormones made us crazy. I didn’t know that was what I thought. There are some beliefs in life that exist so deep in the brain’s dark soil that you can’t see how many of your decisions are rooted to them. When I was a little girl I knew that my mom was the crazy parent, because she was often upset- at my dad not coming home from work till long after he said he would, at the lack of money for groceries, at the conditions of the nursing home where she worked as a third shift nurse. My dad was the calm one, my mom was the upset one, and I learned somewhere along the way that was because of her hormones. She explained away her yelling, her tears, her exhaustion by way of an early menopause. Mom’s biology made her crazy. Dad’s made him sane.
When I went through puberty I became crazy from my hormones. It wasn’t the world-shattering stress of suddenly having to carry a woman’s chest and thighs everywhere I went. It wasn’t the fear that those parts that made men yell at me on the street weren’t shaped right, covered in red stretch marks, marking me as defective, requiring apologies with their unveiling. It wasn’t feeling alone in these sudden changes. My mom, and implicitly my dad, blamed my moodiness on my new periods. My older sister had become crazy at puberty too. Womanhood meant an unfortunate state of not being able to trust your moods. It meant tracking when you got upset at who, knowing it could be you being totally unreasonable, crying at things that were nothing at all, if only you were sane enough to see it.
After I got raped in college, I went through a couple of months where I was angry every day: the rage would hit me before I opened my eyes in the morning, and lasted all day long. I wasn’t woke enough to consider what had happened to me a rape, and so I couldn’t connect the anger with the betrayal I’d just experienced. I was scared by how deep and endless the anger seemed.
I went to the student counseling center at my state college. The intake counselor, a young man in a button-up and pullover sweater, asked me if the anger got worse before my period. “A little worse, but I’m angry all month long,” I told him.
“You know, before you see a counselor, I really want you to see an ob-gyn,” he advised. I promised I would. I was diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which is the fancy name for very bad PMS. They give you Prozac for it.
My period felt like a disability in so many ways. My cramps often knocked me out, causing me to lay in bed moaning for an afternoon, wrapped around a heating pad, cycling ibuprofen and acetaminophen. To top it off, at the end of my period I often got migraines. This meant another day spent in bed, this time with my thumb dug into the bridge of my nose, concentrating on not throwing up, often to no avail.
People give such useless advice for bad periods. Eat bananas! Exercise! Give up sugar! No one ever has the good sense to advise a morphine drip.
This monthly disability seemed like the worst kind of evolutionary mistake, like an appendix built to be infected – but much more disruptive to the daily demands of life.
It fit in with my general feelings about having a female body. Breasts and butt and blood once a month- all things that get in the way of being a force in the world. All things to forget about until you have to accommodate them.
I wanted to take testosterone to change my body, to redistribute the fat off that butt and earn the beard I coveted, but I was also psyched to stop having periods. The story I told myself was I could be the person I actually was once my body stopped getting in my way. Other people would let me be the person I actually was once they saw my epic beard, but with sweet relief I awaited the end of my hormones internal assault on my potential.
Testosterone felt amazing. I was so calm. I didn’t have my usual monologue of anxieties. Other people’s emotions felt so far away. On my normal hormonal blend, I can’t help but get upset if someone else is upset. Whether that “upset” looks like depression, anger, sadness, frustration, it doesn’t matter- whatever negative emotional state the person brings to me, I am in the struggle with them, even when I have somewhere to be. That kind of reactivity makes intentionally setting a boundary or breaking upsetting news a particularly tough endeavor. On testosterone, pissing someone off was a breeze. Their feelings were their business. I was focused on whether I was going to get mine, whether that was money or attention or the good experiences I felt owed. And I did feel owed.
Was that narcissism a product of the testosterone cypionate I was shooting into my thigh, or was it the self-absorption brought out by second puberty? I still don’t know. I can only tell you those nine months I was on T, I was flying high on my own self-concept. I was soaring on the muscles I was sure were just around the corner, on my own specialness and bravery in attempting such a transformation, on a general appreciation for the value of my insights and sense of humor.
During that time of high self-regard, I moved to California, believing I needed a more progressive population to appreciate me. I moved into a Berkeley Hippie House where my friend John lived, along with three other Berkeley hippies. We had a compost bucket, a backyard garden, a coating of grime on all the floors.
I knew John from the time I spent in Chicago, where my queer identity defined my social life. He was the one straight guy the group of queer women I hung with would have sex with. If you’ve ever hung with queer identified women, there’s usually this one guy circling the group who makes himself available for bike rides and hookups.
When I moved in with John we were both in our early 30s, and he was dating a woman in her early 20s. She was exceptionally sweet and pretty, like an earthier Taylor Swift. I didn’t know what to do with her. She was quiet, always polite, always smiling. My friendship with John was based on an appreciation for the grotesquely comical. We were constantly pointing out other people’s gross hypocrisy, gross flaws, gross behavior. The darkness where we found such glee seemed so far removed from this fairy woman who loved him.
She loved him so much. She always wanted to see him more than he wanted to see her. She lived in the city, we lived in Berkeley, and their ongoing fight was that he insisted on catching the last BART back to Berkeley when they hung out, rather than spending the night at her place. This was because he had a rigid writing schedule he adhered to every morning. But it was also because, as he explained, “I love her but a lot of the time I’d rather get high and watch funny videos with you.” I have, like every person born female, mastered the private eye roll, and skillfully stopped myself from responding with, “Yeah dumbass, because I’m your age.”
I was on testosterone for my first five months in the Hippie House, and then I had to stop. I didn’t stop because I wanted to, or because I thought I wasn’t trans. I had to stop because I was on the precipice of getting serious facial hair, but was not even close to being able to pay for the double mastectomy and thigh liposuction I would need to look like a man. I had learned from painful experience there were economic costs to going on job interviews looking like a female who won’t perform femininity.
When I stopped testosterone, I was heartbroken. My period came right away. A day and a half after my first missed shot I sat in a hot bath cramping, blood clots collecting at the bottom of the water. My breasts never looked more wrong to me.
Then the anxiety came back. Other people’s emotions came back. I was so much more involved in my roommate’s daily dramas, the roller coasters of romantic relationships, the frustrations over noise in the living room and space in the fridge. I was caught in a weird spot of now performing the emotional caretaking work of a woman for the people around me, but not feeling like I was allowed to ask for it back. I really could’ve used a good cry witnessed by a lady friend at that point in my life, but I was a boy, and boys don’t need that.
But then I noticed something strange. Before my period, for about two days, I would feel the way I felt on testosterone. I was focused on myself and my comfort, unafraid to pick a fight, sure that I deserved more of the good things in life and annoyed when the world didn’t seem to agree.
I did what anyone with questions about their hormonal makeup would do – I Googled it. Through my online research, I learned that before a woman’s period, her estrogen and progesterone both drop off, so she feels the effects of her testosterone, which stays at a consistent level through her month, in a much stronger way.
One day, I walked into the kitchen and John’s girlfriend was at the table crying. His family had come up for Christmas, and she had been so excited to meet them. He had made some comment about whether she was headed back to her place in the city, which had communicated to her he didn’t want her to be a part of his family time.
She felt crazy for feeling angry and sad. I knew she was responding to a very real imbalance in their relationship. She thought a lot more about what was going on in his head than he thought about what was going on in hers. I know now that estrogen makes you better at that kind of thing, and testosterone makes you care a lot less about that kind of thing. So I gave her a pep talk. I told her this was an exceptionally normal fight for a heterosexual couple to have. I told her she was not crazy in the slightest. I told her his biology and then his childhood socialization had come together to make him not good at other people’s feelings, and so she would have to be the leader in her relationship and insist that her feelings become a priority to him. I told her when she talked to him about this, she had to believe herself that her experience of the relationship should be very important to him, and that indeed, her insistence on more thoughtfulness from him was good for him, an opportunity for growth he definitely needed.
She perked right up. I perked right up too. It turns out there’s very little I enjoy more than telling women they aren’t crazy, and should insist on more from the men in their lives.
Some months passed. They had a bunch of relationship talks. I felt like I’d become as involved as I wanted to be, and made an effort not to hear about those talks. I had other things to worry about: I was in a pretty bad place. My money was really screwed up, my disgust with my body had reached epic levels, my social anxiety was through the roof. I hid in my room a lot, getting high and watching Beyoncé videos.
Some mutual friends of John and I were visiting, and one wanted to surprise him with their arrival. The problem was, they were visiting the same weekend of a trip John and his girlfriend had planned out of town. I reached out to her to see if she’d be willing to cancel the trip to make this surprise happen. She said she would.
But then John sat me down for a talk. She had started crying and told him everything. She’d been really looking forward to this trip with him, and scared to say no to me and these out-of-town friends. I told him that made sense, and organizing this surprise friend visit reveal had felt like a lot of work to me anyways.
Then he says, “Thanks for being understanding. Also…” and he rolled his eyes, “she’s on her period, so you know how that goes.”
To say I got angry is an understatement. I went tense with rage.
In a calm, low voice, I said, “Well I’m glad she got her period if that allowed her to be honest with you.”
Within a month, I found a new place to live. I didn’t want to be around him. He told our mutual friends I had gone crazy.
Throughout the month, a woman has the opportunity to think about her circumstances on hormones that make her more cognizant of the experiences of the people around her. For one week, she has the opportunity to think about her circumstances on hormones that center around her own needs. Three weeks community-centered, one week self-centered. That sounds like exactly the proportion of focus I want the people leading my community to have.
I realized I had an epic amount of internalized misogyny to unpack. If I had unconsciously believed such a dismissive and disrespectful attitude towards the menstrual cycle, what other lies had I bought into about what it meant to be female? This question was the loose string that unraveled the understanding I had of myself as a trans man. It wasn’t immediate, but eventually I realized I didn’t want to be a man, trans or otherwise.
I never went back on testosterone. I began to value how my hormonal blend affects my perceptions. That involvement with other people’s emotions and realities is too valuable for my connection to reality, my perspective. I’ve started picking a confusing issue in my life to consider throughout my monthly cycle. Three weeks spent considering it in the context of what the people around me need, one week considering it from what I need. By the time I stop bleeding, I trust that I know exactly what to do.
Carey Callahan has been performing stand up in the Midwest and West Coast for 9 years. The creater of Chucklef*ck, the original Cleveland alt-comedy venue, she went on to be a castmember of Chicago’s Lincoln Lodge then created the Awkward Sex Show podcast, featured on afterellen.com and queerty.com. Carey specializes in extravagantly goofy and honest takes on gender, bodies, money, class and keeping it together.