There has been much talk recently about “dysphoria” (from ancient Greek δύσφορος (dúsphoros) “grievous”; from δυσ- (dus-) “bad, difficult” and φέρω (phérō) “to bear”), a state of deep discomfort or dissatisfaction. It is the opposite of euphoria. In a psychiatric context, dysphoria can be accompanied by depression, anxiety, or agitation. I hadn’t thought of myself in this context until I looked into the word, but then I realized that I had suffered from mild dysphoria from an early age although it wasn’t called that, of course. I was what they called an “impressionable child,” and it meant that I was very easily guided by other children or adults, but what they really meant was that I followed ideas, asked a lot of questions, and was impressed by things that were outside my given environment. This may have to do with the fact that at an early age, due to the fact that we as a family lived in Malaysia for several years, I witnessed a lot of things outside of a typically British environment.
My dysphoria seems to have been caused by a discomfort with convention and with expectations associated with conformity, especially when returning to Britain, and a desire to break out of acceptable or fashionable behaviour. I have always felt somewhat volatile in this regard, and the expectations placed on me as the oldest son in a family of boys in a military setting, where I only received a sister when I was into puberty, added to my discomfort. I suppose my family would say that there was no tangible forced expectation on me, but there was always a situational expectation or peer pressure that was seen as something perfectly normal by the people around me. In the few circumstances when I managed to break out and express myself, I experienced people worried that I was becoming uncontrollable or even “effeminate” and I had worries of not belonging in that setting. I always tried, of course, but the discomfort had no way to express itself in most cases.
Today there is so much emphasis on the sexual aspect, but that was not the kind of pressure I felt, although sexuality certainly played a role. Having been approached by pedophiles even before puberty and loathing the masculinity that tried to exploit my weakness, I even disliked my father’s masculinity when it came into play. I later found out that my father also struggled with his role and was much more sensitive than I gave him credit for, but he had adapted to his role early on and saw it as his duty to raise my brothers and me to be “typical” men as he embodied that role. I was attracted to women primarily because they were not men, and as long as they did not play the sexualized mating game, I could relax in their company. However, my first attempts in England to socialize with women largely failed because of this, and even at school I found myself confronted with individual young women who played this game, which I found difficult to deal with. Friends who went out with me were disappointed at my lack of enthusiasm for the “mating game.”
Because of my stature, I always attracted the expectations of others, and it was probably typical of the time of the sexual revolution that everything was seen in this light. The village soccer team I occasionally played on took me to a “men’s night out,” and I felt that the deception, sexualization, and evident complicity of women that took place there made me very suspicious of women for a while. This was exacerbated when porn was sold under the table at the next job, enforcing the impression of a kind of femininity that I found repulsive. I avoided women who were suggestive in that way and struggled with the masculinity that overtook my body, and my changing appearance. Photographs taken for job applications show a shy boy, uncomfortably dressed up in a suit, who struggled to be the man he was expected to be.
Looking back many years later, you can see that it was British society that I seemed to associate with my discomfort, probably because of the conformity I experienced there, which seemed almost traditional, especially after puberty, when I was expected by both men and women to be a typical male. I was already looking for a chance to go abroad, convinced that there was a different approach out there somewhere. The Army seemed like the opportunity I needed, but it proved to be a bastion of displayed masculinity defined by adherence to traditional masculine characteristics that consequently stigmatized and limited the emotions that boys and men might express. Instead, as could be expected, other emotions like anger and aggression were encouraged and rewarded. Many young men cried at night in the barracks during basic training, and although I didn’t, I could see that I wasn’t alone. It was only when I went to Germany as an atypical soldier and left the barracks that I experienced a relaxation of these expectations, which occurred out of sight of my comrades. Until then, I conformed and played a role that didn’t fit too well and survived oddly because of a physical appearance that I wore like a costume, or a disguise, and convinced some gullible people with my performance. Of course, around the soldiers, there was still this game going on, and German girls assumed that I was part of it. It was when I had the chance to talk with them that some of them saw something else. Several still accused me of not being sincere with them, because that was what they had experienced with other soldiers. In the end, I found one girl that saw through appearances, and we married. This brought on a final struggle to break out and finally gave me the peace that has lasted, along with my marriage, 45 years.
The reason I tell this story is because I was fortunate in a way that young people seem not to be today. I went through a phase in which I suffered a mild dysphoria that nonetheless caused me to leave Britain and set up home elsewhere. I also had the opportunity to do so, using the Army as a steppingstone, and a widespread acceptance in Germany of British people, especially if you learn their language. I was not drawn into a discussion about gender identity, despite my discomfort with the sexualised society I was growing up in and attraction to activities that were, according to the opinions of my peers, atypical of my role as a man. At a particular phase in my life, the modern focus on gender may have disastrous, and my example shows that the discomfort of growing up may have sexual undercurrents but may have more to do with the drastic changes that puberty brings, perhaps more in girls than boys. Especially children who grow up in a privileged and protected environment often baulk at the reality they are confronted with when puberty sets in, and some suffer this conflict at an earlier age. Some speak of the shock of the first time of hearing their parents having sex, and their concern for their mothers, who they imagine to be in pain. It is a different world we enter when leaving childhood, something like being banished from Eden, entering the harsh reality of struggle in a judgemental world.
Of course, we are also all individuals with unique experiences, and no-one experiences life in exactly the same way. We also have a varying emphasis in the way we perceive or conceptualise life. Reading Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Trouble With Things, he makes a good case for people who are left- or right-hemisphere dominated having distinctly different outlooks, with left-hemisphere dominated people being particularly lingual, and rationally minded, and perhaps better able to take on the tasks of a society that emphasises these traits, as against right-hemisphere dominated people, who are more integral and “gestalt” orientated, and have an intuited perception of life within a holistic concept. The latter may be fluid in their sexuality during puberty, or even decidedly undecided, and perhaps asexual in some ways. This isn’t necessarily a permanent attribute and I have met people later in life who have clearly taken a decision towards binary identities, although they were not so clear when teenagers. There may also be others, who became same-sex-attracted after time. The point is that young people at puberty, and especially pre-puberty children, are forming and need time to sort things out. Some may need longer, like me, to come to terms with the process they are going through and make all sorts of decisions that don’t appear to be rational. The examples of “Gender Dysphoria” that have been widely spoken of and even been subject to new laws, seem to me to be displaying just this ambiguity, and a whole “industry” seems to be jumping on the opportunity to advise, medicate and even operate on young people who are in this process. In addition, a degree of hysteria has developed, which isn’t uncommon in puberty, but which is driving people to life-changing decisions that seem to me to be too early in life.
I became a nurse at forty, and I said and felt at the time that I didn’t understand why it had taken me so long to get there. I felt at home in a profession where my intuitive abilities combined with caring for people brought out aspects of my personality commonly referred to as feminine. I was congratulated on finding my “feminine side.” Oddly enough, shortly thereafter, I was required to use my masculine qualities when I became a ward-leader, which the ladies who worked with me felt was very necessary. It was the combination of these qualities that enabled me to perform this task and through which I quickly climbed the “ladder.” I was very creative in my enthusiasm and effected many changes that were quickly adopted on other wards and that greatly improved our interactions with other disciplines, especially the general practitioners, internists, neurologists, surgeons, and gynaecologists. The way this achievement was recognized was interesting, as different people attributed different attributes to its success. One said that my success was due to the fact that I was particularly a “woman-understanding” person (Frauenversteher), although I’m sure it was more due to my willingness to communicate with people and develop a vision of what could be.
My point is that even at advanced ages, people’s perceptions of “typical” female or male vary and often depend on circumstances. The advantage I had on the ward turned into a disadvantage in higher management, where empathy and compassion were pushed aside in favour of rational decision making, and I found myself forced to find ways to make a bigger profit rather than improve our services. I found that people expected this to be easier for a man than a woman, while I found that it had nothing to do with the gender of a leader. This shows me that we have many misconceptions about sexuality and gender roles, and yet there have been disturbing cases of abuse of minors and of people in an extremely unstable and ambiguous state, in promotion of an ideological position with regard to gender, and of lack of support for people who have found themselves literally amputated from their biological sex and have no way to reverse the procedures done on them. This again, is clearly in the interest of profit above concern, and companies jump at the opportunity to do harm if they think they can get away with it.
I think that in this atmosphere of predatory entrepreneurs ready to exploit weaknesses and weaken people, and in the highly sexualized society where young people are confronted with the most horrific pornographic images and adults are suspected of being sex offenders, it is easy to develop dysphoria at an age when young people are beginning to realize what adult life will bring. The former ideal of motherhood is sometimes portrayed in ways that frighten young girls today, and responsibility and trustworthiness seem to be such a burden that young people are looking for ways out. I know this because in another world I did something similar.