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LGBTQ+ Q+A

Transgender + Bipolar: How to Navigate Your Transition Without Compromising Your Mental Health

Over the course of the last 10 years I’ve met some pretty incredible people in my life. It’s never really been a surprise to me that the majority of my friends have also been diagnosed with some form of mood disorder (3 specifically with bipolar). We can relate, offer support, and hold each other accountable if one of us starts to fall off track. It’s really quite beautiful.  

It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I started to recognize a pattern within my close knit circle of friends. We represent the LGBTQ+ community, we’ve experienced multiple traumas throughout the course of our lives, and typically struggle or have struggled with some form of substance abuse as a means to self medicate. We’ve unintentionally lived up to various statistics and stereotypes as a direct result of discrimination and repression. 

As I stand back and analyze my relationships, one in particular will always stand out to me. And that is my best friend, birthday twin, and pisces counterpart Luke. Luke and I met 10 years ago when we were both working retail at a local skate shop. We instantly clicked and spent countless hours getting into all sorts of trouble…I’ll save those stories for another day. 

At that time I had no idea that our relationship would blossom into the connection we share today. I didn’t know that he was bipolar as he hadn’t yet been diagnosed. And I didn’t know Luke either…I had met Liz. 

Getting to witness his journey and watch him transition into the man he’s always been has motivated and inspired me in many ways. I’ve always admired his strength, awareness, and determination! He doesn’t allow his bipolar diagnosis or his gender identity to dictate the course of his life and has climbed mountains and broken down barriers in order to live his truth. 

The more I branch out into the community, the more I’ve come to realize that there are so many people embarking on a similar journey. Others who feel trapped and alone during their transitions while also trying to maintain their mental health and overall well being. It’s a lot. 

I decided to sit down with my best friend and hear his story. I wanted to know what his personal experience has been like as a transgender male battling the ins and outs of his bipolar diagnosis. I wanted to know from someone who has been through the thick of it in hopes that anyone else in a similar situation may feel less isolated and alone. 

Are you ready for it? Here’s what Luke had to say. 

When were you first diagnosed with bipolar and how has it impacted your day to day life?

I was first diagnosed with Bipolar at the age of 21 and it really didn’t come as a shock to me. I knew I had some form of mood disorder prior to being diagnosed because what I was feeling just wasn’t normal. By that I mean the whiplash between the highs and lows of my mood were very extreme. 

Being diagnosed with bipolar has completely altered the way I live my life. Though I can now recognize my triggers and utilize one of my many coping mechanisms to work through it, my anxiety is still very high a lot of the time and it is something I continuously work on everyday. It’s shaped my life and altered the methods I use to take care of myself.

It is a rare occurance to find me out at a bar or nightclub. I find large social gatherings to be very overstimulating and prefer to stick to myself. I am definitely an introvert who would rather spend one on one time with my close friends in a more intimate and relaxed setting. 

Were there any key symptoms that prompted you to seek treatment from a mental health professional prior to your diagnosis?

I knew something was wrong when my emotions would flip like a switch. One minute I would be completely fine and everything was normal. Then suddenly for no reason at all, I would find myself stuck in a super low mood. Perhaps something could have triggered it but at the time I did not know what triggering was, or how to recognize it. I found myself in low-lows a lot of the time with constant lingering anxiety. 

It was starting to control my life. At the time I was single and just about to begin university. In my head I thought I would rather not live at all than live like this and that’s when I knew it was time to talk to someone. I tried implementing daily exercise and attending yoga which I found to be helpful but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough.

In addition to my recent diagnosis, I had also just begun transitioning and had a flux of hormones rushing through my system. It felt like I had very little control over my body or mind. 

What are some of your biggest struggles in terms of coping with your bipolar?

One of my biggest struggles when it comes to coping with my bipolar would be the ability to trust my own decisions, whether big or small. I constantly have this voice in the back of my head saying “is this the right decision, what if you’re manic right now and regret this later?” I know that voice in my head has held me back in the past from taking bigger risks or stepping outside of my comfort zone. 

That said, one of the biggest struggles is not only mine but impacts those who I engage in romantic relationships with. Having this recurring voice in my head questioning every decision I make is very difficult for loved ones to cope with. Others want to be there to offer support and reassurance but no one can truly silence that voice in your head except for you. This is something I am constantly trying to remain aware of and why I prioritize transparent communication at all times. 

Another struggle I think is worth mentioning would have to be the unexpected mood changes that come along with having bipolar. My moods have a tendency to switch for seemingly no reason causing very low lows, and temporary euphoric highs resulting in a burnout. I tend to refer to this as an emotional rollercoaster I did not buy a ticket for. It’s exhausting and difficult to cope with on an everyday basis not only for me but my romantic partners as well. 

That being said, everyone with Bipolar struggles in different ways. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a strong support system whether that is a close friend, a lover, or family member. Keep these people close and cherish your relationships. As difficult as it is for you to navigate your mental health diagnosis, it is equally as challenging for your loved ones to support you.  

What has your experience with medication been like? Have you found one treatment to be more effective than another? 

I have tried a few different medications for Bipolar. They are all relatively the same as they all fall under the antipsychotic family and tend to make me feel super foggy and out of it. In the past I have turned to medication to ease my symptoms but they usually made me feel numb and actually increased my anxiety (which is a side effect). 

The most effective treatment I have found is simplifying my life, which may sound stupid but it works. By sitting down and creating a routine for myself that is easy  to follow, I’ve eliminated excess mental processing for my brain. At this point it’s become a mindless habit. I find by eliminating chaos in my life my symptoms are very few and far between, giving me the time and energy to focus on school, my relationships and my goals.

Do you prefer the way you feel on medication vs off of it? What are some of the major side effects you experienced?

I prefer to not take medication. Scientists are still unaware of the long-term effects of medications on the brain and the prescriptions I’ve taken made me feel numb and increased my anxiety. The exact opposite of what I am trying to achieve. I’ve experimented with various prescribed medications in the past but have yet to find one that really works well with me. For that reason, I prefer to stay off medication and cope with my Bipolar naturally. 

Without medication my “lows” can certainly feel very low. But with that being said, I feel more in control of my mind and body. Rather than relying on a medication to stabilize my mood, an upper to keep me focused and alert, and a sleeping pill to make me come down. I believe your body needs to follow its own natural rhythm and taking medication interfered with my ability to do that. I didn’t feel like myself. 

How was your personal experience being apart of the queer community in Alberta?

Honestly, I was involved in the queer community when I was about 16 and would attend Edmonton pride parade and various other events when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older I have found the queer community to be quite intertwined in Alberta. For that reason, as well as me being the private person that I am, I tend to stick to myself and not involve myself in the queer community as much as I use to. 

In Canada we are very lucky to have the freedom and laws that we do, I think people often forget that. In the United States you aren’t considered Transgender unless you have both top and bottom surgery done, meaning your identification will state your biological gender. I sometimes struggle in the community because I think we have come such a long way but there are always improvements that can be made. We are very lucky to live where we do and have these resources accessible to us.

At what point in your life did you decide to transition? 

I knew I was in the wrong body ever since I was about 5 years old. I always knew something wasn’t right and I never felt comfortable in my body. As I got older I began playing boys hockey which is when I realized something was very off. I remember wishing I was a boy like the ones I played hockey with, but I was born a girl and doomed, this is just what life would be like for me. 

I could never picture myself as an adult because I just felt so out of place. Would I be a lesbian? Would I eventually embrace being a female and be feminine? I couldn’t see it. During my adolescent years I did identify as a lesbian because it felt like my only option at the time. I began dating women in my highschool years and still could not shake the feeling that something was not right. 

Finally, when I finished highschool, I reached out to an old friend of mine who had transitioned about two years prior. He gave me a rundown of the process which at the time seemed unachievable. I was 19 when I reached out to a therapist who specialized in working with LGBTQ youth. She immediately referred me to a psychiatrist where I waited two years to be seen and that’s where my journey began.  

How does the use of testosterone impact your mental health? Does the fluctuation in hormones create any challenges for you?

It was a wild ride adjusting to hormone therapy at the beginning of my transition when I had just introduced testosterone into my system. You need to be patient with yourself and be able to say, “is this me or is this the hormones talking?” After starting hormone therapy your body goes into a second puberty (for those who started hormones after they went through their first puberty). 

Going through puberty as a male is very different than as a female. You’re more aggressive and experience an increased sex drive, appeptite etc. These are things to be mindful of – watch how much you’re eating, make sure you are exercising not only for your physical health but for your mental health. Be mindful of how you speak to others and those who are there to support you, some people myself included have a shorter fuse and it is easier to lose your temper. 

Now with all that in consideration, make sure you take care of your mental health as well. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received was “listen to your body and let it feel what it needs to feel.” As someone who likes to be in control, I was frustrated that I was not able to control my emotions. It felt like I had testosterone and estrogen battling each other in my body for the hot seat in addition to trying to live a normal life. Working, going to school, it was a lot… to say the least. 

Try to remind yourself that it’s okay to NOT be okay. You won’t feel great everyday and that’s okay. Figure out what works best for you, solidify a routine, exercise, meditate, read. Take time for yourself, your body is going through so much, be kind to it. 

How has your transition impacted the dynamic of your relationships?

Transitioning has had a tremendously positive impact on my relationships. Prior to transitioning I was quite self conscious and knew I was not who I wanted to be. This ultimately manifested into my relationships, leading to insecurities and self doubt which can be draining to the healthiest of relationships. 

I was single when I started hormone therapy. After a few months of being on hormones and my body adjusting, my voice began to deepen, my beard began to grow etc. This physically gave me more confidence as I was becoming the person I felt like on the inside. Since my transition, I haven’t struggled with any confidence issues in my relationships. I understand my value and my worth and am able to maintain a much healthier relationship with my partner and myself. 

Are there any resources you have used to assist you during your transition? Any specific coping skills that have provided you with relief from your bipolar symptoms during this time?

When I began my transition I did everything by myself. I did not tell my parents or even my friends what I was thinking about doing as I was worried they would not understand or it would make things uncomfortable for them. I saw my therapist on a regular basis while I was on the waitlist to see a psychiatrist. She also played hockey so we bonded really well and she was very easy to talk to. However, she was very expensive and without my parents knowing became unaffordable. 

I definitely sheltered myself and did not utilize a lot of resources at the beginning mostly because I was scared. I thought the hormonal roller coaster was normal after just starting to transition and that it would eventually pass. After seeing my psychiatrist a few times, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 2 and was put on medication to help stabilize my moods and tame my anxiety. 

One key factor I did not take into consideration when all of this was going on was how stressful transitioning can be on you mentally and physically. An influx of testosterone and estrogen, your body is changing, you as a person are changing, you have to change your documents and tell people at your job, or school, it can be a LOT.

I asked to be taken off medication and deal with my Bipolar naturally. I found the best medication for my symptoms was running, weightlifting, seeing a therapist on a regular basis, staying on top of my diet, and maintaining a strong support system. I’m not saying this method will work for everyone but it is a great starting point before seeking medication. I still have my bad days, but I am now able to recognize them and give my body what it needs to maintain a healthy mind. 

Do you have any advice for someone embarking on their transgender journey? Maybe things you wish you would have known from the very beginning?

My advice for someone who just started their journey or is considering starting their journey is to be patient. This process is never ending, you will always be transitioning. The wait lists are long, I personally waited two years to begin taking hormones in addition to mandatory therapy and psychiatrist appointments. It is a long road but do not get discouraged, better things are coming and there is a light at the end of the tunnel!

Don’t expect things to happen overnight. This process will teach you great patience. From therapists to endocrinologists to psychiatrists to starting hormones and beginning to change your documents, it all takes time. Stay on top of your appointments and your paperwork to change your documentation as this will only make your life easier. 

Aside from that, enjoy the process. It seems dreadfully long in the beginning but looking back I wish I had taken more time to appreciate watching my body change and transform rather than beating myself up for having a thin beard, or having acne. Enjoy your journey!

What does your life look like today as a transgender male? 

Life today as a transgender male looks hairy, so invest in a good set of trimmers. But all jokes aside, I wouldn’t trade being trans for anything in the world as it’s made me the man I am today. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see life through the eyes of a woman and the eyes of a man, not many people can say that.

As I mentioned earlier, this will be my fourth year of transitioning coming up in June. After a few years of your body adjusting to hormones and surgeries you can finally feel at ease and enjoy the life you’ve created. I live a very normal, quiet life with my girlfriend and our dog. No one would ever guess I have transitioned and it’s a very humbling feeling. 

Have you ever experienced any form of discrimination as a result of being transgender? 

Shockingly, NEVER. I have never experienced any discrimination from anyone during my transition. It’s been 4 years and I have yet to experience a negative interaction with someone for being a transgender male. Though I do not openly broadcast that I am trans, I still confidently walk around without a shirt at pools, change fully in male change rooms, shower in change rooms, you get the point. 

One suggestion I can make for anyone who does feel like they will be judged or discriminated against is to just own it! At the beginning of my transition (prior to hormones) I used the mens bathroom and change room and was never questioned or even stared at. If you enter a room like you belong there, no one will question you.

This is Luke’s story. 

He is one of thousands of transgender identifying individuals who has fought for the right to live his truth and set himself free. He found alternative measures to cope with his mental health and keeps moving forward despite the obstacles standing in his way. 

What I find particularly compelling about his transition is the fact that he was able to prioritize his mental health in addition to the major physical changes he experienced as a result of hormone therapy.  

By striving for balance in body and mind, he was able to minimize the symptoms associated with his Bipolar diagnosis. He sought the appropriate treatments, knew when to ask for help, and drastically changed his lifestyle in order to achieve his goal. 

Thank you for taking the time to bring us along on your journey Luke. For willing to be vulnerable and open up about your transition and the impact it has on your mental health. You inspire me everyday and I know there are other people out there who can relate to your experience and admire your undeniable courage and strength. 

I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for you next!

xoxo

Beautiful Train Wreck

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