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The Arc of Detransition

By Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist and the founder and director of Genspect.

Although this is probably the most important aspect of the new trans phenomenon, little is known about the process by which people go through the path of detransition. By listening to transitions, we learn about mistakes made, opportunities lost, and decisions taken lightly. As a psychotherapist working with people in transition, I have noticed that although the experience may be very different, there may be a common path to transition. As Angus Fox says, it does not repeat itself but it always rhymes.

Each step in this process can take weeks, months, or years, and we don't know how many people get stuck at any given step. However, it can be helpful to see the detransition arc depicted in a frame. We hope this arc will provide a way forward for anyone who is lost in transition; with the next webinar on Saturday, March 12 at 8 p.m., this may well give courage to anyone who finds themselves in dire straits and sees no way out. Detransition can be heartbreaking, heartbreaking, and horrifying, but it also offers a new way of being, and a way to emerge from the chrysalis as a more focused and authentic person, bloodied but unhurt, and determined to never again. feel so fragile.


Stage 1: Distress

You turn to the Internet to distract you from the pain; you ask questions and you find company. It eases your pain to find other lost souls who feel as weird as you and are looking for companionship.

The first step in the process involves the person feeling vulnerable in some way and wanting to transition to ease their mental pain. The level of distress felt by the person can vary. Many people in transition report that they have felt lost, alone, mixed up and isolated. Indeed, therapeutic understanding of all mental health issues can be part of the very basic survival instinct of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. The alcoholic is motivated to avoid immediate mental pain by having a few drinks to ease his stressed mind; the anorexic avoids pain by losing weight and experiencing short-term satisfaction from being in control. Similarly, the dysphoric person wishes to escape by becoming a different person and feels great satisfaction each time they believe they are progressing in this area.

Step 2: Hope

Like Chekhov's three sisters longing for Moscow, you can literally spend years longing for your new identity, and becoming completely engrossed in dreams of your imaginary future self. You tend to this new identity like an award-winning gardener tends to a Bonsai tree, you neglect your real life to spend thousands of hours watching videos on YouTube and other social media, which encourage you to let yourself go. daydreaming about a fabulous future life that promises to rid you of all your pain, uncertainty and self-loathing.

The very concept of the ideology of gender identity gives a glimmer of hope to the person in distress: the transitions learn that a posteriori, this hope was false. The idea that someone in distress can become a different person, with an entirely new identity, name, pronouns, and body, is so incredibly alluring that it can ignite a spark of hope that lasts for years.

Step 3: Belonging

The relief can be overwhelming. Finally, there is a place for you; finally, people want to hear from you; finally, people laugh at your jokes; Finally, people understand you! If you're in school, you can bask in the glow of positive attention. You feel nervous and interesting, scared but brave. It is an exhilarating sensation that is not easily matched. This sense of belonging can be accompanied by a sense of sufficiency, and this step can spark a sudden interest in politics. This can be accompanied by a powerful feeling that you ARE the zeitgeist, and that your very being can help change society - for example, by changing the rules about restrooms, changing rooms, or sports in your school. You may begin to feel contempt for those who you feel do not understand what is going on.

When the person joins the LGBTQ+ community, in any form - online or in person - they may feel a sense of belonging that they have never experienced before. Often old friends are left behind at this point, and the new identity and new friends become everything. The LGBTQ+ community becomes the whole life of the individual, and nothing else matters. It is at this stage that parents often feel that their child has been taken away by a very intense cult.

Stage 4: Euphoria

You feel invincible, as if your life is finally settled. You know things that others don't, and you take charge of your life so that one day you will be exactly as you want. You feel strong, smart and insightful; after often feeling shy and indecisive, you may now feel very proud of your ability to make decisions.

Gender euphoria is the flip side of gender dysphoria. It often occurs around the beginning of the medical transition and is very similar to the power-load the anorexic feels when they discover they are very good at dieting. This feeling of excitement and intense happiness can feel fragile, strongly defended and almost aggressive to experience. Reminiscent of the feeling of being high on drugs, there is a wild intensity that can be very unsettling for anyone who lives with or loves the euphoric person.

Step 5: Waiting

Until now, you had envisioned your future life in an almost dreamlike way - everything was going to be fabulous once you transitioned. Then, when you begin a medical transition, your dreams turn into more concrete expectations, and everything can become very specific and detailed. You may feel a sense of intense frustration with the tedious details of hormones and surgery. You can be furious when things don't go your way or when proposed medical interventions don't go exactly as planned. Frustration isn't really a part of this dream, so you might feel a sense of panic that manifests as rage when things go wrong, as they often do.

Irritability can show up at this stage. The pre-spotter often feels that no one understands the importance of certain details. You feel an impending sense of reality, and you are very stressed about the situation. The realization is sudden: if dreams are very good, turning them into reality is sometimes impossible. The feeling of panic can be suppressed by an outward display of confidence and bellicose anger towards anyone who doesn't totally agree. The pre-spotter fears making a mistake and feels weighed down by the weight of hope and expectation. 

Step 6: Disappointment

You can waver from one extreme to the other. Genital surgery is cumbersome and complicated, and your sweet and pleasant dreams of earlier stages are starting to seem a bit crazy. You may hide your disappointment with aggression and you may find yourself having a lot more fights than usual. The feeling of disappointment can arise at any time: when you look in the mirror, when you walk down the street, when you look at a picture of yourself. Often, looks can take on even more importance in your life, and everything can feel completely overwhelming.

This is a critical step in the transition process, and how it is managed is critical. Very often, medications and surgeries are a source of disappointment. The tranny's breasts may not develop as expected; a transsexual's mastectomy is rarely perfect. Complications ensue, and the pre-holder doesn't know whether to pretend everything is fine or start yelling that everything is wrong. The more love and acceptance there is during this stage, the better.

Step 7: “Lost in transition”

The lost years can go on for what seems like an entire lifetime. This is when you have moments of deep distress about your medical transition, but feel there is nothing you can do about it. Sometimes it occurs to you that with the proper support you might be able to choose another path, but most of the time you tell yourself that there is really nothing you can do. You may turn to alcohol or drugs to dull the pain and try to escape the reality of life.

Over the years, as a psychotherapist, I have often worked with people suffering from addiction, eating disorders and depression. There almost always comes a time when, while all is well in the healing process, the client realizes devastatingly how damaging and unnecessary the "lost years" were. Sometimes hysterical, sometimes tearful, people in this situation can be very demanding and difficult to be around, as they continually seek external validation from anyone nearby. Often these are the years that create the most difficulty for a person: this is when most people hurt the most. It is not yet known if these lost years can be shortened, or if it is simply a grueling process of understanding that must be lived.

Step 8: Regrets

We feel very fragile when we give up our faith; without a rudder and empty inside, it is too easy to believe that there is no more reason to live. You may at this point let go of gender ideology and realize that you never made the transition to becoming a different person: you are still the same person, but you look different. You may feel incredible and justified anger towards the LGBTQ+ community, which you consider to be illusion sellers, or worse.

It takes a certain type of person to have the courage to face the monster under the bed and admit - to themselves or others - that they regret their decision. Most people internalize these feelings, seeing them as necessary learning points that made them the person they have become, and therefore have no regrets. Others may regret certain aspects of their medical transition: they may regret having consulted such or such a surgeon, or of not having sought better therapy before the transition. Some people skip this step and choose never to regret their life experiences.

In this world of relentless positivity, we often run away from regret and view it as a negative experience. Yet regret has an evolutionary function: it is evolutionarily advantageous for a person to learn from past mistakes in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Although research in psychology indicates that people tend to view regret as a feeling of distress, it is interesting to note that regret is actually viewed as a "positive" emotional experience. We would all be better off if we understood that the feeling of regret is a warning sign: it points the way to a better future, based on better choices, and can lead us to exercise more foresight, awareness and wisdom.

Suicide, however, is a serious threat at this point, and loved ones may need to be very gentle and caring during this difficult time (while maintaining their carefully established boundaries). In his seminal work on suicide, psychiatrist Karl Menninger said that suicide requires the desire to kill, the desire to be killed, and the desire to die. The utter loneliness that is inherent in a suicidal mindset can be penetrated, but with difficulty. It is time for compassion, gentleness and tenderness. It's a terrifying time for everyone.

Step 9: Anger

You may feel deep anger for being taken advantage of and abused at the most vulnerable time in your life. You become aware that there is no change in the material realities of your internal biology: if the external appearance of your body has changed, your internal functioning is still the same. This is when you need to access your inner hero so you can finally begin the long road to healing.

Anger is energy. It can propel a person to action; and it is often anger that can be the driving force behind the transgression. Anger can be directed at healthcare professionals who have failed to provide appropriate treatment - which is fair and appropriate. However, this anger can be dangerous, and loved ones may notice that the anger can become dangerously self-directed.

Perhaps the most productive way to combat this anger is to get angry at the right target. More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle told us that "Anyone can get angry, it's easy; but getting angry at the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way, it's not in everyone's power, it's not easy".

Step 10: Detachment

There is another arc: the process following the detransition decision. This process brings out deep feelings - and with the right support, you can come to a place of self-acceptance and self-compassion. Accepting your biological sex and allowing yourself to let go of the obsession with identity, labels and categories can be very liberating. A sense of self-compassion towards one's body can also be a deeply rewarding experience. Getting older brings its share of regrets and shocking experiences, but also an unexpected and incredibly comforting sweetness. Hold on tight: it's getting better. As Sinead Watson, a woman in transition, says, "You're not broken."

Detransition means stopping the transition process. It means different things to different people. For some, it is enough to stop putting diesel in the gas tank; for others, it is important to return to the presentation of their biological sex. Some people become anti-medicated; others are determined to do whatever it takes to get back to the life they think they should have had, if gender ideology hadn't challenged them. Many transitioning people I have worked with report that they simply stopped taking the medication: suddenly it all felt like hard work and they decided to take a break. Then they never did it again.

When the person has come to detransition, they often find themselves with shattered hopes and feelings of deep rage and disappointment. Nothing is simple when it comes to transitions. She is by no means the end of the road, but rather the start of a new road that has its own arc. Hopefully, and with the right help and support, this leads to self-acceptance and self-compassion. The individual can begin to find a place where they feel comfortable with themselves. In the poem The Prodigal, the poet Elizabeth Bishop describes how a suffering person can go to terrible places before finally making the decision to try to recover: "But it took him a long time / to finally make up his mind to to return to his place." Hopefully we will all have the chance to return home one day.

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