(Trigger Warning: This piece deals with the overconsumption of alcohol and describes an experience dysphoria in detail.)
My partner is pounding on the door, begging me to unlock it.
I’m sitting in front of a tall mirror, tears falling quietly down my face, as I clutch my shirt in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other.
The amount of panic my chest has caused me in the last three months has reached a breaking point. I stare, helplessly, at a body that both confuses and terrifies me.
As I look at myself, my body trembling, I’m reminded of the times as a child when I would take the heads off of my Lego characters and place them on different bodies – only this time, the stakes are real, and the stakes are high.
I can recognize my face, but everything else feels so, so wrong.
My partner manages to pick the lock, and they push through the door. Their eyes widen with horror as they realize I’ve been drinking to cope with my dysphoria, which is the distress or discomfort that occurs when the gender someone is assigned does not align with their actual gender.
They take the bottle from me, and I listen as they hurry down the hall, pouring the vodka into the bathroom sink.
They return and, helping me stand up, wrap a blanket around me, help me into bed, kiss my forehead and say, “I’m not angry. I’m just concerned.” As I mutter a drunken apology, they sigh, propping me up with another pillow. They squeeze me gently.
“We’re going to watch Netflix, we’re going to relax, and everything is going to be okay.”
* * *
Being a trans and genderqueer person who regularly experiences body dysphoria has been a challenge that few people in my life have felt prepared for.
Coping with body dysphoria, let alone helping someone cope, is not something we’re taught or expect to encounter.
Most who know I experience dysphoria never anticipate the extent to which it impacts my life – at my worst, I can spend days holed up in my apartment, suffer panic attacks in the shower, and before I got help, I could even turn to alcohol to cope.
While friends and loved ones can’t take my dysphoria away, they can help me to cope in healthier ways and ride out the inevitable waves. With the support of folks who loved me, we have learned together the best ways to manage my dysphoria – and it has made a huge difference in my life.
So if you’re wondering how to support a trans person in your life who is experiencing body dysphoria, this list of five tips is a great place to start.
1. Engage Compassionately and Validate Their Experience
No two bouts of dysphoria are identical.
The spectrum of emotions we experience with dysphoria can vary time to time, person to person, or even episode to episode. The severity can also range from mild to severe.
Some days, we might feel comfortable in our skin; other days, it can be intolerable.
Keeping all of this in mind, regardless of the severity or focus, it’s vital to validate that person’s experience.
“Is it really that bad?” is never an okay response. “Why can’t you leave your apartment?” is not an okay response either. And “Get over it, we all have insecurities” is absolutely, 100% an awful response.
All of these responses trivialize this person’s pain and suggest that what they are feeling isn’t worth caring about.
What a trans person needs from you is validation.
“I’m sorry this is happening” or “That sounds really awful” are responses that acknowledge this person’s pain – and moreover, validate that it is real and important. This is what we, as trans folks, need from our supporters.
Remember, too, that body dysphoria can impact more than just trans women and trans men. A whole range of identities – including genderqueer folks, agender people, neutrois, bigender, and so on – can all experience dysphoria.
The bottom-line is that every instance of dysphoria is valid and important, no matter who is going through it or how they experience it.
So, please, don’t interrogate, don’t argue, and don’t invalidate. We need—nay, deserve—your compassion.
2. Ask How You Can Help
Every trans person is different, and sometimes what helps us through our dysphoria can vary.
Keeping that in mind, asking the expert – the trans person themselves – is a great place to start if you’re looking to help someone cope with dysphoria.
Some trans folks need to get out of the house to do something fun, while others would shudder at the thought of being in public. Some trans folks might find talking through their dysphoria to be comforting, while others will only be more upset if they engage in a long conversation about it.
It’s best to ask folks what they need when they’re experiencing dysphoria. It’s as simple as saying, “How can I help right now?”
My partner knows that when the dysphoria comes a’knockin’, we’re going to be spending our night watching Parks & Rec or playing Nintendo. Bonus points if there’s popcorn involved.
In some instances, a trans person may need help setting up a crowdfunding campaign for top surgery or may need to brainstorm how to start HRT (some great ones include Indiegogo, Giveforward, and Crowdrise). Maybe they need help saving up for a new binder. But not every trans person will opt for these things, however. Instead of suggesting a specific intervention, allow them to bring it up. If it’s on their mind, they will tell you so.
Bear in mind that sometimes we don’t know what we need. And that’s okay! That’s when the next tips come in handy.
3. Suggest Distractions or Fun Activities
Bust out the coloring books. Marathon your favorite movies. Order Thai food and play a board game. Brainstorm some fun distractions that can get their mind off the dysphoria – and if there are laughs involved, that’s even better.
Make sure the activities you suggest aren’t triggering.
For example, getting into a swimsuit and going to the pool isn’t always the best idea if you’re having dysphoria related to your body.
Similarly, going to a funhouse full of mirrors might not be so much fun for someone who wants to take their mind off of their body.
If you’re selecting a movie, a documentary about plastic surgery might not be the best choice.
Try to choose an activity that is both enjoyable and far removed from the crisis at hand.
And remember that sometimes we’re not in the mood for fun stuff. If that’s the case, a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on can be just as helpful, too.
4. Send (Or Bring!) Them a Self-Care Package
Care packages are awesome. They can include delicious snacks, lotions or soaps, cuddly stuffed animals, a favorite movie or book, a journal to write down our feelings, crayons or colored pencils and a sketchbook, or anything you can think of that might be comforting.
Sometimes trans folks don’t want visitors when they’re feeling dysphoric. That’s important to respect – and a great reason to opt for a self-care package if they’re not looking to hang out.
Mailing it or leaving it on their porch (with permission) is a great way of saying, “I care and also respect your boundaries.”
If you know that they aren’t in the mood to cook, you can also offer to send them food from their favorite takeout restaurant – or deliver a meal to them yourself.
If all else fails, an e-gift card to a favorite store can encourage them to treat themselves, and it doesn’t require the creativity of assembling a care package yourself.
5. If Needed, Encourage Them to Seek Help
The day after I drank vodka to cope with my dysphoria, my partner sat me down and helped me schedule a therapy appointment.
Dysphoria is a beast – and sometimes that beast takes more than just willpower to tame.
If your loved one is engaging in harmful or unhealthy coping behaviors, or is grappling with suicidal ideation, it’s time to seek outside help.
A trans-competent therapist, for example, can be an important safety net for a trans person coping with dysphoria; a local support group at an LGBTQIA+ community center can also be a great resource.
In the case of dysphoria accompanied by suicidality, contacting the Trans Lifeline Hotline, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call 1.800.273.8255 in the US), or if there is a plan and intent to act, calling 911 may be a necessary step. Transgender folks are especially vulnerable as suicide is too often a silent killer in our community.
Sometimes the very best thing you can do for someone you love is encourage them to seek out the resources and support that they need to ensure their wellness in the long term.
* * *
My partner did everything right that night when I made the mistake of drinking to deal with my dysphoria.
They didn’t waste time questioning the legitimacy or extent of my struggle. They didn’t invalidate my pain. Instead, they compassionately expressed their concern without placing judgment on me or my choices. And after making sure I was safe, they helped by comforting me and distracting me.
When the dust settled, they encouraged me to reach out for the professional support that I needed to ensure that nights like these would not happen again.
Dysphoria can be painful, and at times, traumatic. That being said, the support of a loved one can make all the difference.
You may not be able to take away the pain and discomfort that comes with body dysphoria, but with compassion and respect, you can help make the burden just a little bit easier for us to carry.
Sam Dylan Finch a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is queer writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to his work at Everyday Feminism, he is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his hella queer and very awesome blog. You can learn more about him here and read his articles here. Follow him on Twitter @samdylanfinch.