The Light and the Tunnel
9/1/21: What follows was originally written in May of '21 and offered in private to readers who wanted to hear my story. It is now several months later, and today is precisely the 1-year anniversary of what I would call the "start" of my transition (although what constitutes the "start" of somebody's transition is entirely subjective). I thought now would be a good time to make this entry public, for anyone who wanted to read it.
While I could update this post with more information regarding how I have been doing the past three months, I thought it would be better to keep the purity of the original post intact and only add this preface explaining things. (Hence why the post says I came out "a few weeks ago" and also why near the end it says "I might delete this" which, if you are reading this, I obviously did not.) I chose not to "fix" or "update" anything because I felt that this version better represents the step of the emotional journey I was on at the time of writing. If you would like to know more after reading this, please feel free to contact me privately on Discord or Twitter, and I would be happy to chat.
There is another content warning later in this post, but since this is an enormous departure from my other design-oriented blog posts, I wanted to call attention to the fact that this post is of a very personal and intimate nature, and deals with heavy issues such as depression, transphobia, and suicide. Read at your discretion.
Either way, thank you. Much love. ♥
I'm surrounded by darkness. Complete, utter darkness, deep as the void of outer space. Behind me, my past life is laid bare, an unraveling tapestry of experiences, memories, opinions, personalities. In front of me is a single pinprick of light. Narrow walls surround me, trapping me in a claustrophobic coffin. A tunnel.
I can't turn around. I can't go back. I can only advance. With each step, that pinprick of light gets no closer. The going is so slow. Unbearable. I can't tell if I am making any progress, or if I am simply walking in place. And at that far end, always, that pinprick of light. An exit. But it never gets any closer. I feel as though I am on a treadmill. Somehow lost inside a straight line. No way to know if this is the way out. If I will ever reach the end.
And then, a door. I feel it along the wall as I grope aimlessly through the murk. A way out. Or is it? I have been walking along this path for what feels like forever. Maybe I am close to the light. Maybe if I just keep walking, I will reach it. But will I ever feel a door like this again? Doesn't matter. I'm not going to stop now. I keep walking.
And walking. And walking. And walking.
More doors occasionally appear as I traverse the seemingly endless tunnel, and each time, I'm incapable of choosing. Too scared to stay, too scared to take this mysterious new road. I grapple with indecision: What if this is my last chance? Do I take it? And if I don't, will I be stuck here forever? Does this door lead to a worse nightmare? Or my salvation? I fret and worry and agonize over every possible course of action until inevitably, the light at the end of the tunnel grows furious and bright, and there is a rush of air and a roar of sound. And I awaken in tears.
In Darkdrifters, I try to conjure up imagery of terrifying, haunting realms that exist within the minds of others. But this? This one's mine. A neverending tunnel, the feeling of intense claustrophobia exacerbated by the unease and dread of being unable to choose the right path forward. This is how I envision my own anxiety. It's not always the same, but some elements recur from time to time. A dark tunnel. That feeling of claustrophobia. Of feeling trapped. The worry of never finding an escape. Or worse: the worry I will accidentally take a path that leads deeper in. Sometimes, I take the door. Sometimes I don't.
But before I get to the point of this, let me back up a bit.
A few weeks ago just before trans awareness day, I came out as transgender. I also promised that I'd donate half of the proceeds from any book sales for that week to Trans Lifeline, and wow, you all did not disappoint. You raised over $150 for Trans Lifeline that week, and I am really floored by all of the support—this, and also, the messages I've received personally. I don't know what else to say. I have been really stunned by all of this. More than I probably show.
So...I wanted to share a bit more about my experiences. I know I absolutely don't have to. I don't have to "show my receipts," as it were. I have nothing to prove. But I feel like I want to anyway. Think of it as a form of self-therapy I guess. Or perhaps I just have no shame anymore. In any event, please understand that these are my own personal, subjective experiences, and should not at all be taken as representative of trans people as a whole, or anything like that.
Also please be aware that in the following I will occasionally purposely call myself "he" or a "boy" in order to demonstrate my state of mind growing up. I will also touch upon some sensitive topics, so below is a content warning for you. If you're still interested, feel free to read on. And thanks again for the support. It truly means a lot to me.
Content Warning: depression/anxiety, internalized transphobia, suicidal thoughts.
The very first time I questioned my gender, I don’t even remember how old I was. I must have been really young. My family and I were at the beach, and as I often did, I’d run off alone to play by myself. I don’t remember if it was one of the beaches by our house in Long Island, or if we were on vacation. All I remember was befriending some boy around my age who unwittingly called me a girl. The context was something along the lines of, “you’re kind of something-or-other, for a girl.” I don’t remember what the “compliment” was supposed to be. I’m also not entirely sure how I was mistaken for a girl. (Hence why I think this must have been when I was really young—too young for things like gendered bathing suits, etc.) I did have kind of longish hair as a child, so that probably played a part. All I know is that I vividly remember that comment, and even more than that, I remembered my reaction: an intense surge of pride. Yeah. Pride! For being called something I (thought that I) wasn’t. Why did I feel that way? It didn’t make any sense. And I didn’t correct that kid, either. I let him believe I was a girl and I liked it that way. I don’t remember anything else of that encounter. I remember wondering why I reacted the way I did, but I didn’t let it really get into my head much at the time.
After that, I remember wishing I had been born a girl. I couldn't really express why at the time. I just remember thinking, “I wish I was a girl.” I made up a lot of excuses for feeling that way. “Girls have cooler clothes.” “Girls can do more with their hair.” “Girls are allowed to like the color pink.” Yeah, it was stupid. I was a kid. But to me, feeling that way was perfectly normal—just a totally average thought when growing up. Like wanting to be taller, or shorter, or have different-colored eyes or different-colored hair. To child-me, it was just one of those things you wished you had, then realized you couldn’t, because you were born the way you were born and that's all there is to it, and then you move on with your life because that’s really all you can do about it.
When I was little, I used to stay up watching Robotech on the tiny little CRTV in my room. It only got 3 or 4 channels, and one of them happened to play Robotech around the time I went to bed. But just before that, it would play Sailor Moon. I would feign not wanting to watch it because I had to sit through it to get to the show I really wanted to watch—Robotech. And don’t get me wrong, Robotech is still one of my favorite shows of all time. But secretly, hell yeah, I wanted to watch Sailor Moon. Something about it just appealed to 10-year old me in a way I couldn’t dissect. It wasn’t because the girls were cute, although, why, yes, Sailor Mars was my childhood crush, why do you ask? No, it was because I wanted to be there with them. And not as the handsome male love interest, Tuxedo Mask, but as one of the Sailor Scouts. One of the girls. I was secretly obsessed and I told. No. One.
See, as someone who (thought she) was a boy growing up in the 90s, the environment was pretty toxic. If I admitted to liking anything girly—or even not liking something manly—it was something to be mocked. I wanted to play with girl’s toys but couldn’t because that was [[redacted]]. I didn’t care much about sports but I couldn’t not like sports as a boy, because if I didn’t, I was a [[terrible word]]. You get the idea. So like many who wish to avoid bullying as children, I covered my tracks. Didn't let people see the real me.
Related tangent: Last year, I went to visit my parents at their new place in Florida. This was a couple months after my egg cracked, and I was in some deep emotional turmoil. It felt a lot like my world was crashing down all around me. At that moment in time, my parents happened to find an old journal I kept from when I was 7 as part of a school project. I took a picture of a journal entry I found from that notebook. It reads (edited for clarity): “There is a toy called Mighty Max which is like a toy called Polly Pocket. Mighty Max is a version for boys. Polly Pocket is one for girls. Both Polly Pocket and Mighty Max are kinda the same.” Even at the age of 7, I knew gender was some variety of bullshit, though I didn’t put it in exactly those words.
It was around early middle school that I started really getting into anime. Like, importing shows from Japan, watching them in the original Japanese with English subtitles, that kind of "weeb" stuff that I didn’t know was weeb stuff at the time. The transformative experience I am about to talk about is a little show called Ranma ½. This is where shit started really getting intense for preteen-me. If you’re unfamiliar, Ranma ½ is a beloved comedy manga and anime by Rumiko Takahashi about a boy—the titular Ranma Saotome—who, while undergoing martial arts training in a lost, forbidden spring in China, falls into the “Spring of the Drowned Maiden” and is forever cursed to transform into a girl whenever he is splashed with cold water. Hot water reverses the effect, turning him back into a boy. And of course, there is a roster of other similarly-cursed characters who turn into a variety of animals in the same way, yadda yadda yadda.
Ranma ½ doesn’t exactly deal with trans issues in what I would call a...mature way. It doesn’t really deal with trans issues whatsoever. It was a comedy, after all. It often played Ranma’s curse for laughs. It was supposed to be genuinely heartwarming and funny. So it stunned the crap out of me when my reaction to finishing the first few episodes of Ranma ½ was uncontrollable crying. I’m not talking a few tears here and there. I’m talking two to three straight hours of me being a complete and utter sobbing mess.
I used to watch Ranma ½ in the basement of my house, away from prying eyes, for two reasons. One, there was a lot of nudity. I’m talking lots of nudity. And I was uhh. Young. So yeah. Last thing I wanted was my parents awkwardly walking in on one of the many, many, many bath scenes. But more importantly, I watched it in the basement because I was ashamed—and confused?—by how the show made me feel. I should have been excited for the martial arts choreography, laughed at the funny situations, enjoyed the banter of the many characters, but instead, I felt weirdly empty.
I tried for a while to figure out why the show made me feel that way. At first I thought it was because I wanted to live in Japan and get into zany martial arts antics. But that wasn’t really it. I knew Ranma ½ was a comedy show and not anything like real life in Japan. I wasn’t a complete idiot. When I hit upon the real reason, I immediately knew it was true. The reason was that I wanted Ranma’s power. More than anything in the entire world. More. Than. Anything. I wanted to be able to turn into a girl at the drop of a hat. Snap my fingers, and presto. Like Sailor Moon’s transformation sequence.
But, again, I couldn't ever admit to wanting to be a girl. Media in the 90s did a truly awful job of portraying transgender individuals accurately or fairly. Trans people were used as the brunt of a joke more often than not, and I can recall more than a few Law and Order episodes that sparked some deep internalized transphobia in child-me, because of course it did, because representation in media fucking matters. Anyway, the point is, I bottled it all up. I imagined it to be completely normal; I wasn't trans, obviously, of course I wasn't trans, I was just—in my mind—a boy who wished I'd been born a girl, a boy who was starting to deeply resent not having been born a girl, a boy who was starting to absolutely despise who he saw when he looked in the mirror, but definitely not trans, of course not.
This was exacerbated by the fact that by now I was in middle school, and I was starting to. Uh. You know. Change. I was horrified when I started growing body hair. And I didn’t just grow a bit of it, I grew a lot of it. I started growing my first dumb little mustache when I was in 7th grade. My mom taught me how to wax it off because, in her own words, “shaving made it grow in thicker,” and as much as I hated waxing it, hooooo boy did I ever not want it to grow in thicker. But I didn’t have much choice. By high school, shaving was unavoidable, and I had thick, dark hair all over my chest and everywhere else, too. My shoulders, my back, the works.
This, in my mind, was a point of no return for me. There’d be no way I could ever be a girl with this shitty body and its shitty hair. But there was hope, for I was a dork, and in dorkdom, there was such a thing as roleplaying games. When I got into Dungeons and Dragons, it was partially because I didn’t want to be me anymore, and D&D was a really good outlet for those emotions. It let me create whoever I wanted to be and embody that person. And—surprise surprise—nearly every character I created was female.
And I remember my friends commenting at the time: Why do you play so many girl characters? And I would come up with a bevy of excuses. “We needed a female character in the party.” “I am better at drawing girls.” “My last character was a boy.” (I would sometimes alternate genders from time to time specifically to throw off suspicion.)
That wasn’t my only outlet, though! Enthralled as I was by Ranma ½, I started making my own little comics. Most of them were incredibly stupid and self-promoting. I made up comics with my friends in them, inserted us being fun and cool when really we were a bunch of dorks, that kind of thing. Then I started a longer-running comic about—and I shit you not—me suddenly waking up one day as a girl and all of my friends having to cope with the fact that I’m a girl now and somehow, this didn’t set off any alarm bells or red flags for 13-year old me, because apparently, I am some kind of huge idiot.
I still have the receipts, so to speak, but I won't be posting them here because they're frankly waaay too embarrassing. They're physically painful to look at, to be honest. (Not because of the subject matter, but because of how truly awful my drawings were.) The point is that I used these comics as a form of escapism. I don’t quite know how all of my friends didn’t figure me out right then and there. Maybe they did and just said nothing.
Some of them actually got kinda into it. As I was rooting through my belongings to find these drawings, I found one drawn not by me, but by one of my friends, which showed me in my "girl form." He labeled it “Newman-Chick.” Not sure why she’s blonde in this version, but whatever. The point is, it must have been at least a little obvious what was going on inside my head, even if I didn’t recognize it for what it was at the time.
None of this mattered in the end, because despite all of this, I still thought there was no way I could ever be or feel like a girl. It was just an outlet for my emotions. A way for me to channel my dissatisfaction with my own body.
It was around this time that the internet came around. This became another important outlet for me. Anonymity behind a computer screen was the perfect way for me to be who I really wanted to be, even if at the time, that’s not what I thought I was doing. It started with Everquest on the computer in my Mom’s office. I rolled a female character, because of course I did, and wandered around as a Druid in the Elven city of yeah-there’s-no-way-I-remember-the-name, and I honestly don’t even remember playing much Everquest. I had the majority of my fun just walking around and chatting with people. I must have played for dozens of hours and only ever made it to level 12 or so.
This trend continued into high school, college, and beyond. I logged thousands of hours into Final Fantasy XI between both the basement computer and my PS2. It even came with the perfect excuse! You see, the Mithra—the awesome agile cat-people who I obviously wanted to play as—could only ever be female! Wow! So convenient! So I rolled up a Mithra and boom, I had a built-in excuse for why my character was an adorable cute cat-girl thief. I joined a linkshell—FFXI’s version of an online “clan”—and made believe, for the first time ever, that not only was my character a girl, but that I was a girl too.
I also started roleplaying on other websites as well. I discovered a text-based roleplaying site. Of course, I made a female character. And just like in FFXI, I got to know some of the other players outside of the game, and I posed as a girl the entire time. I made up an entire backstory for this fake version of me and stuck to it by the letter. I basically made up an entirely separate life for her, and the more I got into it, the more I wanted to be her instead of me. I wound up feeling like I was leading a double life. Every time I shut my laptop off and emerged from the basement, I felt...worse.
Later, in college, I played two MMOs, Warhammer, which I played with my ex, and Aion, which I largely played by myself. In Warhammer I was a massive muscular dude in a huge fuckoff suit of spiky armor, because I didn’t want my girlfriend to suspect I secretly wanted to be a girl, and nothing says "denying my gender identity" like being a massive muscular dude in huge fuckoff armor. But in Aion I was a cute little angel girl in a guild full of people who thought I was a girl.
You see, the more I repressed my feelings, the more I needed the escape. "I am not trans," I would think, as I booted up my voice modulator so I could participate in raids in voice chat without people discovering my secret. "I am not trans," I would think, as I read about the experiences of people who came out as trans in their college years and burned with envy. I fell hard into denial.
In 2007, I traveled to study abroad in Japan. Despite everything I was going through, I would say this was the best time of my life, until, all at once, it wasn't. On the one hand, I found such incredible joy in simple experiences like walking down random streets and finding hidden DVD and manga shops tucked away in tiny commercial districts of my town on the outskirts of Osaka, in biking just outside Kansai Gaidai and recognizing the architecture, the streets, the power lines, the sounds. It felt like home away from home. I felt like a different person.
But then I'd walk through Nipponbashi, see the cute harajuku-style clothes on display, and remember I was still me, stuck in this body I despised. I'd cry in a train station bathroom for an hour and miss my train back to Hirakata because I knew this was all temporary. A fantasy. One day I'd go back home and I'd have to be me again. Not the real me, but the me I'd designed to deflect attention away from who I wanted to be, who I really was. I looked up at the Umeda high rise in Osaka and thought to myself: If I knew with 100% certainty that I would wake up as this other me, I would gladly jump.
I would pinpoint this moment as the moment things started to go downhill.
I returned home and gave up. I simply stopped caring. I was fooling myself, I thought. I am me and that's all there was to it. But I secretly hated me, so I hurt myself, without realizing at the time that's what I was doing. I stopped exercising, stopped going to the doctor, stopped caring about the way my body looked (after all, it wasn't the body I wanted, so who cares?). I treated myself like crap. I treated everyone around me even worse. I was angry, bitter, and sometimes, downright cruel. For somebody who had, by this point, gone through over a decade of repressed dysphoria and internalized transphobia, I was remarkably dense when it came to mental health issues. I believed myself to be a voice of reason while on the inside: If I knew it would work, I would gladly jump.
At this point, I never took pictures of myself, ever. And if somebody else tried to take one of me, I would object. It would take a few seconds for me to give a convincing enough fake smile. I just didn't want to be seen. I embarrassed myself. Where teenage me was gung-ho and confident, post-college-me was anxious, slovenly, and exhausted. Just, all the time. I worried about every choice I made, from the profound to the mundane. I missed Japan. I regretted everything I did almost immediately. I lost sleep. If I knew it would work, I would...
My romantic relationships soured. I won't bore you with the details. I was unhealthy to be with, and every relationship ended up toxic. My anxiety got worse. I would get panic attacks thinking about the past. I got no more than 5 hours of sleep on a good night and as few as 2 on a bad one. There is a lot more I don't feel comfortable talking about. The point is: I was utterly terrified of death, but I also hated myself, and so I felt trapped in an existential nightmare.
But on the outside, I appeared to be doing well. I passed the bar. I got hired for my dream job, moved to Minnesota, made dozens of new and amazing friends, found success in game design, and was even given the opportunity to co-design a brand new card game. And yet, on the inside, I was still—metaphorically, mind you—up on the roof of the Umeda. Thinking: if I knew it would work...
It was now ten years after Japan, and over time, I had become a ghost of my former self. My social life had sort of crumbled. I gave up on the concept of sleep. I would consider myself a full-fledged insomniac by this point. Whereas before I could function pretty well on just a few hours of sleep, now…well. I tried to put it into words. It ended up becoming an excerpt of what would eventually become an early chapter of The Key and the Crescent:
“It’s not that I don’t want to sleep. I just don’t like what happens whenever I do. It’s better to just stay awake. That damn nightmare haunts me everywhere. Just a nightmare, I tell myself, but I know it’s so much more. Something I’ve carried with me for a long, long time. Darkness slithers into my room from every corner, smothering my sight like some kind of infestation. I have to get out of here. Nothing can be worse than climbing back into my futon. I throw on my raincoat, tie my bright pink hair into a messy ponytail, and quietly sneak out of my apartment. Penelope, the tiny sign on the wall next to my door reads. Even just the sight of my own stupid name somehow fills me with disgust. If only I could be anybody else.”
The “nightmare” represented my inner monologue. My anxieties, worming their way out of my mind whenever I tried to rest, taking control of my thoughts, keeping me awake. While “Penelope” ended up going through something very different from my own troubles, the sentiment carried through regardless. I think those last few lines are particularly telling.
I wouldn't say that I found solace in writing about this girl Penelope. I just knew I had to write about her. I had to get these feelings down in writing somewhere. It wasn’t a desire. It was a need. It burned a hole in my chest. I had to write what I was feeling. I had to. I felt twitchy when I wasn’t writing about her. Impatient. It felt like an addiction. I didn’t think it was a good story at the time. I didn’t even think it was a story.
For a few months, I was a zombie. I holed up in my room and wrote. I wrote much more than I think anybody will ever see. Thousands upon thousands of words. I started writing this: what you’re reading right now, albeit an incomplete version. I almost tweeted the whole damn thing out at 4am one summer night because I couldn’t sleep and needed someone, anyone, to know. I deleted it, of course. Then I started over. I deleted it again. I started over. So many times, I can’t even count. I didn’t sleep at all that week.
I started to wonder to myself how it all began. I had been carrying these issues for a long, long time, after all. The idea sparked my imagination. A darkness that could grow dormant, hidden, inside somebody. I wanted deeply to be able to hop inside my mind, pull out a sword, and just kill it. And with that, the idea of Darkdrifters was born.
I poured all of my pain and sadness into my writing. It was therapeutic, in its own way. Writing The Key and the Crescent forced me to re-examine my own regrets. My repressed feelings. Why, when I personified everything I was feeling, was that character a girl? Why did I cry whenever I read the success stories of trans people who’d come out? Why, after I’d thrown out all of my drawings from what felt like a lifetime ago, was one of the only comics I kept snippets of the one about me magically transforming into a girl? Why did I feel like every choice I ever made was a mistake? Why was I so wracked with regret and self-hate? Why did I despise the person I looked at in the mirror?
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment my egg cracked. I don’t remember what the inciting incident was, if one even existed. All I know is that one day I thought I was “healthy,” and the next, I knew I wasn’t. I remember taking a day off from work, locking myself in my room, and crying all day long. Holy shit, am I actually trans? I thought. I still didn’t think it was true. I can’t be trans! People who are trans know they are trans at a young age, right? (This isn't true, but it's what I thought.) All the signs had been there all along, but I had never thought I was trans, so that couldn’t be it, right? That’s not how this is supposed to work! I’m too old to be trans! I should have realized it when I was 14! No, when I was 18! When I was 22! When I was 25! I thought it was too late to do anything about it. I am still, to this day, struggling with that fear.
But then a strange thing happened. I stopped hiding bits of myself, little by little. I admitted without hesitation things that I might have hid. I not-so-subtly tweeted bits of my repressed feelings. Whereas before I would choke up when somebody mentioned something that might expose me as “girly,” I now started to embrace it without a second thought. My love of girl’s clothes, jewelry, the fact that my favorite color was actually pink, always had been, little things like that. At the time, I wasn't planning on transitioning. I was just...I don't know. Dipping my toes in the water, I guess. I pierced my ears, dyed my hair, started wearing different clothes. And I found that, lo and behold, I started to finally feel like me. With each step I took, that feeling of disassociation started to fade, little by little. I started to take care of myself.
I knew the ending to The Key and the Crescent now. I rolled up my sleeves and wrote. That story wasn’t about me discovering my gender identity, not at all. But it was, in its own way, an interpretation of the various subjective experiences I’d seen and felt.
So there you have it. My own personal “nightmare.” The tunnel is the hole my mind dug for myself, my inner darkness that despises me. The light is my way out. And the doors are the many, many times my doubt, my anxiety, my fear, my self-hate would lock me down, freeze me in place, rattle my mind until I couldn't find my way forward anymore.
I don’t really know what my objective was in writing this. It’s entirely possible I will delete this soon after writing it, like I’ve done so many times before. I just knew, like Penelope’s trauma, that I had to get it down in writing somewhere. I didn't think it would be an entertaining or even an educational read. But I hope it's been valuable in some small way. Maybe just as context. Or maybe more. Doesn't matter. Like everything else I've done recently,
it was for me.
Maxine Juniper Newman