A few years ago I made acquaintances with a man who professed to having a very low emotional register. To fully understand what he was feeling he had to listen to music, otherwise he didn’t know. My first reaction to this information was confusion–how could you not know what you are feeling when you are feeling it?–and then I teased him a bit. I know better now.
Testosterone has been linked to scrambling parts of the brain that process emotion, and while taking testosterone has helped me in many ways emotionally, I admit I’ve experienced this scrambling, but it took me a while to notice it.
My first clue was after my surgeries. It had been two weeks since my top surgery and my total hysterectomy, and I’d developed a complication due to a MRSA infection in one of my surgical sites. Two hours after I called the hospital, and texted a picture of my oozing wound to my surgeon, I had an urgent appointment scheduled.
That morning my partner had been fretting about work, and he had been complaining about being sleep deprived. For two weeks he’d been taking care of me (and worrying), and then he’d had a friend from out of town over for a week, where he burned the candle at both ends. And now he was behind in work, and he had to take care of me–again. He was overtired, overwhelmed, and beyond stressed.
I said I’d drive myself to my appointment. It made rational sense to me. I was in pain, but I wasn’t feverish or confused, and I was the only one available to get myself there in a timely fashion.
My partner refused. “Your grandmother can drive you.”
“Grandma’s blind,” I said. “So, no.”
“Well, I’ll take you!”
I shook my head. If he didn’t attend his meeting and finish his work, he’d be an even bigger mess than he was at that moment, and he was already looking pretty crazed. “No, I can take myself.”
“How about your cousin?”
He’d been telling everyone how impossible and stubborn I was through my entire healing process, and I supposed him not wanting me to drive myself was a part of that. Maybe I wasn’t letting him take care of me enough, or something. So I called my cousin. She was busy. My aunt was busy. Everyone was busy, and the time of my appointment was fast approaching. “I’m going alone,” I told him.
My partner absolutely lost his shit.
He screamed at me. He took my keys. While I’m not trying to demonize him or his actions, I’m also not going to make excuses for him. This story isn’t about what he did, it’s about how I processed what he did.
I became very calm–scary calm. I spoke in a near monotone, and conveyed only what I meant to, using the simplest and fewest words possible. I told him his behavior was out of proportion to the problem, but I didn’t have time to process what was going with him at that moment, because I had to go to the hospital. I demanded my keys back. He screamed and hollered and cried, but eventually I stared him down, got my keys back, and left the house.
During the ride to the ER I knew I should feel… something. I tried to cry. It didn’t work. At some point between me getting in the car and meeting with the surgeon, my site broke open, and rivers of gray and purple puss flowed down my abdomen, soaking my shirt. I was scheduled for emergency surgery three hours later.
I didn’t want to talk to my partner. I didn’t want anything to do with him, but I did let him in to see me twice. Once when I got out of anesthesia, so he knew I was okay, and once in the morning to bring me breakfast, because the hospital food was atrocious and I was starving. Otherwise I was alone and feeling oddly calm.
But I wasn’t calm. My blood pressure was 135/75, when it’s normally 100/50, and my resting heart rate was over 100 bpm. However, even with the throbbing at my temples I felt removed from what I was feeling. I thought I was in shock, and when I came out of it I’d start to feel something.
Normally I can’t wait to leave the hospital, but this time I didn’t care. I let them take their time. I didn’t rush the physical therapist or the wound care specialist, and I didn’t harass the nurses about how many laps I’d done around the nurse’s station. There was no point. Home wasn’t home, and I had nothing I wanted to go back to.
When I finally returned home, I was more focused on my physical recovery than my emotional recovery. I had to dress my wound every morning, and while I’m not a squeamish person in the slightest, that took a toll on me. Partially because of that strain, I was still not processing what had happened between my partner and I.
As the weeks went by, I recovered physically, but mentally I suffered from malaise; however, I couldn’t pinpoint what I was feeling. There was a ball of opaque emotion in my chest I couldn’t penetrate, and therefore couldn’t put a name to or understand. I knew I should feel something, but it was beyond me.
I found myself attracted to a popular book I’d walk by time again at work. I kept reading pieces of it (oddly starting from the last chapter and working my way toward the beginning), and I kept an eye out for when the film adaptation would be released on DVD. I didn’t know why I was interested in this story–it didn’t seem my type–but I finally bought and sat down to watch it.
It was about a quadriplegic, a man who was no longer able to do the things he loved, and therefore wished to end his life. Everyone wanted to make decisions for him, and in the end he was finally able to make his own decisions about his health care, even though they weren’t ones his loved ones wanted. It was a sad movie, and afterwards, I felt sad.
I was also feeling depressed, lonely, and trapped in the expectations of everyone I loved.
I queued up a few of the songs from the soundtrack–the most depressing ones–and took off on a long walk, repeating them over and over again. And I finally began to process.
By having a complete and violent meltdown when I stood against him, my partner was basically saying, “If you don’t approach your medical care in a way I can handle it, then I will become violent and dangerous, and I will make you sorry.”
He took away my freedom in that moment, and while that alone was concerning enough for me in the short term, it was very concerning for me in the long term, when I’d be old and even more helpless. I lost trust in a relationship I’d been building for over a decade, and I was devastated.
What was nearly as bad, was everyone’s attempts to gaslight me afterward. My mother kept telling me I was being cold to my partner, that he was worried about me (even after I told her he struck me out of anger). I heard a lot of, “Oh well, that’s unfortunate. But he loves you. There aren’t many nice men like him in this world.” I felt very much as if I shouldn’t be feeling what I was feeling, and when I was already struggling with realizing what I was actually feeling, those words were the absolute last I needed to hear.
Before testosterone, those sorts of emotional realizations wouldn’t have taken me as long to process. Now it’s harder for me to pinpoint. I can get by on a low-grade level of emotion, and not understand that underneath I may be feeling a lot worse and letting it fester.
I’m working with my therapist on ways I can spot these problems sooner, and with different methods I can use to access my feelings. Some of these tools are listening to music (as my friend tried to explain to me), and watching movies that maybe I wouldn’t have normally considered. Recently I watched The Lobster, a dark comedy about the absurdity and violence of being in a relationship, and also being single.
Hormones are funny things, and it’s interesting how my life has changed in seemingly small but drastically important ways. With a touch of irony, it’s also given me a bit of empathy for those who have problems expressing empathy.