Joy, Hurt, and the Alchemical Wedding
As I mentioned in my last dispatch, I didn’t like my body so much as an adolescent. Let me show you what I mean:
That’s me, or was me. I was 15 years old when that photo was taken, about 280 lbs (127 kilos). I’d gone to visit my father in Ohio a few years after he divorced my schizophrenic and mentally-ill mother. He took that photo when I was there.
It was a miserable trip, but it was also a miserable life, and particularly, I was a miserable human being.
I’d never publicly disclosed until the previous dispatch that I’d particularly hated my maleness. I thought I was really a woman, should have been born a woman, and desperately tried to hide everything ‘male’ about me. I’d steal my mother’s estrogen replacement patches (she’d had an hysterectomy), and would fantasize what it would be like to be a woman.
I didn’t just hate my own maleness, but I also particularly resented the maleness of others. I’d see male friends and classmates act obnoxiously comfortable with their bodies and both hated and desired them for it.
My best friend, a really athletic, hairy, and deeply masculine man took the brunt of my resentment and sublimated sexual desire with a kind of grace and bemusement that irritated me even more. I saw his calm demeanor in the face of my insults about his “male” qualities as itself a kind of maddening masculinity, something I wanted to destroy in him but never could.
It enraged me that he could just be comfortable being a dude. Didn’t he realize that men were bad? They hurt women, and were stupid, and smelled, and never had big thoughts or complex emotions. They just ran around on basketball courts and football fields chasing after each other like idiots and fantasizing about having sex with women and nothing else.
Most of all, though, what both enraged and fascinated me about guys was that they could have a body and not question it. Like, they weren’t at war with it, didn’t feel the need to hide it. They could just take their shirts off at the beach or change naked in front of other guys as if there was nothing to be ashamed of.
I couldn’t do that stuff, of course. Because I was “different.” I wasn’t like them. I was someone trapped in a body, a mind and spirit struggling desperately to be free of its flesh prison.
In particular, I hated having a penis. Gods, I hated that thing. That awful weird stupid dangling appendage that reacted to other men in really annoying and terrifying ways, externally revealing things I felt inside that I didn’t want anyone to know. I hated all these men, and I also wanted those men, and unfortunately there was this bit of flesh that wouldn’t let me hide it.
This terrifying emotional state lasted for years. It started at puberty, got really bad between my 15th year and my 19th year, and then subsided during my 20’s when I finally admitted to myself and others that I was gay.
Having sex with men meant that I could at least sate my resentment about their maleness by experiencing some of it, though at no time in all those many (many, many) sexual experiences did I actually think I was also a man, too.
From between 23 years old to 28 years old, my body looked a lot more male than it ever had. I’d get compliments from guys about my “masculine” traits, my deep voice, my mannerisms, and a kind of “rugged” punk demeanor. But even when they’d say all this, even when everyone around me seemed completely convinced I was a guy, I thought I was just fooling them.
Even still, though, I was pretty happy during those years. I’d go dancing at an industrial music club several times a week, would spend a lot of time at gay leather bars, and also at cafés, in parks and by the sea during the summer. I lived in a dilapidated yet magical house overlooking a lake and mountains in Seattle—hosted large parties twice a year there, had lots of friends over, and mostly just existed.
I’d still have really intense crises about my body, but those would only ever occur when I’d spend too much time in my head, thinking. At those times, when I was already depressed for other reasons, I’d start hating having a body again, would find myself perplexed at this whole ‘male’ problem, and would contemplate suicide.
Actually, I contemplated that a lot, and tried a few times. It was really the worst in my teenage years, a few years into adolescence, but those moments would come back in force several times throughout my 20’s and again in my early 30’s.
In my 29th year, I had an awful work injury, leading to a completely severed Anterior Cruciate Ligament1. For the next 2 years, I couldn’t walk more than a hundred meters without falling face first on the ground. That depressed me, and what depressed me even more was how much weight I gained. By 23 I had lost all the excess weight I’d accumulated in my adolescent self-hatred, was 180lbs (81 kilo) for most of my 20’s, and then within the space of 6 months gained it all back.
What also came back was my feeling I was really a woman. When life had been interesting, when I’d been healthy and in-shape, I’d had not much reason to obsess over this feeling. I’d also reached a kind of truce with my maleness. It was okay during most of my 20’s to be a man, because it was okay during those years to be a body.
Staring relentlessly at screens for the next two years, bitterly hating my increasingly heavy and immobile body, brought all those feelings back. The suicidal feelings, the fantasizing about being a woman, and especially a deep hatred for my existence as flesh became constant themes that led me into a deep despair.
What broke that was a trip to Berlin. My partner at the time was at university and had gotten a scholarship to study in archives of the Schwules Museum2 for his master’s thesis. He could take me with him, and so for a month and a half I hobbled around on my cane (I’d not yet had reconstructive surgery) through the gay districts of Berlin. I was a massive, lumbering mess of a human being, yet somehow found myself rather sought-after by men there.3
In particular, two men were thrilled at the size of my body and fucked me like I was some some of divine creature. Though this didn’t make sense to me at all (couldn’t they see I was in the wrong body? Could they tell I should have really been a woman? Couldn’t they see how disgusting my flesh was?) the attention began to awaken a strange new understanding in my soul.
But there was something else that really changed all this self-hatred. I’d begun studying esoteric stuff—alchemy, druidry, magical traditions, etc—and encountered the idea of the alchemical wedding. Simply explained, the alchemical wedding is the unity of masculine and feminine in the same form, the ‘divine androgyne.’ It’s part of the search for the “philosopher’s stone,” the mystic understanding that allows the alchemist to change lead into gold, or essentially to change anything from its base nature to its higher nature.
In this understanding there is always male and female, but the admixture of these two polarities is what creates the world. Sexual reproduction is an obvious form of this admixture (that’s how humans are created), but this is the most basic. The “higher” or deeper forms of such admixture occur within the individual: a man embracing both his masculine and feminine traits in equal measure, a woman doing the same.
This is deeply different from the current ideas about non-binary gender, or gender-queer, or any of the other recent secular frameworks. Rather than blurring the categories, the alchemical understanding sees each of the categories as much more profound than our mere societal understandings. A person who has embraced the divine androgyne is both fully masculine and also fully feminine, rather than being on some sort of spectrum. That is, they are equally both genders in a singularly-sexed body, rather than merely an “opposite” gender to their sexed body.
Beginning to comprehend this mystery changed how I understood my body completely. I began to see it not as some object external to me, nor some temporary imprisonment, but rather the very field of my existence. I wasn’t “stuck” in a male-sexed body, I was a body sexed male and capable of being fully masculine and feminine at the same time.
Once I started to inhabit this knowledge, my body was no longer something to hate or war against, but rather how I could dance through the world. Now that my knee had healed, I walked more, biked more, lifted weights, and hiked with a childlike thrill just to be alive. Taking my shirt off at a beach was suddenly the most natural thing to do, despite the fact that it took many years to lose all that excess weight again. Being naked with a lover or even in front of strangers wasn’t so terrifying any more, nor was anything else about being a body in the world.
This was hardly an easy process. I needed years to get to know this thing that I was and always had been, this thing—a body—that I had fought against being for most of my life.
I don’t think it was until my mid-30’s when I realised it was even possible to listen to it. A life coach helped a lot with that, kindly laughing when she’d noticed things I was doing as a body that I hadn’t noticed (slumping my shoulders, tensing my stomach, and other postures you adopt when you’re bracing for a crisis or a punch). I learned to notice other things from her, things that are so ridiculously obvious to me now that I’m in awe I’d never understood them previously, like noticing fatigue and irritated moods, anxiety and panic, lack of focus, and a sense of dread and despair usually just meant I was thirsty or hungry, or hadn’t taken a deep breath for awhile, or really just could use a short nap.
More recently, the writing and lives of two friends of mine, Peter Grey and Alkistis Dimech, unlocked even more of all this simple bodily wisdom that I’d bound up for decades in my hatred for my body. The body is much bigger than we allow it to be, capable of much more than we usually imagine, and most of all can only ever really unfold its existence through being pushed to limits society warns us to avoid. Our voices have more range, our joints more flexibility, and muscles more capability, and our physical senses report more knowledge than I’d ever understood possible.
That’s how, a few years ago, I finally joined a gym. I did so despite everyone around me laughing off the idea, friends even making fun of me for wanting to be a “dumb gym-bro.” Their disapproval didn’t matter, nor did I want their approval, because I wasn’t doing it for them but for me.
It was pretty terrifying to do so, though. In a gym, just like in a sport, or in a yoga class, or in martial arts, or in any of those other physical training things we do, you confront all the things you do not know how to do, have been afraid to do before, and convinced yourself weren’t possible or interesting. Put a better way: you admit to yourself that you were a kind of coward when it came to pain and exertion. You’d always stopped when it got a little difficult, would give up whenever there was more effort required for something than you’d ever given before.
Those first few weeks—and even still—I came to understand I’d only ever ‘lived’ in my body as if it weren’t me, just some apartment I was renting. I didn’t even treat it like a house I owned, because when something about it didn’t work I’d look for someone else to blame, the landlord or my upbringing or society, instead of figuring out what was actually wrong and trying to work through it.
Before, I’d feel pain and stop whatever I was doing that caused it. Suddenly, I had to learn the difference between pain as warning and pain as growth. Lifting something heavy always tears your muscles, but they have to tear to get stronger. Working out hurts like hell, which means you’re doing it right.
This is also how I learned the difference between hurt and harm. Most people—including me—easily forget there’s a difference. Words hurt, especially true words we don’t want to hear. But words rarely actually harm. And hurt isn’t something we can—or ever should—avoid, because the longer you avoid hurt, the more it will hurt when you cannot avoid it any longer.
The first time I left that gym I was in pain everywhere. Everything hurt. But two days later I was back again for more hurt, and then again a few days after that, and I’ve been doing this now for more than three years.
It always hurts. Being a body hurts. You cannot always do what you want to do, cannot always be what you want to be. To put it that way sounds like despair, but in this terrifying truth of limits is an unending truth of liberation.
There is so much more body of me than I ever understood, so much more it is capable of once I chose to stop trying to escape it. I can push 150 kilo (330 pounds) of iron off of me with just my legs alone, 36 times in a row. I can bike and hike uphill for hours without resting, I can lift insanely heavy things with my arms, hold myself off the ground for minutes just with the strength of my abdominal muscles, lift and carry my partner around the house in joy when he arrives home from work, haul several massive bags of soil and compost on each of my shoulders to help an old woman with her garden, and a long list of other things that I’m just now learning I can do.
All of this I can do now because I let things hurt, and then kept going. I let myself be a body, be what it was, and started from there rather than what I thought it should have been. I stopped running from my body and started running as a body, running always towards myself and what I was and could be.
Being all that also meant—for me—accepting my body as it was. That meant—for me—running with this “being a male” thing. It’s now been at least 8 years since I’ve experienced what others might call gender dysphoria. I was never diagnosed (again—I never spoke to anyone about this), and I don’t know if that term even is useful to describe my situation.
All my feelings of wanting to be a woman, or not wanting to be a man, were always tied to a hatred of and alienation from my body. When I stopped hating my body and started seeing myself as a body, and when I started seeing myself as both fully masculine and fully feminine, the “dysphoria” disappeared.
There is a lot of backlash against people who discuss their own paths around “gender dysphoria,” and that’s what kept me silent about this for so long. A friend recently went public about her experience with de-transitioning and gender dysphoria, which inspired me to write about my own experience of my body and gender questioning.
For some, the path I took might inspire them. For others, there are other paths.4 I’m relentlessly happy now, full of constant joy being body. I hope, whatever your path is or has been or will be, that you are able to experience the joy of being body, too.
As mentioned previously, my long-read essay “The Fires of Meaning” is now public.
I’m teaching a nine-week course called Being Pagan, starting in late June. More information on that is here.
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- This is one of the ligaments that holds your knee in place and keeps the top part of your leg from moving past the bottom part. Without it, you fall all the time. Which is what happened.
2. The largest gay history museum in the world.
3. That relationship, as my current one, was polyamorous.
4. The idea that one truth is universal or can be universally applied is the most damaging legacy of monotheism in the world.