My relationship to self-injury is a complicated one, which I’m sure many people can relate to. There is one aspect that makes its grip on me even tighter, and that is the fact that I am transgender. Self-injury has been a part of my life since I hit puberty, as a lot of my early experience with SI stemmed from feeling there was something fundamentally wrong with my body. I wanted to take back control of my body and show it who it truly belonged to. This is a common experience among transgender people that SI.
Growing up in a very small, segregated town, knowing that I was a boy but without any clue or indication that it was okay to feel that way led to a lot of social isolation. I turned to SI as a coping mechanism, a means to focus my pain.
Many years later, when I got to the stage of my transition where I needed to access medical intervention, the NHS Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) delayed access to their resources because I had a history of self-injury. It wasn’t something I was actively engaging in at the time, but that didn’t matter to them. Of course, having waited for three years for access to the GIC – which by the way is the average wait time for any trans person – I was devastated. Combined with the invasive and inappropriate questioning by the GIC doctors, my mental health declined, and I started to SI again.
The influence of institutional discrimination
In the arduous interim period between accepting who we really are and finally receiving help, many trans people are left to fend for themselves, left desperate and hopeless. Mental illness festers and worsens, and if we ask for professional help we will be deemed too unwell to access the resources of medical transition. We are often left waiting in pain for so long that we lose the ability to care for our minds and our bodies, and as our mental health worsens, we rely more on coping mechanisms such as self-injury.
Dysphoria, or a feeling of disconnect between one’s sex and gender, can be another large trigger for SI. Often, trans people injure the parts of themselves that they wish to change or get rid of. This is deeply tied into the lack of agency we are permitted over our own bodies by these systems, and the amount of time and work it takes to make our bodies match who we are. Gatekeeping of medical and social resources is one of many factors that contribute to the high rates of suicide among trans people. As we already know, SI doesn’t lead to suicide, pain does. When that pain is recognised in a trans person as they’re fighting to transition, they are punished for it.
Here I am, four years after accessing my first GIC appointment, and I am still having access to medical transition delayed on the basis of my relationship to self-injury.
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