Top Surgery Regret: Connecting With Others
Socially detransitioning, coming out again, finding friends who understand, dating, and final thoughts
This is the third and final part of a three part essay series about detransition/regret after top surgery, or double mastectomy.
This essay was influenced and inspired by Carey Callahan’s great essay about detransition. If you’re a detransitioner or know someone who is, give that a read. It’s a great balm. I wrote this in collaboration with Carol and Jamie, who contributed their post-op detransition experiences and wisdom. You’ll be hearing quotes from them in this essay. Thank you so much to Carol and Jamie!
Essay one in the series was about being surprised with grief and pain after top surgery. Essay two was about healing and forgiveness. This essay is about navigating the world as a post-surgery detransitioned person, including thinking about social detransition, friendship, and dating.
Social Detransition and coming out - again.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
If you’re like me, you might have been immersed in a weird world when transitioning. Maybe too much time on the internet or in some intense subcultures. Personally, during my transition, I spent a lot of time obsessing over FTM reddit and trans instagram influencers. All my energy was focused on transition. My whole social reality had been remade in service of my trans identity. This made everything all the more difficult when I realized I needed to stop.
I was paralyzed with shame. How would I tell people? What would they think?
I emerged from my transition ashamed, wounded, and slightly socially feral. I had a deep paranoia about talking about detransition with people, but I also wanted to scream about it to anyone who would listen.
Eventually, I began to talk about. I started with my boyfriend, then my family.
“I think… maybe… I need to go back to living as a woman.”
Coming out as detrans was like the sad inverse of coming out as trans. Coming out as trans had been an exhilarating rush, mixed with fear and apprehension. Coming out as detrans felt more like dragging myself home, wounded and embarrassed, after a harrowing ordeal. It was a lot harder to talk about.
My family and friends were supportive, but they were understandably confused and concerned. Everyone knew I had already made irreversible decisions -- why was I going back now?
I felt like I owed the people around me an apology. I had acted like I’d known what I was doing, but really, I’d been in way over my head. It was humbling to admit. As I sorted my own feelings out, I slowly began to open up more to my close friends and family.
It’s kind of a cliche that transitioners pull away from their old lives and family and friends who “don’t understand.” Reconnecting with the people who have known you all their lives can be so healing. Apologize if you have something you need to apologize for, and try to be forgiving of people who didn’t or don’t quite understand.
Luckily, I’ve found that many people in my life are understanding and sympathetic. You may not have any friends who have detransitioned. However, many people go through hard times where they get lost, or have more troubles than they know how to handle alone. Suffering, loss, pain, grief - these are universal experiences. You aren’t a uniquely messed up person, you’re a human being like anyone else.
Making New Friends After Detransition
“Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life you'd like to
So if there's something you'd like to try
If there's something you'd like to try
Ask me, I won't say no, how could I?”
-Ask, The Smiths
The most important thing about socializing post-transition is to not let shame or embarrassment hide you away. You may have some scars, but you are not a walking apology. If you’re hiding, then the people who will like you won’t even get the chance to know how great you are!
It took me a while to learn how to navigate the social world as a detransitioned person.
I think that a lot of us detransitioners have autism or ADHD, which can cause social difficulties. If you really struggle with socializing and feel like you could use a social script, there are books you can read about social skills. I read a few, including the cheesy Dale Carnegie one, and they helped me be more comfortable with conversing.
In the trans community, people have the common interest of transition. It’s a central focus that you can connect and talk with people about. After I detransitioned, it didn’t feel healthy to hang out in a scene where being trans was a social lynchpin. I needed to take my mind off constant regret and focus on building my life in other areas.
So I switched things up. I went to the yarn store and knitted with cool older women. I went to maker spaces and learned about 3D printers from hacker nerds. I went to the climbing gym and watched extremely buff people do impressive, terrifying feats. I made friends with a brilliant woman who loved to read, and I got addicted to Hillary Mantel books on her recommendation. My life got bigger and bigger.
I have had mixed results with opening up about detransition to my new friends. On the one hand, I don’t owe every casual acquaintance in my life an explanation of why my chest is flat or my voice is husky. I don’t randomly bring it up at dinner parties. It’s just not usually relevant.
However, if I’m going to get to be close friends with someone, I want to be able to talk about this part of my life with them. I had one burgeoning friendship where I brought up that I had detransitioned. In response, I got nervous laughter and a quick change of subject. I got the feeling that this person wasn’t going to be okay with hearing about a bad transition experience.
Some people may feel that the political implications of your detransition are dangerous or need to be questioned. Don’t spend a bunch of time on people who are going to be extremely threatened or upset by your perspective. It’s not worth it.
One thing I’ve noticed is that detransitioners tend to jump into new ideological communities somewhat quickly. This makes sense: we are all looking for ways to make sense of the world and places to belong. I urge you, gently, to be careful about quickly making your whole life about a new ideology. There’s no need to hurl yourself into a new community who is going to have a lot of strict rules and expectations for you. You have time to figure yourself out. There’s no rush. I like the book “Combatting Cult Mind Control” by Steve Hassan for identifying red flags in coercive social scenes.
It can be really great to connect with other detransitioners. Just search on twitter, or the Detrans Reddit, and you’ll find a bunch of us. A good note of caution that a wise friend of mine made, though, is that us detransitioners can be a little intense. Detrans people are often struggling with the fallout of detransition, and processing the experience in different ways. Online detrans community can be lovely, but also seems to fall into schisms over ideological issues from time to time. Some clashing is inevitable.
I was extremely fortunate to have met two incredible detrans women in my town through online communities. We had brunch together, talked over our transitions, and connected about the intimate and difficult parts of detransition. They are some brilliant and funny and resilient people - as I find many detransitioners to be. And we’re still friends today!
Navigating Dating Post-Surgery
Romance and relationships as a detransitioned person may feel daunting. You have to do your best to make peace with your body and your identity, and then you have to navigate how that impacts your relationships with a significant other. It’s a lot, and it’s hard! I worry that many detrans people are hiding themselves away and foreclosing on any possibility of dating or love. Please do not do that! Just as with making friends, remember: you have no reason to be ashamed.
I don’t want to minimize the real hardships that detransition can create in dating. I know that for many people, a post-op body will be a dealbreaker. But you’d be surprised how understanding and accepting many people can be. When you have a real connection with someone, they’re not concerned with your scars. Most detransitioners I know have been successful at dating and finding love.
Carol has this to say about detrans dating: “My overall advice is to be honest with yourself and the people you will become intimate with. It doesn’t have to be a big production of telling someone your history. A simple, ‘I’m detrans and this is what it means, are you ok with that’ should be enough. Self-acceptance has to come first before you can be ready to share with others your story and body, In my opinion.”
My friend Jamie says: “For dating, a lot of guys don’t care if you’re detrans. I met my boyfriend while I identified as a trans man. There’s nothing to apologize for for not having breasts. I almost feel guilty not having boobs for my partner but he started dating me knowing what he was getting into, and if they like you, guys actually care less than you’d think.”
Carol also had some thoughts about lesbian dating and about how detransition affected her relationship with her wife:
“From what I have heard most detrans lesbians say their dating experiences are pretty good. They say that other lesbians tend to be more open to a variation in the female body. Since I am married I can not speak from a personal place as far as dating. I can only speak of my experience of being in a lesbian relationship before and after my mastectomy.
My wife has been very accepting of me as I am. Yes, I am sure she misses me as I was, (I do too) but she also understands the reasons I thought I needed to transition. I feel being in a relationship with another woman has the advantage of being with a partner that understands the hardships of being a woman in this world and the self-hate that can go along with that. We have been very open with each other on the pain and loss we have both experienced because of my transition and mastectomy. I believe it’s very important to allow your partner to be sad about that loss and to feel comfortable sharing that with you. I have made sure to acknowledge my wife’s loss and I think that has gone a long way to healing our relationship and selves.
I still struggle with feeling guilty that I took away something from my wife. I changed the body she loved and that’s hard to think about. We share our bodies with each other and sometimes it’s still weird to be intimate and not have my breasts. She is very loving and supportive and tells me I’m beautiful every day and that’s amazing. It helped me a lot to have her accept me as I am. But I still struggle with the guilt of putting the woman I love through my pain with me.”
Not everyone is going to be ok with dating a woman without breasts, or a post-op detrans person in general, but there are many who are. Personally, I think there’s just something sexy and ruggedly individualistic about knowing who you are, having been through some stuff, and coming out stronger. The right person will appreciate that about you.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better”
– Maya Angelou.
Being a post-op detransitioner is hard. I won’t deny it. You have to live with your scars, and perhaps the sting of regret. You may have to sort through shame, confusion, disillusionment. But I’m telling you now, your life is not ruined.
Are you still breathing? Then there’s still a chance to build a better life. You have the power to save your own life.
Know that distance and time will help, although things don’t heal linearly. Don’t be surprised by bad days once in a while, even after a long time. I still wake up every morning and feel the sickening lurch of “oh my god I’m missing body parts”, but then I get on with it. I’m getting better at getting on with it.
I think for a lot of us, transition represented a belief in our future happiness, something to obsess over, a path in life to follow. Without that path, life can feel unmoored. So you need to find a new path for yourself. This means meeting people, getting better at stuff you like to do, making your amends, moving on as best you can.
Be thankful for what you still have, even as you mourn your losses. Cherish the people who understand and support you.
You will come out of this experience wiser. You may think - “I would rather have my intact body, not wisdom!” To which I say - Me too! But here we are. Let this be the impetus that gets you to build a sustainable and happy life for yourself. Do it for yourself, and do it for the other detransitioners who are trying to rebuild their own lives. I know you can do it. I’m rooting for you.