What a Stroke Taught Me About Being Transgender
I Had a Stroke...
I once had a stroke caused by an arterial dissection. It was a big one. It was in my left hemisphere…the side that you use for language. When I woke up in the hospital, I could only say “Yes” or “No”. I couldn’t even say “yeah” or “nope” even though I wanted to. I was told that those were the first words I learned as a baby, and that was why I could only remember those words. During my recovery, I became increasingly aware that recovery from a stroke is a sequential process that starts with your first memories and works its way up.
At least I was young when I had the stroke…in my 30’s…so I could recover a lot. It was also a time when I was unhappy with my gender. I had been born with a female body, and I was told that was what makes me a girl. But I didn’t feel like a girl. I remember thinking that I was a boy when I was 5, but that was a long time ago and my memories from that age are sparse. But I didn’t feel totally like a boy either. I felt like a “space alien”…like I didn’t belong to humanity.
After the Stroke
So, after the stroke, they immediately put me in speech therapy. I had to learn every one of the other words in the English language. But I learned them quickly, and began to realize that I wasn’t learning all over again so much as “re-remembering” how I’d learned them in the first place. For example, when I learned my numbers the first time I remember always getting tripped up on the number 13. And here I was at 30 doing the same thing… getting tripped up on 13. I’ve heard it said that your brain is like a filing cabinet, and when you have a stroke all the files get locked shut and you literally have to open them up one by one to get all the old memories back. That was what I was doing: not making new memories but remembering the old ones.
It was really weird when they ask me to write my name for the first time. When I woke from the stroke I knew exactly what reality was. I knew the date, what had happened to me, and who my spouse and child were. I also new my name, and the fact that six years ago I had married and changed my name. Writing my married name was like old hat. But when they asked me to write my name, my maiden name came spilling out. I didn’t understand it. But they told me that that was because that was the first way I was taught to write my name. My old memories were coming to the forefront of my brain.
Another lady who I chatted with said the same thing about her father who had a stroke:
”When my dad was first in the hospital it did seem like he was going year to year, even with his personality, every morning he'd wake up in another decade or time in his life. He still has pretty serious memory problems, but it’s more like he's disorganized in his brain then not remembering. Like he can look at me, know I'm his 30-year-old daughter and say its 1985, then when I say, “Dad how old would I be in 1985”, then he says, ”Oh” and laughs. Or he will know he's married to his current wife, but thinks he works at his job he had 30 years ago (long before he met her).”
That’s exactly how it was… I’d know the reality of here and now, but I was acting like my younger self. It was like I was living two time-lines at the same time. It was sci-fi-esque. But it seems to support what memory researchers are finding out: that some memories, even if we don’t remember them, could still be in our brains… it’s just a matter of accessing them.1,2 And although I wouldn’t recommend having a stroke to access them, that’s what it seems to do.
It was like I was living two time-lines at the same time.
Now for the Trans Part
While recovering from the stoke, I realized that you can recover a past memory that you don’t remember now. I did. It seemed to be a memory of a feeling or a personality I once had. A few days after the stroke…
I knew that I was a boy.
I didn’t THINK that I was a boy; I KNEW it. I knew it like I knew the grass is green and the sky is blue. Like someone who never questioned their gender, I simply accepted it.
During the time that I had this feeling, I couldn’t talk about it because my vocabulary was still like a two-year-old’s. I’m sure the nurse was confused by me saying, “I a man.”, and having no other words to explain. I knew about my body, and therefore I knew that I was a trans man, but that was too complicated to say.
Even today I don’t have the words to express how freeing that feeling was. To simply be, and not think. To feel like I should have felt… like cis people feel. To instinctively know as if no one had told you you were wrong.
What Would It Take to Doubt Something That You Knew?
If you knew something like the grass was green, how many people saying something contrary would it take for YOU to doubt it?
There was a “peer pressure” experiment performed in 1951 by Solomon Asch where 8 men were asked a visual question that was so easy that everyone could get it right.3 But unbeknownst to the 8th man, the 7 before him were in on it and gave the wrong answer. On average, 32% of the 50 tested men gave the wrong answer, mimicking the 7 men. But It turned out to be more than just a peer pressure experiment. Saul McLeod from SimplyPsychology writes,
“When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar." A few of them said that they really did believe the group's answers were correct.”
That means that a few grown men out of 50 were essentially gaslighted into doubting what they saw with their own two eyes… by only 7 people!
How much easier would it be to convince a child who knows he’s a boy that he was really a girl if everyone he’d ever met since birth called him a girl.
How I Feel Now...
As my recovery from the stroke progressed, this feeling of simply knowing that I was a boy didn’t last long. It was supplanted by how I felt later on in life.
Now I realize I am a boy… just a particular kind of boy: I’m exactly like any boy (cis or trans) who was somehow convinced that he had to be a girl, be segregated from boys and have life experiences with girls instead of boys. That kind of boy wouldn’t know much about male culture, and wouldn’t know how to act in some cases. And that kind of boy would have doubts and shame about his gender baked into his brain by years of being raised in the wrong gender.
What I learned from my stroke is that I was NOT born to have confusion about my gender.
I was born to be at peace with my gender.
And I will strive to take my peace back.
- (1) Revolutionary research: We can get access to our long-lost memories
Are our memories ever really gone or do they just hide away deep down in our memory? Revolutionary research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reveals that with a certain type of stimulation, long-lost information can be reactivated.
- (2) Forgotten memories are still in your brain
For anyone who’s ever forgotten something or someone they wish they could remember, a bit of solace: Though the memory is hidden from your conscious mind, it might not be gone. In a study of college students, brain imaging detected patterns of activa
- (3) Asch Experiment | Simply Psychology