Griefwater: On Dysphoria (and Euphoria)
by Kidd Williams
Of all the tools in the writer’s toolbox, the most wonderful and the most problematic are the metaphor and its comic sidekick, the analogy. Both invite comparisons, to make a point: “these two things, seemingly different, have this or that in common,” or else, “you might not understand this thing or concept, but it resembles this other thing that you do know.”
This kind of comparison and connection builds understanding. This understanding is especially crucial when the cost of not understanding is alienation from others – or even experiencing their violence. People who are LGBTQ+ by sexual orientation or gender identity need these ways to help heterosexual or cisgender people understand the ways we feel our differences, and to understand us.
“Cisgender” is to gender identity what “heterosexuality” or “straight” is to sexual orientation: the otherwise-unnamed majority position. “Cis,” meaning “same,” means that one’s body-gender (sex) and internalized or felt gender are the same. “Trans,” meaning “across,” means that the body’s gender and the internal, felt gender differ.
Many people don’t think that there’s an internal or “felt” gender at all, and this is the root of much misunderstanding towards transgender people. But trans people affirm, again and again, that they are two things, not one, and that cis people don’t understand this because the two, for them, are never opposed to each other. This is where (and how) metaphors enter, to help understand this – but also to hinder, as we’ll see.
Perhaps the most common trans metaphor that people hear is that a trans woman, for example, feels like “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” and a trans man the opposite. For a long time, this was a useful metaphor. As it turns out, it became such a prevalent metaphor that many trans people, including me, found our early transitions delayed because the metaphor didn’t ring exactly true. We didn’t really feel “trapped,” not exactly, or had no knowledge of what it meant to “feel like a woman or man,” just that something didn’t feel right. Yet, if trapped in another’s body was the prevailing metaphor of what being trans was, and we didn’t feel like this exactly, then we must not be trans, right? Such went the reasoning – and the closet that I wrote about in the last post got so much deeper.
And that’s the trap of metaphors and analogies: while they can bring understanding, if you weigh them down with the expectation of being perfectly exact comparisons in every point, you (and the metaphor) will fail. This is why we writers must pick our metaphors so, so carefully.
Right before I reached my own turning point, finally admitting that these feelings I had were not going away and that I had to do something about it, I began to explore the feeling of disconnection that I had about my body and gender. This disconnection is sometimes called “dysphoria,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied.” In retrospect, I can assign many more analogies to this feeling, and have:
feeling homesick, but all the time, for a place I’ve never been
feeling as though being in a constant fog
feeling as though I’m being made to wear a hairy, smelly, skin suit
But what really clicked, in my poetry, was writing poem after poem about this substance I named “griefwater.” That word, my own, seemed to convey the right attitude of being overwhelmed, as in a flood, and being not just sad, but hopeless. I wrote poem after poem about or featuring griefwater, numbering some, but not all of them. The poems were not very good, but writing them felt necessary, in a way few of my poems had before.
Eventually, I wrote a poem that suggested to me there was a gift or something good within griefwater, if I could just see it through:
Griefwater, Part Three
Every day you wake up
and some elf in the night
has placed a new gift inside you –
deep, like an urge or a charm.
At some secret, signaled part of the
day, this present will form a notion
to be delivered to someone near you,
near in space or in speaking,
because the daily gift is never meant for you,
and if you try to keep it, it will rot.
Once given away, it will leave behind
tears of your own grateful griefwater.
Even in the poem, I still didn’t think that the gift within the griefwater was for me. (Denial can be such a strong force, can’t it?)
In the next post, I’ll describe more how poetry helped open up the closet I’d kept myself in, but I didn’t want to end this one in the middle of griefwater, or give the impression that being transgender means suffering. Because the flip side of feeling wrong about one’s assigned or assumed gender is feeling marvelous when gender starts to be felt and seen correctly. When I started my transition, particularly transition using the correct hormone balance (called “Hormone Replacement Therapy,” or HRT), my body’s chemistry and physiology started changing, and the feelings of dysphoria started to go away. It was a feeling of relief that I reached for new metaphors to describe: “it feels as though I’d been carrying a backpack full of rocks my whole life, and someone just gave me permission to take it off,” I told my family. “It feels like a thick fog blew away.” “It feels as though I’m finally settling into a real human body, and not a skin suit.” People call this and other happy experiences “gender euphoria,” and it is as confirmative in a positive way to a trans person’s self-knowledge as dysphoria can be, in a negative way, for those trans people who feel it.
I wrote about this in my final griefwater poem, which I shared on stage four years later at Corning PRIDE:
Griefwater, Part Five
I analyzed griefwater,
waded in it, swam in it,
drowned in it, drained it,
strained it, poured it out,
turned it to rain, let it soak
me, swung my pen at it
like an icicle sword,
and finally drank it.
All my hair fell out,
even my eyebrows,
but when I touched
a dead sparrow
it flew away.
Transition helped me feel reborn – and poetry helped me express it.
About the Author
Kidd Williams is the publishing and performing name of Joy Williams, a trans woman poet and musician in Bath, NY. Her work has appeared throughout the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier in numerous regional anthologies, and has been exhibited in juried art shows as well as displayed in outdoor parks through the City of Elmira's "Poetry Posts" projects. She has also been a featured performing artist, including as an invited poet reading on stage at Corning PRIDE 2019. She and her wife, Tara, have lived in Bath almost forever, with many companion animals that sport fur or scales.