Catharsis, derived from the ancient Greek 'katharsis', means the purification or purging of emotions. The philosopher Aristotle used it as a metaphor in Poetics to describe a shedding of emotion, the impact that witnessing tragedy has on the body. In medical terminology the word means to rid the body of catamenia – blood and other matter discharged from the womb – during menstruation.
I've been taking synthetic testosterone for over a year and though rubbing four squirts of an alcohol-drenched gel into the skin on my shoulders or thighs is becoming relatively familiar, I have only just stopped bleeding. This is a new normal that has coincided with the revelation of never-ending cycles not ever releasing, no more catharsis. The weight of it is only now beginning to take its toll as 28 days become 36 and the only clarification that Google can offer is that this is entirely what is meant to be happening to my body at this point in time.
It's week seven of the philosophy short course my family and I are doing together. I hastily remind my mum on WhatsApp to tell him that if he'd prefer not to say anything he needs to stay on mute. He hasn't quite worked out the angle of the iPad, or doesn't really care, and so nostrils and furrowed brow are enough of an outline to recognise his attendance.
Tragedy, we're told in the first 10 minutes of the class, etymologically comes from the joining of two words: the Greek 'tragos' for goat and 'oide' for song. A reference to a song sung for a goat that was slaughtered some 2,000 years ago. Through the mess of my note-taking my eyes dart back and forth. I have written the words: why?! do we enjoy seeing something frightful?
We are discussing the story of Oedipus, the ill-fated Greek mythological figure who ended up killing his father and marrying his mother.
One of the first things I considered when I decided to medically transition was the loss of my period. The monthly cycle I’ve thus far lived my life by as a guide to the ups and downs generated by my psyche. My initial reaction as I imagined a blood-free me, liberated from the shackles of sanitary products and stained underwear, was ecstatic. Because all my period had come to mean was inconvenience.
Several people asked me if I was going to freeze my eggs, which induced a panic and a grief that I think I'm still reeling from. So I dutifully read around the process of starting and stopping testosterone, asked my friends for advice on queer parenting and established a goodbye. A firm resolve not to get pregnant that, though it wavered for several months, has now settled.
Monthly clotted releases have been replaced with water retention tablets to reduce sausage-size fingers (testosterone can cause bloating) and an uncanny feeling that, though not painful, leaves me with a sense of longing. Wondering about the ache that now resides somewhere I locate as womblike, a swelling sensation that has lingered long enough to initiate another surge in my workout regime as I attempt to shake it. This feeling induces a dissociation for no apparent reason other than, I suppose, I cannot wear many of my clothes now.
A reverberation is felt, an echo from not releasing an egg but knowing full well it is still there, head-butting the inside of my womb, unable to get out. Testosterone can reduce a person's fertility but does not eliminate the eggs. They don’t go anywhere. They’re wrapped up in a hormonal cloak – taking testosterone stops ovulation.
Meta-response, we are taught in our philosophy class, describes the feeling of compassion, the sense of comradeship and community experienced when another's misfortune is not our own. There's a kinship, an appreciation of the fact that our response to tragedy is a shared human experience.
As spectators, the ancient Greeks were often brought into tragic plays as participants. Exploring themes to do with human nature, drama provided an opportunity to reflect on social, political and religious values.
My dad mutes and unmutes, I think by mistake. The only AMAB (assigned male at birth) person in the group, I wonder about his meta-response as the conversation veers toward the bond that is generated between those who share the occurrence of a period, a womb-centric connection in the experience of draining pain and ejection that comes again and again.
Though he may never go through the gripes, or hang from a door frame to temper violent stomach cramps, I am certain that having two AFAB (assigned female at birth) children has generated a far more nuanced understanding than I have given him credit for in the past.
I see now that his silence doesn't mean disinterest; it is more that it marks absence. In the past my sister and I have denied him access to our emotional rollercoasters. Behind slammed doors we would often be found consoling one another with mutual empathy during the time of the month that affected our bodies so profoundly.
So often the narrative surrounding medically transitioning can be a tale of woe in which the person who decides to take the leap is left processing society’s hostility towards them as well as hormonal liminality, a whole heap of trauma and binary stigma that has to be unlearned. To some extent that’s true. I suppose the readers of those stories will react with a "thank fuck" that it's not their lived experience.
Trans narratives have long been carefully inserted into the tragedy section of the drama catalogue.
My own experience of transitioning, of taking synthetic testosterone, is not all doom. It's far more nuanced. With any sort of loss there is of course grief, shrouded in sadness. I didn't really account for that, I expected to feel only joy. Now what I feel could be determined as bittersweet, sad and happy all at once.
Each month, as the swelling levels off but my period app doesn't reset, what I'm trying to get to grips with is: what does a cycle look like for me now? Without a hot water bottle, a 10-pack of ibuprofen and a wad of tissue down my gender neutral boxer shorts, how should I mark the monthly process of ending and beginning?
After living my entire adult life mopping up physical gore and shedding psychical mess in order to reset, I wonder how do I process the steady bloat that comes every month? Without witnessing a tragedy in a toilet bowl, how do trans-masculine people cathart? Must I accept a life that is lived without binary extremism, relishing instead what is left in the aftermath of knowing that I have made the choice to eliminate the cycle so intimately associated with the gender I was assigned at birth.
Don't get me wrong, being able to wear my white jeans whenever I want is truly liberating as I live my best – how I identify for now – trans-genderfuck life as a teenage boi.
What I mourn now is perhaps not the loss of menstruating – many bodies don't – but more the loss of explaining away the energetic, emotional processing that a period provides, and even the union of bleeding alongside other people.
This raises the question of how we allow bodies that don't have the same lived narrative into the fold even if their response can only ever be compassion and empathy. If the popularity of witnessing tragedy has taught us anything over the years, surely it's that cancelling others due to difference doesn't work. Rather, allowing others into the process of catharsis educates and increases a sense of humanity, solidarity and togetherness. Sordid as it may sound, communing in another's pain – as the ancient Greeks did – encourages understanding and in the long run means less ignorance, more acceptance.