I met my most recent ex while I was in drama school. He was auditioning for a play in which I had already been cast. He was already the favorite for the role, but he still came in to read opposite me so the director could make sure we had enough chemistry. We did, and by the time the audition was over, he was my favorite, too.
We developed deeper feelings for each other over the run of the show and got together soon afterwards. It was a very happy relationship, but over time, it also became something else — a tool I tried to use to quiet the voice in the back of my mind, the one that wouldn’t stop telling me that I am non-binary. I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t have that tool.
I’ve always felt that my innate sense of my own gender was at odds with aspects of my physical form and how the world perceives me. But until recently, I hadn’t known what to do with that information. My inner voice would tell me — sometimes in a whisper, other times in a jarring, mind-bending scream — that I had to do something, to face this; that time was slipping by and I was living someone else’s life, drifting invisibly through my days with a mask in place. I felt as though I was fighting a battle deep down, unable to choose between impossible alternatives and conceiving of no solutions without seemingly unmanageable costs.
In drama school, I focused on feminizing myself, thinking I needed to fit into a neat, binary stereotype in order to have the Hollywood career of my dreams, and to be loved and accepted by society. When I was dating my ex, I’d rationalized that transitioning might jeopardize us, so I shouldn’t ever do it. We were both in too deep — in a good way, it felt like. In my mind, to even consider other possibilities would surely jeopardize everything.
Yet despite all that, that voice remained. I remember so many moments of feeling pure frustration at the fact that I couldn’t just be different, shut the voice up, be happy. It plagued me even when I was performing the most mundane task — once, in 2015, I was washing up after a meal when I suddenly found myself having a mini-breakdown, swamped by the sensation of being invisible in my own life, of suffocating. The episode sent me to therapy, but instead of bringing my deepest issue to the table, I played games, eluding my therapist’s questions as best I could with other, less-vulnerable topics. Deep down, I knew I was treading water. But for a while, in my worst moments of panicking about the future, I could tell myself, It’s okay, you’re in therapy — as if that technicality were a catch-all solution that somehow would lead to future me being problem-free.
As time passed, I did other things I thought would help. I cut all my hair off. I pursued LGBTQ roles, attempting to live my truth through the art of pretend. I focused on my gratitude for the love, support, and safety I found in my relationship. And it was enough, almost — until the pandemic hit.
All at once, my hectic schedule, filled with castings, coffees with friends, workouts, and shoots, suddenly disappeared. With the outside world stripped away, how people saw me was no longer relevant, all that mattered was how I saw myself. I did hours of yoga like a lockdown cliché and strove for mindfulness every day, tuning into an intimate relationship with my own physicality on the most basic, gut-instinct level. And from there I had clarity; from there the voice spoke. It was at that time I truly accepted that voice, not as a saboteur, but as something important, worthy of being listened to. Something that was, deep down, truly and honestly me.
At the same time, the pandemic had afforded me a new perspective on the fragility of life, and I saw just how much time I had wasted playing a version of myself. I was acting as though my life were a rehearsal, as if I were waiting for some indefinable event that would magically make everything feel right or for some higher authority to give me permission to listen to myself — permission that only I could truly grant. Thanks to the pandemic and the hours I spent with my body, I knew now what I couldn’t unknow: I wanted top surgery, no matter what.
But one last thing stood in my way. If I began living authentically as myself, I might have to face losing my forever person, the one who had been by my side for so many years, the only constant in a turbulent career and an uncertain world. It would mean saying goodbye to all the imagined futures, and eventually even the home that we shared.
We had talked about my gender identity before on many occasions, and the idea of physical changes had come into the conversation some of those times. My partner had watched me make alterations to my presentation and didn't seem surprised that I had reached this point. I hoped, of course, that things didn’t have to change, but I braced myself for loss, for an ending of a whole phase of my life. And that ending came; he was no longer willing to be with me. His sexuality is, of course, just as valid as my gender identity. But it wasn’t just the surgery and the possibility of hormones in the future that loomed over us, splintering our connection. What I hadn’t known was that while I procrastinated in therapy, my ex had been going on his own kind of journey, slowly cutting off the oxygen to his side of our relationship. My evolution had created too much uncertainty for him.
It was a year ago when we had the break-up conversation. We agreed we would live together until after my surgery and my full recovery. He promised to support me on this journey, which meant a lot to me. Above all else, I didn’t want to lose such an important person in my life.
But soon after that, during a visit to my parents, COVID restrictions tightened and I got stuck at their house. Months passed before I could return to the home I still shared with my ex, and by then, something felt different.
I threw myself into my work, eager to pay for my surgery. At my ex’s prompting, I downloaded dating apps and met a few really cool people who only knew me as me. I enjoyed connecting with new people after so long in lockdowns, and yet, each date ended with me feeling a little empty, disappointed, and lost. The little voice, as always, told me the truth: perhaps I wasn’t over my old relationship yet.
Then one night, my ex fell asleep with his phone on his chest; I saw it light up, and open to a WhatsApp conversation. As I reached over to place it on the floor, by his side, my eyes registered the image on the screen: him kissing someone. I was shattered. The full weight of the ending of the biggest relationship I have ever had hit me like a repeated punch to the gut. We talked — I cried, then raged, spiraling into an anxious place. He had moved on months ago. I felt disposable, easy to replace, easy to “get over.” I felt jealous, humiliated, devastated.
I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that my ex had already moved on while I… hadn’t. Prior to this, I had only been single for a grand total of three and a half months in my adult life. I felt a sense of unmooring, fear of not having that security of “my person” to always have my back, my sense of home. I looked at other people’s happy relationships on social media; suddenly it seemed like everyone was so in love, getting engaged or married. I was the odd one out, being left behind. I also found myself looking at people going through gender-affirming surgeries with devoted partners by their sides and couldn’t help but want that for myself. Why didn't I have someone like that in my life?
The next few weeks were a blur. I struggled to concentrate and willed myself to put one foot in front of another. And I doubled down on dating. I could barely focus on anything, but I found the wherewithal to keep swiping on that damn app, desperately hoping for a distraction.
It was only my looming surgery that gave me the perspective to pause. I knew that I wasn’t dating with pure intentions; instead of trying to find a partner, I was desperately hunting for happiness from a source outside myself — again. I was trying to stick a small bandage on a gaping emotional wound that, whether I liked it or not, was going to need effort and plenty of time to heal. But at that moment, I had to set all that aside and take the space to process my anxiety around the risks of surgery. I didn’t need to be expending emotional energy on trying to establish new romantic connections when I was about to do something huge for me. And I could do this alone, I knew I could. It was an opportunity to be brave; to be scared and do it anyway.
So, I stopped swiping and instead turned my attention to preparing for surgery. I spoke honestly to my therapist and my close friends, and their reassurance and affirming words got me through. My friends stepped up and made me feel loved, showing me even though I was single, I wasn’t alone, and reminding me that friendship can be as deep as any romantic relationship. In some ways, it can be stronger; my friends love me for me without any ulterior motives, without wanting me to change or live up to some ideal.
I also spoke to recent friends I had made, funnily enough, through that dating app. While I’d realized I wasn’t yet ready for a relationship, I’d stayed in touch with some people I’d connected with, queer friends who had gone through or would be going through similar things. We bonded quickly over the shorthand of shared experiences.
On the day itself, my anxiety subsided, and I felt surprisingly calm. A soul friend in New Zealand sent me a beautiful message about how much she wished she were with me and I truly felt like she was. I didn’t feel alone in the end after all.
As I write this, I’m still healing. But I can feel part of my mind relaxing and finally finding some ease after years of being tense. What I saw as unwanted accessories I had no use for are finally gone and I am now free to be more myself, to heal in more ways than one.
I know I have much more work ahead of me, and there are days that I still truly mourn the ending of my last relationship. But I’m also beginning to see how futile it had been to try so hard, for so long, to hold onto what I had with my ex. In trying to avoid the pain of loss, I was choosing a different kind of pain — the pain of denying my true self every day. It was subtler, perhaps, but no less damaging.
There are certainly many benefits to being in a relationship, and I haven’t always felt great about being single. But I know deep down that I need to be single to explore my truth, and simply to experience it as a state of existence after jumping from one relationship to another for so long; I need to sit with myself and work on just being. I’d come to rely on validation from another person to feel worthy, and I’m using this time to focus on myself and remind myself that I am a complete being in my own right.
I’ve also come to appreciate the wonderful and unexpected sense of freedom I have. In being single, I have full ownership over my decisions; I don’t have to take anyone else’s feelings into consideration, and there’s no risk that some subconscious fear of losing someone might cloud my judgement. I’ve been given an opportunity to tune in to myself and tune out of what no longer serves me. Even better, I’ve proven to myself what I can do by myself, for myself — what I can overcome.
Now, the voice of myself no longer lives just in the back of my mind. It speaks to me clearly, throughout my entire being — instead of some ignored, disembodied entity, it is integrated into me, because it is me. It has been all along.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.