Guest Post by Violet Irene.
To those who are looking for this information because you are wondering if you made a mistake starting “T” and are looking for guidance: know that you are NOT alone. Even if the people on the FTM forums say it’s incredibly rare and basically no one does this, that is NOT TRUE. I personally know a TON of women who took T and then for a variety of reasons changed their minds and went back to living as women. Some identify as lesbians, some are bi, some are straight. Some look butch, some look androgynous, some look completely “average” for their community and assimilated. Personally I identify as a bi-dyke and while no one is ever surprised to learn the “dyke” part, because it’s who I am and I don’t try to hide it, I also pass for just a matronly sensible feminist mom type too and no one would ever know I had spent time IDing as FTM unless I told them. If you want to stay more androgynous more power to you, but if that is NOT what you want, don’t feel like you have to! It was hard emotionally figuring everything out but pretty much as soon as I wanted people to see me as a woman again, it didn’t take much to get that.
I just want you to know you are NOT ALONE and you do NOT have to hate or blame yourself or feel like a freak or an outcast. You still have options. You still have a future. The rest of your life is waiting for you, there is ALWAYS hope. I thought I had ruined my life but now I have a beautiful family and amazing friends and a happy life and things DID get better. Hang in there—you’re strong and BRAVE—it takes so much courage to face yourself with the idea “I made a big mistake”–and you can make it through this terrifying moment.
And a disclaimer: I took testosterone for less than a year, so if you took it a lot longer, the effects may take longer to reverse for you. On the other hand, they might not take that much longer at all. Every body is different, some respond really strongly to female hormones or male hormones or both, etc. All the advice and experience here is just about what I lived through, I don’t claim to represent a universal or scientifically validated “what to expect.” Take it for what it’s worth because there’s not a lot out there. I hope others who have been through this will feel emboldened to come forward, too, with their unique experience. Also, I did not have any surgeries. I got pregnant less than a year after quitting T, and that I am sure had some influence over how the physical changes went for me, too. I quit T seven years ago as of today, spring 2012 (so I quit in 2005).
So physically, about three weeks after my last dose of T (I had been taking injections at the standard dose every 2 weeks) I started to feel hormonally weird, like a really strong PMS. This intensified over about the next month, as my ovaries got back into gear and produced I am sure a lot more hormones than usual to try to balance me back out. I felt every symptom you can think of associated with both PMS and menopause—hot flashes, sweats, crying jags, nausea, itchy skin, cramps, and migraine headaches. This was the really rough part because I was also struggling a lot with the emotional implications of what was going on. About 2 months after the last shot, I had a period. I then had another regular period the next month, and in general things started to even out at that point.
Let me warn you about that first couple of periods—they were really, really painful and intense. I think this has to do with the fact that your body has to overproduce the female hormones to bring things back into alignment, but I don’t know. I got a prescription strength NSAID from my doctor and that helped a lot. After that, my periods were like they have always been—bad but not horror show worthy.
About the time I got my period, my breasts started to look more like they used to. “T” had made them kind of deflated and floppy. At this point, they started to plump back up and eventually went completely back to normal. The facial and body hair that I had gotten on “T” stayed put, but the growth noticeably slowed down within about 5 months of quitting. I still grow hair in places I didn’t before (ie some patches on my wrists and thighs) but within a year-ish it was no longer coming in dark and coarse like male hair, but had changed to fine and light like the body hair I have everywhere else. My “beard” ditto—it changed over to that downy, fine stuff most women grow especially as we get older, with the odd darker, wiry hair. Because I prefer not to be scrutinized for it, I shave it off with an electric razor about every couple of weeks.
My voice was lower on T but I think not as low as it would have gotten. For a long time after quitting, I was stuck with a kind of awkward register, with a break in it so I had trouble singing. I couldn’t sing high, I couldn’t sing low, I had to cough and clear my throat to cover for some pretty awkward sounds when singing. When talking I just had to watch that I stayed in my mid-register for a while, going higher or lower would make me sound like a teenage boy. They SAY that never changes back, and maybe it doesn’t always. For me, though, while I don’t have the same voice I had before T, it sounds a lot higher and more decidedly female now than it did right after I quit. And the break went away. Because I love music, I kind of nurtured my singing voice until I got a normal low-alto that doesn’t break or crack anymore. Lower than average but not unheard of for a woman. I still sometimes get misgendered on the phone when I am trying to sound serious (so talking very low and authoritative) but I just correct them and try not to dwell on it.
When I was on T I had a lot of problems with my sinuses and blood pressure going up when I was stressed. The sinus problem cleared within two weeks of quitting. The blood pressure thing took longer.
If you’re hoping to have a baby, this is my experience on that. I got pregnant about 5 months after stopping T, after three normal periods. I “charted” my cycle to know when I was ovulating but that’s it. Stopping T can actually make you REALLY fertile as your body cranks out extra estrogen to compensate, so if you are active with men and don’t want to be pregnant, be REALLY careful. I chose not to tell my midwives about what I had been through. It was just too hard. If you want to disclose, please be careful and have outside support, because a lot of medical professionals WILL treat you differently or like you are crazy. It sucks but that’s reality. I learned the hard way, with a counselor and a doctor. You can seek out professionals who work in the lesbian community and sometimes, but not always, they will be more sensitive. Or you can keep it secret, because once your system has cleared the hormones it’s hard to say if there’s any lingering effect they need to know about. I had a normal pregnancy and a natural delivery. We had one unusual kind of complication happen, it wasn’t of consequence long term and we are fine now, but it is one that women with PCOS are at higher risk for so I did wonder if it had anything to do with the androgens that had been in my system before I conceived. I tortured myself about that, but since my child is fine now I have to just put it in the column of “if I had known differently, I would have done differently” and forgive myself. I didn’t have that problem with my next pregnancy. I was able to breastfeed normally and breastfed my baby exclusively for many months.
The hair on my head took a long time to get back to normal, oddly enough. I had a crewcut when I was trying to pass as male, and when I decided to quit it was important to me to start growing it out right away. It took a long time. I’ve had short cuts since then, while on my natural hormones, and before that, and they all grew out a lot faster. On T my hairline had started to recede just slightly, yes even after less than a year. So it grew back really, really slowly. If I’d thought about it back then, I would have tried taking some vitamins and using jojoba oil shampoo—those can both help a lot to bump along the female pattern hairgrowth as it comes in.
People say that when you quit “T” your sex drive will shrivel, but I didn’t find that to be the case. Once my female hormones were up and running I felt just fine, and still do. Everything went back to the way it was before as far as my personal odor and my vulva and so forth, too. Some sources claim it will be harder to orgasm when you quit T but I didn’t find that to be an issue at all.
My face softened up again within a couple of months, and my hips padded back out too. I may have lost muscle mass but if I did, it wasn’t noticeable, I stayed active and that was good enough.
I hypothesize that a lot of why things went back quickly for me was my cycles started up, so I was getting bathed in the normal levels of female hormones right away. If you have trouble getting your cycles back, I would advise that you see an endocrinologist or gyn about it because that’s going to help a lot. Maybe birth control pills could help, if nothing else.
7 years down the line the only evidence I ever took T is stuff only I would notice, like some body hair that wasn’t there before but which has lightened and softened up, a little extra soft facial down, and a slightly lower vocal range.
Social, emotional, and practical thoughts:
This part is where your mileage may really vary from mine. I’m not telling you what to do, just what worked for me.
It was important to me to immediately stop being seen as a guy or a trans person. I wanted to know that I COULD go back to how I was before, I was terrified that I had ruined parts of myself that were really important to me. I feared that I was locked out of “women” forever. I went through the seven stages of grief, for what it’s worth, and still to this day have feelings of essentially having survived a loss and a trauma. This is a big deal, so be kind and gentle to yourself.
In the “bargaining” and denial phase one thing I said to myself and others was “I don’t really care what I am seen as, I’m neither male nor female, call me whatever you want.” You might go through a stage like this too. It’s ok to then move on and say “no, really, I DO care.” You’re not “selling out.” You’re coming to terms.
I went and bought some really fancy, padded, push-up bras. For me, this was really helpful while my breasts were still really flaccid. It gave me the shape I was used to seeing before, and helped people realize that despite some androgynous traits, I am a woman. If you have had surgery or have very small breasts, you might consider going to a lingerie shop that helps women who have had breast surgery or masectomy, if you think this might help you.
I found it was helpful to immediately purge some clothing and accessories that I especially associated with “trying to pass as male,” like double-reinforced sports bras, baseball caps, etc. It’s not that those are male clothes—clothes are just clothes—but it was about what they meant to me. Getting rid of them and replacing them helped me feel more confident that I was really going to be able to come home. I do find that a lot of FTMs rely heavily on things like baseball caps to help them pass as male, too, so taking off the hat can help people see you better too.
It was helpful to me to dress more “feminine” than I otherwise might have, for a while, to get some confidence that I was going to still be “allowed” to be a woman in society. After a while, I felt assured enough I could wear more casual clothes like I usually do again, but that phase was helpful to get me out of despair. Once my hair grew out I kind of ended up using it as my crutch, to the point where I surprised myself by completely emotionally freaking out the next time I got it cropped short for the summer. Just something to prepare for, if you might be like me. That and a few other things are basically trauma triggers for me, if I am confronted with unexpected reminders of that phase of my life, I can have an emotional reaction that is rather overwhelming. No one warned me to expect this, but it seems pretty logical to me now that I think about it.
Another thing that helped me feel more “in control” of the kind of chaotic situation was learning to recognize the hormonal patterns in my body using fertility charting (aka natural family planning or fertility awareness method.) You can find books or web info on this.
I don’t feel like I can advise on handling the social aspects because I don’t know that I handled it well. I just survived through pure stubbornness. I told my mom and we cried together. She had always felt it was wrong and disturbing, my dad had always been all for it and relished bragging how he had a “son.” He pretty much wouldn’t speak to me after I went back. Other than that, I didn’t announce anything except to friends who I chatted with online. I just changed my name back, changed my presentation back, and basically gave off “FU” vibes that made it clear no one should dare to give me shit about it or ask any questions. I know a lot of people in my family decided at that point I was truly crazy, disgusting, depraved, and have treated me like garbage ever since—not surprising since a lot of the same folks were homophobes to start with. My really good friends I was able, eventually, to really talk to, and they stood by me. Pretty much all my other friends ESPECIALLY those from the genderqueer and queer political circles—I lost them. Slowly, painfully. They weren’t interested in me, they were interested in The Trans Show and once it was over, they were out.
I was called some horrible names and yes, threatened and told that I was an evil person, that I should kill myself, that I was a menace. Not by fundamentalists…by “queer radicals.” And some people claiming to be feminists. I don’t talk about this much unless I can be anonymous, as a result.
It was hard going from being essentially invisible in a good way, passing as a male, to being seen as a woman again, dealing with street harassment, having guys basically try to shoulder and elbow their way through me, having to fight to get my whole seat on the train, etc. I do still feel some grief, pain, and a lot of anger, about the freedom I lost and the fact that women are not yet free.
I haven’t really gotten into why I started T or why I went back, maybe we can talk about that another time. But this is a sample of what the experience was like, for one person. If you are looking for advice, please just listen to this: no matter what the specifics of your situation are, you can survive this. This is going to be a strange, scary rebirth. But you will make it. A day will come where you don’t think about it everyday anymore, every time you look in the mirror or sign a check. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and if a day is too much to take at a time, take it an hour at a time. Make a list of things to do and get the little rush from crossing out each item on the list. Write a rant and post it online. Pet a dog or a cat. My dog saved me, again and again, because she didn’t see the clothes or the labels, she just loved me. Eventually it WILL get easier, and before you know it, you will be OK.