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Enduring after top surgery

In January of 2012, I increased the limit on a credit card to afford top surgery. I had the consent letter I received from the therapist years ago. I scheduled my top surgery for February 6th, 2012 in Cleveland. I sent the surgeon updated photos of my chest and received a check-up at the Mazzoni Center, an LGBTQ health center in Philadelphia.

On the Sunday before surgery, my girlfriend drove me to Cleveland. We spent the night in a hotel. I laid on her and wept. I was mourning losing a piece of myself. I was mourning transforming my body into something other than female; a body that would exist in the in gray between masculine and feminine. I thought of all the situations that my transbody may be used against me. What if I was in an accident and unconscious? What if first responders paused in their treatment when they saw my uncategorizable body? What if I were thrown into jail? What about when I needed medical care? Will my girlfriend love my new body? Will I ever find someone who can understand such a complicated, scarred body? I was scared of surgery. 

My girlfriend was tender and kind but also nervous about the duties ahead of her. We fell asleep. My breasts would never be touched again. In a few hours that part of me would be gone forever.

Read More: Braver than the binary?

The day of surgery I was in a nervous fog. I tend to shut down when a moment is so immense. I go through the motions to get to the other side. They took me back to a large room. I changed into my gown and cap and sat in a chair. They started an IV. I asked if my girlfriend could come back. I needed a kind touch. My hand was really cold from the IV. She held it and made me laugh. They wheeled me back to the operating room. There were a lot of people in the room. I’ve never seen that many people in an operating room. It wasn’t a comforting thought as I drifted into darkness.

I woke up in the hospital bed. I have a system after surgery. I ask what time it is and then I figure out how long I was under. If it seems like longer than it was supposed to be then I know something may have gone wrong. What can I say, I’m an introvert and pessimist. The surgery was under a reasonable amount of time. I thought, “I must be okay.” They moved me to another room and brought my girlfriend back to teach her how to empty my drains. As my girlfriend turned the corner, we made eye contact. She looked petrified. Tubes had been inserted under my skin with plastic bulbs attached to the end. All of my excess fluid, blood, and bodily gunk drained into these bulbs. The nurse quickly explained the process of stripping the drain line and emptying the bulb at the end. My girlfriend would have to do this for the next seven days. I was feeling weak. They brought me a wheelchair and I was released. The day was a blur. I threw up that night back at the hotel. The next day we drove west toward my hometown in Indiana.

My recovery would take place at a spiritual community where I spent many pivotal moments of life. We unloaded the car and made a nest in the back bedroom. I stayed in a painkiller induced warmth for the first week of recovery. I wore a compression vest. I couldn’t really move much. I would sit in the tub in shallow water while my girlfriend gave me bird baths. She’d wake up at 5 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep because I felt dirty. She would help me into the bathtub and tenderly wash me. She was good at this. I felt cared for and loved. I didn’t have many emotions or thoughts about what might be under my bandages and vest. I was just existing and waiting for my body to heal.

Read More: Trans bodies elude the binary

After about seven days it was time to get the drains out and bandages off. We drove back over to Cleveland. The holes where the drains entered my body were red and very irritated. We walked into an outdated medical office with a large waiting room. I felt just as nervous as I felt the day of surgery. I was about to see my new chest. I had watched all the YouTube videos of the other transguys’ reveal days. They all looked so happy. I didn’t know what I would feel.

“Natasha?” the nursed called from the doorway. We stood up and walked through the door. I wasn’t meeting with the surgeon, which made me even more nervous. I laid down on the table and the nurse took off my compression vest. Wow. That felt nice. I was finally able to take a full breath. The bandages were bloody and she removed them as well. The drains were left dangling from my body. I couldn’t look down. The nurse said, “I’m going to take the drains out. Take a deep breath in and let it out slowly.” I felt a quick, sharp burning spread through my chest. I looked down. I looked dead. My chest looked like a cadaver’s chest. The ones you see on Law and Order after an autopsy. The nurse smiled and asked if I wanted a mirror. I felt sick. I said, “No.” I wanted to cover my chest quickly and run out of there. She brushed over the aftercare, “Keep your nipples covered. Use vaseline.” It was a blur and it all ran together. I hoped my girlfriend was paying attention. We left and drove the four and half hours back to my recovery house.

I was certain I had made the wrong decision. It felt like cutting off a piece of my body had left me in an inescapable unsteady mental state. I felt alone. I had made this decision. I was having regrets. How could anyone understand? I didn’t hear this experience from other transguys online. My plan was to document my entire recovery, but I couldn’t imagine taking a picture of myself. The good news was I could finally take a bath. Baths are my happy place. I filled the tub halfway up and slid down into the hot water. I looked down at my flat, white, bloody chest. The incisions were screaming at me. My nipples looked black and dead. Don’t cry. This was your decision. I reached for the soap. My arm knocked a bowl to the floor and it shattered. I cried. I bawled. I leaned forward and held onto my legs. What had I done? Who was I? My girlfriend walked in and cleaned up the bowl. I couldn’t bear to touch my incisions. She grabbed the soap and gently rubbed them while I turned my head away.

I extended my sick leave from work another week. I was too emotional and too weak. I spent that week pacing the house. I rarely left. I’d go on walks. I wasn’t mentally stable. Then one day after a shower my girlfriend caressed my chest. I felt a tingle. I grabbed her hand and laid it on my breast bone. I felt so connected to her. It felt like the core of who I was rose to meet her at my chest. I was no longer hidden under breasts. I was bare and raw. That was a turning point for me. The surgery and recovery turned out to be more gory and emotionally taxing than I had expected. I finally understood bravery. Bravery is to keep going even when it’s agonizing. Bravery means to fight through until you have that moment of peace and revelation. It took me three weeks to get a fraction of peace. But I kept going until I felt it.

Eventually, I embraced my scarred chest. Hugs felt warmer. I could pull someone in closer. I started taking pictures of my chest and going into the ocean shirtless. The scars are still tender today. They remind me that my flesh can be bent and broken but my spirit cannot.

4 Comments

  1. hey i can relate to this so much, I’m nonbinary and just over a week after top-surgery and having very complicated not-sure-how-i-feel-about-this-now feelings about it :/

    • Leo Caldwell

      Hi Alex,
      I just got around to checking my comments. How are you feeling now?

      Sending love your way!
      Leo

  2. Hi Leo,

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience in such a raw and vulnerable way. I had a breast reduction in October of 2015 (bringing me to a size A) and then realized that I still needed to get rid of more of me in order to feel more like me. So I had the full top surgery just 5 days ago. Today was my reveal day and it’s been rough. I feel like your words are the same as the narrative in my head. I cried on the way to the doctors and I’ve been crying off and on since I got home. I think with time it will improve, but I just didn’t expect this reaction. I didn’t feel so emotional with the reduction. I think the difference is that with the reduction, I still had that part of my body, just less of it. This time, that part is gone and I now have 2 sets of scars….1 from each surgery. They feel like a metaphor for the confusion I’ve had as a non-binary person trying to survive in a binary world. It’s nice to know I’m not alone and to feel some validation for my emotional experience. Thank you!

    • Leo Caldwell

      Sam,

      You are not alone, friend. Not at all. As cheesy and cliche as it sounds, I believe it will get better for you. You’ll find comfort in your skin again. I hope that has already began for you.

      all the love,
      Leo

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