Coming Out: Seeing the world feelingly

By Jane Hale

My last column recounted how I wound up in the hospital with dangerously high levels of potassium, a condition brought on by the testosterone blocker, spironolactone. Even though the estrogen, the female hormone itself, had no part in that condition, I nevertheless soured on hormone therapy altogether. I scraped the transdermal estrogen patch off my skin. I was done with hormones.

Or so I thought.

After a couple weeks off the estrogen, I began to miss its effects. It had given me a sense of physical and mental well-being I was unaccustomed to.

When I started estrogen, the first change I noticed was in my fingertips. When I would rub my fingertips together lightly, they felt drier, smoother. Other things felt different, too; I would be touching random stuff within my reach just to see how it all felt: furniture upholstery, a brick wall, the dogs, whatever.

A friend tells me that the wind and rain felt different on her face after she went on estrogen.

Under the estrogen’s influence, my thoughts seemed somehow palpable, as if they had body and shape. It’s hard to describe, but thoughts seemed to move like actual physical presences behind my eyes.

I’ve always been more emotional than your typical, well-adjusted American. I’ve never been able to talk about the ending of Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” or Hugo’s “Notre Dame of Paris” without my face turning into Niagara Falls. It seems maudlin, but I can’t even talk about my falling in love with public service without getting choked up.

But now my emotions seemed suddenly more in play than ever before. Some certain thought would cross my mind, and I would burst into tears. And then I would start laughing at myself for crying—and then laughing at not being able to stop crying.

It felt like the thoughts, as they passed behind my eyes, would stop to lean on my eyeballs, exert pressure on the back of my eyes, on my lacrimal glands, and force out the tears, like squeezing juice from a grape.

That’s a grotesque simile, I know, but that’s exactly how it felt. The thoughts would press on my eyeballs, and the tears would start flowing.

But I liked it. I’m an analytical kind of guy—or girl or whatever you want to call me—and I try to be clear and precise, but all I can really say is that it felt right. I felt more balanced. I felt in tune.

Surely, there’s a time and place to be stoic. But it makes little sense to me to deny an emotional response to the world. Aristotle sees emotions as cathartic, and most of us know how that works: you feel stronger after a good cry, more reasonable, better able to deal with things.

But after I went off estrogen, thoughts no longer stopped to lean on my eyes. They seemed simply to drive by at a distance, waving as they passed, but continuing on. No pressure, no palpable physical connection to my body, no tears.

Instead, there was that old, learned stoicism, that sense that I was holding my life at arm’s length. I wanted the nearness back with all its acute emotionality and tears, wanted to laugh at not being able to stop crying.

Like what I wrote about womb envy in the essay on my grandmother: I hunger for that immediate, unmediated connection—not to a child but to the world, my world, that child continually gestating in the uterus of my mind, my headwomb.

For me, the most moving scene in all of Shakespeare is when crazy old King Lear meets up with blind Gloucester out on the heath. The storm rages around them, but Lear is oblivious to the weather. At the height of his madness, he is out of touch with empirical reality. But he’s newly sensitive to moral realities that no one talks about in the presence of the king, like how the wealthy and powerful live above the laws that pounce so mercilessly on the poor.

Meeting up with Gloucester, whose eyes were gouged out by Lear’s daughters, Lear holds up an imaginary document and commands Gloucester to read it.

Lear [to Gloucester]: Read.

Gloucester: What, with the case of eyes?

Lear: O, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head … yet you see how this world goes.

Gloucester: I see it feelingly.

Two old men near death, one’s mad and the other one’s blind, and the madman holds up something that isn’t there for the blind man to read. The tragic absurdity of Shakespeare’s scene is unmatched.

But that’s what I want: that acute feeling, that passion for what I see and what I can’t see and what I think. That’s the humane balance I crave: to close the distance between my intellect, my ripe eyeballs, and the life before me.

I want to see the world feelingly.

• Jane Hale spent her first 69 years writing as Jim. She is a longtime Juneau resident. “Coming Out” is a biweekly column. It appears on the Empire’s Neighbors page.

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