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The 'Sam' in Samplings

Samara Ballen is a writer, tech enthusiast, animal welfare advocate, environmentalist, and LGBT+ ally from Brooklyn, NY. Beyond  her true passions, she loves fashion and beauty, science, world travel, and hanging out with her rescue pit bull, Allie. Also other cool stuff.

Friendly and open-minded, but vocal and unapologetic, and a totally serious human, Samara started Samplings to provide a window into the lives, challenges, and realities of trans and gender-nonconforming people by publishing honest and engaging original content. 

She also hates writing about herself, which might have been evidenced by the sheer sterility of this bio, had it not obviously been authored by a completely separate and highly regarded individual of notable literary accomplishments, as proven by their exclusive use of the third-person.

Share your thoughts openly in the comments or on social media, as long as love and compassion guide your words. Read and share freely.

Raw

I started this blog for a lot of reasons—too many to count. You know when the perceived benefits of doing something are so numerous that they morph from a list of pros to an instinctive feeling of what you need to do? That was this for me. So much of what I was experiencing across different facets of my life was so fascinating to me that it started to create poetry in my mind. As soon as I disembarked from the rigid track of "the path" to "success" and happiness I was conditioned to believe in, my life started to feel like art. And I felt a growing pang in my soul to just put the whole thing out into the world for others to see. In a way then, they could experience it with me.

No expectations, no objectives, no conditions. Just me, whatever that was, and all of it.

I love feeling confident and optimistic; summing up my experiences and observations into nice clean packages that tell interesting stories and help people make sense of complicated issues. As often as I can, that's what I want to do. But my humanity makes me who I am more than anything else, and it would be far from honest to present an image of myself as invulnerable, immune, and constantly driving forward.

Pain, loss, confusion and suffering have done more for me than any period of simplicity and euphoria. If I love myself, I have life's challenges—in all their forms—to thank. By that logic I owe life a pretty big gesture of gratitude after this weekend.

This has easily been the most difficult piece I've ever tried to write, including outside of this blog. I'm coming off of 2 straight days of breakdowns, hysterical crying and breakthroughs. So fair warning: this one will break the mold, and it probably won't be pretty. I don't believe everything should be, and far be it from me to censor anything. Trying to translate this into words and connect it all in something of a logical thought stream has been overwhelming. But it's absolutely deserving of the effort.

Here's what happened:

A few nights ago I was talking to a girlfriend of mine, who also happens to be trans. We were just relaxing after a night out, and I asked her about her origin story—how she came to realize she was trans, which for many of us is when our real lives begin. We'd talked about both of ours before, but she hadn't really gone into too much depth until now.

The story she told me was one of confusion from a young age followed by thinking she had figured herself out within her sexuality for a time, and later as things progressed without clarity for her, being plagued by severe depression and anxiety. The details she shared with me were genuine and absolutely heartbreaking. A little girl trapped in a boy's body, not being able to figure out how to operate it, or why so much felt awkward, disconnected and wrong while she tried to live a normal life as a male.

Personally I had never felt that "being born into the wrong body" was a particularly accurate way of boiling down what it was like to be trans. My take was always centered in the nature of gender as a social construct. Trans people feel more aligned with a gender different from the one associated with their birth sex. For some it's a deeper, stronger feeling of incompatibility than for others, but the idea that an actual error of that scale could occur—that a person could be spiritually and mentally female/male and develop within a male/female body—didn't compute for me. Or maybe I just hadn't really considered it objectively from that angle, because listening to my friend's story, it was hard for me to sum it up as anything else.

It is true that not all trans people identify as trans and proceed to transition because of an unbearable pain rooted in a genuine incompatibility between their inner selves and their outer forms. For some, they break down the idea that gender is naturally tied to birth sex, and simply realize that they're a much better fit, and much happier, in another.

I thought that was me. It wasn't.

In my short time on Earth I've formed my human-level understanding of life and the universe mainly around a combination of concepts based both in science and Buddhism. As it relates here, I believe that the universe unfolds as it should. Somewhere written into the coding of all things is an obscure order on a level far beyond what we can perceive. In other words, everything happens for a reason.

At the same time, I believe in the beautiful cyclical and spiritual-evolution-based principles of reincarnation. Specifically that our spirit (or consciousness) is reborn time and time again in order to gain the experiences necessary for it to evolve. Together those two principles form the peaceful reminder that whatever you're going through is right and in some way necessary for your growth, even if it's painful and even if you can't see why.

Again, these are just my beliefs, and they're always evolving.

So to look at being trans from the standpoint of a description that contains the word "wrong," was not only negative and unsettling, but fundamentally difficult to swallow. As a writer, I see language as both a paintbrush and a surgical scalpel. It can create vast, stunning landscapes while also being an exacting tool of precision. It can be hard for me to look past the use of particular words. But whatever. If that summary makes sense for some people as they try to comprehend the insanity that comes with trying to live authentically while outside the boundaries of society's expectations, it's good in my book. It's just not how I would characterize my own unique trans identity. Or so I thought.

As I listened to her story, my friend's journey to where she is now seemed very different from mine on the surface. But I was in a deeply conscious place, and in that moment all I could see were the overwhelming similarities. From such a young age she had significant, real problems operating as a boy. As she grew and they remained, they became harder and harder for her to live with. Her distress was visible externally. Her family knew something was wrong. And as she floated further into her gender-dysphoric black hole, they wanted desperately for her to heal and find her way back to life.

So with love guiding their hearts and minds, when she realized she was transgender and told them, they accepted her and that fact somewhat readily.

On the other hand, my early pre-revelation experience seemed to starkly contrast hers. I hadn't really struggled that severely with being male, I thought. I knew there was a lot I didn't like about it, I knew on some level it had been difficult, and now that I've begun transitioning and have gained a thorough basis for comparison, there's no question that I'm female. But to me, as I thought I understood it, being male just wasn't world-ending on the scale that my friend was describing through her own heartbreaking experience.

But the longer I listened to her and remembered my own life in parallel, the clearer I began to see that I was wrong. As she told me her story, new details from my past came into focus, as did new entire memories. Finally it dawned on me:

 

If my mind had been strong and scared enough to hide my entire identity behind an impressively complete false persona of its own making, is it possible that it had also filtered out the severity of the pain I was experiencing in my old life? Could it be that I just hadn't been allowed to fully feel and acknowledge those wounds? Without the context with which to evaluate this type of agony for myself, and with a highly overactive mind, is there a chance that maybe I had just convinced myself that I was okay all these years?

 

Nuclear. Fucking. Bomb.

As soon as the inkling of those questions leaked into my train of thought, it was stupidly obvious. I had been misled. Brainwashed. By myself. Again.

I told this to about 3 separate people in person before writing it out, and in not anticipating how unsurprised they would be, I was the only one caught the least bit off guard. Apparently for most other people, this came with the territory of my trans-ness. And not because that's what they expected of the typical trans experience (believe me, I checked). They all had this down about me. To me, this was a totally new half of a puzzle I thought I was just polishing off.

I've always been so terribly hard on myself. People tell me this all the time, but it only sometimes registers in the immediate situations in which I'm doing it. My mind is extremely powerful, and more so unconsciously than consciously (what I would give to reverse that). I have a way of minimizing my problems and my struggles to myself. It's a form of self-harm I think. Somewhat unconsciously, I've always held myself to such a high standard that I would rationalize that my deepest pain and sadness were unjustified, overblown reactions to things that "weren't really that bad."

But they were that bad. My pain was real, natural, and totally in line with its stimulus. Worse, because I had this permanent filter between my heart and my mind that prevented me from processing or even recognizing my true emotions, I became an expert at suppressing everything and plowing forward as if it all was great. I didn't know I was doing it. I didn't feel my pain because my mind wouldn't let me. It buried it and kept burying it, telling me I should be strong and grateful for my life.

"Look at all you have been given. Look how lucky you are. You have a family who loves you, nice things, a job. Look at how you live compared to most of the world. You have no pain. What do you have to complain about? You have no problems. None of what you think are problems are real. Man up and deal. You have no reason not to be happy. What's wrong with you? Get over it."

Now I see what was happening. After years of feeling unworthy of my feelings, my sadness, my pain, I rewired my brain to automatically file it all away into 'Bullshit' like a spam filter on email. And I learned to almost completely ignore my discomfort and stress without even realizing what I was doing. With my self judgment and that filter working together, I stopped even noticing it was there. My ego won. It created an invulnerable, hyper-masculine, happy-seeming male persona to take over for my true self, so that it would be impossible for me to find my way back.

And then, as if creating a coat of armor over the identity designed to ignore, deflect and minimize my suffering, I took all of my past experiences that served as clues to who I really was and obscured them into lesser forms, and then buried them too. My true self had been ripped out and banished into space. The persona ran the show now, and my unforgiving self-sabotaging mind shook his hand and sat back feeling accomplished. It had created a completely lifelike, automated male version of my female self that was immune to her pain and was a master of keeping her locked away.

Every once in awhile I would feel depressed for a week or two—sometimes deeply and without recognizable cause—or unexpectedly cry over something small. But I never realized that those moments were instances of my true self fighting to come back to the surface, because I never realized all my mind had done to prevent me from seeing the truth. It was like an encrypted vault protected by layers of redundancies, so that even if an intruder had the means to break in, it would take them a lifetime. That I got through is a miracle.

Later, even after I won, realizing that I was trans and relieving that male identity of control, fragments of that pattern of mental self-harm remained active.

I realized just this weekend that so many of my memories had been warped to reduce their significance. Summing up why I'm trans as a realization that "I'm just happier as a woman" is a perfect example. What a brazen oversimplification of the truth. This wasn't optional. This wasn't something nice to do for myself to increase my happiness. This was survival. But I never allowed myself to feel how real it was, or how important.

I never realized I was dying inside, but I was. Looking back now it makes sense. I could feel my body deteriorating. In the last 5 years alone I had developed ulcers and wrinkles and chronic physical pain seemingly out of nowhere (okay who wants to make the first 30s remark?).

All this explains why I've felt the need to move so quickly and be so thorough with my transition since the moment I realized with certainty that I was trans. My friend had a much more relaxed attitude about her own. She shared with me that she didn't really relate to the stigma behind the term 'deadname,' which as a noun refers to the typically gender-conflicting given name a trans person chooses to retire and often subsequently avoid with plague-like dedication as part of their transition.

Transition is different for everyone. Different aspects carry different levels of significance depending on the person. Like literally everything else in the naturally-occurring universe, it doesn't carry a binary value—slow or rapid, subtle or drastic, laid back or intense. For me, I've been busily demolishing my male identity as completely and quickly as possible. Since waking up I feel a burn in my stomach when I see that old name. I do relate to the term deadname. Because for me it wasn't just some unfitting label I went by before I came into the light. That name represents an entire life-stealing imposter that facilitated my complete suppression for almost 3 decades.

This part isn't new for me, but I'd never articulated it before because the aggression behind it confused and worried me a little. But now I know where it comes from, and in this chapter and its sequels I refuse to knowingly diffuse my feelings for the comfort of others. My experience of becoming my true self was, like I said, a fight for survival. The old me wasn't me at all. This isn't a case of multiple personalities. This was a rogue defense mechanism. An overpowered veil I created out of fear when I was so young I didn't know what else to do, that my unconscious mind latched onto and fed until it was about to suffocate me from within. So make no mistake, I killed that false identity. And I am not the least bit sad to see him go.


What's amazing to me is that as emotional as it's been to be hit with this meteorite of mind-blowing truth; as much as I've cried, hyperventilated, and finally, grieved; as much shock as I've felt, through the entire experience I never felt depressed, down or even angry outside of crying episodes. I have felt torn open, exposed, and beyond sensitive. In a word—the only word I'd been able to use to describe my feelings to my friends and family for two straight days—raw.

And surprisingly, kind of good.

As painful as it was to have my newly-minted outer shell of clarity and confidence temporarily ripped from my body, leaving my inner self open and unprotected like a fresh pink layer of skin under a shredded blister, it was also cathartic. By now pain is an old friend. I've learned to interpret its visits as signs of growth. And with the depth and severity of this instance, I actually felt myself ascending another few steps; confidence, resilience, empathy and self-love all permanently elevating as my spirit banked the experience.

See, I thought I knew myself. And I did, in part. I had already recognized the person I really was, and shifted from a manufactured self-protective pseudo-identity into my authentic self in the present. But up until now I couldn't see the person I had been before—the person living beneath that false layer, absorbing the pain my mind had created that male persona to deflect. It never dawned on me that I didn't really know where I—the real I—had been. I remembered living through that male form, and I knew that form wasn't the real me, but it took until now for me to realize I left a huge piece of myself behind under that layer in the past. The past I thought was mine had up until now been filtered through the same mental lens that had filtered out the real me from who I was living as all my life.

Rounding out this unexpected journey was the realization that this was the other half of the puzzle. I ran the gauntlet of emotions, but in the end, I found beauty once more. Perhaps my spiritual beliefs didn't have to conflict with my or my friend's experience. Maybe it was a wording problem. To say a person is "born into the wrong body" implies a mistake on a spiritually fundamental level. So what if we deemphasized the language?

Clearer than ever on the other side of this emotional wringer I do feel like my female spirit somehow landed in a male body. But I don't feel like it was a mistake. What if maybe, just maybe, everything I've had to take on and overcome in order to become my true self in this life was purposeful? I wonder if it's possible that the perspective, the clarity, the wisdom, the strength and resilience, the discontentment, the rebelliousness, the observantness, the fearlessness, the humility, the acceptance, the empathy and the self-love that I've gained directly as a result of this life, is exactly what my spirit needed to evolve.

I'm A Trans Woman and I'm On My Period

I'm A Trans Woman and I'm On My Period

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