The New Jet Lag: Transition, Age And Time

Studio photograph of elderly woman's hand beside a younger woman's hand.
Studio photograph of elderly woman's hand beside a younger woman's hand.

Many of us have had the unsettling experience of alighting from a jet into a faraway destination after zipping through several time zones. Despite its familiarity, the resulting feeling can be hard to describe. For me, it's an odd sense of not fitting in, even though things are normal on the surface, with cues for the local time (sunlight, clocks) being seemingly aligned for others but not for me. I guess that's why it's called jet "lag" -- the person is time-displaced from their environment and definitely feels it -- even though others wouldn't know from a cursory glance that they are a traveler from another time zone.

Since doing my male-to-female gender reassignment 12 years ago, I've realized that this process might involve something analogous to jet lag -- though it seems to be not often discussed. If my experience is any guide, the similarities have big implications as to the nature of gender transition, and how we experience it and help others through it. As explained further on, the gender transition process can involve a time warp, especially regarding age and our placement within life's chronology.

Like most people, I am sometimes asked my age on official documents and application forms. My biological birth year puts me squarely in middle age, yet even as I dutifully provide the relevant birth date, I feel a sense of disconnect -- of not legitimately feeling part of that age group. For me, it's not the stereotypical mid-life denial; something much more fundamental causes my "age citizenship" to be on shaky ground. Some time ago, it dawned on me why: a large part of our feeling a certain age, and presenting as such, is our historical sense of having lived that many years in our identity. In other words, a 20-year-old woman feels that age because she has experienced exactly that many years living as herself, including the childhood and adolescent milestones expected as part of her identity as a woman. A similar truth holds for a 40-year-old, or 60-year-old, or a man or woman of any other age.

But a gender transitioner begins anew, right when they are nominally in life's midcourse. Their true identities and new lives have not yet interfaced with society to any great extent, and they miss years or decades that would otherwise help build an age-matched sense of self in their new gender. This is time zone travel in a very big way. Mid-life transitioners might be expected to feel this effect more strongly than people who articulate and live their gender identity much earlier. Similarly, those whose new life (appearance, career, social ties) differs markedly with their pre-transition self probably also feel the effect more than those with smaller life changes.

But the analogy doesn't quite end there. Science tells us that jet lag is worse when flying in an eastbound direction -- "catching up" to a time zone ahead of us -- than when "falling back" westbound to a time zone behind us. Similarly, transition involves its own catching up process, into a world that cisgender people of the same nominal age have already had years to integrate their identities with, and adjust to. Little wonder that time seems to be pulled and stretched like a rubber band when I ponder virtually any aspect of my pre-transition self. It seems almost like centuries ago, in a different life from which my current one represents a reincarnation of sorts. Of course, it feels that way because, in fact, it really was a different life.

The good news is that despite the challenges, all of this was doable! But since I hadn't really considered the time issue in advance, it still took me by surprise, and involved some dazed, emotional groping in my new obscure environment. This lasted until my jet-lagged self could adjust to the odd reality of needing to live in the middle age time zone, while also being -- in a way -- just a child of sorts, starting a new life.

Leaping into an adult womanhood without a girl childhood or adolescence to back it up is undeniably challenging -- but it is a unique perspective, and offers some happy opportunities too. Though my gender citizenship is secure and content, I've realized that it will be harder to feel my chronological age; perhaps the required catching up process is too much of an adjustment to ever do in full. And ultimately, maybe that's a good thing. I've grown enough by now that I can always be a mature, competent, and sensitive adult woman, but because of my gender "jet lag" I will always be close to the child in me too. That girl child, after all, didn't get a normal growing up process, but she is no less real and no less in need of a voice now. That could be a great thing, since the world in general would probably be a better, kinder place if we were all more in touch with our child selves.

For this reason I think it is a good idea for adult gender transitioners to sometimes give themselves parts of childhood that they may have missed. But how this plays out will be highly dependent on the person. Perhaps it's an occasional doll or toy that is bought and enjoyed as an adult. Maybe it's the ballet, music, ice skating or other lessons that would have been done as a child, and now the adult self can enjoy just as much. Or it could simply be having a sense of wonder and adventure as one goes through life.

To loved ones and friends of those undergoing transition who might be reading this... please always remember the time aspects of their process and recognize that their transition is partly a leap-forward adjustment to a chronological age that their new self needs to catch up to emotionally. Business travelers are routinely advised to delay making any important decisions, if they have flown in from three or more time zone hours away. Yet those in transition have jumped across years and perhaps decades by landing into and forging their new lives. So they will need much support and understanding as they adjust to their status as -- among other things -- the ultimate time zone travelers.

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This post is part of HuffPost's Journey Beyond the Binary blog series, an editorial effort to bring diverse trans and gender non-conforming voices to the HuffPost Blog during and after Pride month. As the LGBTQIA community celebrates great strides forward this June, it's important to acknowledge the struggles still pertinent to trans and gender variant members of the community. Please email any pitches to beyondbinary@huffingtonpost.com