I expected that after top surgery I'd have an immediate and overwhelming relief but instead I had to ease into my new body. This is my top surgery story.
I spent the night before top surgery in a hotel with my girlfriend. I laid on her and wept. I was mourning losing a piece of myself. I thought of all the situations that my trans body 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 trans 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: Dispelling The Myth of The Gender 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. 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. 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: Ending Violence Against Trans People
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. That felt nice. 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 nurse smiled and asked if I wanted a mirror. 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 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 a bad decision. 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? 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. 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.
It wasn't that I made a bad decision, I had made a hard decision. A physically taxing decision and I had to physically heal before I could fully live within that decision. And it turns out I wasn't the only transguy that felt this way. I wasn't alone in this journey. I wasn't alone in a reveal that wasn't YouTube worthy.
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.
Read more from Leo at leocaldwell.com