More Than The Pain: On Butterflies, Trauma And Being Non-Binary

Rita Suszek
13 min readJul 14, 2021

I dreamt about my dad liking anime. He was a bit sick, I think — nothing serious, just something that stilled his active nature — and we were watching an anime movie full of short stories. He liked them and dream-me was so excited about going to the library and getting more anime to watch with my dad. He was petting my feet — they had blisters or something — it was an utterly unsexual intimacy, uncomplicated in a way that when it comes to my father I can only dream of.

I wish I wasn’t non-binary.

I’ve really tried not to be.

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It’s 5:50 and I woke up with the dream memory and the thought almost perfectly formed in my brain. I wish I wasn’t non-binary. I wish I wasn’t an intersection of biology and trauma, of fucked up society bias and humiliatingly imperfect coping mechanisms. It isn’t perfect or even very good, but it is what I’ve got.

You’ve got a masculine energy about you, a trans friend remarked. I asked him what he meant. Nothing much, it turned out: when stripped down, this statement points to traditional masculinity, but what the fuck does that even stand for? How do you use it in a sentence?

If taken seriously it means that there is no room in femininity for a person like me. Tall, low-voiced, direct and angry. Frustrated with the world. Even more so frustrated, because I’m quite a feminine person in many ways, too. I like being gentle and feeding people and understanding emotions. I got socialised into being super anxious around technology; I don’t at this point know if I truly don’t get it, or if being a daughter of a fairly impatient electrician made technology and being frozen with trauma one in my head, but look: femininity. Exhibit A.

If you’re thinking that femininity is not trauma, just you wait.

I find being non-binary intellectually suspect. If you want to be in the middle, you then are acknowledging the existence of extremes. You have to understand femininity as THIS and masculinity as THAT. But then, your extremes are defined by your experience. Femininity might mean victim. Masculinity might mean abuser. I don’t particularly want to be either of them. On the spectrum from violence to doormat, yes, I’d rather be in the middle.

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A triptich: in the first picture, Rita, white person with brown hair in a bob haircut, is sitting down and wearing a loose black dress, looking directly into the camera. Rita is holding a lipstick to their lips and holding up a small hand mirror, arms crossed against one another; second picture has them drawing “out of line”, red lipstick spilling down their throat in a single line, head thrown back. Third picture, Rita faces the camera again, eyes wide in surprise, red lipstick all around their mouth.

In an ideal world, I’d heal. I’d get to heal. I am having this conversation with a made-up adversary. Those who will struggle with my non-binary identity, will usually dismiss my trauma out of hand. But say someone acknowledged that I have trauma: specific, direct trauma that is tied to gender — and said, hey, we have therapy for that. And I could heal and be comfortable with the flower and/or magnificent butterfly of my femininity, or whatever those essentialist books say.

I do in fact have a funny story about a sex therapist who had a little spiel before we even started and told me to read a book. And then I started talking and she said, forget the book. You won’t like it. It was one of those “your femininity is a magnificent butterfly waiting to take flight” books and having listened to me, she didn’t think it would have been helpful.

It’s not a bad metaphor. My femininity is in fact an easily crushed insect that, for something apparently small, can cause a butterfly effect’s worth of trouble.

It was the same therapist, who, when I mused out loud that I don’t know whether I’m non-binary or wounded and female, said confidently: oh, definitely wounded and female. Asshole move, former therapist. But then, it took me several months to get into your sessions and there were only nine. At least you were good for one funny story.

So in an ideal world I’d heal and be kind of okay with being feminine, not — annoyed that I wear semi-long hair now, because I miss being a shaved-head-rebel, being always cast as a lesbian and offering an uncomplicated fuck-you to the world just by the virtue of my appearance. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world which has us in a fairly brutal choke-hold, which cares nothing for our trauma, which will most definitely consume us — the question only being whether it does so slowly or fast or whether we consume the Earth first. While I scoffed at the category of “non-binary” being what I saw as a temporary fix, as an unsafe haven, as an intellectually loose offering…. I have come to realise that I have to let myself live. And this coping mechanism, this prop, this folded newspaper under the table of my actual self, might be as good as it gets.

(Pause to acknowledge that what I see as non-binary doesn’t apply to other people’s genders. And might also be a weird -phobic attitude that I’m working through.)

Therapy is good. I am attending and paying my hard-won money — it took me years for a decent therapist to converge with me being able to afford it. But at present, it seems that all the best things are temporary: which is fine, life is temporary — but I cannot actually rebuild my self while I reclaim the thing that crushed it in the first place. My understanding of what womanhood is actually kills my humanity. My thinking of femininity means blood, pain and snot. It means deserving violence, particularly sexual violence. No wonder I shut down just thinking about it. No amount of butterflies can change that.

You’ll be surprised to know that this essay, this ironic, bitter, heavy with old blood unwashed menstrual pad of an essay is my coming to terms with it.

This is what self-acceptance looks like: alert the presses. Actually, don’t: they haven’t gotten a whiff of me yet and I prefer it that way. Eventually they might, the vultures, and I want to rebuild enough to at least not be easy for them. I’m not dead meat yet.

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I am non-binary. That means “more than the pain”. My pain is most definitely female. I’m female enough to be cat-called, female enough to be socialised out of my aggression (incredibly poorly: I’m mostly angry a lot with no outlet). I’m female enough to be read and treated as such. Female is the gender of my trauma. The stance I’m making — speaking out for myself, rather than many other non-binary people — is that I am more than my pain. I am worthy to have a life that is Not This. I am allowed to be sexual, awake, loud, to take up space, to make my life what I want it to be. And I’m going to call that survival impulse “non-binary”. I wish I could call my instinct to freedom “female”, but it’s too bound up in hurt to serve in this way. I don’t play with might-have-beens. I’m playing the cards I’m dealt.

Is it a deliberate, political choice? You bet. Nothing is neutral; everything is political. Am I “making this up”? Every-fucking-thing in my life is a metaphor. That is how I operate and I won’t apologise for that. I won’t tell you about waking up at age six with distinctly Gender Neutral feelings. That’s not my story. But I can tell you about chasing boys around to kiss them at age six and having nobody explain to me that it was inappropriate because of consent, rather than because sexual aggression in an assigned-girl-child made caretakers uncomfortable. I can tell you about getting angry when my grandmother tried to stop me being left-handed or make me into my brother’s house servant; how it was fine for certain family members to bully me, but not for me to ever talk back. I have stories of being regularly branded too loud, too angry, too unladylike, of being told I laugh like a horse and sit like a man, of being impressed upon that a lady draws breath inwards to compress her stomach. I once got my classmates to call me a male name for a day because I wanted to see if being a boy would be better. I can tell you about discovering feminism and politics of representation, about feeling like “a gay man in a woman’s body” in high school, about reading the Wikipedia entry on dysphoria and crying tears of recognition. I’ve spent a lifetime going “that’s not quite right, but there is something to it”. That feeling of moreness, of tickling uncertainty, of wanting more space — that’s queer. And I’m calling it non-binary. And you can’t fucking stop me.

I can’t tell you about a big spiritual awakening that I was Between Genders. But I can tell you about waking up at age thirty three with a distinct feeling of, I can’t keep living like this. I gotta say something.

This too counts as an awakening. Even if no butterflies were involved.

I can tell you about making lists of features of my character at twenty, trying to figure out if I were straight or gay (the answer, of course, was neither) — because I both wanted sex and romance and was too removed from my own body and life to actually feel things directly. I can tell you about experiences that made me that way in the first place and about fears that there is more stuff that I don’t remember. I can talk rape and paedophilia, I can talk harassment and molestation, I can talk “spacing out” and “late bloomer” — all this language we’ve got to describe people who are traumatised and have no language for it themselves. The quiet shut down weirdos of whom I am one — something that fits incredibly poorly, because as a person I am loud and outspoken and having my voice wounded enough to block me has been the worst part of it.

This is mostly sad knowledge that I have of life, being driven to find out what happened, then shut down because of trauma resurging and then driven again. Researching sexual violence and not knowing why; being driven to read pages upon pages upon pages on consent and harassment and boundaries and trauma. I have long prioritised those topics in my research, just like in my early twenties I threw myself into queer studies, trying to find an identity, trying to carve out some space. It turns out that claiming space was about my emotions rather than finding the perfect label. And anyway, I really want to stop being driven by unspoken underground rivers of my forgotten issues. I need life to be more than this.

I’m not letting any of it rob me of joy, is what I decided. It won’t rob me of my voice, it won’t rob me of saying things.

I know that mostly a handful of queer supportive London friends will read this and you might be puzzled at my shaking my fist at the sky. The jokes write themselves here: I don’t need to do a giant coming out, people know me. One might say: who hurt you?

The list is too long and doesn’t belong in this essay, but believe that when I’m screaming “I GET TO HAVE THIS SPACE AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME” there are some very real addressees.

This is real. I am real. I am awkward and confused and a good comic player and a decent poet when I have the focus and someone who finds genuine joy in writing songs. And someone who probably seems very loud and is equally very, very scared. In fact I wouldn’t need to be speaking quite so loudly if I wasn’t so scared, if I hadn’t been scared quite so early, if I haven’t been socialised into fear like it was a gender trait or a family tradition. Fear and anger determine quite a lot of my existence and my more gentle traits carry censure or outright impede my survival. Too sensitive; too nice; too accommodating; too willing to assume the best.

I’ve always been fascinated by witches: they were women who said no. Oxymorons.

A headshot: Rita’s face close up, scowling in anger, with red lipstick painted well over the lips like she’s bitten someone bloody.

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It looks like I have evolved from “it shouldn’t BE LIKE THIS” to “fuck it. Is it gonna work?”

I still think it shouldn’t be like this, I’m just more willing to accept conceptually unstable and temporarily workable solutions. I suppose you’ll tell me this is adulthood?

I recently watched Sofie Hagen talk live about CPTSD and healing: about trauma therapy that costs 125 per hour and puts you in your body, in that traumatic experience, and reassures you that you’re safe.

I can’t even imagine this: not doing it, and not paying this kind of money for it.

It’s difficult to talk about trauma and being non-binary, if only because it implies that the latter was caused by the former. I’m not in the business of invalidating other people’s gender identity, for one thing; and for another, there is quite a chicken-and-egg dilemma here. Maybe in another world without experiencing gendered trauma I’d have been like my boyfriend: very open to other people’s experiences, but also pretty secure in the gender assigned. I have no way of knowing that. I have no way of knowing if I may heal, how much I’ll heal and what parallel worlds exist. What seems relevant is that I want the self-determination to evolve past what I see as gendered cage. After a lifetime of being told that I don’t fit into a cookie cutter of gender — and being actively punished for not fitting in as well as for simply being read as this gender (damned if you do, damned if you don’t), I think I get to figure out a different shape for things. I’m baking unicorn cookies even if I have to carve them up myself.

Next to all of this sad stuff, there is genuine fun in claiming more space — in doing drag, in taking gender expectations less seriously. Gender fluid feelings and behaviours allow for breathing room that femininity does not; they allow for play, expression, letting go. They are healing to me, because they are choices; it’s the agency and freedom that help me, not magic bullet of non-binary-ness. And yet, I cannot divorce myself from needing a label. Maybe that’s okay, too.

I don’t know what the future holds, although if the question is “will you ever be comfortable as a woman” the answer is probably a no. Or at the very least, it is a future this present iteration of me cannot envision. A perfectionist dream of fixing things and “being what I was supposed to be”, which I’m now letting go of. I can’t go back and make myself grow up in a different family and society. All I can do is move forward.

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My own therapist is more careful about my prognosis. She says that I might always be a bit sad, but will evolve better coping mechanisms. I’m not happy about it, which — hey, on brand! — but I can at present live with that.

In fact, I would do a lot to not have my life be this out-of-body experience that I have lived, in which days, months and years are consumed by scrolling the words of internet and occasional binge eating — because this is how I shut out the experience and resurgence of trauma. I would give a lot to stop spending my time trying to not feel my feelings, because I have been taught I don’t get to and/or I’m too scared to allow them to come and go in my body. I’d much rather this: waking up at 5:44 with a half-formed essay in my head and being able to pursue it. This is already such an improvement, even when I talk of blood and pain.

It’s not comfortable, but it’s alive and I’ll take that.

Small steps. I’d like to have sexual experiences not broken up by crying and shivering. I’d like to reclaim my body, if not my femininity, from the clutches of memory and un-memory, things that I don’t remember that still fill me with fear, whatever it is that makes it difficult to live in it. Things that un-make me still have a hold on me: I want to change that. I want pleasure and joy instead of, or in addition to the frozen yoghurt of pain; it makes for an unsatisfying diet.

Small things. And I’d like to come out as non-binary. I’m no longer that flower rainbow child wearing tie-dye, which I was in my twenties; my enbyness was probably visible with from space, and with a naked eye. I don’t find much comfort in what is essentially a metaphor: a permission to be what I am. A permission to keep going. I kept thinking, before, that I could find that permission in my femininity: that if I were a good enough feminist, i could find the power of the feminine within myself.

Turns out that I can be a good enough feminist and I can even heal, but I need more than that.

A trans friend (a different one; I have a lot of those for some reason; maybe the need to endlessly discuss gender is a thing we have in common…) once compared transness to a car alarm you can’t switch off. It confused me, because I didn’t know if I was trans, but many things about it were familiar. Certainly the uncompromising nature of a car alarm, something that keeps blaring whether I like it or not. Maybe this is me letting go and relenting enough to go switch it off, knowing it will be triggered again, knowing that no fix is perfect. Because so far I’d been standing at my window, shaking my fist at the car design.

Yes, the alarm shouldn’t have been ringing in the first place. Yes, it is unfair, what happened and was done to me, what I’m uncovering. When you stop numbing in order to survive, you realise a lot of things are kind of a big deal.

But life isn’t perfect and I’m bored of waiting for it to be and I’m running out of both time and patience.

So hello, I’m Rita and I’m non-binary. My pronouns are she, they and what-the-fuck. Elbows out, darling. Reclaiming that space. There isn’t really room for me as a person, whatever the fuck I happen to be, but I will make it. I will find that small safe room on one’s own.

In my future, I’m in this safe room, with all those that come after me, walking the same path, needing a haven. And I’m laughing in a loud, low voice. And nobody can tell me to stop.

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Image description: Rita holding up a mess of rainbow fringe, facing the camera, black lipstick, purple and teal slashes on their face. They’re wearing a black t-shirt with a cartoon unicorn.

This text was first published thanks to the kindness of my Patrons. You can join my Patreon here. Photography credit: Franco Schicke.

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Rita Suszek

Polish, artsy, frequently angry, rants, comedy, weirdness. Always revolution, sometimes naps.