Sinead Watson is a detransitioned woman who began medical transition in 2015 at age 24 at the Sandyford clinic in Glasgow. She began to feel regret three years later, finally making the decision to stop taking testosterone in 2019. In conversation with her sister Andrea, Sinead documents the impact of her transition on family members in a powerful, moving testimony. We are very grateful to Sinead for allowing us to share her story here. You can follow Sinead on Twitter at @ImWatson91.
Transition and Detransition: A conversation between sisters
I would like to preface this by saying that I have spoken at length with my sister regarding her thoughts during the period of my transition and detransition. I will be sharing my thoughts, and hers, in the hopes of offering some insight to any families that have found themselves in a similar predicament.
My sister Andrea was born in 1986, after which she enjoyed the peaceful life of an only child until I came along in 1991. Our childhood was far from perfect, I doubt such a childhood exists, but our parents did their best and worked hard so that we would never go without. Andrea took her role as big sister seriously enough, protecting me from bullies and comforting me whenever our parents fought. That’s not to say we were close when we were younger. Tolerant of one another, perhaps, but when she was kicked out of the house in her teens I made no effort to remain in contact with her, nor she with me.
That changed in 2007 with the birth of her first son. I was mesmerised by this tiny, new addition to the family and wanted to spend as much time with my nephew as possible. From there, my sister and I became best friends – sisters in the truest sense. We confided in and supported one another through thick and thin. Our newfound bond would be severely tested in the coming years when I began to identify as a trans man and rushed down the road to medical transition.
Between 2011 and 2012, when I was 20-21 years old, I started to believe that I should have been born male. I had struggled with insecurity and distress over my sex from my mid-teens onwards and often fantasised about being a man. Hindsight being 20/20, I now believe the catalyst to my distress was repeated, unwanted sexual attention from various men in my life, including men who had authority over me and men I had trusted and thought of as family. I felt like the people who were supposed to protect me refused to do so, and that betrayal would simmer inside me for years before boiling over.
The inner conflict from this was exacerbated by various factors, including something akin to body dysmorphia, depression and the realisation I was sexually attracted to other women. Being a quiet, timid teenager who was prone to feeling anxious in social situations, I found it difficult to tell others how I was feeling and I strongly opposed the idea of burdening others with my problems. Ultimately, my penchant for staying silent about my troubles would lead to them becoming worse.
By the time I was 21 years old I truly resented being a woman. Around this time I, like many other millennials, turned to the internet for support. Googling “I hate being a woman and wish I was a man” inevitably sent me into transgender territory. Immersed in online trans blogs, Youtube channels and forums, I was finally given a name for my distress: gender dysphoria. Apparently there were many women who felt just as I did and they had alleviated their dysphoria by transitioning into men. I had never heard the terms “transgender,” “gender dysphoria” or “gender transition” before then. It had never even crossed my mind that there were steps I could take to be recognised as male. But, as the internet revealed to me, there were. And so I went from being a woman who enjoyed the fantasy of being a man, to being a trans man who needed to transition.
In the wake of this epiphany my mental health began to dramatically decline, culminating in a half-hearted suicide attempt in October 2012. After the attempt and the consequences that followed, I decided to deal with my distress by hardening my heart. I pulled away from everyone in my life and slowly devolved into an angry, bitter hermit who hated everyone and everything around me. I no longer had the energy to keep hating myself and so, I turned my hatred outwards. My sister, unaware of how much resentment I was harbouring for her, tried and failed to keep communication open.
It was not until a year later, in 2013, that I would break my silence. I informed Andrea that I was a trans man and that I intended to medically transition. Surprised but supportive, she called me Séan, her brother, he/him, the whole shebang. She told her sons (her daughter would not be born until the following year) that they no longer had an aunty, but an uncle. Beneath her supportive mask, however, Andrea was grieving deeply for the loss of her only sister.
Speaking to Andrea today regarding how she felt at the time, she tells me “it was a smack in the face. It came out of absolutely nowhere. One day I had a sister named Sinéad and the next I was told I had a brother named Séan. That Sinéad was gone. I was hurt that I was expected to just go along with the whole thing, to pretend it was normal, but I felt I had no place to object because we were practically estranged by that point. I was afraid that if I said anything you’d walk out of my life forever. I didn’t really have a choice, so I supported you.”
I’ve always been a planner. Every room in my house has little piles of notebooks with my various lists, important dates and projects scribbled in them. I viewed my transition like another one of my projects; I listed all of the medical intervention I wanted (testosterone, double mastectomy, hysterectomy, phalloplasty), and I researched each one, noting the “pros” and “cons,” as I continued to obsessively view the blogs and vlogs of trans men who had had these procedures. My goal to transition became my sole purpose in life and I was absolutely certain it was the right thing for me – I’d never regret it. It was almost an obsession. With my loved ones reluctant support, I refereed myself to the Sandyford, Glasgow’s gender clinic, and spent all of 2014 on their waiting list. During my one year wait I received no counselling or therapy, a fact I hid from my family.
“I just assumed you were receiving therapy,” my sister says today. “You were waiting to begin serious, irreversible medical intervention. It didn’t even occur to me that they’d let you start transition without giving you intense talking therapy first. I was absolutely furious when I found out. You should have gotten years of therapy before they handed over those hormones. Counselling should have been mandatory, I certainly thought it was.”
In November of 2014, while still on the Sandyford’s waiting list, I had another severe mental breakdown that deeply concerned everyone in my life. My family, afraid that I was a danger to myself, begged me to seek help at a psychiatric hospital. I was extremely reluctant; I struggle when my day-to-day routine has to change too much. The problem was that my day-to-day routine at the time consisted of waking up, drinking whatever was left from last nights binge, going out for more alcohol and then drinking as much as I could before passing out. Evidently, a change in routine was exactly what I needed. Begrudgingly, I agreed to my family’s request and signed myself into the Gartnavel Royal Hospital’s psychiatric ward. However, I would not remain an inpatient for long.
The staff on the ward at Gartnavel made me feel hopeless and intimidated. They were curt and condescending, snapping at me and the other inpatients as if we were petulant children. When ushered in to meet the psychiatrist, I noticed a third person in the room. Anxious about opening up in front of an audience, I asked the psychiatrist if we could speak alone. My request was flatly refused, as the third person was sitting in for training purposes. I awkwardly attempted to explain myself, to open up about some of my most personal struggles, but I was hyper aware I had two strangers staring at me. It was too much and I ended up spluttering and sobbing. To this day I will never forget how the psychiatrist chose to address my breakdown: “So, you got a bit pished?”
I signed myself out of the psychiatric ward less than a week in. By then, I was struggling with suicidal thoughts, convinced there was no hope for me. My social worker got me into homeless accommodation and helped me as best he could, but alone and many miles away from anyone I knew, I converted my despair into anger once again. And again, my family bore the brunt of it. “I felt like you hated me,” Andrea says now. “I wanted to help you but you were so angry and you refused to tell me why. I was so frustrated when I found out you’d left Gartnavel so soon because you clearly needed help and you weren’t getting it. None of us knew what to do. Our last hope had been that the doctors there could help you but they didn’t even try. When you see someone you love doing so badly it’s awful, but when you see it and can do nothing about it, you feel guilty. I felt so guilty because you were my sister and yet I couldn’t help you.”
In 2015, a few months after leaving Gartnavel, I was seen for my first appointment at the Sandyford gender clinic. The specialist I was evaluated by was friendly and affirmative, never questioning or challenging my self-diagnosis of gender dysphoria. When I told him I believed that all of my mental health issues and breakdowns stemmed from my dysphoria and lack of access to transition, he agreed. He asked the mandatory questions and wrote down my answers, but he never asked me to expand upon or clarify anything. It was like he was simply ticking the boxes of a checklist, rather than making any real effort to figure out what was going on with me. He told me he would pass my case on to the gender team, who would then decide whether or not I would get access to testosterone, and that was it.
One of the most glaring issues I’ve learned from my experience being evaluated at a gender clinic is how unbelievably shoddy the so-called therapy is, and I think that point really should be considered by everyone involved. A few months after my first appointment, I was approved for and began injecting testosterone – Sustanon 250 – every three weeks. My medical transition had begun and I was elated. It’s difficult to explain the euphoric rush I felt when I began that journey. My family, seeing how happy I was for the first time in so long, felt compelled to support me without question. After all, if qualified mental health professionals had deemed transition right for me then clearly it was, right?
My sister recalls, “I was happy for you because you were doing so much better, but I didn’t like that you’d started testosterone because I felt you’d been led into it. You’d never spoken about wanting to be a boy when we were little, I just didn’t understand where this had all come from. And I didn’t want a brother, I wanted my sister. I felt terrible for feeling that way because I just wanted you to be happy, but I didn’t know this Séan. He was a stranger to me and my children. I had to tell them at such a young age that they now had an uncle and it confused the hell out of them. I felt like the whole thing was sprung on [my sons] and it upset them. It upset me. They wanted their aunty and the idea that she was now suddenly their uncle was a completely foreign concept to them. The whole thing was awful but we supported you because we loved you and just wanted you to find peace after everything that had happened. But I have to say the sadness and confusion that my young sons were put through did make me angry. They were far too young to be exposed to concepts like transsexuality, they just didn’t understand it and they shouldn’t have had to.”
With a referral from the Sandyford, I travelled to Manchester in the summer of 2017 for my double mastectomy. I was 26 years old and convinced that having my healthy breasts removed would dramatically improve my life, and the gender clinic agreed. As was the case with gaining access to testosterone, finally getting the surgery was followed by months of euphoric bliss. I was so full of energy and motivation, even completing my fastest ever 10k run just two months after the procedure. I was socially, legally and medically recognised as the man I was always supposed to be. I passed well and was never misgendered – my transition had been a success. I had finally done it and I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, this joy would fade with time and in its place manifested the worst depression I have ever experienced. Transition had changed me, and not just physically.
“Séan kept us all at arms’ length,” Andrea tells me. “You were aggressive and disrespectful once you got on testosterone. You had so much venom. I felt like any sisterly bond we once shared was gone. It was impossible to talk to you and when I tried, you refused to listen. You were so certain that transition was the right thing for you and God help anyone who tried to suggest otherwise. You said you were still the same person just with a new name and appearance, and if that had been the case there wouldn’t have been a problem! But you were not the same person. Transition had changed you and I felt like my little sister had died and my new brother was a stranger. We all grieved for the loss of Sinéad because any semblance of her was gone and in her place was a confrontational, unpredictable man who always seemed one step away from walking out of our lives and never looking back.”
When asked about her feelings upon seeing my mastectomy scars, Andrea revealed that she had been devastated. “I was gutted. I knew you wanted it done but when the gender clinic sent you down to Manchester for the surgery, you didn’t tell us. The clinic couldn’t tell us because you were an adult. I would have wanted to talk you out of it but again, you were a completely different person by then. You would never have listened to me so all I could do was keep supporting you. It was incredibly hard and I cried over what you were doing to yourself an awful lot, because I knew it wasn’t right. There was just nothing I could say or do to stop you. It left me feeling so powerless, like I had failed as a sister.”
In early 2018 I began to wrestle with the realisation that, despite having transitioned, all of the problems that becoming Séan was supposed to fix were still present. In fact, they’d gotten worse as the initial elation had faded . By that stage I had pulled so far back from my family and had built such a high mental wall that the thought of talking to them about anything was unacceptable. I would deal with it alone, like a real man. In May of that year I had another mental breakdown after multiple episodes of dissociation that left me incredibly confused and afraid. For the first time, out of sheer desperation, I confided in Andrea that I was struggling with transition regret and had no idea what to do about it. I hadn’t been sleeping or eating, my mind felt foggy and it was as if time was rushing by without my knowledge. My head had filled with intrusive thoughts and I genuinely felt like I was losing my mind. The whole ordeal terrified me to the core, but it was evidently the final push I needed to seek help from my family.
“I wasn’t surprised when you admitted to feeling regret,” Andrea remembers. “Your mental health had gotten so bad and I knew by 2018 you were no longer attending the gender clinic or receiving any kind of mental health care. Selfishly, I was relieved that you were considering detransition because it meant I would get my sister back, but more than that I was relieved because you were starting to open up. I was so glad when you said you were going to see a counsellor to discuss your transition regret. You should have been getting help years before then and the fact that you got as bad as you did just proves to me that all these mental health professionals failed to do their jobs.”
After more than a year of self-reflection, juggling my transition regret with my fear of detransition, and multiple useless sessions with counsellors who made it very clear that detransition was not a topic they were comfortable engaging with, I took the plunge in October of 2019 and ceased my testosterone injections. I informed my family and friends the following month, despite the humiliation I felt doing so, that I was Sinéad again. They were wary, of course. Who could blame them? I had become so unpredictable over the years that nobody knew what to believe any more. Should they support my detransition? What if I later turned on them for doing so? The whole thing was extraordinarily taxing on me and my loved ones and this was not helped by the utter lack of understanding and support from therapists and the baffling amount of hostility and vitriol the topic was receiving online.
“I was upset when you told me how useless the therapists had been, but I understood,” my sister says. “I had tried talking to my own therapist about my grief, about how I was struggling to accept my new brother and she had nothing to say about it other than we should have ‘talked about it.’ But you would have cut me off, I couldn’t talk to you. My therapist had no other advice, it was useless. Mum and I attended a support group for families at the Sandyford and they gave us nothing, no support, no answers, nothing. I even turned to a Facebook support group because I had nowhere else to turn and I was called small-minded and transphobic. The whole thing made me feel like a terrible person and an even more terrible sister. I knew I wasn’t transphobic but I also knew transition wasn’t right for you – and for saying that I was called every name under the sun and banned from the Facebook group.”
With the arrival of February 2021 I have been off testosterone for 16 months. I did seek counselling during my detransition and was met with confusion at best and hostility at worst. My therapists made it crystal clear that detransition and transition regret were not topics they were willing to engage with. I even brought my best friend with me to one of my sessions – just to show someone else what it’s actually like – and even she, who had been pushing for me to give therapy a second chance was blown away by the lacklustre care given to detransitioners. I was repeatedly informed that I’d be “best to return to the Sandyford.” For some reason, these mental health specialists could not fathom why I was reluctant to return to the clinic that had enabled my self-destructive transition in the first place. Even my GP, who I generally trust, shook his head and said “this isn’t my area. You should go back to the gender clinic for advice; they know about this kind of thing.”
It has been a long journey from transition to detransition but I can say with confidence that I have finally learned to accept myself as I am. It’s hard to put into words just how little help and support is out there for detransitioners, but I was fortunate enough to have a wonderfully supportive family. The experiences I endured throughout my teens and early twenties, coupled with my self-isolation, reliance on fantasy and on the Internet as a way to escape seem to have joined together to create a toxic mentality that had me believing that being a woman was so disgusting, so wrong, that transitioning into a man was the only way to save my life. Unfortunately, HRT and a double mastectomy did nothing to address my egregious mental health problems – something you would expect mental health professionals to have anticipated but, alas, they didn’t. Or if they did, they simply didn’t care enough to follow-up with me.
Learning self-acceptance, forgiveness, confronting hard truths and opening up to my loved ones did. Séan is still alive and he’ll always be a part of me. While my loved ones didn’t like him, I will always feel gratitude towards him. He protected me and stood up to those who had harmed me. However, I now see that I shouldn’t have felt the need to do that as Séan. I should have felt strong enough and supported enough to do that as Sinéad.
“No, I didn’t like Séan,” Andrea admits. “But now, I completely understand where he came from. I was a teenage girl once, too. It’s hard and it can be very scary. From the minute she starts to develop, a girl is sexualised and objectified and it’s not right. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. It makes perfect sense to me that the experiences you had in your teens onwards would make becoming Séan the perfect escape, especially since you were basically relying on online forums to diagnose you. I just wish I knew then what I know now so I could have done more. I feel like if you had turned to me instead of the internet then maybe we could have done some real soul searching and discovered how best to help you. Clearly affirming you as transgender and saying that transition is the best treatment was the last thing you needed to hear.”
I would not have made it this far without the support of my loved ones, who I’ll never be able to thank enough. They stood by me during a time when cutting me out of their lives would have been the easier option. I still struggle with gender dysphoria today but I have accepted that simply mimicking the outward appearance of a man is not the answer for me. I developed dysphoria due to a variety of factors and I have been reflecting upon and addressing each of those in turn for the past year. With the help of my boyfriend, who has shown me nothing but love and acceptance, I have learned to feel comfort and acceptance for my body and for myself as the woman I am – deep voice, facial hair, mastectomy scars and all.
Please rest assured that reconciliation is possible. For every family dealing with a sudden, rushed transition, no matter how bad it seems, there’s always hope. I will end this by sharing my beloved sisters reply to the following question: If you could go back in time and speak to me while I was pursuing transition, what would you say?
“I would do the opposite of what I actually did; I would question you. I would ask so many questions and try my best to get to the bottom of what was really going on. You know, why did it take finding trans stories online for you to realise you were trans yourself despite the fact you’ve never mentioned a desire to transition before? Do you really believe you’d be seeking transition now if it weren’t for finding those stories?
If you have gender dysphoria, why did it not come up when we were children? Did it simply develop at a later age for you even though most trans people report having shown symptoms from a very early age?
How can you say ‘deep down, you’ve always felt this way’ when you were a perfectly happy, self-described tomboy when you were younger?
Do you see any connection between the bad experiences you’ve had as a woman and your sudden desire to no longer be a woman? Are you perhaps trying to become a new person – a man – to have a fresh start?
Is it possible your fixation on transition is just another one of your projects and you’re using it as a distraction from any underlying issues? You seem to be rewriting your own history because you claim you had dysphoria as a teen yet you didn’t mention it once before your twenties. Have you considered that maybe what you had as a teen was not the rare condition of gender dysphoria, but instead the common discomfort and distress with being a developing girl who was subjected to a lot of attention?
I knew you were making a mistake but I said nothing and I’ll live with that forever. I should have said something and I would implore others in my position to do the same. I know it’s scary because of the fear that you’re loved one will cut you out forever, but I promise you that watching them irreversibly change themselves to their detriment is just as bad. Talk to your loved ones. Tell them your concerns. I wish I did.”