Life, Gender, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Coming out of stealth mode.

By Sarah Withee (Software Engineer, Commerce Bank)

This post originally appeared on Medium. Content warning: This post contains talk of deep depression and talk of self harm. GEOS for Commodore 64I was probably in first grade when I wrote my first computer program. My parents had a Commodore 64. (If you’re a bit younger, it was about equivalent in power to the original Nintendo game system.) My dad taught me how to put in a floppy disk, flip the lever to lock it in, then type LOAD “*”,8,1. I had no clue what that meant, but the computer listened. I eventually learned there were a lot of other commands you could enter to do a variety of other things, and the computer listened to all of them. It fascinated me. I copied programs in from the instruction manual, then would change them, or add on to them, to make the computer do more things.

I knew at that point that I had found what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a computer programmer when I grew up.

I was teased in elementary school for being a nerd. I was teased in middle school for it too, but also for having no athletic skills. By high school the teasing subsided, and people actually saw that I really was getting good at computer programming. Through this and some other after school activities, I started establishing a name for myself as a technical person.

I was always pretty smart. I did well in my classes. As in the ones I enjoyed, Bs in the ones not as much. I graduated from high school in the top 8% of my class of 340 people. I spent practically all of the free time my parents would allow writing programs and learning more about computers. I felt as if I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to.

I started at a community college my first year after high school, and after that moved to a school that was in state but far away. I needed to move away from home for a while. I was majoring in computer science (the obvious choice) and was doing very well. For a while anyway.

There was a problem. For as long as I could remember, this problem plagued my mind in some fashion or another. Depression. This feeling of life being awful. The feeling that I was awful. I hated it. The more time went on though, the more the depression soaked into my life. It stems back as far as I can remember — all the way back to kindergarten. I had many times in high school where I hated my life and really couldn’t stand it. It got worse in college. By the fifth semester, depression was so bad that I didn’t have the energy to go to class, and learning was impossible. My brain had basically shut off by that point. I couldn’t think straight. I was chronically unmotivated to do anything, often including eating. Those computer projects I loved hadn’t been touched in years. My passions were gone, and basically any form of existence I had known was gone too. I really wanted to die. I finally dropped out of college to try to save my falling 1.9 GPA before it got worse.

I secretly knew the source of the depression. Maybe I could make it go away. Maybe I could just keep hiding it. Maybe I could find a way to cure it somehow. Maybe just denial would work. I needed some way to give me my life back.

Gender is an interesting topic to learn about. It seems so simplistic at a surface level. Men and women. Male and female. Blue and pink. Trucks and dolls. Pants and skirts. But the more you dig into it, the more questions it brings up. What is gender? How is it given to us? How do we know what we are? And for me: why did mine feel so wrong?

YoungSarahSo I wasn’t the gender that I was told I was at birth. Society said I was a boy. My parents said I was a boy. My body said I was a boy. But there was this nagging feeling that I wasn’t one. My brain said I was a girl. At least not directly at first, which explains much of my confusion. The more time went on, the more readily apparent it became, and the more my internal fight with my brain happened. A fight that resulted in this depression. A fight that resulted in my hatred of myself, my body, and my life. A fight that made me eventually lose almost all of my emotions. A fight that nearly resulted in my death.

I discovered the term “transgender” (or “trans” for short), and it seemed to fit my symptoms of the mismatch between my brain and my body. The more I researched it, the more it made sense. At the same time, the more I researched, the more it scared the crap out of me. I was too normal to be transgender. I was too smart to be transgender. (Well, before the brain inactivity anyway.) I was too… male… to be transgender. But I couldn’t fight this. I tried. I did everything I could think of to “un-transgender” myself and nothing worked. It seemed only one option remained, and I didn’t want to do it.

In 2004, after finding this new term for myself, I discovered a website called LiveJournal. (It still exists but isn’t as popular as it used to be 10 years ago.) I ended up finding a community of trans people who were supportive of each other. From this site, I learned that those transgender people who go through the transition process from the birth gender to their mental gender not only had happy results, but the depression actually seemed to just… disappear. This sounded wonderful, except for those parts where transgender people got beat up, or lost jobs, or lost friends, family, or worse. Despite this, the depression just seemed to vanish.

July 26, 2007 is a day I will remember forever. It’s the day I received my hormones. I got them in the afternoon, and stared at them for hours. Taking them meant potentially being happy and mentally healthy. It also meant a whirlwind of potential bad things too. It meant my life was literally going to change in about every way I knew how. Then again, not taking them would continue my life as it was. Unhappy. Unhealthy. And wanting to no longer live.

I took the medicine about 11 p.m. and went to bed.

That was the day I decided not to kill myself.

It’s the day I made the scariest, most life-influencing change I’ve ever made.

After that, I lost a majority of my friends. I was disowned by my family. I went through I don’t know how many jobs. I nearly ended up on the streets, homeless. But my mind cleared up. I started to feel… joy. This feeling I don’t know if I’d felt before. Almost the opposite of what I felt: the desire to live. The desire to keep persevering through life.

Despite the setbacks, I persevered. I started living as a woman in 2008 and legally changed my name in 2009. I went back to school in 2011. While in school, I got involved in mentoring middle school and later high school students. I joined the university programming team and robotics team. I went to a Women in Computing conference. I started winning awards for some of the things I did. I started becoming a leader in activities at school. I had a GPA above and beyond what I ever dreamed I could achieve the first time I went to university. I started writing computer programs again. I got dragged into teaching a C++ lab at school that brought me out of my introverted shell. I became the only student chair on the planning committee for the same Women in Computing conference I had attended. I ended up giving a technical talk at two software developer conferences, one of which was so popular they asked me to give it again and it made me go viral in my town for a while. And I walked across stage to receive my bachelor of science in computer science.

I became successful. More importantly, I became a successful woman.

Finally, at the age of 32, a long and grueling 25 years after I wrote my first computer program, I got my first full-time software development job.

I became that computer programmer that 7-year-old geek wanted to be when she grew up.

I sometimes have a hard time believing my life turned out this well. There is such a huge difference between 8-years-ago me and today’s me. I get asked if I would change anything about my past, and I don’t think I would. The events I lived through made me the person I am: compassionate, empathetic, strong, empowered, and intelligent. I am stronger than I ever could have imagined, and I don’t know that anything can knock me down anymore.

I had a passion for writing computer programs growing up. But now I have a passion for life and for empowering others as well. I love teaching kids to program. I love encouraging women in the computing fields. I love helping others feel better about themselves. I love being that friend who listens when you need to rant. I love helping other LGBTQ people blossom into their true selves, and helping parents understand their LGBTQ children. Lately I’ve been even more empowered by the amazing Slack and Twitter people I’ve been meeting. I have heard so many wonderful stories from people I am meeting that just blow me away. And I really hope that others are able to be empowered by my story.

I decided to write this post for several reasons. I’ve been “stealth” for the last several years. I only told select friends about my story, but hid the trans part of myself. It was nice to be able to blend into the world which perceived me as a normal woman.

I’m at a point though where I’m comfortable enough in my life as it’s turned out that I feel I need to speak up. There are many trans people who can’t speak up, or who go through many horrible situations in the course of their life, and I want to bring awareness to that.

GeekyGirlSarahI became very lucky by both becoming the software developer and the woman I was meant to be, and I want to show that others can too. I also feel that as I continue to network and meet people, I need to feel open and free to be my whole self and not someone who constantly has to watch what they say.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s easy to avoid talking about issues like depression, suicide, and self-hate. I feel it’s vital that topics like this are brought to the spotlight so we can deal with them, and hopefully help stop unnecessary harm and death. Even one suicide is too much.

I would love to see everyone share what empowers them. Would you go on Twitter and use the #IAmEmpoweredBy hashtag? Tell the world what makes you thrive! What do you live for? What keeps you going on a daily basis? What enables you to do awesome work? Share it with the world, and encourage your friends and family to share the same too.

And if you ever need someone to support you, come find me or send me a tweet. I would love to be supportive for you.

EDIT: I wrote a follow up to this post where I explain why I decided to come out to the world the way I did. I hoped 50–100 people would read this. Thousands have read it, and it continues to go viral. I hoped to make an impact on people’s lives (and it has), but it’s also had an impact on my life in return. Read more about it.

Photo credit: GEOS for Commodore 64 by Stefano Petroni via Flickr.


About the guest blogger: Sarah Withee is  a software developer located in Kansas City, MO. She's participated in hackathons, given conference talks, built and programmed robots, and mentored with several groups to teach youth about technology. She's passionate about working with communities that encourage women in the computing and engineering fields. Follow her on Twitter at @geekygirlsarah.