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How Changing My Name Changed My Mental Health for the Better

Last year I went on medical leave from work. While I was gone, I worked on both my physical and mental health. I also wrestled with my gender identity — specifically worrying about how “out” I wanted to be, which labels fit and how much I wanted to transition. I already knew I was genderfluid, but always presented as relatively feminine or neutral. Now, a more masculine side was coming out and I was having a hard time dealing with it. I ended up settling on the labels genderqueer and non-binary to describe me to the outside world. I started dressing more masculine, got a crewcut, dyed my hair blue, and started using the pronouns “they/them.” All of this helped shed the “old me” and quell the gender dysphoria that was the main problem which started all of this. My body now felt like it belonged to me. My head attached to my body when I looked in the mirror for once. The rest of my body looked like me. It no longer felt like the “meat suit” I previously described. It felt solid, it felt like me.

However, I was still struggling emotionally. I was in a relationship that wasn’t going well to put it lightly. My health was draining all of the life out of it. I knew I had to do more to feel like this “transition” was “enough” (because I did not want to take any hormones or undergo any medical transitioning). So, I changed my name. My birth name is incredibly feminine and made it hard to feel masculine whenever I heard it used or had to say it. I wasn’t transitioning to be a man, so I chose what I thought of as a gender neutral name, Hayden. Sadly, I don’t have a great story about why I chose it. I sent a list of names to my friends and they said they liked it so I tried it out and it stuck. I tried out names by calling in take out orders, seeing how each name felt as I said it, and then again saw how it felt when I heard it said. This was actually incredibly effective. I had strong reactions to what definitely was not my name and then neutral and then Hayden, which actually felt “right” (sounds made up, but it’s true). Plus, I looked up “Hayden” on Wikipedia and it said it originally meant “heathen,” which definitely describes me. So, I was sold.

At first it was just a social name change. I only told my closest friends and people I saw when I was out in public. I also was participating in an intensive outpatient program at the time and used the name there. It was challenging having my issues there because I felt like no one understood what I was going through so I spent a lot of time educating everyone. I even wore a t-shirt that said “THEY THEM THEIR,” because I got so annoyed at being misgendered. Eventually people got on board and it felt good to hear strangers or acquaintances use this name, especially if that was the only name they knew me as. All of this served as “practice” until eventually it came time to tell my family.

I wish I could skip this part, but I suppose it’s part of the story. Because of my health and being out of work, I had to move in with my family. I told them my name, educated them on my pronouns and gender identity, and told them that even though they will always know me as my birth name, that name doesn’t suit me so I want the rest of the world to see me as Hayden because it suits me better. I asked for them not to use my birth name. I would like to say that they used my name and pronouns and that was the end of the story. The reality is much messier. There were many fights, many corrections, many self-corrections, and even a family meeting held by a therapist from a new partial hospitalization program I was attending. I spent many hours working with three different therapists and one psychiatrist talking about this issue because it was making my mental illnesses and suicidal ideation worse. Through all of this, they all affirmed that my name was Hayden. Everyone in the program called me Hayden. I spent all day being called Hayden, then went home to hearing variations of my birth name — Hayden. It’s been over a year since I moved out, but this still happens. I gave up trying to get them to use my pronouns and just focused on my name, thinking that would make a difference, but it didn’t. I know some people feel stronger about this issue (hearing their birth name), and don’t get me wrong, I do hate it, but not at the expense of having a relationship with my family.

So, once it became time to go back to work, I moved out from my family’s home and back on my own again. After a few weeks at work I realized I couldn’t continue this partially-out lifestyle. I had to come out at work. I am fortunate to work in higher education, known for its liberal attitudes and safe spaces, so I felt relatively comfortable with this nerve-wracking idea. First, I saw our LGBT resource center director for guidance and was encouraged to come-out, explaining that California just passed the California Gender Recognition Act which allows non-binary individuals to have gender identity documentation that includes a non-binary category (on their driver’s licenses for example), giving them full recognition in the State of California. Excited and motivated from this discussion, I marched into my boss’s office and told her that I had been living under a different name for the past year and that I’m non-binary and use they/them pronouns. She did not blink. She was just purely logistical and asked what my new name was so she could notify IT. I was glad to put the focus back on work so we listed all the steps that I needed to take to make my name change official at work.

After meeting with my boss, it was time to notify my coworkers and colleagues. I wrote a very short email explaining my name change and pronouns, excluding the part about being non-binary because I thought it was irrelevant (looking back, I would leave it in for clarity). Then, it was official. IT changed my name on my email, phone, and internal systems. Even though my name wasn’t legally changed yet, it was starting to feel official. It left me wanting more. I wanted to finish this name change process so I could move on with my life. I felt incomplete not having my name legally changed…it was as if my name wasn’t fully “mine” yet.

So, I filed the (very expensive) paperwork to change my name. I got a court date where I had to go defend myself for why I wanted to change my name. On the paperwork, I simply put that I was non-binary and wanted a name that better suited my gender identity. When the court date rolled around, I didn’t have to say much. My name change was granted. It was official. Right?

It was confusing because here I had a court order saying my name was changed, but nothing else to prove that was my name. So, time to go to the DMV. I quickly went over there to change my name on my driver’s license and decided to mark the “X” for non-binary on my driver’s license while I was at it. Now it felt real. I had proof that my name is Hayden. I had proof that I’m non-binary.

Even though I shouldn’t need external validation to feel good, it does help. My driver’s license is more to me than external validation — it’s legal documentation so it’s just plain inaccurate to not update it after receiving the court order of my name change. Having the court order, driver’s license, and my information updated at work all solidified my identity. They proved, to me, that my identity is valid and that the State of California and my work view me as valid as well.

Suddenly, my dysphoria lifted. My symptoms of borderline personality disorder all lessened. My dissociation, mood swings, emotional outbursts, suicidal thinking, and gender/body image issues all basically disappeared. For the first time in my life, I finally felt comfortable in my body. I looked how I wanted to look for the most part. Being non-binary can be confusing in general because for many of us it means falling in the middle of the gender spectrum, so that can make  figuring out what to wear really frustrating. I err on the side of men’s clothing most of the time, but the important thing is that clothed or not, my body looks like it belongs to me (which is an achievement when you have body dysphoria).

I also have grown more confident. When people misgender me or call me by my birth name, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to because I have proof in my wallet what my name is. I know who I am. Maybe that was the problem — everyone calling me different things made it even more confusing for me to figure out who I was, when I was trying to figure that out for myself. Now, I have a new sense of confidence in all areas of my life. At work, I notice I’m more outspoken than I used to be. I’m guessing it’s because I had to fight to be who I am. In my new relationship, I stand up for myself and make sure I am treated fairly. With my healthcare, I stand up to my doctors to make sure I’m getting proper medical care. I advocate for myself. With my family and friends, I’ve come out to all my extended family and friends. There’s no more hiding or alternate versions of me. I’m finally being honest with myself about who I am, and that makes me feel stronger, braver, more confident, and happier than I could have ever imagined possible.

I would never have believed that something so basic as a piece of paper changing my name could make such a profound impact on every area of my life and on my general well-being, but I’m proof of why transitioning into your authentic self can save your mental health.

Photo credit:artisteer/Getty Images