It took me a long time to realize that my vagina was not the enemy. I didn’t really think about my own vagina until I first got my period; before that, I was only vaguely aware of its existence. When I was eleven years old, the saga of the monthly bleeding began, as did my fraught relationship with my own body, and especially my own vagina.

I started puberty early, so my mind took a couple years to catch up to my body — I had my period, hips, breasts, and pubic hair long before I started realizing and growing into my own sexuality and young adult identity. So, for the first few years, I didn’t really mind all of these new markers of womanhood. I wore the same basketball shorts and t-shirts I had always worn, just with a sports bra underneath. I was relatively comfortable in the first phases of growing into a woman.

As my mind’s development began to catch up with my body’s, though, everything fell to pieces. I fell in love with my best friend — a girl. Yet, I felt that I was not gay. I just wanted to be her boyfriend. While retrospectively a simple concept, that feeling confused me to no end, and was the catalyst for my new understanding of myself. It was clear to my 13 year old self that I could never be anyone’s boyfriend, because I was not a boy. I started to hate everything about myself that “proved” I was not a boy — I hated my hips, my breasts, my vagina, and, more than anything, my period. I dreaded it when I wasn’t bleeding, and cried over it when I was. I stopped wearing tampons, because I was gripped with a new fear of putting anything in my vagina, touching it, or even just admitting that it was there.

I started to hate everything about myself that “proved” I was not a boy — I hated my hips, my breasts, my vagina, and, more than anything, my period.

The early high school years that I spent realizing that I was transgender were years filled with a great deal of pain. Undoubtedly, some of the struggle was the self-realization process any teenager goes through, and in my case was certainly compounded by a familial predisposition to mental illness, but the most crucial factor was the fear, shame, and utter confusion I felt about being trans.

I have always been surrounded by an incredibly supportive community of family and friends, but the internal battle was fierce and brutal. I was terrified of myself, and didn’t know how to exist in my own mind or my own body. I went through long periods of depression and anxiety. I had hours-long half-awake nightmares. I frequently experienced dizziness and blurry vision. I often fell into dissociative states where I felt utterly disconnected from the movements of my own body. And I was deep into self-harming and constantly thinking of suicide. The pain lasted for years.

When I finally ended up in the hospital on a 72-hour hold, I realized that I ultimately had two options: keep going as I had been and end up dead, or allow myself the terrifying freedom to tell the truth and forge through the inevitable challenges that it would present. It was in the hospital that I first said out loud that I was transgender. I choked it out through streaming tears to one of my best friends who had come to visit me. She responded with so much kindness and love that I felt for the first time that maybe I could survive as the person I knew myself to be.

My coming out process was uncommonly easy. I am so blessed to have been surrounded by people who were completely willing to embrace me fully. While there were plenty of people who had questions or stumbled in switching name and pronouns smoothly, everyone was doing their best, and made it clear to me that they loved me throughout. As I came to terms with myself and shared my reality with the people around me, I found that much of the psychological distress I had experienced started to melt. The depression and anxiety faded, nightmarish and dissociative mental states disappeared, balance and vision restored, and urges to self-harm faded. I starting feeling surges of joy and excitement and gratefulness and love that I hadn’t felt for years. I was finally living as the person I knew I wanted to be.

The only part of myself that still felt broken was my relationship with my body. I was thrilled to be perceived as male, and I was thriving in my mind and soul, but as soon as I stripped down to take a shower and caught a glimpse of my naked body in the mirror, I felt my newfound self-confidence sink. And every time I got my period, I was forcefully reminded how very, very female I was.

And every time I got my period, I was forcefully reminded how very, very female I was.

Putting a pad comfortably in men’s underwear is laughably difficult. There are almost never trash cans in men’s restrooms. It’s no fun to stand in the “feminine products” section while strangers are visibly surprised and uncomfortable to see me filing through the products looking for the right pads. But more than any of that, bleeding through my vagina was a painful reminder that I still had one.

Last April, I started taking testosterone. Each day since then, I have been happier and happier with my body. I love my new facial hair, my deep voice, and my faster-growing muscles. One of my favorite parts is that I never have to get my period again. About five weeks after starting testosterone, I realized it had been more than a month since I last bled and burst into happy tears right then and there. It felt like an enormous weight had been lifted, and I was finally free. Last November, I got top surgery. In many ways, I thought that was my last major step toward having the body I knew was right for me. It felt amazing to pull off my shirt, look in the mirror, and see the reflection I had been expecting for so many years.

It wasn’t until this spring, though, that I finally came full circle in re-connecting with my body. I had come a long way in terms of self-acceptance, and I was feeling better in my body than I ever had before, but I didn’t realize until starting my first relationship with my wonderful girlfriend how terrified I was of sharing my body with someone else. I knew how much she loved and respected me, yet the idea of getting naked in front of her was frightening. I realized that while I believed my mind and my heart to be lovable, I figured that my trans body — notably because of my vagina — would forever be unlovable and utterly unfuckable.

It was only through the slow, confusing, and extraordinary process of sharing myself with my girlfriend in small pieces that I realized how wonderful my body is, how possible it is to integrate my mind’s perception of self with my gloriously trans body, and how good it feels to be completely vulnerable and completely safe with another human being who loves me. Letting someone else show me how beloved my whole body is helped me to realize that my vagina doesn’t contradict who I am, but rather is a beautiful part of it.

Elijah Thornburg just graduated high school from Castilleja in Palo Alto, CA; he led his school's Diversity Club, was editor in chief of an intersectional feminist student journal called "Radical," coached middle school girls' soccer and basketball, and was on the varsity swim team. He intends to pursue a career in education, psychiatric nursing, or social work, and he loves singing, sailing, hiking, drawing, and writing.