Sunday 13 February 2022

Interview with Sheila Newsom

Monika: Today I have the sheer pleasure of meeting Dr. Sheila Newsom, an American physician, published author, public speaker, successful entrepreneur, experienced producer, and lifelong student. Sheila can boast a military background, including graduation from West Point and service as an Airborne Ranger. She spent 22 years in private practice focusing on nephrology and critical care. She is is the founder of Finding Metis, an in-home ketamine therapy service, and the author of A Calling from the Bones (2018), a biographical book that covers different aspects of her transition. Hello Sheila!
Sheila: Monika, I am honored that you would ask me to contribute.
Monika: Our road to womanhood is usually long and winding. Was it the same in your case?
Sheila: The first forty-two years of my life I constructed the persona of an alpha male. I was raised in West Texas within the bosom of a close and loving family. My parents were intelligent, supportive, hardworking people who were not afraid to display affection. My father owned the local grocery store that was the heart and soul of the community. Yet, paradoxically I see them now as an elegant pair, a power couple living in the bardoland.
My mother had a voice that should have been trained at Julliard and my father read the Encyclopedia Britannica each night and made stained glass windows as a hobby. Later in life, they travelled extensively and visited Egypt multiple times. Both sets of grandparents lived close-by and, as I was the only grandchild, they doted on me. It was a lovely, almost scripted, childhood. I learned early on to use my intuition and feelings to read the people around me, to gauge their expectations, to intuit the best response, and to measure their approval. Pleasing others was how I learned to navigate the world.
Monika: When did you discover your feminine side?
Sheila: Like many transgender women, I aggressively pursued alpha-male activities which effectively dampened the confusing but persisting urges to be a female. This was something “other” that hid in the depths. In the first grade, I was in a performance in which I wore lipstick and blush. I remember that I hid afterwards so that I would not have to remove the make-up. Growing up I seriously practiced the piano for many years, learned to cross-stitch, and, in general, I was a very industrious and creative child that had a strong feminine side.
"Like many transgender women,
I aggressively pursued alpha-male
I cannot say that I felt different than the other males I grew up with. But, my best friends were women and I did not date anyone seriously. I just think that there was an early confusion about gender and gender expression in a time when sexual preferences and gender were tightly entwined. I believe my mother was aware of some of the struggles, but no one in those days had the language to tease out such large issues. As a male, in my small hometown, you just kept your feelings to yourself and “soldiered on”.
Monika: Were you a good student?
Sheila: In high school, I was captain of the football team and a finalist for the state Young Texan of the Year award. I attended a large university for one year and was elected the class vice-president. Then, was selected to go to West Point where I was captain of the baseball team and ranked second in the Corps chain of command my senior year. It was a perfect matrix in which to ground and to inflate my people-pleasing skills and to repress the feminine that was calling from the depths. Despite all the accomplishments, I remember driving through the gates of West Point the day of graduation thinking that somehow, I had failed. I see now that my feminine self, my soul, was desperately seeking a form.
After graduation and Infantry commission, I received the Ranger tab and served for four years as a paratrooper. Then, not certain of a path, I went to medical school because it seemed to be another challenge, and my family supported it. There was a dramatic shift in my orientation during the first year of medical training. I remember sitting in an ethics class and I consciously said: “I won’t talk in this class for the remainder of the semester.” I shifted away from the outgoing, affable male to an introverted thinker who boxed away his/her feelings. It was such a confusing mix and I had no one I could even begin to discuss this with.
Monika: But you managed to complete your education... 
Sheila: I earned my MD, completed exhaustive training, became a competent physician, and then a partner in well-regarded nephrology practice. I also met and married my best friend, and we started a family. The medical work was particularly difficult with the death and suffering of my chronically ill dialysis patients. My feelings remained hidden deep in the dark caverns of my psyche.
My wife lived much of my feminine essence forward as she was a beautiful professional singer who debuted with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. Yet, as I moved into my forties, I began to feel the advent of a worsening, yet unexplained, urge to drink. I found solace in strip clubs, and one day while watching a woman dancing, I thought, “I don’t want to watch her, I want to be her.” That was the voice of my feminine soul and I suppressed it with my workaholism and drinking until I went to treatment at the age of 42.
Monika: At that time you did not cross-dress, did you?
Sheila: After treatment, I stayed committed to my AA program and got into therapy. Gender issues floated up, but I ignored them as best I could. I used work and exercise to mitigate the feelings around this complex. I did, however, begin to wear my wife’s clothing episodically and it felt so very exotic and resonant. We had our second child and time drifted by where the day-to-day of life just outweighed any of the issues.
That all changed at the age of 52. While on a leisure trip to Las Vegas, while leaving the hotel room, I looked and there on the bed was a very attractive brunette woman with full lips, smiling at me. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, she was gone. It was an apparition. It seemed that that image opened some portal in my deep psyche, and I began to “feel” as if I were feminine. A new job appeared and required me to live in a separate town during the week. It was then that I began to experiment with make-up and women’s clothing. By this time, I just thought of this as a fetish and every three to four months would dump everything I had into the dumpster as I felt embarrassed and somehow so venerable when I was exploring that process.
"I shifted away from the outgoing,
affable male to an introverted
thinker who boxed away his/her
Monika: How did you feel in female clothes?
Sheila: I found a woman in Houston who would do a make-over for MTF and help with garment selection, etc. I spent a whole day dressed as a woman with make-up on and when we went out for coffee, I felt ecstatic. It touched a chord deep within that I remember from wearing make-up in the kindergarten play. The image of the woman on the bed in Las Vegas began to appear in dreams, and after months, I finally had the image tattooed on my back during a business meeting in San Francisco. Somehow, that tattoo made me feel alive and a part of something larger, more feminine in the best sense of the word.
I retired in 2011 after the sale of a large practice and began to work in Uganda. We found a home in the West Indies that my wife dearly loved and began spending more and more time there. My ideas around gender expression were always bubbling, but I simply tried to ignore them or to mitigate with wearing women’s clothing and make-up whenever family was not present. But, that all changed in 2013 when I was sitting on my deck of our retirement home and I clearly hear a voice, “Sheila, you are a woman and always have been. There is work to do.”
Monika: What was your wife's reaction to your dysphoria?
Sheila: I became more open with my wife about what was going on with me. Caitlyn Jenner was going through a very public transition, and this created a great deal of ambivalence as my wife had declared in no uncertain terms that she would not participate in a gender transition. Then, I began to feel dysphoria in a very deep way. All I can say is that my outside did not match my inside and there was a great dissonance. I read that cross-sex hormones could help this, so I started on HRT in 2014 and that helped considerably.
But, the suicidal ideation grew in leaps and bounds and I returned to Nevis and planned to commit suicide there. I had a clear plan and the night before I was out under the moon and I heard that voice again and it said, “You can do what you want, but if you kill yourself, there will be others whom you can help that won’t have anyone.” So, I woke up the next morning and at the age of 64 began to transition in earnest.
Monika: How did you prepare yourself for the transition?
Sheila: I did not know what that meant or what it looked like, although the Internet was full of transition stories and the painful process that many transgender men and women went through. I paid attention to the suicide numbers which were horribly high. Over the next two years, I tried to stay true to what I felt was a calling and began in earnest to move forward, despite growing opposition from family. I finally moved out of my home in 2017 and fully declared who and what I was, despite the great opposition from my wife and family. But I knew this was the only way forward.
I then volunteered as a physician at a gender care clinic where I spent time with scores of transgender men and women and started them on HRT. Seeing and being with these lovely men and women, I knew I was among “my people”. I was fortunate to have enough money to do FFS in Boston in 2018 with Dr. Jeffrey Spiegel. Even though I was 68, he reassured me that he thought that we could work through all this and so I underwent a 10-hour surgery. When I awoke swollen and dazed and confused from the anesthetic/surgery, I felt so good. I knew I had done the right thing. I then did a breast augmentation and vocal femininization surgery.
"I loved who and what I have
Monika: Were you satisfied with the results of your FFS?
Sheila: I loved who and what I have become, but I still could not explain anything from the psychological perspective, so I started a two-year master’s program in Depth Psychology with Pacifica Graduate Institute. One interesting thing happened during that time. I was at a conference at Pacifica and went to the restroom. As I washed my hands I looked into the mirror and suddenly realized that I was looking at the same face I had seen on the apparition who appeared so briefly in that hotel room in 2002.
I finished that course in August and started a ketamine-centered practice,, aimed mostly at people with refractory depression, suicidality, and PTSD. Of course, this frames many of the mental health issues that affect the transgender community.
Monika: Given my own experience as well as that of many girls and women that I interviewed, I wonder whether we should be called ‘runners’ instead of transwomen. We run, run, and run away from our feminine self until it catches up with us. The only difference is how long we can run away…
Sheila: I agree that there is a sense of avoidance of our essential self in so many of us that experience this life path. I like to think that each of us has within us a unifying essence, a daimon or angel, that guides us at every point. In this way, the “running” is just an early pivot in the movement to become whole. It takes each of us a certain amount of time to awaken to the still small voice that will never leave. Some of us, even die to avoid it or are killed as we try to express it. Those are just the basic facts of the transgender process. I do know that it is so important for people like you and me to share their own truth because there is no way to know when a simple article or picture will change a whole life. It happened to me.
I truly believe that in honoring that calling, and it IS a calling, that we begin to open to who and what we really are. People ask me what “transgender” is. I cannot answer that, but I do know that if I substitute “transgendering” with “running” I see my own life path as purposeful. This path is not linear, it has twists and turns and switch-backs; but, my “transgendering” is a constant, and I am reminded that it is always being pulled in some way to my wholeness.
Monika: Was your military service a form of escapism as well?
Sheila: I think the entire first fifty years of my life were a form of escapism from this essential self that would not dissipate. Playing football, going to West Point, becoming a paratrooper were all subconscious attempts to counterbalance something that was buried deep in my psyche.
I will say that I had an interesting experience after retirement and before HRT: I am extremely vain, pure, and simple, and was afraid of gaining weight with starting estrogen. A trainer friend of mine suggested we do bodybuilding as a way to become leaner. I took testosterone to help with strength and to “cut” or improve muscle definition. This move temporarily improved my dysphoria, but as soon as I stopped the heavy lifting and testosterone, it returned.
"I think the entire first fifty years of
my life were a form of escapism."
In retrospect, I think that the testosterone enhancing psychological effects of living life as an alpha male were part of my attempt to avoid the reality of who and what I was and had been from the beginning. I know, though, that Life has a way of showing us glimpses of who we really are. I think the figure of the woman on the bed in my hotel room in 2002 was a projection of who I knew I wanted to become. I did not understand that the psyche is capable of such demonstrations, but that my face now looks the same as the face of that apparition is proof to me that there is a greater mystery working than we could ever imagine.
Monika: Do you regret that you waited so long with your transition?
Sheila: There are many ways to answer this. Certainly, at 72, I wish that I could have lived life in the form that I now embody. To be young and to have a whole life in front of me where I could live into my truth, with the body, voice, and movements of a woman would bring me joy. Yet, it was not meant to be. I needed every obstacle, every tear, every fear, every insult, to become the woman I am.
The image that I saw on the bed in 2002, the tattoo of that feminine form on my back since 2007, those were symbols that were given to me. They fascinated me and enchanted me, but it took time for them to live through me till the exact point where I had to declare to the world: I am a transgender woman. That this whole movement took such a long time to manifest the longing was just part of my specific drama. We transition when our soul says it is ready to live its truth.


All the photos: courtesy of Sheila Grace Newsom.
© 2022 - Monika Kowalska

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