Content warning: potty language, toilet talk, and bathroom issues.
My cousin once told me that having to go to the bathroom and being unable is one of the worst, most awkward feelings a person could feel. At the time I was a teen and she was a preteen, and I was pretty sure I knew better: I’d felt feelings like sexual frustration, the agony of rejection, not to mention severe depression and anxiety that would soon bloom into full-blown suicidality over the course of my twenties. Yet now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve swung back to her side of things: one of the worst things a human being can experience is needing to urinate and being unable.
When I was in my late teens I had my first urinary tract infection. It started on a long-distance bus trip, which I took often to visit family before I got my driver’s license. I had the window seat, which I always prefer, but this time the young woman sitting next to me fell asleep at once. I didn’t want to wake her up, so I decided to just wait until she woke up on her own — after all, who could sleep long on a moving bus full of strangers? It turned out, this woman could. By the time she woke up on her own, we were about to arrive at the station and I thought it would be sensible just to wait and use the bathroom there.
When I finally did stand up from my seat and gather my things, the world seemed made of liquid, and swirled around me as I wobbled down the aisle and out of the bus. All my senses were blunted, and I navigated to the station restroom as if through a terrible dream. The feeling did not go away after I relieved myself, and my perception was so badly affected that I missed all the announcements that my next bus was boarding. I happened to see the name of my city on a bus that had just closed its doors, panicked, and ran across a floor that was still rocking like an ocean under my feet to catch it. I argued with the driver over whether there had actually been an announcement or not, and thankfully he let me board anyway.
For the next several months, I had what I thought were psychological aftereffects of that horrible day. You know that feeling like your bladder is about to burst, after you’ve already gone past the point where you were sure you couldn’t hold it anymore? I felt that all the time. It was constant. And whenever I did try to pee, it wouldn’t come. I would sit on the toilet for hours, feeling that pain, unable to pee, finally releasing a dribble that relieved nothing. For months on end.
I had heard of UTIs before, but I think one of the reasons I assumed that these symptoms were of a psychological nature was because in the past, most of my illnesses were explained away as psychological. When I was sick for two weeks straight in fourth grade, my mother assumed it was from the stress of being put in the gifted class, which I was flunking out of anyway. Mental illness was the dominant force in my entire adolescence, and everything seemed to be connected to it. It just seemed natural to blame my current bladder problems on some kind of post-traumatic echo of that day I didn’t allow myself to wake up a stranger so that I could pee.
When I finally did mention my problem to an older friend, she suggested it was probably a urinary tract infection, which could be caused by holding it in too long. And, after a regimen of cranberries and other remedies she recommended, the symptoms gradually dissipated. From then on, I was much more careful about going when I need to, and not waiting.
That is, until I came out as trans and began my transition.
Suddenly, going to the bathroom in public became a much more complicated task. And I don’t want anyone to misjudge me here: this was a problem even in spaces where I wasn’t out, and was still living as my assigned gender. However, in my late twenties I began growing a tiny little lady-beard, courtesy of my Italian and Hispanic heritage, and I’ve always been relatively tall and broad-shouldered for a girl. As soon as I stopped wearing overtly feminine clothing, I found myself standing right on the line between passing as male and passing as female. Suddenly, no matter what bathroom I went to, I was going to risk pissing somebody off. And in fact, I quite often did.
I carried on using women’s restrooms for some time, but with every shocked look or suspicious glance or double-take, my anxiety got worse, as did my hesitation. Just like that day on the bus, I increasingly prioritized bladder relief below the comfort and convenience of strangers. It didn’t help that the “transgender bathroom controversy” was constantly trending on news and social media, including plenty of folks making threats to enforce bathroom segregation with deadly force. Between holding it til I get home and possibly getting shot by a vigilante who judges me too masculine for the women’s restroom, I found myself holding it longer… and longer… and longer…
Now, at the time I was attending a university that had recently unveiled its latest token effort at transgender inclusivity: new signage on some restrooms that were already effectively gender-neutral, re-naming them “all gender restrooms.” There were two of them in one building of the university, and a few others scattered widely across a campus that spanned several blocks. So for about a semester, I used those restrooms exclusively. Unfortunately, it seems three or four single-stall restrooms aren’t enough for a university of thousands, so I always had to wait. A quick pee in the ten minutes between classes was impossible. On one day, I wandered from one all-gender restroom to another, all of them occupied, for a full 45 minutes before one of them opened up. These were also the most handicap-accessible restrooms available, and also designated for use by families with small children, so there were a lot of different people with different needs relying on them. Often these restrooms were left an unusable mess, and I ended up cleaning someone else’s urine or other bodily fluids off the seat before sitting down myself. At least once, these bathrooms were subject to transphobic vandalism.
I soon made the switch to using men’s restrooms. I didn’t completely pass as male, but I had experimented enough to know that nobody ever gave me any trouble when I used men’s restrooms, and they had begun to feel much safer to me than the women’s. Soon that feeling of relative safety became a feeling of outright comfort, and I no longer felt that tightening anxiety that made me hesitate before entering any public restroom. Yet here I encountered a new problem: apparently I had suddenly become disabled, because in most places I could only use the handicap-accessible stall.
In case you didn’t know, most public men’s restrooms have urinals in addition to at least one stall. In most cases, possibly due to space constraints, there is only one large accessible stall with a toilet and one to several urinals. I don’t have a dick to piss with, so I must sit down. This means that sometimes I’m forced to wait for that one stall for someone who may very well be experiencing some terrible food poisoning, just to take my turn at the one and only seat. The wait is not as bad as the wait for the campus all-gender restroom, but it’s a wait I don’t enjoy being forced to endure while watching five other guys in a row come in, sprinkle their offering into the urinal, and leave.
So I began to think about investing a few bucks in an STP device. An STP device is something like a funnel you can hold under your crotch and pee into, and it will guide the stream forward into whatever receptacle you care to aim it at. It’s essentially a prosthetic dick to pee through, and many of them are designed to look like a realistic dick and even double as a packer (which simulates a crotch-bulge). I wasn’t interested in those other functionalities, and realistic fake dicks yuck me out a bit, so I opted for a more streamlined design in hard plastic, which also happened to be a cheaper option.
But to pee standing up is not a simple matter of having the technology on hand, as I figured out the first time I attempted to use the device. I expected a learning curve; I try never to overestimate my ability to pick up a new skill. But I wasn’t prepared for the intense feelings that I encountered the first time I stood, feet planted at shoulder-width, and pushed the wide end of that funnel into my open fly. I was suddenly gripped with fear, and that fear tightened around my bladder and firmly sealed it shut. I stood motionless, willing myself to relax, the same way I had that one time I was sitting on the toilet in a gas station in Illinois listening to a middle-aged white lady exclaiming to her friend that a “a guy just went in women’s room!”
Eventually I was able to force myself to pee, but only a few droplets came out. I watched them trail through the plastic channel and drip onto the floor next to the toilet. I hurriedly adjusted my aim as I involuntarily relaxed further, and splashed most of what followed into the bowl, some onto my shorts, and a lot onto the back of the seat. It had taken so much focus to make myself relax that I’d been unprepared to aim properly. And this was safe in my own home bathroom, in the middle of the night, with nobody waiting for me.
I only tried using the device a few more times over the course of the next few months. I had lost all desire to use it in public; suddenly waiting for a stall didn’t seem quite as unpleasant as learning an entirely new way to pee. I talked about it to my girlfriend one day: “You know how transitioning is like a second puberty?” This is a well-known truth among trans people, and tends to hold true whether an individual’s transition involves hormone therapy or not. “Well, learning to use that thing is like going through second potty training. And I’ve seen kids going through potty training. It’s not pleasant.”
“No, seriously,” I explained further when she offered some platitudes, “this goes entirely against thirty years of conditioning. I literally cannot relax with that thing. Learning to aim properly is nothing compared to learning to relax. I’m standing there, trying to pee, and every nerve in my system is telling me ‘No! You can’t do that! You aren’t sitting down yet!”
Bladder control is the mastery of one of the most primal urges we experience as human bodies: stronger than hunger, thirst, and sex drive. Messing with these basic functions will tend to give people really powerful neuroses, and I’m neurotic enough already. So for now, I have given up on mastering the use of the STP for fear of further exacerbating the urinary anxieties I’ve developed over the years. For now I’m content to sit, and tolerate whatever that may say about my manhood or lack thereof. I encourage you to do the same, and to do whatever it takes to relieve yourself comfortably. Life is hard enough.