CONTENT WARNING for discussion of depression, self-harm, sex work, and transphobia; NSFW images. SPOILERS for the entirety of My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness.
It is so rare to pick a piece of fiction off the shelf that speaks to your Otherness and to truly connect with it. As a trans woman, I more often than not feel disappointed after opening my soul up to allow for validation and comfort.
While last year’s A Fantastic Woman was truly a breathtaking visual journey into transness, it could be argued that some of the film’s imagery is likely to re-traumatize someone.
While I did enjoy the Comic Girls episode “Amisawa-san, Do You Cosplay?” which added a delightfully sweet yuri storyline into the mix, by the end of the season it fades into a cute joke rather than a genuine romance.
Haruhi from Ouran High School Club but might well read as a masc-leaning non-binary person, but she immediately gives into hyper-feminization when Tamaki starts making kissy faces at her.
See folks, this is why I stopped taking Improv classes at 101. Instead of being the “Yes, and…” girl I’m way too into the “Yes, BUT…” scene. When you find yourself only grasping at straws for years on end, your unsatisfied yearning hungers for things you’re scared you may never find. As a trans woman always trying to counterbalance her learned masculinity with a much-cherished femininity, I have been chastised by both my therapist and a social worker on how I put too much energy into winning every last battle.
So perhaps you can imagine the soft pattering in my chest and the tenderness with which I turned the pages as I read Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness.
It’s a manga about a 26-year-old woman who, after graduating high school, completely crashes and burns. She lives with her parents and toils her life away at part-time retail jobs. She goes there with the hopes of finding community but instead feels more distant than ever. She develops an eating disorder paired with already horrible anxiety and begins to slip between the cracks.
Halfway through the memoir, Kabi comes to the crushing realization that she doesn’t love herself. It is around the same time that she finally identifies with being a lesbian after years of internalized repression. Deciding that her whole problem is that she has never made intimate contact with anyone, she makes an appointment with a female sex worker and meets her at a hotel.
While the manga could have easily been sold as a memoir about a young girl coming to terms with herself through losing her virginity, it was not. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness’ queer themes operate more as subtext to a self-loathing body that is struggling to merely stay alive, to find something worth sticking around for. It’s a spiral of self-doubt that erupts into dangerous self-obsession.
The manga came to me during a really difficult patch of my life. I was a former runner-up high school valedictorian who’d come dangerously close to flunking out of a liberal arts college and then curled up in her Bachelor of Arts diploma to cry after being fired from an incredibly straightforward desk job. I was without community and falling apart more and more with every day that passed.
I found it very hard to read affirming art because it was so easy to become re-traumatized when reaching within. Then I saw the cover art to My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness on my Facebook feed during one of my scrolling binges.
The uncomfortable arching of Kabi’s bare back. The way her hands dive into the bedsheets. Her cute anime head plugged on top of her uncomfortably nude adult body like a Barbie doll. That vibrant pink ushering in a soft feeling while simultaneously blasting out a queasiness you might not be ready for.
I get really nervous when I think about sex, more so as I get older and my friends begin to develop their own tastes and preferences. Meanwhile I’m at home clutching my Luma plushie, trying to justify watching another yuri anime.
The only time I’ve ever kissed a girl was during a production of Into the Woods in high school, and that was back when I was presenting as male. (Specifically, I was the chauvinistic Cinderella’s Prince, my already-hidden gender cloaked by yet another performance. Oy.)
Even to this day, voices become low and hushed when discussing sex in my presence. Many have misinterpreted my meek self-loathing persona as a signal that I’m asexual despite my inner delightfully devilish inclinations. This stems from their own misunderstandings of who I am, as well as others’ misunderstandings about what it means to be asexual.
During one particularly charged therapy session, my therapist told me that because of my somewhat withdrawn presentation, people often misread me, which doesn’t feel great when you’re 25. Physical contact scares me and I’m not good at listening, but it wasn’t something that was really on my mind until I saw the cover of the manga.
My dull eyes lit up at that neon pink, and I knew instinctively that I had to read it. I ordered it and within two days I found myself sinking into my bed, the manga in my shaking hands.
Every page left me stunned and slack-jawed. I had to throw my head back into the pillows and let myself take it in. It felt like Nagata Kabi was talking to me directly. I could feel our symmetry.
One page in particular struck me unlike any other. Kabi comes to an understanding of the punishment she has laid out on her body and finally turns to recovery. She grooms herself, cleaning her body, and wearing more presentable clothing. While a very vanilla approach to self-care, it marks a necessary beginning.
I thought of my own dried hair curled and tangled, snapping at the touch. The facial hair that triggered me was sprouting in these gross little black patches. The second I turned the page, I slipped in a bookmark and drew a hot bath. Maintaining your body and developing healthy habits is a great start to learning how to listen to yourself.
I started to feel like a bona fide real adult. I started a writing blog and worked at it hard until I was ready for a career again. Everything was great. I finished the manga and kept up the good work, but I’d already forgotten what the story was even about: the never-ending battle.
After a month of fighting, it stopped being so easy. I missed a day in my one-short-story-a-day blitzkrieg. I cursed myself for being so lazy. I missed another day. And another. And another. And I looked in the mirror and knew I needed a job.
But I didn’t want an office job—no, not me. I wanted to work in customer service. Ah yes, the stuff of dreams. That simple ‘lil slice of life that every anime has made out to look so good.
Did I go out of my way to apply to a McDonald’s after I finished The Devil is a Part-Timer? You bet your ass I did! Of course, I forgot that working in retail can sometimes lead to sacrificing personality for an inescapable corporate can-do attitude.
In getting my retail job, I had repeated the same mistake as Kabi—I put too much weight into one decision. Like Kabi, I came into my job with the expectation of finding fulfillment by bettering the lives of strangers and seeing the intricate humanity within each of my many work friends.
That wasn’t going to happen here, and I realized I had set myself up for failure right from the start. But still, I remained on staff. I needed the money more than my complicated self-actualization journey.
Mental illness is not a clean journey, We rot for so many years, wishing more than doing. “If only I exercised. If only I slept more often. Or made friends. Or wrote more.”
Kabi homes in on her lack of romance. She thinks that her appointment with the sex worker will save her. When she finally enters the love hotel with her companion, she crumples at her touch. Simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed by sensation, she experiences an emotional shutdown.
What was almost building up to a Hallmark ending comes to a screeching halt; Kabi can’t respond to “thesex,” as she uncomfortably calls it. Only when her limp wrist is lifted over to her companion’s vagina can she bear to make contact. Beyond that, she’s frozen in indecision.
She realizes that sex is a sort of elevated form of communication that she’s planets away from mastering. It reminded me of a younger me that braced herself for impact as she reached up to kiss the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods.
I had wanted to replicate the scene with the limber form of John Paul Karliak, the comic timing of Chase Doerr, and the command of Robert Westenberg all rolled into one pubescent actor. I wanted to roll across the stage with this girl in silly splendor and blow the audience away with over-the-top masculine bravado. I wanted to lampoon the gender I had been mistakenly assigned at birth.
But I never told the Baker’s Wife that. Or myself, for that matter.
I didn’t let myself be vulnerable, and I was hurt—because I knew I wasn’t a boy. I was a girl forcing herself into drag who longed for a feminine friendship that could allow for platonic intimacy. It was never about the kiss—it was about playing the part.
When Kabi’s companion walks away, she realizes that all she really wanted was a friend. I can imagine it must still be lonely for her, struggling to create cohesion out of chaotic depression.
We are complicated, threads of identity pulling on our nerves, threatening to tear us apart. For me to attempt to isolate the thread of my transness from the knot, I will invariably pull against the thread of my demisexuality.
I can try to carefully slip the threads between each other, crossing unassociated yet still relevant stories of self-harm, trauma, and failure. Or, if I choose, I can neglect them and simply snap the threads of sexuality and gender apart, potentially damaging them forever. Sometimes our narratives overpower each other, threatening to simplify our identities.
To parse our own narrative is scary and sometimes dangerous. It’s this sort of precarious balance that dominates My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness.
Kabi’s vicious battle with self-harm, while illustrated vividly at the beginning, is only mentioned in asides as the manga goes on. While the very existence of her self-harm speaks volumes to her condition, it almost feels like an afterthought. Similarly, Kabi also has a therapist that we never meet nor hear much from.
These classic elements of a mental illness recovery story are not the focus, but rather an illustration of how tangled Kabi’s web is. It’s a portion of the burden she’s been carrying for so long that it’s become her normal.
While Kabi expresses to us the enthralling power of choosing to break from our patterns, she also grimly reminds us that we are all hurting and will be hurting for some time. It’s less a memoir and more a ruthless stratagem on self-care.
I’m still depressed as all hell and I probably will be for decades to come. While it’s fun to fantasize about our future, the reality is that it takes work, and as a creative person it is difficult to take that cry for help and translate it into something that can be meaningful for someone else. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness has been something of a strategy guide for me. A reminder that I’m doing the right things and it’s okay that I haven’t made as much progress as I’d like.
It makes sense that there’s a sequel to Kabi’s manga, now also available in English. No matter what story we read, there’s more that will happen past the final page. Our lives, while riddled with ongoing themes and structures, cannot be so cleanly divided into neat arcs. We can’t conquer ourselves overnight. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for our happiness.
This manga connected with me when I truly needed it, when I was mired in indecision and a backfiring ego. It gave me voice then, and now it’s something of a guiding light on how to hold on and keep fighting through every unfortunate turn. It’s a story that quite literally saved my life once, and one I have continued to hold on to through this journey into recovery.
Editor’s Note: After receiving reader feedback that a paragraph on asexuality was hurtful to them, the author requested that we update the wording to better explain her intended meaning. We made these edits accordingly.