Every time burly fire fighter Mark Jones ran up a ladder, he felt he was proving himself as a man.
Now forging a new life as a woman, the only ladders to worry about are of the stockings variety – and Mark, now Stephanie, says she has never been happier.
“I joined the fire service to prove to everybody, and myself, I could be what society expected of me as a man,” she says.
“I did everything I’d trained for, from climbing high ladders, to cutting people out of cars and fighting fires – and I even rescued a couple of people.”
As a dad-of-two, he pushed himself so hard as a fire fighter that he became station manager and was presented with an award by Prince Charles for his commitment.
But 18 months ago he took a decision that would lead to him losing all he had worked for.
He revealed to his family after 22 years of marriage that he was transgender, and wanted to live permanently as a woman.
He quit his job and moved 70 miles away to a one-bed flat, where he began life again as a woman called Stephanie.
“In the space of a few months I lost everything,” Stephanie says. “But it was worth it to finally find inner peace. I’d been living the wrong life.
“I’d reached 49 and realised life was slipping away. I had a breakdown, I clearly wasn’t well.
“Eventually my boys sat me down and said, ‘We don’t care what it is, but we want to know what’s going on’.
“I said to them, ‘I’ve been diagnosed as transgender’. But I said it wasn’t a surprise to me, I knew all along who I was.”
After trying to cope, Mark’s wife asked him to move out of the family home in Aberystwyth and he moved to Swansea. Stephanie recalls: “I was on my own for over a year. It was a difficult time for everybody and I lost physical touch with my sons.
“We were in touch through phone calls and texts but they rallied round their mum. I was proud, it’s what I’d have expected.
“From a personal point of view I have no regrets, but I do regret the pain it caused, and still causes, to my loved ones.”
Her story features in a new three-part ITV series Transformation Street, which follows the stories of patients at the London Transgender Surgery.
Stephanie had three and a half hours of facial feminisation surgery, refining her nose, softening her heavy lower jaw and lifting her upper lip.
“People judge you at an initial glance and pigeonhole you as male or female,” she explains. “Everyone now accepts me as a woman.”
Stephanie’s sons Nathan, now 21 and Joshua, 17, recently agreed to see her. She said: “I’m still their dad… it’s just the packaging has changed a bit.”
- Transformation Street is on ITV on Thursdays at 9pm