Take My Uterus, Please

Take My Uterus Please

When I was 14 years old, I made a summertime visit to the doctor’s office. The purpose was to receive immunizations meeting the state’s health requirements for incoming high school freshman. I braced myself for the question I knew would be asked and resolved to remain breezy.

“Do you have your period honey?”

“No.”

“[With conspiratorial giggle] No, I don’t mean now sweetie. I mean ever.”

“The answer is still no.”

There’s a reason I’m able to recall this scene with total clarity. Although that particular medical center has long since closed, if I were allowed into the building today, I’d walk to the space I occupied during this conversation. I’d feel the face flush, reiterating the embarrassing non-function of my reproductive system.

A few months earlier I’d graduated from primary school. I left young girlhood with an ignominious, and among my classmates, infamous distinction. I was the only girl who hadn’t begun menstruating. The only female who wore her training bra, not out of real need, but a simple desire to keep up with her demographic peers. WHEN, my angsty teen heart wondered, would I mature like everyone else and join the cult of menstruating womanhood?

That question was answered the summer after sophomore year of high school. I was nearly 16 years old and aboard a plane home from Poland, an exciting overseas tour with the Chicago Children’s Choir. On this flight back to Chicago, my period started. I was overjoyed. Yes, finally! I was a woman at last. When I tell my students today that I’m a late bloomer, I mean it literally.

The excitement was short-lived. That first “time of the month” lasted a full three weeks. Our family practitioner concurred with my mother, a registered nurse. This was an extreme exception, the result of late puberty mixed with the disorienting effects of international travel. The cycle would normalize.

A year later, after a string of periods that left me bleeding no less than 14 days at a stretch (sometimes I’d be “lucky” enough to get a full week off), my mom carried me out of a public library. I was nauseous, dizzy with cramps and weak with anemia. The decision was made to try to regulate my raging woman clock with birth control pills. For six years, as I finished high school and completed undergrad studies, life was tolerable. My periods were always on the longer side (7-8 days) and cramp-prone, but the 28-day ordered cycle was in place.

At 22, the migraines that plagued me in grammar school returned – with a vengeance. Believing that the pill’s hormones were the root cause of these blinding headaches, my then-doctor and I chose a non-hormonal IUD as a birth control option. I was free of pill reminders for the next decade and the headaches did recede. But the longer periods returned and with an Intrauterine device, cramps can be acute and prolonged. This was the better of the only two options recognized as available to me at the time. I lived with it.

When I was 32 and separated from my second husband Eddie, I made a visit to the lady doctor before our impending divorce brought the end of health coverage. It was time for the IUD to be removed and with great trepidation, I resumed taking the pill. Although the IUD had been helpful in tapering screaming headaches, as an uninsured, struggling writer, I couldn’t afford the $1000 price tag to obtain a replacement. The prescribed pill was possible at $30 a month. So financial concerns dictated reckoning with a known enemy. Maybe this time would be different. I was past the flush of hormonal youth.

Two years later I was enjoying Millennium Park with my then-boyfriend JC, his adult daughter Amber and young granddaughter Chloe. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon and I’d just finished splashing in the fountain with Chloe when it happened: a sudden, violent onset of blinding nausea that left me spilling the contents of lunch on public land. This would become the new normal. Headaches lasting up to 10 days, punctuated by violent vomiting, aversion to light and sound. These episodes had another fun feature: alopecia. Along with headache maintenance, I got used to another cycle: bald spot, steroids, regrowth, repeat.

After a CT scan and battery of other tests confirmed I wasn’t dying of a brain tumor, my current doctor placed me on a Progesterone-only pill. I was 35 years old. My cycle was winding down. Less hormones might do the trick. After I started taking the lower-hormone pill, a subtle (for the rest of the world) but vivid miracle occurred. For 14 glorious months I was period-free. No debilitating cramps, no extended weeks of blood and most wonderful of all, no headaches. Not one. All of the food I ate stayed in my belly. For over a year, I gleaned zero looks of disgust from commuters watching me throw up on train platforms or in garbage cans, drawing the understandable conclusion that I’d had too much fun at happy hour. My hair grew back and stayed rooted.

It’s probably no coincidence that this menstruation-free time coincided with concerted singlehood. After JC and I split, as readers of this blog may recall, I left the game for a while to get my head right. I needed individual and group therapy. I needed my friends and travel. I needed to sing “Besame Mucho” at a Puerto Rican destination wedding. One thing I did not need was another fucked up, co-dependent relationship.

So naturally when I’d grown comfortable with life as a gadfly, a now financially-solvent solo act, I met my soul mate. Bob. And as I fell it seems, so did my womb. A couple months after we started dating, my period returned. Nothing had changed but love and regular intercourse, but so it was. How could I complain? I’d found my person, and my body responded.

Predictably the headaches returned, mild at first. As time went on, they progressed in intensity and duration. This past December, I had to run (or more honestly, stumble zombie-like) out of a corporate Christmas party. It was 6 pm and the familiar flush of nausea and cold sweat let me know I was moments away from vomiting. I made it to a trash can a block away, aware once more of judgmental passerby assuming I’d imbibed too much. Bob came to collect me from the train station near our home. I’d thrown up three times during a 15-minute ride. Not for the first time, Bob placed a necessary bucket on the floor of my bed side.

Last week Friday morning I awoke with alacrity and dread. I stumbled to the bathroom just in time for the afterbirth: blood running down my legs, soaking my underwear as I clutched a cramped abdomen. I barely moved all day save to change tampons on the hour. The next day, Saturday, I attended an event and drank a little too much scotch. I went to bed at 9:30 pm with a headache and there remained until Tuesday morning. I couldn’t hold down water. I couldn’t turn my head to change the television channel without streaks of light hammering my head. My period and scotch generated a perfect migraine storm that left me unable to do much but lie awake for the better part of 36 hours with eyes closed. Plenty of time to think.

Yesterday I visited my long-time hairdresser Linda. Toward the end of our session as she was tousle drying wet locks, she stopped talking and bit her lip. She had something to say but because we’ve been friends so long, I sensed painful hesitation.

“You’ve got another bald spot. It’s at the crown of your head. Put your finger here.”

The day before, I’d taken a shower, the first pleasurable one of the week. Standing fully erect no longer bore the possibility of unconsciousness or dry heaving. As I rinsed conditioner, an unusually long and not insubstantial clump of hair ran into the drain. I blamed the phenomenon on days of sweaty, migraine bedhead tangles.

I’m nearly 38 years old. Long ago, I made the personal decision to skip childbearing. For any number of reasons, it’s not in the plan. Bob and I are on the same page. Like I said, I’ve found my match. On Monday afternoon, I have an appointment with the primary care physician who began treating me before the Millennium Park incident, and I have a very specific ask. I want a hysterectomy. Even I can’t believe I’m going to ASK for an invasive procedure, but I need to shove aside long and irrational fears of all things involving needles and knives. Because I’m done. I’ve suffered enough.

A Holiday Wish for Closure (November 13, 2013)

“It’s no longer that I bitterly wish them ill for all they’ve done (or not done). Time, distance and therapy have resolved those feelings. It’s more that the longer they exist and go about their daily lives in unrepentant silence, the more impossible it is for me to absolve them with ‘Well, they did the best they could.’ Or, ‘They would have made amends if only they’d had more time.’”

This is a self-quote from my latest Skype therapy session with Dr. T., the brilliant, patient and empathetic expert with whom I’ve been working on and off for five years. I was 30 years old and in the midst of a full-blown, third-life crisis the first time I darkened Dr. T’s doorway. Emotionally stunted by a traumatic childhood and a series of toxic relationships that I later came to recognize as replicas of the dysfunctional, yet familiar rapport I experienced with my parents, Dr. T has long provided a safe forum for working out patterns and reaching alternate conclusions. This professional has helped me access and leverage the internal resources I didn’t know I had to chase (and in some cases, even capture) career dreams, eliminate pernicious influences (people) without guilt and begin to build a life that feels healthier and instills me with a pride that lay dormant beneath decades of shame.

Dr. T has also metaphorically (and patiently) held my hand as I learned that it’s far better in the long run to articulate and own feelings that might scare me, rather than tamp them down in favor of a faux moral high road. An observed correlation between a long history of emotional siloing, and the autoimmune diseases that have ravaged my body in recent years (chronic migraines, alopecia, pompholyx eczema) cannot be easily dismissed.

And so with baby steps I’ve learned to cut the bullshit and armor against the judgment of society, in order to set myself free. I’ve reached the point in my rehabilitation, however, where it’s no longer enough to come clean with one person staring back at me through a computer monitor. The holidays are barreling down upon us and they bring accessories with them:family get togethers and celebrations, gift/wish lists and hoards of cheesy, yet delightful decorations. Yesterday, I shared my annual holiday desire with Dr. T. Now I’m ready to share it with the world.

I want to be free of my parents and their long run of disregard for the messes they made. I haven’t seen my mother in nearly 13 years. My father and I have been estranged for five, a decision self-imposed for a number of protective reasons. Yet physical distance from these two architects of misery, humiliation and pain has not been quite enough to allow for proper resolution and context. The number of medications I take to combat the perpetual fight or flight response my body doesn’t comprehend as contemporarily unnecessary, tells the story. As does the frequency with which I see them in my dreams, waking up in a cold sweat while I breathe deeply and remind myself that the threat has been neutralized. And the renewed sense of loss and sadness I experience upon recollecting that they don’t expend nearly the same energy and resources thinking about the children they brought into the world, as those grown kids do in attempting to heal from their mismanagement.

My mother fled from the two young adults she raised without ever a second’s glance backward, leaving in her wake a trail of stolen identity, police reports and a mountain of debt. Occasional online searches (the power and tyranny of Google) turn up that she is alive and well in another distant down, living off the proceeds of a legal settlement that reeks of the fraud she perpetuated throughout our acquaintance.

My father is a slightly different case, less sociopath than a truly mentally ill person, incapable of viewing situations as a normally functioning person might. And thus unable to stick to a treatment plan. Thereby unable to make solid decisions about marriage and parenthood, making his choice of mate the more unfortunate for the helpless babies left to go it alone. Underfed, underloved and raised in the most physically and psychologically dangerous conditions, those little girls deserved better. Yet by clinging to each other with a shared tunnel vision of escape, the frightened youngsters that my sister and I once were grew into responsible, successful adults determined to break the cycle.

I’m ready for that story to be over. But can the book really close while my mother and father still breathe, still avoid responsibility for themselves and the lives they created? And what does it say about me that my annual holiday wish is to bid them a final adieu, to exhale the breath I’ve been holding for three decades? To be able to say “Well, they did the best they could.” Or, “They would have made amends if only they’d had more time?”

Bald Insecurity (June 26, 2012)

Bald

 

 

Boyfriend/Hairdresser 8 weeks ago: “Come on! It’s always something with you. I can’t see anything!”

Sister 4 weeks ago: “Is it because you dye your hair too often?”

New Boyfriend/Hairdresser 3 weeks ago: “Ok, now I see what you’re talking about.”

A woman historically known for her wild, curly red locks is starting to part with them, at the ripe old age of almost 34. And with this development, wherefore goes the identity?

The summer I turned 13, I took a long look in the mirror and decided that with the natural attributes of ghostly pale skin, bright green eyes and a smattering of freckles, Mother Nature was in error when she doled out a head of medium brown hair. If I was going to be continually mistaken for Irish, I might as well go all the way with it.

Except for a brief 90s dalliance with black (a huge mistake influenced by Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana) and a foray into blonde highlights last decade (the things we do for love), my hair has held one fiery shade or another for over 20 years. As the tresses curled evermore with each passing year, I alternately cursed the frizzy, unruly mess yet gave silent thanks that I was gifted with a conversation piece, a physical manifestation of my personality: untamed, sometimes glossy, frustrating and colorful.

Though I fancy myself a believer in the overused “beauty is skin deep” maxim, I rarely applied that latitude to myself. It was never enough that I was a smart kid, decent at sports with other accomplishments. I wanted to be beautiful, the kind of gorgeousness that stopped people in their tracks. I wanted to ditch the huge Haray Caray glasses that acted as a screaming billboard for my near-sightedness. I yearned for the day I would have the independence to have my awful, crooked chompers corrected through the miracle of orthodontics. I wondered if I would ever grow big girls boobs (still waiting at 33). I didn’t want to be creative and odd. There was a time I would have surrendered everything that makes me, well me, if it meant loving the image reflected in the glass.

As I grew up, sought the services of a good therapist and did the painful work of looking inward, I accepted what I had known all along: you can’t have it all and it’s a pretty idiotic waste of time to moon over your personal aesthetics. So as I have alluded in other posts, I learned to kind of like and appreciate the rest of me. Until…..

8 weeks ago when I began to notice a spot near my left temple that was hairless. I’m not talking about short baby hairs that might reflect pulling, hairbrush damage, etc. I mean bald – like it had been waxed clean. My eye, long trained to zero in on real and perceived flaws, moved to the spot by the day, then the hour, then the minute. What the hell was happening and why?

Alopecia was the first suggestion offered by the doctor, maybe stress related. Even as it started to be accompanied by intermittent headaches and nausea, I was told I shouldn’t worry. Fretting could expedite the pattern, but asking me not to worry about an eyesore which I cannot control is like asking water not to be wet. So as the spot grew in the ensuing weeks, as topical steroids were doled, I started to consider that I might soon be without my signature physical attribute. Would my personality change without the aesthetic weapon that seemed to justify a “take no prisoners” attitude? The absence of my loud hair, an armor to hide the quiet, sad shame often experienced might leave me naked and defenseless in metaphysical and real ways.

A battery of tests this afternoon will shed additional light: autoimmune disease, brain tumor, anxiety disorder. These first of these two diagnoses are obviously somewhat problematic. But all I can think about is my hair. I don’t want to lose it – or myself, especially when it took so darned long to be found.