Okay. Here’s the scenario: It’s a commercial for Victoria’s Secret lingerie. It features Kate Upton’s ample bosoms spilling over the top of a lacy black bra – the kind the sales girl calls a “balconette.” Whatever. Right? It’s the kind of bra some gals have no business wearing. There’s a soft-filter on the camera, accentuating her “come hither” look. She gazes intently into the camera and softly whispers, “I want you. I REALLY want you…but…but…I’m on my period.” Wicka-wicka wuuuut? Got you didn’t I, boys? Yeah, I hooked you. Well, you can console yourself with the notion that Justin Verlander, World Series-winning future Hall of Fame pitcher, has had to hear those very words uttered from the luscious lips of that woman. Now you fellas can do me the favor of a continued courtesy read. Ladies, I think you will find what I have to say amusing and all too relatable.
Ever since the day Aunt Flo first rang my doorbell, some forty years ago, that bitch has had it out for me. Yeah, she’s always had my launch code…my address, my zip code, and my social security number, too. And I’m not sure why, but she really doesn’t seem to like me. I realize that many of the experiences of “womanhood” are rarely positive for anyone, but DAMN! Could the Creator be any more spiteful? For instance, I remember my mother’s initial reaction when I got my first period. Most moms are like, “Oh! My baby is all grown up!” They get sentimental. They’re caring and sympathetic. They think about their own experiences with “the curse.” Not my mom. Nope, that wasn’t Bonnie.
It was Thanksgiving, and Mom was busy trying to concoct a show-stopping dish-to-pass that would rival my grandmother’s culinary expertise. She was way too busy to deal with anybody’s bullshit. Even though I had friends with older sisters and knew what to expect, all of a sudden finding my drawers soaked with red stain freaked me out. I felt stunned, and, like any girl would, I went to my mother. “Jesus H. Christ, Christine! Already? And now? God, I thought I had a few more years.” She ushered me into the bathroom, showed me the pad stash, and said, “HERE!” Then she turned and went back to the daughter-in-law versus mother-in-law Turkey Day throw down. I was left to my own devices. Luckily, there were instructions on the back of the package.
It isn’t just menstruation, though. I have had a contentious relationship with the workings of my female body all my life. I wasn’t much of a “girlie girl,” when I was growing up. I wasn’t a “tomboy” either, though. I just really liked running around, climbing trees, riding my bike, and spending summer days barefooted and getting as filthy as I possibly could. It felt like important work at the time. Then, one-day, genetics dealt me the cruelest blow. I “developed” early…and I’m talking, like, age nine. This necessitated an uncomfortable conversation, initiated by my tactless mother, about my need for a bra. The talk “segued” into a tangential lecture about the importance of wearing deodorant. The worst part is that the entirety of this conversation occurred in public…IN THE SUPERMARKET! Needless to say, it was not helpful. The only thing that “talk” did was to make me feel even more self-conscious about my body than I already was.
In spite of her less than supportive initial reaction to my premature burgeoning womanhood and since I was such a good student, Ma was totes cool about letting me skip out on school for “girl stuff” any time I wanted. So, that was cool. If on my way to the bus stop, my cramps made me feel like I might literally die, Bonnie had no problem calling-in to school for me. When my crazy-ass hormones made my face look like a zit-studded pizza, she was A-Okay with letting me stay home for a couple days until it got better. I’m not sure I would’ve made it through adolescence were it not for her leniency.
In adulthood, my body continued to wage a battle of wills against me, especially when I was trying to get pregnant for the second time. I badly wanted a sibling for my daughter, but my body was like, “Hey, dude, we did you a solid by letting you have ANY babies, and you want another?” It was during these attempts to conceive that I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. After my primary care guy, the hippie doc that delivered my first child made the initial diagnosis, I went for a second opinion from a doctor that was recommended by a friend. The experience was yet another negative interaction with a healthcare provider to pile onto the heap I’d previously experienced. I can best describe this guy and his bedside manner as a combination of Hannibal Lector and Dr. Cox from the television show Scrubs. He confirmed hippie doc’s diagnosis and said, “You know, if you REALLY want to have another baby, all you need to do is lose some weight.” He might as well have added, “Fatty” to the end of that proclamation, as insulting as it was. Weeeeell, I proved THAT MOTHERFUCKER wrong within the next couple of months! I found myself pregnant post-haste. This perceived victory over my body’s contrarian will was short-lived, though, because it quickly began to look like I might lose the pregnancy. I started to spot, and my ob-gyn told me to prepare myself, just in case. I was put on bed-rest. During this time, in addition to eavesdropping on my neighbors’ cordless telephone conversations via my then husband’s police scanner, I constantly talked to my unborn child. “Come on,” I would say, “You are so, so wanted, little baby. I can’t wait to meet you. Please, please, please come meet me and your big sister.” Happily, my pregnancy made it full-term, but my child’s final symbolic protest against entering the world was a forty-eight-hour labor that had to be aggressively nudged along with Pitocin and Olympic level pushing. Luckily, she was a cherubic dreamboat of an infant once she got here and is now the truest love of my life. My body, on the other hand, continued to be a spiteful bitch.
All I can say is that I thank the sweet baby Jesus for mankind’s greatest invention – the contraceptive pill. It was this miraculous pharmaceutical invention that finally allowed me to conquer the wild and erratic hormone rollercoaster with which my body or genetics chose to supplement the storied consequence of original sin. Still, years later and after being lulled into a false sense of normalcy, I decided to stop taking the pill. The “hell on earth” that is having three teenage daughters in our house convinced my second husband and me that we were done with our need to breed, so I convinced him to have a vasectomy. Compared to most men, I guess his procedure was relatively traumatic. I felt bad and pretty guilty.
Maybe it was the universe’s revenge for my insisting that the hubs have such a “barbaric” procedure. Maybe it was my body’s treasonous desire to avenge the years my hormones languished in containment at the hands of synthetic control. I’m not sure. But I will tell you that hell hath no fury like female hormonal imbalance. A couple years after going off the pill, my crazy-ass symptoms returned – acne like that of a thirteen-year-old boy, menstrual cramps that sometimes rivaled labor pain, and mood swings you’d swear were the basis of a script for Dexter. I’d dealt with it all before, so I just endured. Medically speaking, eventually, you reach an age at which synthetic hormones present more of a risk than a benefit. So, I was advised by my doc not to resume use of them.
A few years later, however, that same physician began overreacting to every tiny “symptom” of something being wrong with my lady parts. Knowing she had had problems of that nature, I suspected she might be projecting. I trusted her, though, so I complied with every test and procedure. Then one year during my annual exam, she was convinced I might have some sort of serious problem. She wrote me a referral to an ob-gyn colleague of hers. Almost as soon as I sat down on the exam table this guy started throwing the “c” word around. Believe me when I say that nothing makes you willing to let a doctor run every test in the book like the idea that you might have cancer. He hadn’t even examined me when he told me he was going to do a biopsy.
I was nervous, but I desperately wanted to know if there was something really wrong. The nurse got me prepped and soon the hellacious invasive procedure began. Once he started, he said, “Yeah, I think I’m going to have to dilate your cervix a bit, so things might get a little uncomfortable.” “What?” I said, “You mean MORE uncomfortable, cuz this is already pretty fucking uncomfortable!” He laughed, “It really won’t be that bad. I’ll numb you up,” said the person who doesn’t even HAVE a cervix. Many women are familiar with the feeling of your cervix dilating…naturally…as it does in childbirth. And it’s FUCKING painful! Now imagine your cervix not having the motivation of a human being coming through it to make it cooperate. Yeah, it’s like that. For you fellas, I can describe it to you like this: someone takes a tiny tightly wound spring, shoves it into your dickhole, and then, “POP!” springs your shit wide open. Uh-huh. I was out of my mind in pain and on the verge of passing out from hyperventilating when the whole nightmare was finally over. Doctor Marquis De Sade and his RN minion looked worried. Perhaps the vision of a malpractice suit was dancing their heads. I dunno. But they acted concerned enough that they offered to crack the exam room door to, “let in some fresh air while we let you have a moment to rest here a sec.” Afterward, I couldn’t get to my car fast enough.
Once inside the safety of my vehicle, I began bawling. I phoned my husband and told him about the ordeal. He said he’d make sure to bring me a bottle of Pinot when he got done with work. You are probably thinking, “Okay, surely this trauma caught some horrible problem in the nick of time.” It did not. The results were negative. The procedure was completely unnecessary. What’s more is that I got billed nearly a grand out of pocket for that shit show.
The following year my doc did the same damn thing again. “Uuuuhm. I think I see a polyp or a mass or something,” she said, “I think I need you to see the gynecologist.” She gave me another referral to Dr. Immacrook. This time I politely declined. I let the office know I’d be in touch with them about to whom I wished to be referred. After asking around, I found a wonderful doctor at a highly recommended practice. Still, I avoided going for the “annual exam” thing. I hated it. It made me psycho. I couldn’t sleep the night before my appointment. God forbid an appointment would be scheduled on a workday. Then I’d have to take the entire day off…no matter what time the appointment was. I avoided going. I didn’t go. I wouldn’t go…until there was a problem. Then there was a problem.
As I mentioned, my lady business has always seemed to be out to get me, and it recently put me through a pretty big scare. I missed a period, which at first, I thought was the sign of a perfectly natural change – menopause. Then, like some kind of sick macabre surprise party, I started. And when I say I “started,” I mean I began to bleed like a stuck pig. I hadn’t been expecting it and, I certainly hadn’t been expecting anything of that magnitude. I wasn’t prepared, and, what’s more, is that it happened at work. Such a situation is really unfortunate for someone that works in a profession where they are unable to use the restroom when they need to. I’m a teacher. So there are times that I have to wait five to six hours to use the toilet. On this day, I was certain my five and six-year-old students would go home to tell their parents about how they watched a pool of blood form around their teacher’s ankles as she sat in her “teacher chair” while reading the day’s Big Book story. Seriously, I thought I’d have to call my husband and have him bring me a change of clothing! Luckily, it didn’t come to that. What did follow, however, was a straight month of bleeding. And that’s something freak-out worthy for any woman of any age.
Okay. For most women, once you get to a “certain age” you begin to anticipate the big “change.” Though it’s talked about even less than menstruation, most women know enough about it to recognize a few hallmark signs – hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, inconsistent periods, etc. Still, by and large, it’s a process shrouded in mystery. No one wants to talk about it, because it’s depressing…it’s a fucking drag…and it’s nature’s way of saying your days of being biologically useful to the human race are done. Consequently, I didn’t know if what was happening to me was normal…or if it meant I was dying or something. So, I called my gyno’s office. It took me nearly a month to get in to see someone, and, by the time I finally did, the bleeding had stopped. I saw a midwife named Patti. I really liked her. She was a little older than me and had a very relaxed, accepting bedside manner. She examined me but found nothing of immediate concern. She did, however, recommend an ultrasound. She thought they’d be able to do it there in the office that day, so I’d leave with at least some information. Unfortunately, there were no technicians available that day so the procedure would have to be performed at one of the area hospitals…nearly another month later. Afterward, I was told I’d get a call within the week to tell me the results, but after a week of handwringing and no word, I phoned. Midwife Patti was on vacation. It would be another week before I would know anything. When Patti finally called, she told me they’d “found something,” They wanted to schedule a sonohyterogram, a procedure that would give more precise results. Color me officially freaked out at this point. I called to schedule the appointment only to find it would be another month of high anxiety before I’d get any answers. Facing another semi-invasive medical procedure, I spent the month ruminating about every worst-case scenario.
When I called to make the appointment, I had questions. The receptionist/scheduler did her best to answer them, but it was clear her knowledge was limited. “Are they gonna need to dilate me for this?” I asked. “Uuuuh, lemme see (click, click, click – keyboard sounds). Yeah, it says that they will,” she answered. “Well, I’ve had that done before and it hurts like hell. Will they sedate me for it?” I continued. “Oh no, no. Most women say it’s just like really bad menstrual cramps. You just need to take some ibuprofen beforehand,” she laughed. “Well, I’m allergic to ibuprofen,” I replied. She was silent for a moment and then said, “Gosh, I guess you’ll just have to do Tylenol then.” Acetaminophen has never done more than take the edge off any pain for me. “Ooookay,” I said, “Should I have someone drive me?” “Well, you know your body, so I’d say it’s up to you,” was her answer. Yes, I DO know my body…and my history of sexual abuse…and how even the most routine gynecological exam sends my anxiety into the stratosphere, so I made sure my husband took the day off work to take me.
The first time I forced my husband to go with me to my gynecologist’s office, we both remarked at how we seemed to be surrounded by screaming reminders of our particular stage in the human condition – post procreation but pretty far from post-mortem. I didn’t ask him to come into the little room with me that time. I remember sitting alone, bare-assed, on the crunchy paper of the examination table, gazing out the window. I wondered if the architects had tried to create a perfect frame of the woodlands in the window, in an effort to ease the anxiety of women that would soon find themselves recumbent and in the most vulnerable of postures – feet in stirrups, privacy torn asunder amidst the glare of a spotlight and under the gaze of a stranger. Patti the Midwife was compassionate and sensitive. I trusted her. I trusted my new doc, too. None of my appointments at this practice had been as bad as the ones I had elsewhere, so I was hopeful that this procedure, in the hands of gentler kinder folk, might not be as bad as I feared.
My girlfriends all rallied around me prior to the second procedure. I had their steadfast support. That helped. At my request, they shared a couple Xanax to help me through it. Like before, even though the appointment wasn’t until the afternoon, I took the whole day off work. Doing so allowed me to prepare the way I prefer to and the way most women get ready for a date that presents the possibility of “getting lucky.” You know what I mean – shaving like you’re about to have surgery and being particularly thorough about what gets well lathered in the shower. I sifted through my underwear drawer to find a pair without holes and free of period stains, ones that were regular knickers and not “sexy lingerie.” Cuz, of course, wearing the really good stuff would be weird and just plain inappropriate. I know, I know, I know. They never even see your drawers, but I’m convinced that they just know. Part of why I go to all this effort is that I’m a lunatic, and the other part is that I absolutely adore my doc. It took me forever to find this kind Southern gentleman. So I always try to get things extra tidy…out of respect for him and a profession that revolves around having to stare at all manner of cooches every day all day. To me, gynecologists are like the Georgia O’Keefes of the medical profession – completely accepting and understanding of the uniqueness of every vag. Something I’m not sure I, myself, could do.
I had some leftover Hydrocodone from a previous dental procedure, so just before the appointment, I took it with the Xanax in anticipation of the worst. Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling a care in the world once we got to the office. I planned to ask if my husband could come into the exam room with me. I expected to be told he couldn’t, so I had a response planned. I would say, “Okay. Now it’s not like he hasn’t seen my lady junk all up-close-and-personal-like…of course, without the benefit of that glamorous lighting.” Sadly, I was denied the opportunity to slay with that bit of wit. Without objection or questions, they allowed him to accompany me. Once in the little room, he nervously scrolled through his phone while the technician completed yet another regular ultrasound. I’ll admit, it was probably the teensiest bit awkward for him – sitting just a couple feet away from his wife lying with feet in stirrups while a lady stranger shoved a big bagged-up dildo shaped camera into her business. The tech finished the procedure, and we waited for the doc to arrive for the “main event.” He was running late. I was worried the Xanax/Hydrocodone cocktail might wear off. All I could think about was the itty-bitty-spring-thingy blowing up my shit.
Dr. Southern Comfort knocked before he came in. He apologized for his “taaahdineeess,” and he introduced himself to my husband. He explained what he’d be doing, showed me the instruments he’d be using, and told me how the procedure would help him make a determination about whether or not something was wrong. He immediately said there’d be no need at all to dilate me. Hallelujah! Then he got down to the business at vag, alternating between telling me what he was seeing/doing and discussing baseball with my husband. “Boy, he’s good,” I thought to myself, “What a masterful multitasking motherfucker!” It seemed like he’d only just begun when he pronounced that there’d be no need for a biopsy either. There was nothing…absolutely nothing…wrong with me. He de-gloved, shook my husband’s hand, and bid us a lovely remainder of our day. I was stunned but relieved. I’d been certain I’d be setting up a surgical consult for my hysterectomy at the checkout desk. Instead, I paid my copay, and we went for a late lunch. My narcotics hadn’t even worn off yet. It was the best lunch date ever.
I have the utmost reverence for what the female reproductive system is capable of, and as someone who has passed two human beings through her cooch medication-free, I am humbled by the miraculousness of it all. With that being said, I still find myself mired in the love-hate dichotomy that is my relationship with my body – specifically my reproductive system. I hate my period. I hate the pain. I literally feel physically ill for about a week before until a few days after. I hate the mess. I hate how self-conscious it makes me feel, just like I felt that very first day of my very first period. I hate the way it affects my entire life for days. Still, the thought of not having a period is almost as bad. Looming menopause pushes all my insecurity buttons. It makes me feel old, dried up, and “less than.” Reproductively viable or post-menopausal – both states suck in their own way, and both are intimately tied to the way a woman is perceived by society.
Still, I feel like our culture is slowly shifting…for the better. Reproductive viability is no longer the be-all-end-all of a woman’s value. Though the value of a woman’s appearance still seems to be dying way too hard, in my opinion, the trend toward gender role nonconformity and gender fluidity have made a positive, albeit small, impact on how women see themselves. It’s my hope that, if I ever have a granddaughter, she can shrug off all the myths, negative connotations, and stereotypes about “girl stuff” that my mother, my daughters, and I grew up with. I hope she can see herself, first and foremost, as a human being…one that just happens to have two X chromosomes, a uterus, and all the other things – good and a little less than good – that go along with being born genetically female. That’s my hope…my wish. Well that, and maybe legal-in-every-state cannabis-infused tampons. That’d be pretty bitchin, too.