When I was 18, I had some really bad shit going on in my “nether regions” (that’s the poetic term for anything that happens in an embarrassing part of your anatomy below the waist). I didn’t know what it was and I spent a lot of time vacillating between diarrhea, nausea and constipation and occasionally passing out ever so briefly with mind-numbingly painful cramps.
So the summer after my freshman year of college, armed to the teeth with my then Grade-A health coverage, I went on a journey of medical self-discovery.
It began with an internist who suggested that I might have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), the bowel equivalent of “dermatitis.” This is how doctors say, “There’s something wrong with your parts, but I don’t know what the fuck it is.”
The thing with IBS is that it’s a disease of ruling out other things. The doctor ordered a bunch of tests to decide what was wrong with my guts and innards.
I took a lactose intolerance test first off. I could have told them I wasn’t intolerant to lactose. Milk is pretty much my favorite non-booze drink, and if I had to pick one food to subsist on for the rest of my life, it would be cheese. Dairy can do no wrong in my eyes. But I showed up for the test because I love to feel sick and be the center of attention.
So this test is the thing of where they feed you some god-awful concoction of candy-flavored lactose drink and then they draw blood from you every half hour for four hours. Being as I have shitty, slippery veins, the process left me looking like the world’s most committed heroin user just in time for my shift at the classy Mexican restaurant I worked at that summer that I’m pretty sure was, coincidentally, a front for drug dealers.
|Look: here's someone pulling up in front of El Aguila to make a deal.|
Even before the results of my lactose test came back, I was at appointment number two: an ultrasound. It was weird and cold and let me tell you, if you’re ticklish an ultrasound is kind of a nightmare/really amazing and fun! I was relaxed with the technician—she was a nice, young woman and she made me feel better about my constant squirming and laughing by making pleasant conversation about nothing. I have to say that innocuous chatter was much easier at that point in my life because I had it all going on: a concrete goal (graduate from college), a job (albeit at a shitty restaurant), and the skin of an 18-year-old.
The conversation was stilted whenever another technician or nurse would walk into the room, which was kind of a lot, but I didn’t mind too much. Until my technician said, “Uh oh.”
I wasn’t immediately nervous. I had the comfort of knowing that I wasn’t pregnant and also I was 18 and never going to die.
“There’s something showing up here, but I can’t see it too well. Would you mind if I did a vaginal ultrasound?”
I gave her the uncertain go ahead and she changed wands as I took off my underpants. Shudder. And as she probed around down there, the technicians kept coming in and going out of the room, which was awkward, to say the least. But my gal found what she was looking for: a corpus ludeum. It was a benign cyst on my right ovary, and it was taking over the whole damn thing.
So I was instructed to get a pap smear.
A girl’s introduction into the world of gynecology is a truly momentous and shitty occasion in her life. Because once you go into the stirrups, you just have to keep going into them. Not because you want to, of course, but because they find ways of making you. You want birth control? Gotta come in every year. You want to not die of Chlamydia? Better get in here. You want this baby born with one head? I’m going to have to watch it through my magic machine. And I think it’s probably a good idea, health-wise, anyway, just to make sure there aren’t any unwanted developments down there or just so you can get the cobwebs knocked out once a year.
|Now imagine the theme from Jaws in your head.|
I didn’t have a gynecologist, so my mom suggested hers: a quite brilliant and capable physician who had been her OB/GYN through her pregnancies with my sisters and even delivered Penelope. Hooray!
Her name was Mary, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
I showed up at the appointment not knowing ANYTHING about what to expect. They made me pee in a cup and then they took me into one of the examining rooms. The nurse told me I wasn’t pregnant (Thanks!) and asked me a series of questions.
Her: When was your last period?
Me: I don’t know. A couple of weeks ago?
Her: What kind of birth control do you use?
Her: None? Not even condoms?
Me: I’m not sexually active.
Her: But you don’t even use condoms?
Me: Not really. (I was confused.) I’m not sexually active.
At this point she sighed and shook her head, judging the shit out of me for not using condoms while I was studying for exams, rehearsing for plays or sleeping.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so honest, but I’m the daughter of a physician, and he always told me to tell the doctors everything so they could do their job as well as possible. He also told me not to smoke but I can't always pay attention to every little thing now, can I?
Her: Alright. Here’s a robe. Take off everything and put this on with the opening in the back. The doctor will be in in a minute.
I took off all my clothes and put on the robe. I didn’t know where or how to sit without my butt crack showing. I opted to sit on a chair on top of my clothes with the gown wrapped around behind me.
Dr. Mary came in and introduced herself. She was middle-aged and succinct, cold even. She went to my chart.
Her: It says here you don’t use condoms.
Me: I’m not having sex.
Her: At least you’re not pregnant. Yet. You should really be protecting yourself.
I felt like I was losing my mind. Could no one hear me say I wasn’t sexually active, or did they think I was a big, fat liar? Maybe I was having sex and I didn't know about it?
Her: You smoke and you drink?
Her: You’re eighteen.
Her: Nice friends you must have.
I sat, burning and freezing at the same time. I was furious, but shy and too young to defend myself appropriately. This was years before I started picking fights with everyone from the landlord to the person driving behind me to all medical professionals I encountered.
She got me up on the examining table and into the stirrups. She told me to scoot down farther (the words you hear at your first 15 pap smears before you finally just show up, take it all off, grab an US Weekly and get your crotch right off the end of the table before the doctor even comes in). She was relatively gentle with the speculum, but I only know that in retrospect. At the time it felt like she was driving a butcher knife into my vagina and then using hedge clippers to break off parts of my insides. But at least she didn’t hang out all day doing it and making conversation about her kid’s violin lessons or excellent chicken recipes while I sat wondering if I could just yank the thing out myself (that’s happened to me). Picture getting an internal exam from Edward Scissorhands.
|"This speculum looks like the right size."|
She verified that I had a cyst and she decided that the best solution would be birth control pills. She said the hormones would regulate my ovaries better.
Then she said, “And at least now you’ll be avoiding pregnancy, if not diseases.”
I said, “I swear to you, I’m really not having sex.”
But she was already walking out the door.
She stopped before the door closed behind her and leaned in, “You should really stop smoking and drinking, too.”
I would like to talk more shit about her and that appointment, but she died a couple of years ago, and it seems wrong. My mom said Dr. Mary was the kind of woman who hated it when people were careless about their health, because she had so many congenital health problems herself. But that doesn’t make up for it entirely, in my mind.
I went to 7 other gynecologists before I found one I liked, and then she jumped ship and went to Kaiser Permanente, so I can’t see her anymore. It was like going through a break-up to lose Dr. Chang. But now I see her partner, and she’s going to have to do.
In the meantime, I stockpile condoms and sit (alone) with them on the couch watching reruns of Magnum, P.I. (how fitting) or The X-Files. I'm avoiding pregnancy on a whole other level. It's important to be safe.
*From "Treat Her Like a Lady" by Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. I have a love/hate relationship with this song, but my goodness it's catchy!