Dear Person Week Three: “The Raging Feminist Inside Me”

Dear Person,

I’m just a woman seeking a birth control method that isn’t going to torture me and destroy my body. I’ve been on different birth control pills since I was 16 years old; at first for acne and then to “help” with ovarian cysts. In February, I decided to swap my pills for a hormonal IUD. It was okay for the first 3 months, but now I’m getting cysts again. I’m in so much pain and in and out of the ER constantly. If I take it out, ovulation will cause cysts, but if I leave it in, the IUD will cause cysts. I can go back on the pill, but it makes me moody and heightens my anxiety.

I truly don’t think enough research has been done on birth control methods and the female body in general. Is there such a thing as a doctor who knows what they’re talking about in this regard? The raging feminist inside me is furious with the fact that men don’t have to deal with this shit. I’m feeling totally lost and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hopping from symptom to symptom, all for the sake of pregnancy prevention. Part of me just wants to say, “fuck it,” and go off everything and just deal if I start getting cysts again.

I realize you’re not a doctor (as far as I know), but I wondered if you had any advice on how to navigate this under-researched and over-medicated territory.

Thanks.

-Painfully Frustrated

 

 

Dear Frustrated,

I am so sorry to hear about how much pain you’re in, dear. Some people have bodies that allow them to move through the world easily and without pain, and others simply don’t. To make matters worse, many of us in the “don’t” category happen to have uteruses. I’m not going to tell you that your suffering is noble or that you’ll learn valuable lessons from it. There’s enough of that rhetoric floating around already, and most of it is bullshit.

You’re right that I am not a doctor, but I think the raging feminist in me can at least sit on the couch and talk with your feminist for a little while, and maybe afterward we’ll both feel a little less angry and a little more hopeful.

Like most teenagers, Frustrated, I spent a significant amount of time watching and imitating people I thought were cooler than me. At sixteen I wasn’t really a person at all, I was more like a wire figure covered in a patchwork quilt of my heroes’ habits. Patti Smith wore black? I wore black. James Joyce wrote his manuscripts in blue crayon? I wrote in pen because I didn’t know who the fuck James Joyce was until college.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Anyway. . .

Unlike most teenagers, my list of heroes included saxophonists Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. I used to lay on my bedroom floor and masturbate to — I mean, carefully study — a Coltrane Quartet album recorded live at the Village Vanguard. I’d close my eyes and envision myself sitting coy and alone at a table in that grimy-ass basement club, holding a lit cigarette and inhaling Dolphy’s sweat and hot breath. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to fuck him or be him. Yes, by this time he was already long dead but it didn’t matter: I was going to fly to New York, sit in that basement, and become a jazz musician through proximity or osmosis.

A year later when I got the chance to visit Manhattan, I nearly passed out from excitement on the 7th Avenue sidewalk, right underneath the club’s neon sign and redder-than-red door.

Inside, the house band sat hunched under an impossibly low ceiling, on a stage framed by the dingiest curtain you’ve ever seen. It was comically cramped in there, the trombones’ slides threatening to knock drinks off the front-row tables. And the smell! Stale-sour, a boozy locker room.

It was perfect.

But do you know what I remember the most about this experience, Frustrated? It wasn’t the band or which charts they played or how lucky I felt to be there.

Nope. The most vivid picture on my mind-reel from that night is the fucking bathroom.

Where do I even start with recounting this horrific shit?

I didn’t want to stand up in the middle of a song, so at the break between sets I shuffled over to wait in line outside the door marked W. Inside was a single stall about the size of an upright coffin. When I slid the stall’s latch shut, there was barely enough space between the door and the toilet for a single, standing human.

Sitting was not an option.

I know this because I tried, and before my ass made contact with the seat, my knees collided with the metal door. At this point I realized I had two options: 1) attempt to open my legs wide enough to straddle the toilet (in skinny jeans) or 2) perform a half-squat, gripping the walls for balance.

Dare I continue, Frustrated?

Should I tell you that I was on my period, and that the toilet paper dispenser was perilously empty? That I discovered this only after I’d already pulled a bloody tampon from my body? What about the fact that there was no garbage can, and I was terrified that the tampon would clog the toilet for the next lady if I tried to flush it, so I instead origami-d it into a playbill that I’d dug out of my purse, and zippered the whole mess into the purse’s side pocket? And that I then carried it back to my table, hoping the blood wouldn’t seep through the paper and that no one would notice the smell?

I don’t remember the second set at all. I was a bubble of hot shame until the moment on the street when I rid myself of that suspiciously damp playbill, tossing it into a garbage can.

I was young. I didn’t understand the roots of my shame. I thought I was the problem, for being stupid and unprepared and, frankly, gross. But underneath the self-flagellation, a part of me knew the club’s bathroom was clearly not meant to accommodate my body or its needs. I knew the concert that nerd-me had fantasized about for months had been reduced to a single, squatting humiliation. And I knew if I’d happened to have a penis, I would have peed standing up without incident. (Side note: Did Miles Davis never have to shit during a rehearsal?)

It sounds like you might be feeling this way too, Frustrated. It’s the never-taught-but-always-known feeling that the world around you has a Default setting, and that Default was not designed for your body. Yes, there may have been adjustments along the line, like when women started showing up at jazz clubs and the Ms on bathroom doors were flipped upside down into Ws.

But you, Frustrated, are smart as hell. You are not fooled by appearances. You know that despite the sign on the door it’s still a room for men, and it’s your body that must adjust to the reality of peeing and bleeding in that tiny stall. And I’m not just talking about bathrooms and other physical places. You are absolutely right, the concept of men-as-default applies to healthcare.

Do you know when the FDA ban on drug-testing female bodies was lifted? 1930? 1950?

1993 (!!)

Prior to that, researchers ran clinical trials using men’s bodies, simply lowering the doses when prescribing pharmaceuticals to women. It makes sense. I mean, women are just slightly smaller men with tits, right?

It’s no wonder you’re angry. You have a unique body with particular needs and you deserve some goddamn bespoke healthcare.

I don’t know where you live, but if there’s a women’s health center of any kind in your area I encourage you to call and ask if they offer birth control counseling. Just counseling, first — you don’t need a gruff and hurried doctor pushing pills they’re compensated for prescribing, assuring you that your mood shifts are “probably just in your head.” (This is a real quote from a real OB-GYN that real me sat with nearly ten years ago).

I imagine you devote a massive portion of your energy to hiding or lessening your discomfort in order to get through a school or work day or whatever it is you spend your time doing. But Frustrated, do not give in to the temptation to shrink your suffering and package it inside a neat little box when you meet with a counselor. This is the time to embody the full, ugly, honest reality of pain. You deserve the advice of someone who takes your body as seriously as you do, and getting this will require insistence on your end.

Also, remember that you are not alone. I find immeasurable comfort in the stories and confessions of other ladies who have bodies that don’t fit neatly inside the expectations and demands of the spaces around them. Samantha Irby is one of these women, and her book of essays might make you laugh-cry with recognition and gratitude. She’s not embarrassed by her body or its limitations, and she’s fucking funny. Read it and discover that you are, if nothing else, in good company.

Hang in there like I held onto the walls of that bathroom stall, Frustrated. If we keep getting louder about this, we might not have to teach our daughters to constrict their bodies and habits into too-tight spaces.

Kisses,

Person

 

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