I wonder if any of the men summoned forth to testify on Darrell Issa’s congressional oversight committee on women’s health have ever collapsed in front of an ATM. While I’m not nearly as much an expert on these men’s lives as they are on me and my feminine health, I’m going to safely venture as to guess the answer to my query is a resounding “no.”
Or maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps any number of these men of the cloth, the stethoscope, or the Emperor Palpatine-like disposition have at one point or another collapsed in front of an ATM. Should we happen to share this unusual parallel, I still feel comfortable estimating that my reasons for collapsing – a severe flair up in my endometriosis – differ greatly from theirs – less than $20K in checking, say, or a silencing check to an altar boy that hasn’t yet cleared.
I don’t want to get too mean here, or fall back on Regina George style ad hominem to accomplish my point. After all, I doubt I could shoot humiliation arrows with more deadly accuracy than meme-makers the Internet over have already bestowed upon this male-y band of male women’s health experts. Instead, what I want to do is speak honestly about what birth control has meant for me; how it’s changed my life for the better, really given me the ability to take my own life back in ways that such medically proven treatments as prayer and abstinence never have.
The whole mess started in community college, right on the heels of being dumped by a self-important, small-time actor whom I thought I was happily dating. Stress abounded and my period, which had always been a shade more difficult than most, began to flow, but its eccentricities took on a more ugly tenure than in previous months, bygone years. Rather than being concentrated in my abdomen, the pain was everywhere – that throbbing, persistent full body ache you get from having the flu or running six miles in the rain. It was in my arms, my legs, my neck, my back. The joints of my fingers. The gums of my teeth. It was as though a more skilled magician than actor boy had laid waste to me with a bone-deep, airborne torture; the experience was not unlike how I’d always imagined the Cruciatus curse must feel, and continued to chip away at my resolve to live for the better part of 24 hours.
At the time, I chalked up this overwhelming pain to the pangs of despair – surely my distress over being rejected and simultaneously ignored had contributed more than just psychological impediments to my well-being. Didn’t rejection, and all its self-hating byproducts, often find physical manifestation in the form of excruciating pain? Given the set of circumstances, I was able to dismiss the horrendous experience of my own body trying to suicide bomb itself from the inside, and as the attacks continued in subsequent months, I continued to find excuses for my suffering. During my August 2005 menstrual cycle, I explained away my nearly catatonic state with the stress of moving cross country, from Detroit to central Pennsylvania, to attend a four year college and finish my degree. Hell, who wouldn’t hear the malignant echoes of “crucio!” shrieked in their ears under such a condition? September’s period was explained by the emotional agony nursed along by adjusting to a new environment, the workload that had popped up as classes began to escalate, the ongoing identity crisis and blossoming alcoholism that has plagued college students since Aristotle’s day. (Hemlock jello shots, anyone?) By the time October’s period had rolled around, however, I had run out of excuses. At this point I had made friends, established something of a fledgling personal niche within the campus atmosphere, and had gained some concrete footing on my class workload. Being chained to my bed and writhing in pain was, this time around, surely not the after-effects of some rickety wooden emotional roller-coaster, come to claim victory over my body as well as my mind. The fact that I was missing class, a virtual prisoner under my bed-sheets, and barely able to breathe or eat finally compelled me to see a doctor. Sure, all periods are bad – rare is the case of the woman who bypasses each month without mind-numbing cramps or other irregularities. But this monster attached to my uterus, this full, submerging ache from head to toe could surely not be pinned on the pedestrian tribulations of monthly lady cramping. This was something different and bigger than myself; bigger than any fistful of ibuprofen, bigger than a heating pack and gritted teeth.
And so I went to a doctor, described my symptoms in pitch perfect detail, and discovered that I wasn’t… taking enough ibuprofen. Or gritting my teeth hard enough, and bearing it like all the others. Bewildered, disappointed, and worst of all, still suffering from these mysterious pains each and every month, I went to one gynecologist and OBGYN and otherwise ordinary physician after another only to be told that the pains I experienced were more than likely “in my head,” or the result of a perfectly normal estrogen drop, which would be treated if only I just sucked it up and took even more over the counter painkillers to counter the handful of painkillers I was already taking and failing with. More than disappointed, I was devastated – hurt beyond believe that such a serious medical anomaly could be met by experts in the industry with such cavalier disregard. The suggestion that I should take more of the banal painkillers that already weren’t working was enough to leave me in tears after more than one doctor’s visit, but also enough for me to grow eager to find my own answers, especially if the person with the degree and proper licensing couldn’t be bothered to do so.
After about six months of this internal torture, which, yes, included the ATM collapse incident, my mother (a doctor only by merit of a PhD) suggested that what I described might in fact be endometriosis – a disease a colleague of hers was diagnosed with and described as a full-on body ache comprising flu-like symptoms with exasperated period pains, flaring up every month like some kind of fucked up clockwork. In case you’re not intimately familiar (and how lucky an individual you are if not), endometriosis is a condition in which the cells inside the wall of your uterus grow on other organs of the body. There is no definitive known cause and there certainly is no cure, but there is a rather air-tight treatment, and that would be hormonal birth control pills. (You know, that stuff that those pesky Personhood peeps are so put out by.) I had been on the Pill since I was 18, just to keep the lady plumbing regulated and light, but had never considered the prospect of simply not taking the placebos and bleeding. Encouraged, I brought this newfound discovery to the attention of yet another gynecologist. “Let’s experiment,” she offered, which is of course always the precise sentiment you’d like to hear coming from your doctor. “Try skipping your period this month; just don’t take the placebos. If it works, and you don’t have a pain attack, then we’ll know you’ve got endometriosis, because this is the most effective treatment we know of.”
The rest, as they say, is history, which is far preferable to hysteria. I’ve been on the Pill in continuous doses ever since. My condition is bad enough that even four periods a year – the salvation of Seasonale users – proved to be too much a physical burden still; I now take the placebo pills and bleed just twice in a calendar year, and as a result, for the first time since pre-menarche, I feel like myself again. Aspirin didn’t work, neither between my knees nor in my blood stream; but the Pill did.
Yes, I use the Pill, and it’s shameful that such a responsible action has become itself worthy of shame. Taking the Pill for any reason, for the betterment of your life, should carry with it no more shame then there is in admitting infertility, or actively choosing to not stuff more bodies into an overcrowded planet, or, hell, even in popping a boner pill for no more salient a reason than pure recreation. (Eh, Rush?) How the spokesmen for a religion supposedly rooted in compassion for the weak, the poor, and the sick could be satisfied with my being hospitalized every month is, in and of itself, a kind of endometriosis on our culture. You say you’re interested in celebrating life, Catholic leaders, so prove it. Take away my monthly access to birth control, and you’re taking away my life and livelihood. Amen?
–By Emma Kat Richardson