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I’m not what you’d call a capital ‘A’ Activist, but after so much violence aimed at Planned Parenthood last year—the shootings, the threats, repeated government funding cuts to vital healthcare so many women and men needed—I decided to have my annual exam there this month.
It’s not that I thought I was some kind of super rebel or anything; it’s more that I want my actions to support my beliefs, one of which is that adults and young people need access to high-quality, affordable healthcare and reproductive education. Knowing I’m not just sitting on the sidelines makes for much better sleep at night. Plus, I’d seen way too much hostility and hate in the media lately, and I was tired of changing the channel, shutting down, feeling powerless to positively impact the way things went. So, I showed my support by showing up. I arrived at the clinic half expecting to see a mob of open-carry conservatives cruising the parking lot and raging fetus people lining the streets.
The squat gray building sat at the crossroads of a working class neighborhood and an old strip mall. The reception area was well-lit and open, the front desk, inviting. Even as a lower case activist, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic an entrance as I’d expected. It’s a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a danger contingency plan in place.
The woman at the desk explained their process and handed me the usual forms to complete. I filled them in by rote, checking boxes and entering insurance info where they asked me to. The doctor’s office looked like all the rest with its wall charts and diagrams, tongue depressors and plastic cutaway body parts on the counter. It was all so familiar. Until the doctor began asking about the information I’d given.
Until then, I’d never thought much about those forms and the explicit list of who in my family had what. Yet hearing myself ramble over answers about our history of health and disease made me take notice: in a culture so obsessed with the female body, it shocked me how little I really knew about my own.
Did anybody in your family have cancer? Yes. But what kind and who was it? I think I remember my grandmother had something with her ovaries—or was it natural causes. She was old when she got sick and I was too young. Back then, there wasn’t much adults said that wasn’t deemed ‘grown folks’ talk’, which meant there was a lot of information I simply didn’t get.
In your maternal or paternal line? Maternal. Isn’t it always the maternal line? I grew up almost entirely without my father and with him went everyone on his side. At Christmas, one of my brothers asked whether we remembered ‘that family vacation’ we took. Of course we remembered; there had only been one, and it was to our father’s brother’s house in New England. We each remembered different aspects of that trip—the food, the ride, the cousins we’d never bond with—but none of us had forgotten the trip. Besides our genes, it was nearly all we had for things passed down through our paternal side.
Whenever we went to our grandparents’ house Daddy Frank could always be seen rocking slowly on the porch, a whiskered weather vane, his skin tight as red-brown leather. He smoked unfiltered Pall Malls like religion. I remember his yellowed nails and imagined his softness. He never hugged us, didn’t say much and his voice when spoke was low. Sometimes he’d wait so long between pulls on his cigarettes, the ash would be longer than the part left to smoke. Daddy Frank was more like a legend by the time I’d come along, fading in the southern sun underneath his crisp straw fedora and freshly pressed clothes, always looking like he was in no hurry, but on his way to somewhere else.
Did anyone have diabetes or cholesterol? Yes. Ma always had a pill or two she took for something. I’d only ever really knew it as her ‘medicine’, and didn’t ask what it was for. In my family, it was common for older folks to be on ‘medicine’ for something. They always seemed to have ‘sugar’ and ‘bad nerves’. ‘Pressure’ and ‘cholesterol’ were common, but not the information beyond it. There was no telling how serious conditions actually were. In my family we accepted it all. Like most things unavoidable and inconvenient, we worked it in and kept getting’ up. No delay, no discussion. In the doctor’s office that day, I saw just how far that silence had flung me from actual answers…and from my own body.
Any fertility issues? My sister is ten years older, and from the snippets I’d overheard, my mom had taken a medication in the 60s that’s now considered dangerous. For the daughters of those women who attempt to get pregnant, the risk of miscarriage is higher. I’d had some intense periods, but didn’t put the two together because I hadn’t planned on ever being pregnant. But that’s another story for a different doctor’s office.
Did anyone have breast cancer? Maybe. My mom had to go to the hospital once to have something removed from her breast. When I heard she had to go, I fell across her lap, crying. Operations were scary to me and I didn’t understand what was happening around me as she prepared to leave. She was having a cyst removed, but whether it was malignant or benign, I didn’t know. Before she left, she consoled me, saying she’d be back within a few days and to mind my manners while she was gone. When she came back she never mentioned it again.
Any sexual trauma? Absolutely. How could you be a woman and not be exposed to some degree of trauma? The daily assault on our bodies from predators on the street, to impossible standards of beauty and proportion, to rape culture in music and movies in a celebrity-youth culture wreak havoc on our self-images and any sense of healthy sexuality. Don’t get me started. My mom definitely wasn’t talking to me about sex, except to say it wasn’t worth the trouble. Even so, given the way black women’s bodies are prized and reviled at the same time, objectified and demoralized, it makes me sick and angry just thinking about it.
Repeated competing messages of fluid sexuality and no sex at all until marriage (between the right kind of man and woman) is its own kind of trauma. It’s trauma seeing comedians rip us onstage time and again in hideous drag, making us the butt of their jokes. It’s trauma being disappeared in advertisements and on the big screen, but you didn’t ask me all that. I’m no doctor, but that’s got to be trauma on your mind, body, and soul.
Any mental illness in your family? Of course. Every body’s burnt out, overwhelmed, stressed, fed up, and depressed and most folks don’t have healthy ways to address it. How about ongoing paranoia that you’re only seen as worthless, or nursing the fear that you’ll be pulled over, shot or jailed unjustly one day. What about depression on account of staggering student loans, global warming, loneliness, racism, sexism, inflation, the housing crisis, healthcare, corruption, lethargy, social security, cyber bullying, Frankenfood and the population explosion? I don’t’ know the specific names for these ailments—maybe it’s just the accumulations of life?—but I know that’s got to count for something.
What else? My cousin Roger once took special eye drops for glaucoma. I think he’d been to an African country where the risk was high. It was a precaution, they said. My cousin Gwen had seizures—epilepsy, maybe. They called it ‘fits’. She’d always been a little heavy, but smart as they come. I never knew her mother, or what happened in their branch of our family tree. There was an uncle David who came undone—like his moorings to this world had snapped one day. He just seemed to exhale and drift off slowly. If I remember this right, it seems he left us in waves, like dried leaves in a good wind. He lived a few states away, and we got a call one day from his neighbor saying they’d been helping him with his daily needs. Another cousin had an issue with his kidney as a baby, but I don’t know what brought it on.
I remember the first time I was told I needed to get into my body. I was new to studying energy work and healing, and I was like, I am sitting in front of you. Now how in the f can I be out of my body? I dismissed it then as ‘crunchy’ talk. But the more I learned, the more sense it made: if we’re not careful, life, half-truths and outright lies can distance us from feeling at home in our own skin. Maybe we:
– adopt faulty beliefs about our worth; – repeatedly numb our pain, desires, and disappointments with unhealthy substances; – look for approval and permission outside of ourselves;
– value and honor every skin but the ones we’re in.