In January of 2016, I was paring down. I was 25, in my second year of a PhD program for English Literature, and newly committed to the monastic lifestyle of the single academic. I had just left my partner of seven years, our cat, and the two-bedroom house we all shared in exchange for a tiny one-bedroom apartment across town. Now, home was three rooms, where the bathroom was in my bedroom and the front porch had nearly the same square-footage as my whole apartment. Maybe I would finally feel at home in my graduate work, too.
I was empowered, sure, but I was also exhausted. I decided it was time to start taking care of myself in the most practical ways — go to the dentist, get my oil changed, update my insurance, I would even go for an annual Pap smear — a misnomer, now, because I hadn’t been for one in at least two or three years.
I was embarrassed as I sat filling out the paperwork for new patients in the bright, sanitized waiting room. I guessed on the date for my last Pap, the date for my last annual exam, the date of my last period. Where had I been while my body kept going?
As her hands traced down to my lower abdomen, she stopped humming.
My doctor came into the exam room and asked some general questions. She was humming as she did my breast exam, chatting with me about her early-spring garden. As her hands traced down to my lower abdomen, she stopped humming.
“Any pressure here?” She asked.
“Actually, yeah, there is.” I had never noticed that pain before.
She moved her gloved fingers inside me, routing to the place where I had felt the tension. The chatter dried up. She started to move faster, talk faster. “Yes. Something’s not right.” She finished the exam, took off her gloves, and exhaled audibly, smiling as she left the room. “You can put your clothes on, dear.”
When she came back in, she handed me a card. I was to see the best ultrasound specialist in town on Thursday at 3pm. She squeezed my shoulder before she left again. I tried to ignore the part where she forgot to ask me if Thursday at 3pm would be convenient for me.
After more visits with an ultrasound specialist, my primary care physician and a gynecological oncology surgeon, we decided it “probably wasn’t cancer,” but instead a benign cyst the size of a grapefruit blooming inside my right ovary. The mass was large enough that I would need to undergo an abdominal surgery to have the mass, my right ovary, and my right fallopian tube removed. My fertility, I was told, wouldn’t be affected. But recovery would be six weeks long.
I was suddenly ashamed of my failing female body and the way it was interrupting my life. I wanted to be a thriving, vibrant intellectual mind. But now my body was stuttering and malfunctioning and taking over my academic ambitions.
I tried to keep hiding behind my “work ethic” and “enthusiasm.” Medical leave, I told everyone, just meant I was going to be a brain propped up in bed. “My mind will work away while my body stitches itself together!” I wrote in email after email.
I bragged to my parents about the morphine injection in my spine.
The procedure went well, and for the next three days, doctors came into my hospital room to marvel at the artistry that was a six-inch-long purple purse of stitched skin across my bikini line. I bragged to my parents about the morphine injection in my spine.
My surgeon confirmed it was a benign dermoid cyst. A dermoid is a teratoma, or an abnormal cluster of variously matured tissues, that can include hair, teeth, and bones. These cells are present from birth, but it’s unclear what causes them to grow. There are fewer than 20,000 men and women diagnosed in the US per year. “Yours had hair,” my surgeon confirmed, waiting to disclose this special detail until I had a room filled with visitors.
The pain stayed bright and loud. My teeth chattered and tears slipped down my cheeks as I lay in bed the first night back in my own bed. Weeks started to pile up. Thoughts slipped through the fingers of my mind. I couldn’t get myself to read or write the way I was supposed to. I kept emailing my colleagues, apologizing that I hadn’t met the last deadline. Then I would only make matters worse by promising more impossible tasks by less feasible deadlines.
Before the surgery, I battled some serious imposter’s syndrome, convinced I wasn’t smart enough to be working alongside the shimmering minds around me. Now, I was falling behind my peers in concrete ways. I spent hours waddling around my apartment, wringing my hands, and crying alone. Why couldn’t I just do the damn thing?
As a young girl, I wanted to be taken seriously.
As a young girl, I wanted to be taken seriously. To matter to my friends, my family, “the world” I needed to be valued as a brain. I worried about the way my body would complicate things. I still wonder: does this have something to do with growing up into a woman? At the mention of the question, my mind fills with images of “ruined” white capris in middle school, of words like “tight-fitting clothes” and “distraction” and “dress code” and “maternity leave” in the new employee handbook. As women, do we learn to hide or deny our bodies when we go to work?
Now I couldn’t deny my body anymore: to make my professional life okay, I would have to talk about what I needed as a healing body. A strange thing happened: when I started to acknowledge my recovery and its demands, I got the space and time I needed to heal. I started to care deeply for myself. And in the process, found my way back into the familiar movements of my mind.
It has now been a little over a year since my surgery. The decision to embrace being a body made me reconsider my romance with the “life of the mind.” So I’ve moved again, changed careers. I’ve left the PhD program, and work in publishing in New York.
I still have trouble honoring the way my mind and body work together. When people ask how I am doing, I still say “busy” when I mean “well.” I don’t always make my dentist appointments on time, and I could always drink more water. But I am learning to pay attention to the moments when I lose my body. To find it again, I need to address it for what it is: my home.