The audience is witnessing a moment in a support group session. They form a semi-circle. On one side is weariness; I have come a long way. My tired eyes from gnashing, my tired feet from searching, my orifices willing Mother Nature – or God, or a god, or the foolish works of men – to take back her gift. I cannot tell a gift from a curse. This coming-of-age ritual that took everything. It takes, it is taking. Perhaps they’re the same, to give a promise with one hand – a gift – and to snatch away its significance with the other – a curse. The other side of the arc is the uncertainty that the world hushes these things. To speak of such things, things as clear as daylight and as usual as precipitation, is to be complicit in taboos and be dissident to norms. Things do not happen this way.
Take a deep breath. “It first started when…” I begin.
It is the same in these church services. The ones either my mother or friend forces me to attend. Or for times when I try to remember that I am a believer. It is rote learning; the call and answer. The preacher-man, one hand around the microphone, as he vehemently calls prayers to the crowd, the crowd responding in amen. He prays for the men to be prosperous and have good fortune, and then prays that the women be fruitful with children and multiply.
It may have rained that day. I wouldn’t have noticed. A storm was brewing nether, and lightning struck at the same place more times than I cared to remember. A sledgehammer pervading my walls. That day I decided that perhaps, I would try the hospital again. Miss twenty-something; I had given up the hauling walk of shame and passed out on the bathroom floor, hoping to die. But I didn’t, I became a passageway for haemorrhages making their way to the ground.
If I had a pebble for every time I was asked about being pregnant, I would build a monument. One telling moment was when I was admitted to a hospital. It was my second visit since I moved to a new town. In retrospect, the place was ramshackle for patients with “regular” illnesses like malaria, ulcer, and on occasion, STDs.
The smell of antiseptic is empowering, it causes me to wring my nose often. I am splayed on the bed like a sacrificial lamb in the emergency room. I turn my head this way and that way and push the bag with antibiotic tablets aside, as I try terribly to ignore the nurse administering the third dose of tranexamic acid. The doctor comes in with the look I easily recognise. The look of pity. He asks about the bleeding and I tell him I am doubtful that there is an improvement. It isn’t noon, yet, I am on the third sanitary pad. He tells me not to worry, and assures me it will subside soon enough. He keeps the silence for a little while, and then, as if on cue, he asks, with an expression that I can’t discern whether of concern or curiosity,
“Are you married?” I respond that I am not.
He continues, “You should consider it soon, so you can start having children. Pregnancy sometimes balances these things.”
I almost laugh then. The doctor’s words may have sounded like a novel idea to him, but since the year, fifteen years ago, when I guided myself with a lantern to the bathroom to wash off the blood trickling down my legs, and shunt it with a shred of fabric my aunt usually placed on her infants’ napkins, getting pregnant was all I have brooded about.
I was thirteen when Aunt A asked rather directly. She would only ask once, for the benefit of the doubt, she called it. “The truth will come out in the hospital.” She leaves the examination room when the doctor begins to speak to me, and feigns nonchalance when she tells the doctor that perhaps being alone with him would coerce me to speak freely. The doctor, in his congeniality, asks about the problem. It is the second time doing the talk of shame. I explain that I have been bleeding, it’s been weeks now. He repeats Aunt A’s question, did you have an abortion? When I say no, he directs me to the examination table and then writes a prescription afterward. I can only guess that they were satisfied, the doctor and Aunt A, as neither of them explained the bleeding conundrum. Many years later, I would realise that a teenager whose bleeding could not be explained but had a hymen seemingly still in place, was better than a pregnant one.
When desperation lands me on the floor of the traditionalist, she shakes her head as she prods my abdomen. I pretend to understand the things she says, things like “your delivery cord is too tight.” It is important to cure it so I can have children later, she continues. The bleeding was secondary, but it would go away. In the weeks that followed, when I took the hour-long drive to her apartment, I cried my lungs and begged for mercy. She would ask me to think of my unborn children as she places a boiling cauldron on my stomach. She would ask me to think of the happiness I would enjoy in a matrimonial home as she instructs me to insert some styptic herbs up my vagina. She would ask me to picture the family I would raise as she orders me to drink up cups filled with concoction.
I sit in the lobby, waiting for an irritable nurse to call me in. I recall the medicine woman’s perplexed face when she tells me this situation was beyond her. I knew people in this practice’s dislike for doctors, but she cautiously advises me to seek out one instead. Three months, the back and forth. An ultrasound here, a hormonal assay there, and a transvaginal scan to finally give it a name. I have polycystic ovarian syndrome; the doctor tells me. My eyes begin to water as he continues, and he mistakes my heave of relief for fear as he tells me it can be managed. But I wouldn’t have cared if he said I would die the next day; all these years, the grappling fear of menstruating, the angst, ten years of peril summed up in three words. The crooked lady that danced on every flow had a name. I would have jumped even, and told the doctor this revelation was too overwhelming to take at a time.
But my relief turns to ashes in my mouth as he continues calmly. Women with my condition hit menopause earlier than most, and the older I got, the more difficult it is to conceive. So, like a loving father, he cautions me to try as soon as possible. I should have screamed, and yelled at him to think of me first. Tell him how exhausted I was, tell him that I hated surprises because every month shocks me enough already. Tell him that three months before, I bled like an overflowing dam, and for six months I was as dry as desert land. That, one time, my discharges made me smell like a place for slaughter. Tell him that depression presses me to my bed like an incubus. I want to tell him a passing stranger once said my beard emasculated him. I want to tell him that having children can wait, that it is cruel for a broken vessel to bring forth life in its unattended state. That I was worth more; a broken bird that can be mended, than the uncertainties of a child yet to be born. But I nod anyway, as he prescribes the poultice that should mask the problem, and he tells me to come back when I was ready to have children.
The reaction is usually the same. The denial, and the culture of silence. That a problem would eventually go away when one denies that it exists. Or, to silence those who speak about it, because speaking about it would cause society to be embarrassed at the things they would rather deny.
It is denial that makes my mother upset when I make a joke about getting PCOS from her side of the family. She would laugh later when I make the same joke about having glaucoma at my age. It is the culture of silence that makes my lover tell me to stop trying to make a political statement by allowing my beard to grow out. It is the culture of silence that makes both of them tell me to take down the Instagram post where I shared my struggle with PCOS. But I cannot blame any of them, but I do not understand. This culture of silence that makes menstruation a subject shrouded in secrecy and shame. A shame that makes purchasing sanitary pads a religious affair, and the vendor wraps it multiple times with cellophane. A shame that others are forced to feel for my sake. Silence makes discussions about periods sanctimonious, and makes menstruation a covert ritual.
At best, when I talk about my pain, it becomes politicised. People commend me for my bravery, and call me “strong” for being vocal about it. But what outcome has being strong gotten me if perceptions don’t change? I do not want to be brave. I am, simply, tired.
I marvel at the statistics. One in ten women has PCOS, research says, and it is the most common cause of infertility in women of reproductive ages. Most women only get diagnosed when they’re trying to conceive. Its occurrence is quite frequent, as studies suggest. I suppose, if I gathered a hundred women together, a tenth of them could form a community for women with polycystic ovaries. Yet, in the years before my diagnosis, I had never heard anyone around me talk about having this condition. This culture of silence has, over the years, addressed menstruation as a taboo, the silence that makes it difficult to even begin to address reproductive anomalies. I think about how regular women cannot speak freely about reproductive health, and how women like me become disadvantaged.
It is noble for women to suffer, they say, and my suffering is trivialised. Surely, I cannot have it worse; there have been women before me. And this is what it means to be a woman. I wonder if the pain I experience is something I made up in my head when the doctor reduces it to just cramps. My complaints about the inability to concentrate are dismissed as laziness. When the doctor tells me weight loss is the solution, I remind him that my symptoms started when I weighed less than fifty kilograms.
Women have learned the art of reduction. We become so good at concealing that a problem becomes a simple and negligible inconvenience. So, when my pelvic floor feels like it is caving in on itself, I pretend it is a simple tic. Pain immobilises me to my bed, it tugs tightly to my muscles and bones, and I have a whiplash each cycle. I learned to slow down my pace, count my steps instead, lie just a bit longer, use a heating bottle multiple times at a stretch. I have stopped counting the days on my calendar, and when blood gathers like curd in a slaughterhouse, I convince myself that it is just a tablespoon, it cannot be that bad. When clots slough off like exfoliating debris, I make myself believe it must have cleansing properties.
My mother calls me one cold morning in January. My bed passes for a tent, and my blanket is an igloo. She asks about my “special friend,” but I gently remind her about my failed romances. She reminds me that I am four days shy of turning twenty-four, and warns me to remember what the doctor said. “Think about your condition, ehn.”
I should have told her then, that I was enough. That I should be enough. That I would smash the biological ticking clock, and tinker with it to make a trophy she could place on her shelf. That she would look at it to be proud of my achievement, and clear up the space for the other tropes and expectations I would turn into clay. Make a self-portrait she would stare at with admiration. I want to tell her that I am more than a child-bearer and that giving her grandchildren wasn’t the only measure of my success.
I think about my cousin L, who chose to keep her pregnancy for a young man she had only recently met rather than have an abortion. She didn’t want to end up like our Aunt J who died childless. I understood. It is one of the open secrets the family tries to ignore, but we knew. Aunt J’s marriage was turbulent, and childlessness became her demise. It pushed her to depression, and she died distraught with grief.
I pacify my mother instead and promise her I will think more about my condition. I cried after the call ended, the silent tears I have so well perfected. The art of hiding pain. I swallow my misery back to the pit of my stomach, letting it continuously churn in my stomach. One day, I will become accustomed to the jabs like a dartboard, and the force of a crash will become just as tingling as a prick from a needle. But now, I can only wonder what a woman is worth without children.
Image: Marion via Pixabay