Out of my Body and into a Book

qB0GSFM3_400x400

I was in a bad mood last night as Glenn and I sat down to eat dinner and watch the Red Sox game. My phantom pain was terrible and it really put me on edge. So what did I do?

I snapped at Glenn when he tried to offer a kind word of support. And then I felt guilty.

I grumpily moved Buttercup when she tried to settle on my lap, since I couldn’t stand the sensation of her furry little body on my leg. And then I felt terrible as she glared at me from her perch on Glenn’s outstretched legs. Bad cat mommy!

I vaped some legal (in California) marijuana that was formulated for pain relief. Didn’t help.

I took more prescription medication. Helped very little.

I watched the Red Sox pull ahead of the Angels as I wriggled in discomfort, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

I snapped at Glenn again just for good measure. More guilt.

Then I did what I almost always end up doing when I’m in a lot of pain; I left my body. I could not stay in it one more minute. So I left and entered a book.

My gratitude for books is boundless. Engrossing novels transport me to other worlds–not just metaphorically but physically. I left my body behind as it suffered and became absorbed in the social and political dynamics of werewolves, walkers (shapeshifters), vampires, fae, and, of course, humans. Oh and a sorcerer, too. The relief was immense.

I’ve hidden from tough things all my life by escaping into make-believe spaces fashioned of words, and I know I am not alone in this strategy. Yet I find that when the tough thing I face is not other people or external problems but is instead internal, something different happens to me when I read.

Reading with deep absorption, I disengage from my pain. It’s still there, but I feel it far less. Some research supports the idea that brains process sensory information in specific ways, and some forms of cognitive training that teach people to pay attention to some sensory signals while ignoring others can be beneficial for pain control.

I can engage written stories in a state that feels much like meditation (or what others describe meditation as feeling like; I have never managed to do it). And research suggests that I am correct; reading fiction may have the same effect on the brain as meditation, a practice which helps many people to cope with chronic pain.

I’m back in my body today, teaching, attending meetings, and meeting a friend for lunch. The pain feels manageable, and I breathe through it.

And I’m thinking I owe my ever-patient spouse a big, warm hug.

 

It’s Vagina Time Again

vulvarose1I still get a kick out of saying “Vagina!” out loud, as often as possible, in my vibrant, feminist voice on my Jesuit university campus. I feel subversive! I feel strong!

And I feel sad.

It’s 2018 and legions of women (and a much smaller number of men) are still being sexually assaulted on college campuses every year. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and like many feminist professors on college campuses around the U.S., I am lending my support to various events that provide space to talk, once again, about how women are too often denied sovereignty over their own bodies.

I am sad, and I am angry. #MeToo has brought the issue to the forefront of public discussion, but as far as I can tell, it’s not actually lessening the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

At SCU, I am the long-time faculty advisor to the Vagina Monologues student organization, and their always amazing performances will occur later this month. I’ll also speak at the Slut Walk sponsored by Feminists for Justice, providing some historical and social context for the event from a women’s and gender studies perspective. I am working with faculty governance and administration to establish a better support system for survivors of sexual assault on campus and to improve our university policies about sexual harassment and assault. I am passionate about this work and happy to be supporting my outstanding students.

But I want so much more for women than just not to be assaulted.

I want healthy vaginas, in the World Health Organization sense of health: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” And actually, I would like healthy vulvas, healthy clitorises, healthy labias, and healthy anuses, too. I want women to not just be able to make decisions for themselves, but also to experience pleasure rather than shame from their healthy bodies, including–most especially–their entire reproductive systems.

I think of my own body, which has been repeatedly, and sometimes traumatically, violated for my own good by surgeons. Make no mistake: It’s not the same as sexual assault. Not. The. Same. Yet the repeated subjugation of my body to others’ control with painful, long-lasting consequences has left me with psychic scars that often enable me to bear witness to the suffering and survival of sexual assault survivors.

I empathize not because we are the same but because I too have felt violated, shamed, and scared. I listen carefully and I believe.

We still aren’t doing enough to promote health in women, including our vaginas (and including a variety of genital configurations of transpeople and intersex people).

I am going to keep saying “Vagina!” on my campus, loud and clear. It’s not enough, but it remains vitally important that young women and their allies speak out for vaginas–and all their other body parts–without shame.

I’m sad but I’m also hopeful.

 

The Toilet Seat and my Soul

The other day I found myself staring at the toilet seat in my bathroom and realizing it is a lot like my soul.

Weird, right? But hang in there with me for a moment while I explain.

So I’m staring at the worn spot on the right side of the toilet seat before I sit to do my business. As with most—but not all—changes, this one has appeared gradually.

IMG_1330Several years ago, Glenn and I bought a house that is—by California standards—quite old; it was built in 1930. Among the old-fashioned elements is the toilet in the black and white, art deco, master bathroom. It has a heavy seat that is definitely not plastic. It is, or rather was, white.

I generally don’t pay a lot of attention to toilet seats, but awhile back, I noticed that the white toilet seat had a brown discoloration in one spot. Given the association between that particular color and the purpose of toilets, I grabbed a sponge and a spray bottle of cleaner and endeavored to scrub the seat clean, but without success.

Over time the discolored area grew and darkened, and I finally realized that the hard, epoxy-coated socket of my prosthetic leg hits the seat in that same spot every time I use the toilet. My cyborg body is slowly wearing the smooth white finish off that area to reveal the underlying material, which is brown.

I searched the Internet to find out what toilet seats are made of—ostensibly because I am an insatiably curious researcher but really because I wanted to avoid some work—and have deduced that this one is likely made of “medium density fiberboard,” which is a molded mixture of resin and recycled wood and is the heaviest type of toilet seat.

I see this worn spot on my toilet seat as I begin and end each day, and often several additional times in between, if I happen to be home all day. My initial response was to dislike this worn spot as yet another annoying sign of my embodied difference.

But I have gradually come to view that worn spot on my toilet seat as a scar, a testament to the notion that I keep going even as some parts of me show significant wear and tear. Their surfaces don’t look tidy, but both the battered seat and my scarred soul still perform their essential functions quite well.

I’ve had this metaphor swirling around in my head for days now, alternately depressing me with its message of slow, relentless disintegration and energizing me with its perseverance. In my soul—the deepest part of myself—I know that the wear and tear of living with late effects, especially chronic pain, will not defeat me. My gratitude for being alive does not make these problems go away, but gratitude buoys me as I cope with them well enough.

I cannot help but notice the “both/and” quality of the toilet seat—it is both scarred and remarkably resilient, worn and stubborn, imperfect and effective. Kinda like me. And everyone I care about. And most other people as well.

Here’s a crazy thought: this probably even applies to the people at the other end of the political and ideological spectrum who drive me crazy with their Facebook posts and memes and Fox News segments. Presumably they all cope with deaths and divorces and sick kids and bad days at work and money problems and chronic illnesses, just like the people of whose voting records and advocacy I approve. And maybe they end up both slightly dented and strong, too, just like me.

Of course, I could replace the toilet seat with a new one that would hide the evidence of the daily friction between my prosthesis and the seat and between my soul and suffering. But it would be, at most, a temporary fix.

Soon enough, the new seat would start to wear and gradually lose its smooth finish. For now, I think I’ll leave the imperfect seat where it is and embrace the metaphorical moment when I sit and embrace my resilient, stubborn, cyborg self.