Last year, a doctor’s aide took my vitals. I sat at ease in a chair, until she told me matter-of-factly that my heart was beating fast enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.
Had I exerted myself before going to the doctor, she wanted to know. I hadn’t. The hospital where this doctor was located was out of the way, inaccessible by public transit, so I’d taken an uber to the front door. I’d even taken the elevator to the neurology clinic, shamefully choosing not to walk the two flights of stairs from the main entrance.
“No,” I responded.
“You’re lucky we caught this. I’ll have the doctor talk to you right away.”
The only reason anyone caught my heart abnormality was because of my headaches. They’re migraines, technically. I’ve always gotten them, at least since I was a little kid. I’d long ago given up on doing anything about them. But after I had one so bad that I fainted and wound up in the hospital with a skull fracture, I was forced to go through the motions of seeking the cause of the pain. I soon gave up on finding the cause – rather, my doctors soon gave up. So I sought medications that might at least relieve the pain. That’s why I was at a neurology clinic getting my vitals checked.
It feels tired to write about being a woman with headaches, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And it is tiring to be a woman with headaches. I am tired of it.
I write too often about fracturing my skull. I reference it compulsively. Only when reading Leslie Jamison’s essay on female pain did I admit to myself why. Jamison quotes from a memoir by Lucy Grealy, a woman who had childhood cancer and whose face was disfigured by it, cause for the title of Grealy’s book: Autobiography of a Face. In it, Grealy writes, “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.”
“Grealy had been craving the identity-locus of damage even before it happened to her; and was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived,” writes Jamison.
For the first few days in the hospital after fracturing my skull, I was torn between fear of dying and self-pity. These are related feelings: self-pity follows from awareness that one is too young to experience fear of dying, and this acknowledgement often strengthens that fear, goading a person to think of all that she will miss should she die.
For me, this manifested as yelling deliriously at a nurse. “You don’t understand, I can’t have a head injury!” I screamed, trying to keep her in my field of vision despite being strapped into a too large neckbrace, which forced me to look straight up at the white ceiling if I wanted to minimize the cutting pain the brace caused as it sliced into my too small, too thin collarbone.
“I finally have a job where I need my brain” I yelled, no longer able to see her.
When the nurse reappeared in my line of vision, I told her to let me check myself out of the emergency room. If I left, I reasoned, the injury would cease to exist. If I was someone not in a hospital, I would no longer be someone who needed to be in a hospital.
I lost consciousness before I could hear her response. Maybe she didn’t respond at all.
I soon acclimated to my new existence as someone confined to a hospital bed, someone who understood how to use a bedpan and who no longer cringed at the needle stuck into her arm every four hours by a blurry amalgam of nurses, made indistinguishable in the darkness of late sterile nights when she, or he, woke me from sleep to prick me for another blood sample. A new feeling came over me, not unconnected to fear or dying or self-pity, but distinct: I felt grateful. Something very bad had happened to me, something no one could deny was terrible. I had a traumatic brain injury. I might not recover. The doctors told me I had a brain hemorrhage. They told me that my spinal fluid could flood the space between my spinal cord and my skull, and that this could kill me.
I did not cease to fear for my life, or wish I hadn’t gotten hurt. But given that I had, I felt precisely what Grealy felt. I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.
I know better than that. I know I should be what Jamison calls a “post-wounded” woman. “Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood,” she writes, and it’s true. I fear my parents will read this essay and misunderstand me. That they’ll be hurt, or horrified, because they haven’t read Jamison’s essay, or think my excitement about being an authentically unwell, tragic woman compares in magnitude to my resentment and self-pity about my health. It doesn’t.
And yet, I have a new wound; one I could be accused of choosing to prolong for the sake of pity. Ever since fracturing my skull, I’ve become paralyzed at the thought of making an appointment with a new doctor, or keeping up with the old.
I managed it for a year or two. I saw the neurologist, who gave me three different sets of pills for my headaches. I saw the ENT specialist, who explained to me that while I might never get my sense of smell back – a loss that came from a piece of my skull slicing through the nerve endings that translate odor into scent – I might. He wouldn’t say anything more definitive, surely fearing litigation. I saw a therapist, who saw a young woman so wounded as to be unfixable, so she gave me some pills, and I stopped seeing her. I saw a specialist who was supposed to tell me why I felt dehydrated all the time, which, combined with the migraine, had caused me to faint in the first place. He cut open my lip and sewed it together again, testing for Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that was the only explanation he could think of for my dehydration. I can still feel the stitches through my face. When he told me I’d tested negative, I saw someone else, who gave me pills to take three times a day, pills meant to stimulate saliva so my teeth wouldn’t decay, the enamel eroding and rotting the bone at an accelerated rate. I saw a dentist, who saw a thin girl with no enamel left on her teeth. “Are you bulimic,” she asked, adding that repeated exposure to stomach acid erodes one’s teeth. Even when I explained my condition, she seemed to still see a bulimic. I saw my new primary care physician, who helped me coordinate all these doctors, until she didn’t.
So now, I see no one. For the most part, this is okay. But when it comes to the heart abnormality the neurologist found, I never saw a cardiologist. It was over a year ago. I can’t seem to make myself schedule an appointment. When an ex saw me continue putting off the call that could have gotten me an appointment, he first tried to help. Then he gave up. We broke up, with him telling me to “see the doctors already, I don’t understand what is so hard about that.” I told him I would.
When I told the guy I see – “I wouldn’t call us ‘dating,'” he once told me, so I don’t – that it’s been over a year since a nurse discovered my heart abnormality, he told me I should see the doctor. I didn’t respond.
Jamison would probably add me to her cases of women dwelling in woundedness. She would be right. But I’d add – and so would she – that it’s more complicated than that.
Note: I’ll incorporate this essay into a longer piece elsewhere, but I wanted to share it as is in the meantime.