Body Talk

It doesn’t surprise me that, when I finally decided to have kids, after my husband and I weighed the pros and cons and navigated the ambivalence in between, my body had other ideas.

My body doesn’t handle change well. When my parents got divorced, I got the chicken pox. I fainted at my first gynecologist appointment. When my mother remarried and moved to a different state, I totaled two cars within a year—I was so disoriented, I couldn’t remember how to drive. After my father died, I came down with a litany of illnesses: a double ear infection, pink eye, and what my doctor called a “floozy of an allergy attack.”

It seems like some woman get pregnant so easily—friends from high school, Samantha Bee, the Duggars. This summer, there was even a show, Extant, about Halle Berry going to space alone for fourteen months and getting pregnant. My body finds these things brutally unrealistic. After I went off birth control, I discovered that my endocrine system is maladjusted. I have an excess of androgens, the male sex hormone. Which means: my body doesn’t like to ovulate.

I’m supposed to start taking 50mg of clomid to give my ovaries some discipline. Clomid is a cure-all for women who have similar hormone imbalances. But before I can do that, my doctor ordered a hysterosalpingogram. It’s a fluoroscopy (x-ray) that confirms whether you have tubal infertility (i.e., your fallopian tubes are clogged like a drain pipe). The procedure is even more invasive than it sounds: A doctor inserts a catheter into the cervix, fills the uterus and then the tubes with an iodine dye. The dye acts like a blacklight, illuminating the motion of the fallopian tubes on an x-ray. It’s a diagnostic test, but it also helps clear out old tissue that could be causing minor blockage.

I call four radiology centers to find one that will do a hysterosalpingogram. I trip over the seven syllables. I worry I’m pronouncing it wrong when three different offices tell me that they don’t do it. I end up sobbing on the phone to a receptionist who tells me they don’t do hysterosalpingograms, but they do hysteroscopies. Just saying the name makes me feel crazy.

I hate the etymology of women’s medicine. How cruel it seems that the Greek word for “womb” named things that doctors didn’t understand because they didn’t have one: hysteria, hysteroepilepsy, hysterical amblyopia, hysterotraumatic.

I hate that there is a name for every way my body doesn’t act like a fully-functioning female body. I can make a dictionary out of ways my body has pathologized change: conjunctivitis, atopic dermatitis, allergic rhinitis, syncope, chronic urticaria, acute otitis media. File this entry under: Polycystic ovaries.

A year before I had heard of a hysterosalpingogram, before clomid was an option, I went to community acupuncture to try to jump start my polycystic ovaries. I appreciated the language there. The intake form asked for my preferred pronoun, and my acupuncturist would always ask, “How is your menses?” She called hormones “gunk.” She would say that of course my cycle is taking so long to sync up with all that necessary gunk I had been taking for years. She talks a lot about OPKs, or ovulation predictor kits. She tells me they’re easy to add to your morning routine and they’re pretty accurate.

My doctor’s language, in contrast, is plain, matter of fact, heavy with warnings. She says I can still use OPKs if I want to waste my money. She talks about basal thermometers and charting, and insists that it’s the only way to predict ovulation.

I’m afraid to stop doing either, so my morning routine is dense with observation and new vocabulary. Before I get out of bed, I stick a thermometer in my mouth and plot my follicular and luteal phases on a chart. Then, I pee into a dinosaur-themed Dixie cup as soon as I get into the bathroom and hope for two lines that are “similar in intensity.” That’s how OPKs predict an LH surge—a surge that is as rare to me as the fifty-year storm in Point Break.

I resent the language of infertility. Each time I learn the name of a new pill, treatment, chart, or mucus, it feels like a dare. What word will I refuse to learn? In vitro fertilization? Sometimes I don’t know if I still want to have children or if I’m just too stubborn.

Shannon, the radiology assistant at the Washington Radiology Center, is dressed in scrubs and a plastic bib. She looks like she’s getting ready to do a messy autopsy. She points to a row of stacked gowns and folded socks with white traction marks that say CARESTEP. “If you want, you can keep the socks after you’re done,” she says.

I fold my end-of-summer dress and green peep toe flats into a plastic bag and take everything with me down the hall to the x-ray table. The plastic bag has a hard handle that snaps together, and this reminds me of childhood in a way I can’t place. On the x-ray table is an absorbent pad, the kind my ninety-five-year-old grandmother uses in her hospital bed. Above the table is a machine that looks like a piece of research equipment on the set of Extant.

I researched all the words and particulars associated hysterosalpingogram. I pulled up images of the catheter and the dye that they would insert into my cervix. They say it’s supposed to only feel like a mild menstrual cramp, but I also learned that some women find it incredibly painful. I’ve imagined all the ways it could feel, and all the possibly physical responses from fainting to cramping to infection. I’ve seen that fallopian tubes look like antennae. I’ve made sure that my husband knows every detail of the procedure. I want him to understand the pain of all of this, but I also want all the pain to myself.

The whole thing takes ten minutes. If I had to categorize the pain, I would say that it feels like a moderate cramp. I’ve tried to describe to my husband what a cramp (dysmenorrhea) feels like, and I end up using words like stabbing, throbbing, pressure, but none of those seem weighty enough for hysteropalpingogram. It feels like a balloon inflated beyond its capacity. It feels like a wave. It feels like being pressure washed.

I was prepared to faint. I was prepared to bleed. But my body did something rare: nothing.

In Extant, Halle Berry’s character unwittingly becomes pregnant after spending fourteen months alone in outer space. Due to a previous infertility diagnosis, her husband creates an artificial intelligent son to fill their infertile nest. Her character is given room to question whether she wants this son, or whether it’s a step too far to have a child. I appreciate her hesitation. I appreciate that motherhood isn’t presented as a blinding magical force of maternal instinct. Her idea of motherhood is always in flux, always changing, often coming second to her work. The show emphasizes that the different ways we become mothers isn’t always normal and can often be frightening. It doesn’t always hit the right notes, but it feels honest.

I also like how Extant emphasizes that the body is such a mindfuck. Berry’s brain is infected by the extraterrestrial virus that impregnated her and makes her hallucinate old lovers and friends that have died. It makes her seem, I suppose, hysterical. It affects her ability to trust herself—it’s not unlike taking hormones, or trying to decipher all the mixed reproductive signals that your body puts out. Her character endures alien viruses, blackouts, a forced abortion, doctors denying her pregnancy. She embodies the definition of the word “extant”: not destroyed.

Sometimes, it feels like my body’s response to change is trying to articulate some biological injustice. After twenty-three years of periods, I find it harder and harder to handle the biological requirements, the expectations, and the ways I’ve tried to make it conform. It feels, in a way, political. I can’t believe that I lie on a table and allow a man I’ve never met before to inject iodine into my cervix. I can’t believe that after it’s over, I will want to thank him.

When I get dressed in the bathroom, I throw the gown in the bin, but make sure to tuck the CARESTEP socks in my bag. Usually, there’s some tangible hurt to point to, evidence that something happened, that it wasn’t just in my head. When my parents divorced, I was covered in pock marks. When my father died, I couldn’t see, hear, or smell. But when I clear out my fallopian tubes, I’m extant.

Later at home, I’ll pull the socks out of my purse to show my husband, almost as evidence.

Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is at work on an essay collection all about herself.