Words by Fi Macrae with Clare Boyd-Macrae
There are as many kinds of trauma as there are human beings. But there are levels. I have experienced the trauma of sexual assault, and it is a stratosphere away from medical trauma. Medical trauma, however, is trauma nonetheless.
My journey in this space began in 2017, with severe unexplained pelvic and abdominal pain. The medicos diagnosed an ovarian cyst which was removed surgically. Eventually, I was given a diagnosis of endometriosis (in a much shorter time frame than the average, which is seven years).
I don’t need to describe the endo trajectory; if you’ve experienced or read anything about endo, you know how it goes. Doctors belittling my experience, medical gaslighting, surgery, hormones, more surgery, hormone treatment, surgery, opioid addiction, surgery. I have had dozens of visits to the emergency department of the Women’s Hospital over the last four years.
One of the things I find strange in hindsight, however, is the fact that no practitioner spoke to me about the impact this journey would have on my relationship with my body, and the implications on my life as a young, potentially fertile woman, and as a sexual being.
I wish that someone had told me that after years of internal ultrasounds, swabs and examinations, my body would feel less like something I owned, and more like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book for doctors. That I would have to put measures in place to ensure I could remain connected to my body. That I would look between my thighs and in my mind see a faceless practitioner muttering about how I must be used to this by now. That I would shut my eyes at night and hear monitors humming in the background and feel that if I let myself float into the rest of sleep that I’d wake up with something missing, something rearranged, another stranger in my body.
My body was no longer mine, it was a statistic, a guinea pig, a vessel for pain.
The thing with medical trauma (and it is a thing, and there are counsellors who specialise in dealing with this phenomenon) is that it’s hard to feel you can claim it as trauma. You are, after all, voluntarily going into hospital. You present in the Emergency Department because you believe that is the best place for a sick person to be, that there you will be in the calm, skilled hands of trusted professionals.
And often, that has been my experience. I feel beyond fortunate to be in a country with free health care and so many of the doctors and nurses I have encountered have been sensitive and communicative which is all that one could hope for.
There are too many doctors, still, who treat women presenting with severe gynaecological disorders as though they are whingers, malingerers, princesses who complain about something as supposedly mundane as period pain. There are still nurses who look at someone like me – with multiple hospital admissions, a medical file a meter high, a clear need for opioid pain relief (which I was put on to by doctors, as it was the only thing that came close to touching my pain) – as an opportunistic drug fiend, to be tolerated at best. My experiences over nearly four years of constant contact with the medical system feel akin to trauma.
Yes, these procedures need to be done. And medical staff are woefully overworked and time poor but surely there can be more training for medical professionals (particularly those dealing with gynaecological issues which are so profoundly intimate and bound up with our image of ourselves, our desires and hopes and dreams) and more supervision in the field, so that all patients will be treated with compassion and respect.
As for me, I am beyond grateful for the practitioners who show that it can be done – the respect, the communication, the consultation every step of the way, the tenderness. They have shown me, over and over, that there are better ways of performing these necessary but alarming and painful procedures.
My strength has been hard won. It’s taken a long time, but mostly, now, I can remind myself that my body is still my own. That I have the power to make my own choices, to say no, to ask what is happening – something I wish I had known at the start of this journey.
Something I wish that every young person who has to go through what I have was told this at the start.
I look in the mirror and I see the hands of all those who have poked and prodded, the scars both visible and hidden, the eyes of those who judged or belittled me. But when I look past that, I see resilience, strength, courage and the body of a person who has survived repeated trauma, and grown with it and through it.
I remind myself that, no matter what happens, this body is mine and nobody can take that from me.
Thanks Clare and Fi for this superb post. Fi, your willingness to expose yourself (again) in this most intimate and public of ways will be, I am sure, of immense benefit to other women who have a similar journey. I am sure it will also be helpful to males like me who continue to bumble along in ignorance, stumbling to understand what you and your sisters in pain are going through. And more power to ‘Private Parts’ as you seek to help us all to understand so we can better accompany you, and those we know in our own circles, on the way.