Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thoughts from Anna Rose, Part 7

This is the seventh in a series of posts about my experiences with a sexual pain disorder, and my journey toward a cure.*

I want to start this post with the disclaimer that my father, my grandfather, and all my uncles are doctors. I love and respect them. Good doctors have seen me through incredibly rough realities, and have healed me.

But the medical field is full of whack-jobs. For proof, please see the record below of my first gynecological examination:

It’s been six weeks, and my period won’t stop. Mom makes a gynecologist appointment for me. We spend two hours in the waiting room.

“So,” says the doctor in the most condescending, high-pitched, baby voice ever, “What college are you going to?”

“The University of Rochester,” I tell her. I just read a study they did in her field. She ignores me.

“Okay, let’s do the breast exam!”
There is no call for this kind of excitement. Her gentle hands search my breasts for imperfections, and finding none, she exclaims, “Okay, we’re done! Yaaaaay!” Her voice is squeaky. It blows my mind. It would insult a three-year-old.

On her instruction, I lay back on the table, put my feet in the stirrups, and scoot my butt down to the edge. All the inner parts of my vulva feel cold, and completely exposed.

“So,” she says, as if she’s about to ask what preschool I go to, “are you sexually active?”


“Okay, we’ll have to use a pediatric pap smear. Let’s get the peedee!”

Let’s write a song about it. And Raffi will perform our song.

The completion of the disrespectful procedure invites another exclamation of, “Okay, we’re done! Yaaaaay!”

When the results of the tests come, she tells me there’s nothing actually wrong with me. I should just go on birth control. But I’m about to go to college, and don’t want to gain the weight or be medicated.

“You’re like,” she suggests dreamily, still in high octaves, “a starving Ethiopian person, who doesn’t know a good meal when they see one. There’s a better world out there!”

I mean, what the fuck is that? What the fuck? This woman was charged with the care of my vagina, and she was an alien. She had to be. There's no other explanation.

While that's probably the most bizarre of my experiences, I've had others equally unsettling. I recently moved, and then got a yeast infection, and had to go to a new doctor. Someone recommended a guy who specializes in pain disorders, the type I have. So I went to him, and told him that I have pelvic floor dysfunction, and was there to get a diagnosis of my infection. He said that I probably had vulvar vestibulitis, which was what my original run-of-the-mill old man gyno diagnosed me with. It turns out that it's basically a catch-all for "I don't know the whole story." I told him I used to think that, and it turned out that it was PFD, but really I was just there because of the infection. He then performed the exam that is the most violating experience of my entire life, and then diagnosed me with...vulvar vestibulitis. This was, of course, his way of saying he was of the old white man ruling class, he'd been in this field for decades, and if he hadn't heard of a disorder, it didn't exist. And of course, he hadn't heard of pelvic floor dysfunction, and wouldn't say it. Go figure.

I had another such doctor tell me that taking a half-second (this is not hyperbole) glance at my arms counted as surveying my whole body to get a holistic view of the problem. Of course, this was the same guy whose answer to my every question was to nod knowingly and not say anything.

I had a doctor try to diagnose me with my clothes on. I had another ask if I'd ever had a biopsy--had a piece of me cut off--while he was poking my vagina and I was crying. Who the fuck does that?

Possibly worst, one guy gave me six injections in my inner labia because my yeast glands might be enlarged, without actually looking at my yeast glands.

Luckily, my father has often reminded me of the person-ness of doctors, and has taught me that you can't just comply with their wishes (unless it's him of course) if you think it's not what's best for you. The longer a person has been a doctor, the higher the grand-stand they may think they're on, and sometimes a patient has to knock them back down. According to him, a doctor knows a patient for an average of 18 seconds before diagnosing them.

There's a scene at the end of Knocked Up where the woman's doctor is out of town the day she delivers, and his replacement is disrespectful of her wishes. When she protests, he tells her boyfriend that she's "completely anal," when all she's doing is defending the way she'd planned to give birth. Her boyfriend tells the doctor that he has no right to take that from her, and it's his job just to get the baby out safely. He does so. The film got a lot of feminist criticism for being another movie in which a smart, gorgeous, capable woman falls for a fat lowlife, and it is, but it has some merits.

The point is, you can't afford to be complacent with your own body--especially when you're a young woman with old man doctors. Because there's one similarity to all of the above situations: While I was going through them, my instinct said, "This is wrong." I knew that doctor should have looked at my yeast glands before deciding they were enlarged, but I let him inject me anyway, and I paid for that complacency nonstop for three weeks. When I felt that my old man doctor wasn't listening to a word I said, which he wasn't, I shouldn't have let him continue the exam, but I did. I thought I had no choice.

But there's always a choice. All along, this body that they poked and prodded, this body they assumed to know, was mine. And conversations with doctors time and again have proven that I know my body pretty well. Despite its freakishness, despite that I feel it's betrayed me, or that it's holding me back, it's mine to look out for. When a doctor screws up and I leave the office, they move on, but I'm still in this body, and I have to answer to it.

So even though I've written on this before, it's worth repeating the only advice I'll give: Be your own advocate. Don't let doctors hurt you, they're only human. If a treatment doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. There are other doctors out there who will translate your body better, and if you don't move on, you won't find them. We women with pain disorders are bruised and battered enough. If no one else will take proper care of our bodies, the job falls to us.

Anna Rose

*If you have chronic pain during intercourse and you know you have no history of sexual violence, you may have a pain disorder, and you should see a doctor. Get opinions from several different kinds of doctors, especially non-conventional if possible.

To read the whole story, take a look at the whole "Thoughts from Anna Rose" series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


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