It began with a surreal visit to the family planning clinic.
When I called to make the appointment – because my bourgeois, avenue Montaigne gynecologist had gone on vacation for the whole summer, just when I really needed her assistance – it was explained to me that in order to see the doctors, I would first need to sit through a group session with four or five other women. An information exchange. Given my advanced age and the fact that I divulged on the phone that I’d test driven a number of different types of contraception over the years, the lady who took my details jokingly said that I could co-lead the session.
As I arrived last but one, and the doctor saw us in the order of arrival, I wound up spending an hour and a half around the table with a group of women of assorted ages, our number gradually decreasing, as two young girls emerged with bandaged arms (contraceptive implant, because they were worried about remembering to take their pill), and others ducked out to a nearby pharmacy to fetch their prescribed IUDs. I had my Mirena IUD in my bag, prescribed long ago and set aside, but still within its sell by date. I was determined to leave with it inside my womb.
During the long wait we touched on so many subjects that were alien to me. Apparently people approach family planning requesting Certificates of Virginity, even though this is completely illegal. The number of people asking for hymen reconstructions is on the rise. A young Muslim couple, for example, who’d been having sex but were about to tie the knot, wanted to get the surgery, at considerable cost, so that their families would be able to perform the requisite checks on the bride on their wedding night and avoid disgrace. An African girl present explained what this entailed. In addition to checking the sheets after intercourse – which I’d always assumed you could work around by buying a fake blood capsule from a joke shop if you were resourceful – said that the aunts of the brides would perform a thorough examination of the bride prior to the act.
“I can’t think of anything worse than getting fingered by my Aunts on my wedding night,” I retorted, provoking a collective intake of breath. Sometimes I say something in French – here “me faire doigter” – and then wonder whether I’ve been far more vulgar than I intended and have caused serious offence. But after a pause, came laughter. The atmosphere changed subtly after that. The ice was well and truly broken. Later, the conversation turned to female genital mutilation. I didn’t attempt make any jokes about that. My filter is defective, but I do have some limits.
When my turn finally came, two doctor’s pored over the documents I’d brought for context. They were conflicted about installing the device at all. All signs point categorically towards my womb being a dead zone. But better safe than sorry, I insisted. It would be a delicate procedure, obviously, because IUDs are best inserted when the cervix is open, when the woman is menstruating. But I was not bleeding, and may never bleed again.
Half an hour later, my legs splayed wide in stirrups, I was having some kind of undignified out-of-body experience, contemplating myself from the ceiling. My breathing was fast and shallow, something I half remembered learning in preparation for childbirth, and I was trying to tune out the scraping, poking, and prodding feelings happening deep inside me.
One Mirena had already been broken and discarded, and I’d heard murmurings that my cervix was “in spasm”. I imagined it clamped firmly closed, uncooperative. After all the waiting, after all this fucking discomfort, after ducking out of work at 4:30 pm, please oh please let them get this glorified fishhook inside me.
Finally, on the last attempt, there was an almighty pinchy grindy stabby feeling, which caused me to cry out, my eyes to water. Mirena had landed. The doctor performed an ultrasound to check the positioning, and prescribed another one for a few days later, as she had some doubts that even after all that, it was in correctly. I limped out of there, feeling victorious, but depleted. And in a great deal of pain.
Take ibuprofen, was their advice, for the cramps and the inflammation. Yeah, I thought to myself. People who take lithium – as I told you I do – are expressly forbidden to take ibuprofen. Call yourself a doctor? But thanks anyway. I’ll just ride it out.
As soon as I’d left the building, there was someone I really wanted to share my news with, but I couldn’t reach him.
I found that odd, because he knew about my appointment, and we had spoken just prior to it. I assumed he would want to know about the outcome. I came out at 7:16 pm and sent him some messages on whatsapp, our preferred means of communication, as we both have a preference for the written word. A little later, I left a phone message. Something I’ve never done before. There was no answer.
I was little worried, to be honest. Things with us are still in the early stages, and we’ve had our teething problems. I’m not always sure I can trust my instincts about when silence means something is amiss, or just that he is busy. He doesn’t like to feel a slave to his phone, and I don’t want to be perceived as pushy. But this was important news. Mirena was for us.
I had made plans to meet a friend in my local, so I went through with it, despite feeling tempted to curl up in bed with a hot water bottle. Maybe alcohol would help numb the pain, and I didn’t much feel like being alone.
After a couple of drinks, I went to the bathroom, and found blood on my underwear. Nothing abnormal given all that inept jabbing and digging, really, but it prompted me to send what could be construed as a dramatic message. I suppose drunken me was trying to provoke a reaction – to break his silence. What I wrote was perfectly understandable in context, or so I thought. It never occurred to me that I might worry, or scare.
My friend and I decided to get some Thai food and were seated at the rear of a long, narrow restaurant with shitty phone reception. My phone remained in my bag for the next hour.
Walking home, at around 11pm, I pulled out my phone and headphones to walk the 200m back to my house with a musical accompaniment, and found 17 missed WhatsApp messages and one missed call.
I’m not sure whether he thought I’d been butchered by the women at family planning and was bleeding out, or whether it was more about my bikini posts on this blog, and the possibility of self-harm. Maybe both? But when he couldn’t reach me, he had contacted the emergency services, and they’d told him there weren’t grounds to intervene, so he should take a taxi over to my place himself. And he does not live nearby.
Once he’d established that in fact I was okay, he turned back and went home. There was more to this situation; there was a reason for his silence; there were other things happening that week that were causing friction and upset. I understand why he did that, even though I obviously wish he hadn’t.
I curled up on my bed and howled into a pillow for a while. I was hurting, on the inside, because of my fucking bruised and battered cervix, and also because I was horrified by what had happened. I’d risked telling someone I liked a lot about all my most personal shit and it had caused him to freak out, to fear for my life. After just a few dates. That’s too much for any guy to handle. He would bolt. I did not want him to bolt.
I am a person who understands the power of words. I am more careful than most, when I wield them. But I realise now that just because I can joke about suicide with one friend, or because my daughter feels comfortable writing “DIE” in a text message to me, two years later, I will always have to be really attentive to how I use certain language. Particularly when I write it. And when the person is not there, live, to respond immediately, to clarify if there is any ambiguity.
I guess I will never really wash away the stain of what I nearly did. And I’ll always be perceived, in some way, as a liability.