insides out

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the purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink

t s eliot

the thin man and i have one of those amusingly familiar partnery conversations. it is clear to me that he is distressed in some way, so i ask him where in his body the troubling emotion resides. he thinks for a while then decides the feeling in question is taking place inside his head, and taps himself on the head to indicate this. only very rarely does he locate any emotion elsewhere in his physical being.

when i refer to parts or organs of my body to describe emotions, i don’t mean it metaphorically: my gut feelings are actual feelings; when my heart sinks, i feel it drop – not literally, of course – but the sensation is immediate and appreciable; and i recall the exact time when the phrase “seeing red” suddenly made perfect sense – it manifested as a real experience of momentarily blinding red mist during a childhood row. some of my organs are so inextricably linked to particular emotions that i cannot imagine how i would go on experiencing that emotion if the organ it connects with was removed.

nobody has had to establish whether they go on feeling their heart swell with love following removal of that organ. but more than once i have sat in a consultant’s office and had an ostensibly pragmatic conversation about the possible removal of my womb, ovaries and other pelvic organs. in that setting – during a medical discussion with an almost stranger – i have found it impossible to attempt to explain that for me the prospect of losing my uterus is equally as earth-shattering as the notion of my heart being cut out. where would all those various connected but subtly different feelings go, or be, if i lost the place where they have always lived?

my ongoing attachment to this part of my body makes no rational sense. i don’t understand how i’ve gone on celebrating menstruation despite the fact that each month the blood which poured out of me also flowed the wrong way on the inside, ravaging my pelvis and gradually turning my innards into a war zone of adhesions, orange- and grapefruit-sized cysts, mangled tubes and glued-together organs. i spent my periods doubled over, in tooth-grinding, crazy-making, bone-splitting, eye-bleeding agony. repeatedly envisioning cutting out my insides. praying for unconsciousness – wishing to be able to pass out even just for a moment, simply for a breath of respite. i was in bloody hell. and after one of my several surgeries – by far the most brutal – i spent an unremembered day screaming hour after hour, apparently unable to communicate to the intensive care staff that i needed help (i know about this day only because the friend who visited me that evening reported to me that the man in the bed next to mine had told him that the staff had been hurting me all day, as evidenced by my screams).

like i say, it makes no logical sense that i carried on feeling so positively connected to my womb, or that i continued relishing the magic of menstruation. but what magic. every month this disconcertingly visceral thing happens to your body, whether you like it or not. its occurence has absolutely nothing to do with you; it is entirely involuntary.  i remember the first time i found out about periods. my mother took me to london to a show and while we were walking around she explained the basics of menstruation. i couldn’t believe my ears – the whole thing sounded so implausible. afterwards i felt as if i’d been given shocking news about some misfortune afflicting a loved one, including the commensurate sense of unreality. (which i guess i had, in a way, though i’ve never related to the notion of loving oneself. as an aspiration it seems wildly ambitious. i think a kind of distant respect is plenty to hope for.)

i have spoken before about the challenges which being ill for many years bring in connection to my relationship with my body. when i reflect on a few surprising examples of my physical system continuing to function as it is meant to, despite and alongside all the sickness symptoms, i experience a confusing kind of pride. it does seem incredible that my reproductive hormones have silently kept on doing their thing, so that at 53 i am still not officially in the menopause. perhaps this sheds a little light on these mysteriously complex emotions regarding my pelvis and its contents: that as well as being the cause of such savage destruction and suffering, the hormones themselves symbolise survival among the ruins.

talking of having body parts removed, at the end of 2019 i acquired a new diagnosis to add to my long list of diseases and ailments. gallstones. which is good, in the sense that i knew something different was wrong, that i had a different and more recent sort of pain, and that gallstones are relatively easy to treat. it is a pleasant change to get a condition which is curable. plus gallstones sound like a down-to-earth, old-fashioned kind of problem. and after i found out about mine, i realised i’ve been using the word galling a lot lately. this definitely was meant metaphorically; i was barely aware that i had a gallbladder, and certainly couldn’t have hazarded a guess as to its whereabouts.

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