My period stopped. My panic attacks flared. My hair fell out and I couldn’t sleep. I gained 40 immovable pounds in three months. I was stuck in a seemingly endless loop of salt and sugar and sadness, punctuated by migraines, brain fog, and weird body pains. My jumbled hormones made me manic one day and depressed the next. I could not control my rage. Language was my life, yet I did not possess the words to know what was wrong with me.
Often, my task as a poet is to try to describe the indescribable. Instead of deciphering my body’s alarm — its message being: girl, you’re ’bout to break down — I disregarded it. But I had shit to do and something to prove — it was the final semester of my MFA program, and I was stressed about my thesis, a collection of poems that I would have to defend before graduating. At 33, I was older than the other writers in my cohort and one of few women of color, which meant I had to work harder than anyone else. Or else.
And I did. I was ambitious, and I wasn’t shy about it. I was raised by a single black mother who was raised by a single black mother who was raised by a freed slave, who (surprise) was a single black mother on a sharecropping farm in North Carolina with twelve children to support. This was my inheritance; work was in my blood. The only way I knew how to cope with struggle was to tough it out, a strategy that isn’t new for women, and is an especially damaging one for black women when it comes to our health, our actual survival. Black women often have higher mortality rates than any other ethnic group from breast and cervical cancers, heart disease, and mental illness.
When the time came, I nailed my graduate thesis defense. But the next day, a kind of shrapnel shredded my right ovary in throbbing bursts every two minutes. I was writhing on the bathroom floor for hours, clenching my sweat-drenched fists at 2 a.m. But I refused to go to the hospital. I told myself I could handle the pain. I was lying, of course. I didn’t know how to listen to my body, and I didn’t know how to advocate for myself.
After a night of anguish, my partner persuaded me to go to a walk-in clinic. On the way there, every bump and divot in the road ricocheted through my guts. The doctor at the clinic ruled out appendicitis and told me it was a ruptured cyst, but there was nothing she could offer besides painkillers. I felt helpless and was out 50 bucks, so afterward I did some extensive Googling and WebMDing of my constellation of confusing symptoms — abnormal menstruation, hirsutism, acne, insomnia, depression, pelvic pain, weight gain, etc. I discovered the acronym that had been bombarding my uterus: PCOS, polycystic ovarian syndrome, a reproductive hormonal disorder causing enlarged ovaries riddled with cysts, which in turn can lead to metabolic complications that may affect overall appearance and well-being.
I wanted professional confirmation so I could ameliorate my symptoms, and I forced myself to make a doctor’s appointment. I hadn’t gone to the gyno in over a decade, because until recently, I’d had no health insurance as well as a deep fear of vagina doctors. When I was thirteen, a white woman doctor checked to see if I was still a virgin, repeatedly asking if I’d been a “good girl” during the entire examination. (I didn’t realize that this was sexual assault until years later.)