10. Victim and culprit
Sometimes I wonder how much I’m to blame for what has happened to me, for my fibroids, and for the deterioration of my health over time. As well as thinking about myself, I also think about all the other people who become ill. What has happened to us? Whilst trying to answer this question, a vision comes to mind of a world where an individual’s fate is potluck. I think I have been partly to blame but have been a victim too. And what is clear to me now is that I no longer want to be either of the two.
A few years ago, I worked as a post-doctoral researcher in a clinical environment. I learnt that, broadly speaking, illnesses can originate from genetic factors, environmental factors, or be the result of an infection. When they explained it to me it seemed so obvious that I was surprised to not have known before. And in reality, the vast majority of the time, the onset of an illness is due to a mixture of these three factors, and it is rarely down to just one cause.
I didn’t meet my paternal grandma, but I would say that if I have a genetic predisposition for developing fibroids it’s because I inherited it from her. My dad told me that, in 1952, she had to have an operation because she had fibroids that were giving her grief. He also told me that when they operated on her, she was 35 years old, and it was 6 years after she had given birth to him, her only child. My dad didn’t know for certain exactly what they did to her, but he always understood that they had removed her womb, because they told her she couldn’t have any more children. I have lots of questions that I would have loved to ask her. Perhaps she wouldn’t have all the answers, but maybe we would have taken a journey of mutual understanding by sharing our stories. I think about that time, almost 70 years ago, and imagine all the information I have that she didn’t have, that even the doctors who operated on her didn’t have. If I try and visualise the conditions of the operation, the only image that comes to mind is haphazard and precarious. An image that is surely influenced by films from previous eras. I wonder how close my imagination is to what really happened.
I also wonder if my grandma was scared. And what her pain was like. I’m sure that she wasn’t able to self-administer morphine when she woke up from the anaesthetic like I could (Three days two nights). I wonder if my grandma bled between periods. Or if hers were as heavy as mine. I feel as though I’d like to time-travel and give her a big hug before she went into her surgery and tell her that everything would be okay. When my dad tells any story about my grandma, he always describes her as a brave woman, so maybe she was positive before going into surgery too. My dad didn’t see her scar, but we think it must have been vertical, which was more common at that time. I would have loved to see her scar and stand next to her and compare ourselves in the mirror. Running away with my imagination, I want to imagine us going to the beach together and walking in our bikinis on the black sand, hand in hand, walking slowly with our feet in the ocean, feeling the breeze and letting the sun heal our skin.
My grandmother didn’t know that she would have a granddaughter, let alone that she would have a granddaughter who would also have an operation for fibroids. I wonder if she ever imagined me, despite not knowing of my future existence. The human mind has always been complex, in all eras. Maybe my grandmother did think about me. Regardless of my grandmother, developing fibroids isn’t just a matter of genetic predisposition. Environment also matters, as the triad indicates. What I am certain of is that what has happened to me has nothing to do with any infection.
When I think about the environment, my environment, our environment, I imagine it as some sort of melting pot. Connected and disconnected. The environment refers to everything in our surroundings at any one time, on the outside, and this ends up having an impact on us inside, sometimes deeply. Those environmental factors range from the quality of air that we breathe, as well as sleep, to what we eat and who we are with. Stress too. Because of the operation I have started to read a couple of books. One I have already finished, Period repair manual by Lara Briden. The other I am still reading, Fix your period by Nicole JardimI had already noticed it, but reading these books has made me realise that yes, my environment has definitely played an important role in the development of my fibroids.
Being used to studying proteins at work, and always comparing them to workers in a factory, I think I had underestimated the crucial role that hormones play in our biology. Hormones are like messengers, which announce to the workers which stage in the process we are at so that they can coordinate and carry out the necessary task. If the messenger fails, the process goes out of control. If the hormones are imbalanced, the body’s biological processes go haywire. There is also a hierarchy, and cortisol, the stress hormone, is one of the queens. The other queen is insulin. If these hormones go out of control, the others do too, and there is a domino effect.
Being honest with myself, with humility, I think I have been a clear victim of stress, of pressure, of fatigue, and of modern society that feeds the idea that success in life is achieved through a professional career, at all costs. I think I have been a victim of having to prove myself, in whatever it may be, through fear of being judged, of not meeting the expectations. Sometimes even a victim of being a woman in a working environment where the hierarchy is predominantly formed by men.
I am a lucky person in that I have dedicated myself to my work out of passion. I have puts lots of enthusiasm and energy into it. And there are many aspects of my job that I enjoy so much. Partly, perhaps, it has been this devotion that has led me to this imbalance. The attachment to my work role, and feeling identified with it as if my job were the sole importance of my existence. And at the same time, part of my stress and exhaustion not only comes from the pressure, but also from realising that the system is wrong from within, from wanting to do things differently and feeling that it isn’t possible, that I’m not enough for it to be possible. I think of the millions of people in the world who experience much more terrible working conditions. I feel what I like to call universal pain, when I am distressed, crying with sadness for the injustices in the world. I think the system is wrong because I believe life in another way is possible. Another way that I am searching for, that I am finding.
Returning to the idea of stress, before my operation I had spells of high stress and fatigue and my belly was hurting. I called it a tension pain, like when you have dry skin, and it hurts when it’s stretched. So like this, but from within. Something was stretching, hurting. And when it stopped hurting, it bled, no matter what stage of my cycle I was in. Sometimes I have bled almost as much as if it were my period, but it wasn’t my period. Now I think that the tissues in the wall of my uterus were stretching, while the fibroid was growing, with the stress and loss of control caused by the cortisol message.
Another thing I have learnt from these books, which has also helped me lots in this process of understanding, is the liver’s key role in hormonal balance. Fibroids are linked with imbalanced levels of oestrogen and progesterone, which are two fundamental hormones for female health. This imbalance often occurs because there is an excess of oestrogen. And if there is an excess it is either because too much is being produced, or because it isn’t being eliminated sufficiently and therefore accumulates. Well, it turns out that the liver is in charge of eliminating oestrogen, and I now see it as an important ally that I am trying to work with for my benefit.
When you drink alcohol, the liver is too busy eliminating the alcohol and can’t keep up with eliminating the oestrogen too, causing it to accumulate, and promoting this biological loss of control. Honestly, and trying to maintain an objective perspective of my own situation, I think that in the most recent years of my life I have been drinking more alcohol than my liver is capable of digesting. Wow. This sentence was very difficult to write. And I’m asking another question. Why? And here comes the answer to cap it all: to escape from stress.
Drinking is cheap, works short-term and is socially accepted, recommended even. I also have to admit that I like the taste of a good wine, or a good beer, or a good spirit like rum or whisky. I also like feeling tipsy. I began drinking alcohol when I started going to parties as a teenager. I wouldn’t be thirsty enough to drink a large glass so I preferred doing shots. Then, while at university, I didn’t drink a lot, it was expensive, and it was later during my PhD that alcohol became more important again, but in reality it wasn’t solving anything.
The last few years have been complicated and I realise that can always been an easy excuse to justify doing anything. Despite the lethargy or hangover the day after, the cloudy mind, the migraines, the liver and stomach pains. Despite continuing to bleed at the wrong times and the emotional difficulties. I wonder why it has become so normalised. It’s very easy to let yourself go. We need to escape. It has reached a point where I think we have confused what is normal with what is good, what is healthy. Just because everybody else does it doesn’t mean it is good. Just because everybody else lives like this doesn’t mean that there isn’t another way. There is.
Although I could have a genetic predisposition given my grandma’s story, I think that, hormonally, I have done myself a lot of damage by not listening to my body, by drinking too much, by feeling trapped and, without wanting to, going along with a way of doing things that I don’t identify with. I have felt guilty about this, but the operation has given me the chance to change my fortune, to start to do things differently. We can help our liver’s metabolism through the food we eat and make it more efficient in its role of eliminating oestrogen. All the vegetables in the Brassica family contribute to good liver function. A few months ago, I started changing my eating habits and I feel much better, more balanced, healthier, more awake, calmer. I wonder what I would have done if I had had access to this information when I was younger, if I had understood the biological impact of these decisions. Asking myself this question, I realise another key element in this whole process: the mental barrier. Trusting yourself to listen and follow your instincts, regardless of others. Will power. Mental health. More and more doors are being opened to talk about these topics without stigma and I have hope that the future will be different. I want to help towards it being different, towards us not being scared, towards all of us having information and being able to leave the whirlwind.