womanhood and watercolors
By: Summer Callihan
I was twelve years old when I cursed my womanhood for the first time.
The kitchen in the house that I grew up in had faded beige walls, and I remember wanting to disappear into them as I laid on the floor in the fetal position, my insides wanting to come outside. My mother looked on suspiciously, offered Tylenol, and in her patented, “been there done that” kind of way declared that the blinding pain consuming my pelvic cavity was normal, a natural part of becoming a woman. At only twelve years old I was all but convinced through this episode that becoming a woman was the last thing I wanted if it meant that this plague would visit monthly to wreak its havoc on my insides.
As time passed, my intense pelvic pain was supplemented by a whole host of new symptoms. Each month’s cycle was like a dreaded blind date with an uninvited guest; lower back pain with the third wheel of nausea-migraines hand in hand with fatigue and irritability. Something was wrong. I was sure of it. Eventually, either from concern or frustration, my mother took me to the doctor, kicking off a cycle of failed tests and ineffective treatments. The pain became so severe at times that my mother would have to take me to the hospital. She didn’t know what else to do. I was missing school. This was affecting my life. I had my first ultrasound at fourteen. When the sonogram found nothing I was prescribed birth control to help with, “bad period cramps.” When birth control and countless tests failed to alleviate my “cramps” or identify an actual problem, the people around me grew suspicious. I mean, what could really be wrong with me? The doctors weren’t finding anything so I must have just been exaggerating, right? Yes. That’s it. She’s sobbing uncontrollably and feigning pain to avoid going to school. This is the story the people around me, the people that I loved, the people I needed to look after me- this is the story they ultimately told themselves about my illness. And they were all but convinced of it by the time that I was in high school. And it drove me mad. As if I would rather be in bed all day than out living my life. At some point I was prescribed anti-depressants, because that’s what we do in America. We throw pills at problems and hope they go away. The pills didn’t help. I didn’t know how to process what was going on within my body. I was lost and confused, and the professionals who were supposedly there to guide me continuously minimized my symptoms.
I suffered through this cycle of emergency rooms, doctors, tests, and pain for years. I eventually lost hope in the medical field altogether. I didn’t go to the doctor for almost ten years. I self medicated with Advil, and at times it was my true savior. Often though, I would take four at a time and the pain wouldn’t let up.
In September of 2016 my pain dramatically worsened and I knew that it was time to seek the proper help. It started with a general practitioner, which led to a specialist, which unfortunately led to me again questioning my own sanity. I had been doing a lot of reading online and all but convinced myself that based on my symptoms, I was suffering from endometriosis. Following an inconclusive pelvic MRI, I listened to my doctor, a fellow woman, tell me that she did not think I had endometriosis because she did not see any of the “classic signs” her words cold, clinical, and flat. She did schedule a laparoscopy though, if only to “take a look” (her words). I sobbed for nine hours after that appointment. I was so deep inside of my head, so full of self doubt, that I couldn’t function. Maybe this was all normal. Maybe nothing was wrong.
Perhaps it was the warm combination of anesthesia and IV fentanyl, but as I was coming to after surgery, the nurse leaned over and told me what they found and I immediately started crying. Endometriosis. For the first time in my life I felt validation. I wasn’t crazy. All of the missed school days, all of the pain, that blinding pain, every memory stained with the echo of unthinkable, evil pain-it all meant something. There was a reason, an explanation. A diagnosis. It was just she and I, all alone in my recovery room, and this woman whose name I don’t remember held my hand, poured me some ginger-ale, and softly told me that it would all be okay now. I believed her.
I started to paint with watercolors last year. It was mindless at first; i was looking for a new hobby to pass the time and I enjoyed watching the colors bleed onto the white paper, mixing together into swirls and galaxies. After some time I started to notice that while I was painting, my pain was almost forgotten. I was losing myself in those celestial scenes, forgetting my worries in the coloring of nameless planets. I’d never had anything like that before. Painting was doing something for me that nothing else could-it provided an escape from the pain. I certainly do not claim to be an “artist”, and I am still teaching myself the proper way to do things. But painting gives me an escape hatch, a time for to me disappear and forget all of the times I was told it was all in my head, that I looked fine, that I didn’t look sick. All of that doubt, all of the indifference of others, it left its mark inside of me much like endometriosis left its lesions, and the simplicity of this particular treatment makes me wish I had discovered painting much earlier in life. I’m remembering the house I grew up in, all those years ago, with the faded beige paint on the walls, and my first experiences with the pain of endometriosis. I suppose in a way I’m still trying to disappear into the paint, but nowadays my efforts to do so are not in vain.
At twelve years old I cursed my womanhood. At twenty seven I am embracing it. I am a proud woman-a woman consumed by a chronic-illness that has torn me down at times to nothing, but it’s an illness to which I refuse to submit. At times it seems that the anatomy between my legs is hell bent on killing me, but I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t trade it for a thing. I stand squarely and stubbornly in the path of this adversity that attempts to tear me down each day and fight it with all that I have. I am a valiant woman determined to be a voice and bring awareness to this disease. In the words of the awe-inspiring Frida Kahlo, “At the end of the day, we endure much more than we think we can.”