Monday, November 23, 2015

On Hating Eau Claire (and Elephants)

The railroad crossing on Starr Avenue in Eau Claire will always remind me of the night I came close to driving at full speed into a moving train.


It was the night of the day when I discovered that the person I loved and wanted to spend my life with, who the previous week had been helping me recover from a major surgery, had cheated on me. Had been messaging strangers online and on at least one occasion, fucked one. I thought the pain I felt would surely kill me; the train was just a way to expedite things. As I sat in my car, contemplating (how fast would I need to be going to ensure instant death? Should I unbuckle my seatbelt?) the point became moot – the train finished crossing and I was still breathing. The urge to annihilate myself temporarily abated. I continued on to my destination – the regional two-gate airport to pick up my best friend who had gotten on a plane to be with me after receiving my distressed phone call.

Every time I drive to the airport, I have to cross those tracks. It’s a strange sensation to be living through something, right in the thick of it, and still have a sense of how you will view it in hindsight. I still live in Eau Claire, but I already know I will look back on this period (two years and counting) as incredibly difficult. A time when I cried more days than I didn’t, struggled to get out of bed, and tried my best to downplay my misery for my few local friends who were, on the whole, happy and healthy. I can say without a doubt that this trauma has and will continue to transform me in ways I can’t yet articulate. I can only hope some of the changes are positive. Like, maybe I will get a good poem or two out of it. Or maybe if I find myself in a similar situation again, I’ll be better equipped to handle it and won’t consider death by train.

I wasn’t miserable when I first moved to Eau Claire. I had a stable teaching job with good benefits. For the first time, I had an office. I was able to afford a one-bedroom apartment as opposed to a cramped studio. And within three months of moving here, I fell in love. The kind of love that announces itself as major right away. Our feelings for each other were so intense that we even had an inside joke that involved elephants – we knew it would be silly to say “I love you” after only knowing each other a few weeks, but we acknowledged that it felt like an elephant in the room because the feelings were so clear, so palpable. So we sent each other pictures of elephants and signed e-mails “I elephant you.” One day I came home from work to find a necklace with an elephant charm hanging from my mailbox. After we started actually saying “I love you,” elephant ephemera continued to be a gift theme—I brought him back a stuffed elephant from Mexico, and he gave me a black-and-white scarf with an elephant print and earrings carved in the shape of elephants for my birthday.

Now when I see elephants, I want to punch something.

When our relationship abruptly ended, a strange transference occurred that has made living here very difficult: I find that my rage and hurt is now directed at Eau Claire itself, the setting of my most ill-fated love affair (to date, at least). The city feels somehow complicit, like an accessory or co-conspirator. It’s the scene of the crime and no matter what I do, the faint chalk outline of a body (my body) resurfaces, refuses to fade. Everywhere we went, and even places we didn’t go but might have, feels toxic, tainted, ominous. Needless to say, the campus where we both work is a minefield – I could run into him literally at any time. Whenever I see his car in the parking lot, I have to resist the urge to key it. 

I know this could have happened anywhere – but it happened here. Would I have found happiness in Eau Claire without meeting him? I’m not sure. It’s possible I still would have found much to dislike about the culture of an upper Midwestern college town. But we’ll never know -- unfortunately I'll always associate Eau Claire with this experience; it'll always be the place that broke my spirit to the point where I became almost unrecognizable to myself, where I flirted with oblivion. It holds the distinction of being both where I have been most happy and most miserable in my adult life. Obviously, I hope that I will achieve a new zenith of happiness (perhaps not tied to a romantic relationship. Hey, there's a novel idea!). When that happens, maybe I will be able to appreciate some of the good things I found here, the friends I made, the not-horrible moments. I hope so -- but I don't see that happening until I live elsewhere and can use physical distance to help me achieve emotional distance. From him, and from here. 

(Forgive the self-indulgence of this post. I know that in light of all the things going on geo-politically and domestically, it's rather silly to whine about a boy hurting my feelings. But this is a personal blog, and not The New York Times, so I hope an occasional post that looks solely inward is forgivable.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About My Breast Reduction But Were Afraid To Ask

The above picture is from the goodbye party I threw in honor of my breasts, two days before my surgery. But let me first back up and explain how I got to the point of scheduling said procedure. 

I have always had a love-hate relationship with my boobs. I don't really remember "getting" them -- I remember not having them and wanting them, and then suddenly they were huge and unwieldy. Finding shirts and bras and dresses that fit became a chore; I spent a fortune on alterations. Before my surgery, I was something like a 32 H. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw were BOOBS. 

However, men always seemed to like them and I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes like the attention my breasts got me. Sometimes my big rack made me feel sexy and empowered. However, I didn't really like my boobs upstaging me -- I would rather men be attracted to my intelligence, my humor. Or in terms of physical features, my eyes or my smile. 

I never wanted to be flat-chested, but I longed for breasts more in proportion to the rest of me, which is relatively petite. I'm curvy, but short (5'3"). I used to joke with one boyfriend that I felt like a tall, voluptuous women who had been compressed, like a smushed Jessica Rabbit.
 Like this, but with much shorter legs

I read a few articles about women who had gotten reductions, but that seemed too drastic. I talked with one friend of a friend who'd had it done and said she was very happy with the results. Still, for years it was something I only very casually entertained. 

Then suddenly, in 2014, I found myself with really, really good health insurance and I thought, well, it couldn't hurt to get a consultation with a surgeon. I had gained some weight and my breasts were even more pendulous and annoying. So I went to see a plastic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in April. He took some measurements and said I was basically an ideal candidate and that getting the insurance approval would be no problem. He took some pictures (they blur your face out, allegedly) to send to the insurance company, along with my file.

Side note: I love imagining the guy whose job it is to look at pictures of boobs all day and decide "yes" or "no" to surgery. For some reason, I picture him like this:  

"Your breasts are entirely too large, young lady"

The surgeon told me it would take 3-4 weeks to hear back from the insurance company and once they green-lighted me, I could schedule the procedure. At this point, I was still not totally sold, but I was intrigued. It seemed like the best time to do it, if I was ever going to -- I wasn't working over the summer, so I'd have plenty of time to recover, and this might be the only time I would have insurance to cover it.

In May, I got approved. And weirdly, once that happened, the decision sort of made itself. I historically agonize over minor decisions (Caesar or spinach salad??????) but make major decisions (like moving to Wisconsin) without hesitation and this was no different. I scheduled my surgery for July 1, a Tuesday. I would stay overnight in the hospital for observation and then was told I'd need about a week to 10 days recuperating in bed before I could resume my normal activities. 

I was most afraid of the pain of recovery -- I'd never had major surgery and it was estimated that I would be under anesthesia for 4 hours. The plan was to remove about 2 lbs from each breast. I was also nervous about compromising my ability to breastfeed (about 1/3 of women can't after breast reductions), but since having a child is not something on the immediate horizon for me, it seemed odd to factor that in too heavily. Plus, some women have difficulties breastfeeding even if they haven't had surgery.  

When I called my dad to tell him I was having this done, he said he wanted to come help out -- I didn't think it would be necessary, but in hindsight, it was a really good thing he was there. My boyfriend at the time had just started a new, demanding job and has a young daughter, so I think it would have been too much for him to take care of me for a week. Instead, he took in my cat so I wouldn't have to worry about her jumping on me and clawing my stitches accidentally.

In the days leading up to Tuesday, July 1, I made preparations -- I bought a tray for eating in bed, as well as some button-down pajamas (I had been told that moving my arms/pulling things over my head would be painful for a few days) and some loose-fitting nursing bras with no underwire. I loaded up my Netflix queue and my Kindle. Cleaned my apartment. And planned my farewell party for my bosoms, which included ordering the tit cake pictured above and, of course, slippery nipple shots:


The party was on Saturday, and I took lots of photos so I would remember my old boobs. I wore my bustiest, most cleavage-revealing dress to show off The Girls one last time. My dad drove up from St. Louis on Sunday and I showed him key locations in town (the pharmacy, the grocery store, the hospital). He came with a case of wine, God bless him. On Monday, I had my pre-op appointment, where the surgeon marked on my breasts where he would cut. That was a little unnerving.

Tuesday morning, we drove to the hospital. I got checked in and met with my anesthesiologist. Around 11am, I was wheeled to the operating room. And that's the last thing I remember.

I woke up as I was being wheeled into my room where I would be sleeping for the night. I was pretty out of it, but not in much pain. My dad and boyfriend were waiting there. The surgeon said the procedure had taken less time than expected (he had thought my tissue would be denser than it turned out to be). I was really, really thirsty and my lips were super dry -- I kept asking for water. I managed to eat some tomato soup and then I slept for a long time. A nurse came in to check on me and give me antibiotics and painkillers every few hours. I also needed help getting up to pee. I felt sore, but again, the pain was really not bad. I was wrapped up tight, like a mummy.

The next morning, the surgeon came back to change my bandages and take a look. This was terrifying. I was really afraid to look down and see my mangled body. So I didn't look down, I looked straight ahead and tried (unsuccessfully) not to cry. My body had undergone trauma and I felt very vulnerable. He said everything looked good and that in two days, I could shower and change from bandages into one of my nursing bras. 

I went home and my dad cooked for me for the next few days. I mostly slept. I was afraid of falling over in the shower, so he bought me a plastic chair to sit in. My boyfriend helped me with the first shower, washed my hair. Again, when it came time to unwrap/expose my chest, I freaked out and started crying. I can't explain why, it was just a reaction I had. It took a long time before I was willing to look at my new boobs.

After about 5 days, I felt almost like myself again. I only needed the hardcore painkillers for a couple of days before regular Tylenol was enough. The physical pain was so much more minor than I had thought it would be -- the emotional repercussions, that I didn't even anticipate, have been harder to navigate. 

Other than an allergic reaction to the strips of fabric placed over my sutures that resulted in a few miserable days of itchiness and hives, and one spot under my right breast that stubbornly wouldn't close up, the healing process was fine. The hardest adjustment was having to sleep on my back for a few months. Now I'm totally back to normal -- I can sleep on my stomach and wear normal bras. And clothes fit a lot better!

I knew I would want to write about this experience, but I really wasn't ready to until some time had passed -- there was a lot to process. To be clear: I am very happy with the results and do not regret getting the surgery. But I didn't realize that losing a familiar part of me, even a part I had resented and disliked for years, would be, well, emotionally upsetting. My giant breasts were MY breasts. And these new breasts don't feel like mine yet. I'm terribly shy about them. The scars aren't bad at all and I have feeling in them (thankfully) but I'm still pretty self-conscious about them. I can't decide if they are beautiful. When I shower now, I don't look down at them much. They still seem foreign, alien, like someone else's boobs. I hope over time I will come to love them.  

So, in the spirit of love and acceptance of this new part of my body, I present My New Boobs:


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry

Hello friends....

Per usual, I'm busy and blogging has fallen by the wayside. I thought I would take a moment, though, to post a poem that I just discovered, thanks to a student! In my Introduction to Creative Writing class, I asked my students to send me a poem they are fond of and briefly explain why they like it. Most of the poems I have received are familiar to me, but this one wasn't and I am quite taken with it. I think you will be, too.

Famous         by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.