My body, the battlefield

In 2005, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. While the treatment was difficult and the time was trying for both me and my then-husband (and our families & friends), the scars and the side effects were all internal. To the naked eye, one would have thought I was fine–that I never had cancer. That I had it all together. To the naked eye, most would have thought my marriage was fine and that we had just weathered a storm. Perhaps a hurricane. While I had lost my ability to bear children and I suffered from an immense amount of scar tissue buildup inside my most precious female organs, I simply looked like a woman who had gained a bit of weight. While I suffered from crippling depression and anxiety, most people thought it was just a side effect from my troubling past, from previously existing traumas.

I carried around the semblance of normalcy until 2015, when I was again diagnosed with cervical cancer. This time, though, I was not as lucky as before. I needed more treatment, invasive and exhausting treatment, that caused visible symptoms. I lost 40 pounds. I lost my hair, everywhere. I gained a skin condition that permanently discolored my body. I lost a labia, and then a surgeon crafted a new one. Medication provided after treatment ended bloated me, giving me a “muffin top”. Vaginal reconstruction weakened my core. My teeth eroded from chemotherapy. My groin dotted with tattoos I needed for radiation.

My body, and my relationship with it, has changed in so many ways. Some days, I look in the mirror and remember that woman I once was, seeing her in my eyes or in my crooked smile. Others, I try to think that this moment, where my body feels and looks weathered, is when I am bursting from my cocoon. Messy but necessary to get to my final destination–a butterfly. But most of the time, I sit with angst, in despair about what others think when they see me. About what I think when I see me. To what expectations people compare the reality in front of them. Many days, I just see the cancer, even after it’s moved on to ravage someone else. My body, the battlefield.

I have a sordid history with my vagina. Much of my past trauma comes from unwanted sexual advances, assaults, and the aftermath those experiences caused. I have been trying to determine what a healthy relationship would look like with that part of my body for as long as I can remember–I never did have a healthy sexual experience before having unhealthy ones. I have sought the assistance of counselors, trauma therapists, sex therapists, and body workers to help connect me with The Sacred Feminine. I work to connect to Her on a regular basis.

But things just aren’t that easy.

In some ways, I find my post-cancer approach to my body to be more respectful than it once was. In college and after my divorce, I often gave my body freely to anyone willing to give theirs to me, without giving a second thought to who should have rite to entry. I did so soberly and consensually. Even after sexual assaults in adulthood, I attempted to “stay normal” by continuing this practice, like nothing had happened. Like it didn’t matter that I had been violated. If I just kept up appearances, then maybe, just maybe, those violations would matter less. Now, after undergoing vaginal and labial reconstruction, I am more careful about to whom I grant entry. It’s not that I don’t condone these practices–they’re great!–but I was never doing them for the right reasons. I was never a free spirit. I wanted control over the past–and I never gained it. Now, I am discerning. I respect this body that weathered the storms life threw its way. I expect that people touching or enjoying it also respect it. Because it IS The Sacred Feminine. And it is mine. I have a lot less sex (with others), but the quality is much higher. And, most of the time, I don’t shrink with shame afterwards.

Some days, especially when the body shame and self-doubt creeps in, when I’m meeting someone new from whom I’d like physical adoration, I gaze longingly over my shoulder. I compare myself to the “cool girls” and free spirits, and I wonder why I have become the prude. But it only takes a moment for me to run my fingers along the scars lining my edges to remember that, in place of someone trendy, stands a warrior for truth. Stands a woman reclaiming her leg hair and body hair. Learning to receive pleasure from herself, to give clear boundaries to others. Stands the captain of her destiny and a dreamer of dreams.

A survivor stands where a girl once did.

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Wondering

I spent all evening

With someone

Who reminded me of you.

First, the face, the hair, the height

then, the accent, the snarky comments

the playful, professional flirting.

It was like looking at you,

hearing you,

Watching you hear me.

I wonder,

Without all the red tape,

What could it all have been?

I remember the night we finally kissed.

Electric, heart-pounding

Unexpected.

I thought you were a cocky suit

With a fancy title and a fancy job

And raging insecurity.

I was right.

The night you came over

You melted in my arms,

Took off the armor,

And cried in my room.

In that moment, I loved you.

Not the tough exterior, the pomp,

But the jelly inside.

The kind, doubtful, sad soul

With the sad eyes.

I saw those same sad eyes tonight

And I loved them just the same.

If we’d met in another place,

At another time,

Would you still be curled up

Talking about fantasy novels

About administrative law

In my room,

Your head on my chest?

Would you be grieving with me?

Could I have made those sad eyes smile?

I spent all evening

With a man who looked like you,

Felt like you,

And, beside him, someone who knows you.

Find your way.

Take off the suit.

Remove your armor.

I’ve seen you without,

beautiful, vulnerable, deeply personal.

You matter.

Matter more.