It has now been 10 months since that last shot of Depo Provera in August, 2013. In the past few months I've felt this slow shift inside me, the gears grinding into action, glands awaking from their long, dark RipVan Winkle slumber. This month, I had another period. It was momentous, in that it:
Happened almost a month after the last one (regulation!!)
Though it only lasted 3 days, it was a normal, pre-Depo kinda period, with surprisingly little pain.
Since that last period, my life has been a series of "Can You Believe It"s and "Did I Really Just Eat That"s:
My weight is melting off. Melting away. Just slipping off these bones and vanishing.
I am currently living at over 11,000 ft. with nary a cough or chest pain (other than the normal Holy Crap I'm Living at 11,000 Ft pain).
I am living off of chocolate, avocado, tomatoes, leftovers, pisco sours--the kinds of things that would have had me clawing at my face and writhing on the ground in pain. Instead, I have had 3 hives.
Tonight I ate puuuuuuuudding. Sweet chocolate puuuuuuuuuuuuudding.
Can you believe it?
No, I'm not totally better. I still can't eat the standard Gluten Trio of Evil: Wheat, Barley, or Rye. I've tried a few times and it feels like my colon is going to squeeze out of my body from the inflammation. But even that is no minor miracle. Where I once stopped breathing, my lips turned blue from lack of oxygen, I clung to my antihistamines and a slim prayer that I could get oxygen past my swollen throat, I now have slight discomfort while seated and vague regret about bad label-reading.
And I haven't performed the ultimate test: Running. I don't think attempting to run at 11,000 ft is a fair trial for my new-and-improved body, so this Most Important Final Challenge will have to wait until I'm seaside again.
To those of you still waiting out the Depo Prison Sentence:
When I drank the juice box that began my downfall, I was sure that I was getting better. I was sitting in the School of Social Work, finishing up a PowerPoint presentation on US Imperialism and the Commodification of Bodies, dancing to Gumbo's and my new favorite running song:
I was full of sunshine when I walked into my student council meeting, and there are few greater symbols of happiness in my life than a juice box, imbued with memories of full moon bike rides, whooping down hills, the trees illuminated by our headlamps, the night illuminated with laughter. So when I casually brushed aside all of the snacks set out for our meeting (I wasn't going to risk possible gluten or histamine reactions) and reached for a juice box instead, I was making not only what I thought was the healthiest choice, but also the happiest.
Mere minutes after sucking it down, I knew I was in trouble. I had left my antihistamines at home and was an hour and half from home. My legs were shaking uncontrollably, and I could see the woman next to me glancing over to see if I was okay. When histamine hits me cognitively, it's accompanied by legs tremors, rapid breathing, panic, uncontrollable emotions, and inertia. I sat gripping the sides of my seat, periodically clenching my teeth together in imitation of a smile to throw people off of the fact that inside I was cowering under my chair and screaming. Finally, the conversation came around to me. All eyes, on me, and I had to finally gasp, "I'm having a reaction."
Most of the students in the room had no idea what was happening, but a couple knew what I had been going through the past few years and jumped into action. A crushed Benadryl was found, and I poured it down my throat, tears streaming down my face in front of this audience of astonished peers.
After the meeting, I sat in the program director's office, weak, and finally lied that someone was on the way to rescue me. I went withou eating the rest of the weekend, save a couple of smoothies, hoping that the histamine in my body would soon settle down into a semi-safe range.
For 5 or 6 days, I was in agony. Hungry, faint. It felt like someone was driving a butcher knife deep into my lower abdomen. "Do I have kidney stones?" I had a friend who had described kidney stones quite vividly to me and it definitely involved butcher knives in sensitive areas. I also felt like my breasts were 50 pound water balloons on the verge of eruption. "Are these new histamine reactions?" I didn't think I could handle it if these were my new repertoire of symptoms.
And then, something bewildering happened. Something I hadn't seen in over 4.5 years, like my body grinding back to life.
I started my period.
And for 2 months, every period I didn't have over those 4.5 years decided to all come at once.
For 2 months.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, like a Michigan spring storm, it simply vanished.
AND I FELT FUCKING GOOD.
No food reactions. I even ate chocolate and DRANK BOURBON.
I slept EVERY NIGHT.
I DID NOT HAVE A SINGLE HIVE.
I could think clearly, articulate myself like some nominally intelligent being, remember what I was doing from one second to the next.
Turning my head too fast no longer made me want to hurl.
I CALLED PEOPLE ON THE PHONE WTHOUT PANIC ATTACKS. Ask my mom: This is a miracle.
I made jokes! Hell, I even made a friend!
I could eat a meal and still fit in the same clothes I'd put on that morning. (Yes, I swell up THAT much.)
I didn't want to crap myself every time I coughed!
I felt so healthy and charming and alive and hopeful and sweet lord in heaven I am getting BEEEEEEETTTTEEEEERRRRRR!
Then my lungs blew up and I started my period again,
But while it's certainly annoying to be on this neverending period (Atrayu!), I think it further proves the hormone/histamine connection. And for now, 6 healthy days and a little validation means everything to me.
Gumbo was up most of the night having an existential crisis, so we went out for a run in the rain to clear our minds and rinse off this pile-up of worry.
I have been concerned as of late about the ways in which I express my pain and the magnitude of that expression (I'll delve into this at a later post.) So I wanted to write something light and celebrate the little things that come from these strange new illnesses inhabiting my body. Plus, who doesn't love a list?
So today is Positive Spin Saturday!
Things I Don't Have to Worry About Since Becoming Gluten Intolerant
Being overwhelmed by choices at a restaurant. Can't be indecisive when you only have one choice! (Hey, lookee here, I guess I'll have fries!)
Eating too much at the office party (Mini carrots, anyone?)
Obsessing over "OMG when are they going to serve the wedding cake?" j/k. Who cares, I can't have it anyway! Pass the carrots.
Impulse pastries! Unless I tote some donuts around in my purse, it's almost like I'm purposefully making healthy choices. Hooray for forced smug satisfaction!
Hurting family's feelings by not eating their fruit cake
Soggy noodles in the sink drain! AHHHHHHH!!
Spending too much during airport layovers (I totes have some Kinnikinnick in my backpack, y'all) or having to eat bad airplane food. Hooray!
These are just a few of the marvelous aspects of being a gluten-free vegetarian. Positive Spin FTW.
Today my speckle-headed pup and I paced my man for 2 miles of his 24 mile out-and-back run to Auburn. At 2.2, Gumbo and I panted goodbye and turned back toward the house. Barring a couple of squirrel-induced sprints toward the finish line, Gumbo spent the latter half of our run several steps behind me, periodically trotting up to butt his giant Tricerahops head into my outer thigh in a gesture of gratitude.
This slow run together is my weekend multiple miracle:
1. Gumbo is, at 10 years old, several decades my dog-yeared senior, yet his mileage build up has been remarkable the past 2 weeks.
2. I hardly coughed, just tiny gasps and throat-clearings.
3. I had been so sick the past few days that yesterday I hardly moved from the couch for fear of barfing onto my backpack and table from vertigo and nausea.
I had been dutifully taking my micronized progesterone for 4 days, and it had leveled me. It was like my health had regressed several months, and I was reacting severely to everything. My throat would instantaneously swell shut when I ate, I felt knocked out and feverish, and all I could do was lay on the couch and try to ignore the pain.
Oh, and cry. I cried a LOT yesterday.
"Are you feeling emotional today, Button?" I nodded, tears welling up in my eyes. "I think it's the Progesterone." I nodded again as the tears spilled down my face. "Shut up!" said my brain, but despite my rational protestations, there was some disconnect between my brain and my emotional reactions.
Oh, micronized progesterone. Alas, you were not to be my endocrine system's savior, as the welts spread thickly across my thighs could attest.
What I assume I had was Progesterone Toxicity (which, conveniently, has all of the same side effects as micronized P) paired with still incredibly low levels of estrogen.
Laying on the couch late Friday night, my boyfriend crouched next to me and repeated his support for my decision, whether I wanted to continue on the P or stop. I had been hoping, if I had to be treating a symptom (lack of period) rather than my endocrine system, that for 10 days my HIT symptoms would subside and I'd have a glimpse into my future with a functioning body. I couldn't imagine another week of incapacitation; I left my meds alone that night, and woke up today after 12 hours, fully rested and ready to run.
I am, for now, done with desperate quick fixes. A woman in my HIT group has recommended an herb called Vitex to stimulate my pituitary gland, and I may look into it in the future.
Today, I have the simple pleasure of a man, a pup, and 4 slow miles in the Seattle spring sun.
There is a stark power differential in the medical profession, one which I am acutely aware of as a social worker. Patients, and particularly patients who often find themselves under-represented in and stigmatized by the medical community, can find it difficult to advocate for themselves within a power dynamic that casts them as the passive receptacle of medical wisdom. As someone who strives to help those populations advocate for themselves and equalize power within the doctor's office, it's enlightening to watch that differential shift throughout a conversation, to see my own power deflate from the grip of stereotypes.
"Hrrrrggggrrrllllppfft," my stomach stated emphatically across the near-empty waiting room.
"Shit," said my brain, as I scanned for knowing looks and near-by restrooms. A child seated across from me glanced up from her book before nestling into her mother's side, and I became suddenly consumed with identifying all of the fish in the large aquarium at my side.
"It's a fish of some sort," I thought. "The yellow kind." I pressed my hand against the cool glass, envisioning myself in some cold, disembodied space of mottled light and crackling water.
My histamine reactions have recently ramped up, and my face is a red patchwork of hives. Inside, I imagine welts rolling across the surface of my intestines as my stomach clenches and re-clenches in pain. "There's nowhere to retreat, dear stomach. We're in this together." The nurse calls my name and I arrange my face into a semblance of a smile and walk with her down the hall to the scale.
Momentarily, I consider kicking off my shoes -- marbled, forest green flats that I had lucked upon at Goodwill's MLK Day Sale -- then chastise myself and step onto the scale. The number soars up in seconds as my heart lurches down into my knotted stomach. "Sweet merciful shit," I try not to say out loud, sensitive to the presence of the much-heavier nurse just behind me. I have been struggling to accept and love my body as it is, but the number in front of me was one that I had only seen once, ever, in my life, a time of heavy drinking and emotionally abusive relationships, a time when running was no more than a memory of a part-time, long-lost friend.
As a writer, I couldn't shake the symbolism; as a feminist, I was frustrated at the failings of my philosophy, my railing against unfair portrayals of feminine perfection while striving to attain them myself. "Stop beating yourself up," I whispered, my mantra for the week, repeated in notes tucked into pockets and notebooks to remind me.
When my doctor walked in, I was ready for solutions. "I want my hormone levels tested." I assumed my most Graduate School, Educated Woman demeanor. I explained my research, my histamine intolerance, my food reactions, not getting a period in over 4 years. He nodded, he questioned, and he seemed genuinely curious, up until I mentioned my Depo.
"Generally we don't test for hormone levels right away. Given your age, your weight, I think we should start with a course of progesterone. That should help shed your endometrial lining and start your period. When progestins enter your body..."
"Whoa, whoa, sorry, wait, progestin or progesterone?"
"Well, they're the same thing."
"Um, well, except they have a different receptor, right? I mean, that's what Depo is, a progestin. I can't... I don't want that again, that's what put me in this mess in the first place." I felt my Educated Woman demeanor begin to falter. (C'mon, Cass, you know this stuff.) "I mean, it's not my period that concerns me, it's my pituitary. It's not producing it's own progesterone. Will taking progesterone give it a little kick in the nads and get it going?"
"I'm not sure what you mean..." His usually kind face tightened, lips pressed together. "They are the same thing. Progesterone will help stimulate the shedding of your endometrial lining and you should have a period within 10 days. If you don't, we can look into hormonal testing. Or maybe you're really active?" I could sense my hista-meanies starting to flare up. (Down, Girls, wait this out.) I stammered out my exercise routine and qualified it with a comparison to where I had been before beginning birth control, my face flushing with histamine and embarrassment.
"You can lose your period due to intense exercise and weight loss." He turned and started typing into his computer.
"Yeah, that's, that's not it." I looked down at my legs and shifted toward the front of the examination table, then tugged at my dress. "When I got my last shot, you know, in August, there were times where I couldn't even eat between the hours of 9 to 5. My reactions were so bad!" I stared at him, hoping he would turn and see the eager pleading in my face.
"That's not good." He continued to type as I picked at a fingernail.
"I'm sorry, I just... I was just weighed, and I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life, and I feel like there's nothing I can do about it and it has completely thrown me for a loop." It is a last desperate strategy, this self-blame, and suddenly Feminist, College Educated Cassie deflated, and there I was, uncovered, insecure, overweight--the patient, the receptacle for clinical knowledge, and I burned with shame and large thighs and Goodwill shoes and government healthcare (I'm losing my private insurance at the end of the month) and internet research and a mere Master's degree.
"Okay, let's try the progesterone. That sounds good. Sure. Let's do it." There was a small tear on the heel of my flats, and I lifted my foot to try and press it back in to place.
He typed out the prescription and left the room. "Hashtag: Awkward," I muttered, and showed myself out.
In the lobby, a group of teenage women were waiting for TB tests. "Oh my God let's go run in the rain!" one shouted as the others punched her in the arm and laughed. I struggled with the heavy wooden door and stepped outside, gripping the side of my dress against the wind. "HrgggrrRRrr!" shouted my stomach to a woman scurrying by, a tiny white dog tucked into the chest of her jean jacket, its curls matted with rain, and I wished for some small, warm being, pressed tightly against my heart.
It was my birthday, and along with celebrating another year of existence, I was celebrating a milestone of rebirth: My Deliverance from My Depo Due Date. It has now been200 dayssince my last shot of Depo Provera, and the medication should, according to research, be undetectable in my body. But just because a medication is no longer detectable, does not mean that my body has returned to its previous state. Like some cellular typhoon, Depo Provera has devastated me, slashing receptors and cellular walls, wiping away whole neurotransmitter systems and destroying my endocrine infrastructure. The typhoon has abated, and I am left sifting through wreckage. One clear example of the aftermath is the way that I still respond to food. It is, thankfully, better than just 6 months ago. I can eat, and regularly, with little more than hives springing across my shoulders and face, and a tightness in my chest that settles down after a couple hours of rest. But give me some chocolate and my endocrine system is sent into upheeeeeeeeaval. Sometimes, for the sake of chocolate, I take my risks, especially when that chocolate comes from Hot Cakes. Oh... lord. It is about half an hour of pure Heaven before the nausea hit me. I made it out of the restaurant and around the block before getting PLOWED with histamine. "HUUUURP! HUUURRRP!" I gasped, trying to stay upright as my chest caved in with each breath. My partner grabbed my hand and led me to the car. We were on our way to do laundry after a full day of birthday snacking, and I spent the car ride with my eyes squeezed shut, trying not to throw up a day's worth of pastry all over my only remaining clean clothes. Every bump in the road, every deceleration of the car, was like being tossed around on a slingshot after downing a bottle of wine in the carnival parking lot.
Less fun, more crying. And all of it from my baby shots. You see, Depo Provera is synthetic progesterone, but with a slightly altered receptor in order to make it patentable. When you receive your shot your body is flooded with progestin, tricking the endocrine system into shutting down natural progesterone production and increasing estrogen production in order to maintain hormonal balance. Unfortunately, because of its altered structure, progestins can not bind to other receptors in the body that rely on progesterone in order to properly function.
And what bodily functions, besides ovulation, rely on progesterone?
The nervous system, including synaptic functioning, memory, and seratonin. Sleep regulation Pancreatic function and insulin release. Anti-inflammatory and immune response. Mucus regulation. Bronchial widening. Gallbladder activity (bile production) Regulating estrogen (this is a whole world of issues, including histamine regulation)
With all of this increased, unregulated estrogen, your body is put into what's called a state of Estrogen Dominance.And one of the more interesting things that estrogen does is make you randy.
Estrogen acts as a major histamine-releaser, which in turn increases lordosis behavior; or Assuming the Position for Gettin' It On. (Read more here!) This is why ladies often find themselves especially randy shortly before their period. And this is why, as someone who probably had low-grade, undiagnosed Histamine Intolerance (HIT) my whole life, I had a bit of a one-track mind. Not my fault, see? (The Low Histamine Chef provided a great explanation of the estrogen-histamine relationship here.)
What this also means is that, with histamine levels already higher-than-normal, my body incapable of breaking down excess histamine at a normal rate, and progestins disrupting my liver's ability to break down carbohydrates and lipids (Liew et al, 1985), any excess histamine added to my body (see: food) results in a histamine overload.
Since the 1980's, scientists have warned that women should not remain on Depo Provera for longer than 2 years. Unfortunately, that information has rarely extended beyond the pages of scientific publications, barring a small black box warning added to the packaging in 2005.
Never, have I ever, seen my birth control shot's packaging.
And for that, I have been sick for 4 years. My ability to eat has been drastically altered, I canno longer runwithout swelling internally, and my unmedicated sleep cycle has been reduced to about 4-5 restless, itchy hours per night. It's like getting hives on every surface of your being, on the cells themselves, and your very blood itches and you would carve out your flesh to make it stop. It has been like this for 4 years, and the itching is the least of my concerns (See: cough, aka simulated drowning).
Pfizer is well aware of the complications of its drug, and the dozens of side-effects that women have endured. Yet this shot continues to be given to women. It continues to be spread around the world. And it continues to be aimed at women of color in poor, resource-scarce settings.
And with my every gasping breath, I will continue to fight against it.
"Night run. Cold rain. Wet leaves. Steaming shoulders. Rain-flecked eyelashes. Monstrous shadows. Quickened heart. Dimming lights. Closed eyes. Heavy breathing. Whiskey n' Cider. Good night." "tunnel vision through shimmering trees, heart pounding in my ears, flurry of hundreds of wings across an unseen lake, hot cider and alcohol, and endless conversation. that's a damn good run, son."
Back in 2009, when I had mice in the rafters for company and self-forgiveness was a rare act of kindness, I ran the streets and trails of Kalamazoo daily, nightly, constantly. Back when my frozen breath hung in the air like a lover's lost whisper, when I gazed over silent snow-filled expanse and watched the sky fall and erase me, running meant more to me than perhaps most anything ever had. When I began to get sick, and each rattling breath shook the foundation of my love for running, there finally was nothing I could do but stand back and helplessly watch it erode. When I stepped back from running in January, I hardly meant it as a last kiss goodbye. Yet with the turning of winter, extra work hours, nagging knee pain, and this cough
this cough this cough
this this cough this cough, I slipped further and further away from what had once coursed through my very veins.
Poetry Aid Station (Poets not pictured) *Photo: Alexis Vergalla
And then, today, was The Run of the Ancient Mariner. This was an off-site event held in conjunction with AWP, the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, this year held in Seattle! Jeff put this event on to combine three of his favorite things: Running, Writers, and Beer. There was a poetry aid station and many wonderful people who came out to participate. I spent a great deal of the time running with a PhD student from Louisiana who indirectly nudged my memory. Later that night, headache firmly in place and starving after a long Tukwila Commission meeting, I found myself galloping through the frozen food aisle of our local grocery store. Perhaps it was partially fueled by my search (in vain) for Ben and Jerry's new "Core" ice cream (What? I ran 5 miles!), but more than that, it was that forgotten afterglow that I only get after a good, long run. Sure, my lungs suffered the aftershocks walking up the hill to the car, arm-in-arm with my man, post-run. All of the usual symptoms flared to life. But that run was respite from my unquiet mind and this unease that has settled into me as a constant companion. Someone had responded to a previous post of mine that I had helped her recognize the "consistency of spirit" that makes us runners. I had said that back in 2009, when running was a primal drive, an imprint on my DNA. "Where was my consistency of spirit now that the going got tough?" I'd thought, troubled at this confrontation from the Self That Was in '09. And then a few hours ago I found out it was there all along. It just needed some writers to come help it out.
To the rooftop parties that were and will ne'er be again. Photo by: http://www.jenniferharnish.com/
The past couple of months I've been doing grassroots organizing with homeless women. It is a needless reminder that homelessness can strike anyone, and that there are hundreds of thousands of people in WA who are precariously holding on to homes. When I lost my home to a housefire (a home that I was already squatting in), I camped in the woods for a week and then slept in the back of my place of employment until I found something affordable. I was lucky. I found an attic room with little heat and bats living in the walls and young drunk men banging on my door at all hours of the night, for NO downpayment or first/last month's rent. Cheap as Shit. I was single. I had family nearby to help if need be. I had the keys to my work with a comfy chair and a shower in the basement. I was damn lucky. Washington State is on the precipice of LOSING the MAJORITY OF THEIR FUNDING FOR PROGRAMS THAT SERVE THE HOMELESS AND UNDERHOUSED.
Please. If you have a moment tomorrow, call 1.800.562.6000 between 8:00am - 8:00pm and ask all of your lawmakers to:
"Please make sure the homeless housing and assistance surcharge fees don’t sunset by supporting ESHB 2368. And neither the House nor the Senate Capital Budget invests enough in affordable housing. Please help ensure all Washington residents have opportunities for safe, healthy affordable homes by making a deeper investment in affordable housing." If you're not sure who your lawmaker is, check this: http://app.leg.wa.gov/districtfinder/ And if you're confused about bills and representatives and committees and budgets and oh-what-a-mess then check out the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance's Facebook Page and Bill Tracker.
I have, for the last 7 weeks, been facilitating a women's grassroots organizing group as part of my practicum placement. The group I'm working with are women living in transitional housing, and the process that I am taking them through is presented as a scheduled, mandatory class for the house. This situation is unique to this group; most groups form because the women have already identified something in their lives that they want to change. But these women, my women, have no choice but to show up every Tuesday, regardless of how tired they are, how much they worked, if their child is sick, if they're just feeling cranky and want to be alone.
And so it has been hard, and the learning curve parabolic. The women warmed up to me quickly, but not to the forced sessions, the extra work, or the continual time spent around each other--these strangers plucked from the streets. I've watched the tension build in them and between them these past two months as women got sick, were forced out of the house, found other living situations or jobs, and stared in the face of the crushing constriction of poverty with no real end in sight.
The culmination of my time with them is supposed to be an action on a social justice issue of their choosing. Naturally, we gravitated toward housing. Yet I realized that the women were having a hard time getting behind the cause: writing letters to our legislators defending housing funding. Little progress was being made on their work, and I needed to open them up and learn why.
I sat in the office before my last meeting, listening to the stories of in-fighting, belittling, avoidance. I heard about how they were shutting down, even with the simple task of writing a letter according to the outline I'd submitted. And I thought about what it was like -- this loss of choice, or freedom to move around; not knowing where you'll be the next day; your housing hinging on the whims of those around you. And so I decided to bring that discomfort to our session, and ask them to tell me what they thought of when they thought of being a woman with no home.
The following speech is an excerpt of what came out of that process. One of the women will deliver it Friday in Olympia, in front of 600 advocates there to meet with their district representatives.
"This is the face of a homeless woman: mothers and mothers-to-be, washing dishes and cleaning houses, looking for work, anywhere, to be able to stay close to their families. Women with back pain, anxiety, hot flashes. Women who have survived rape, domestic violence, addiction, the deaths of their children. The work they find doesn't pay nearly enough for market-rate rent, let alone downpayments, background checks, registration fees, first-and-last month's rent.
These are the words they use to describe their lives:
I feel on hold. And even though I know that there's no escape, I also know that at any moment, I could be out on the street. I feel like a naked woman under a magnifying glass. Never alone, always expecting someone around the corner. And yet still alone, because my family is so far away. Everything is magnified when you're homeless: fear, risk, rage. Addiction. Every problem you thought you'd overcome, comes back, and you can't get away.
My sisters wanted to tell you this: Home is choice. It's family. It's comfort. It's knowing that you can have your candle, and a glass of wine, and a cat at your feet and a dog in your lap, and feel safe. It's where you feel free, enclosed, and safe.
My Circle's Motto is: I'm every woman. A woman who works, loves, hurts, survives, births, and mourns. A woman who deserves safety. A woman who deserves a home.
I ask you, think about us, your mothers and sisters, and hold us in your hearts today. The need for low income housing and services to empower the low income population in Seattle is so great, and unfortunately, still not nearly enough."
I'm proud of them, and I hope that on Friday I can make them proud of me, too.
This wasn’t a thought that I had really developed before, but there was the question, all the same. The first time that I’d ever heard of someone making a differentiation between Running and Jogging was during a conversation with a man I’d briefly dated, a Runner by any definition of the term. It was during a discussion about marathon times (me trying desperately to mask mine, he freshly proud of his Boston qualifying time) that he brought up “The 5 Hour Marathoner”. That’s not running, he’d said, it’s jogging; it’s not in the same category as what I do. I uncomfortably brushed the comment off until I kept meeting people at the store, buying their first pairs of shoes, full of nervousness and questions, and I’d ask them, “How much do you run?” Invariably, these women — and it was almost always women — would flutter their hands at me and sigh, “Oh, no, I’m not a Runner. I Jog.” If I pried, I’d find out that they were just beginning 5k training with groups of women at work, lunch break office runners with t-shirts thrown on over pleated black pants, arms pumping as they hoof it around the park. They’d always downplay their training – “I can’t even say I jog. I’m more of a walker who accidentally and sporadically finds herself running and can’t figure out how to slow down gracefully.” I’d shake my head and laugh with them and offer my encouragement. We’ve all started out the same way, I'd say. But this past weekend was the first time I’d put any real thought into our need to make a distinction between the two.
Saturday morning was the Borgess Half Marathon and 5k, and I put on my rain gear, grabbed my bike and rode out to cheer on the community I’ve had the pleasure of serving for two years. As I stood in the parking lot of Mackenzie’s Bakery, screaming out names of runners in between longs draws of coffee and a cranberry bran muffin, the man standing next to me marveled at how many people I seemed to know. ”I thought I knew a lot of runners, but you’ve called out the name of almost every person who’s come by! Who are you?” Before I could swallow my muffin, a man went racing past and screamed, “You sold me my shoes! They’re awesome!” and was gone in an instant. The man next to me nodded his head and said merely, “Ah. You work at Gazelle,” and turned back to the race, smiling. The middle of the pack was coming up, and I jumped on my bike after a few more hoots of encouragement and tried to track down my runners. After several failed attempts to catch them at different points, I gave up and rode back to where the race doubled back on itself before heading down Riverview. There I found two overwhelmed volunteers trying desperately to supply GU to the throngs of runners streaming past. After failed passes they’d fling the GU after the runners in a futile attempt to fulfill their role, but at this point, most of the runners – fast, front of the pack, don’t-want-nor-need-to-slow-down-for-no-carbs runners – didn’t need anything. Then the crowds coming by picked up, and I grabbed handfuls of Gu and started hollering my encouragement. I was supposed to ride to the finish. If I stayed much longer, I’d miss my friends crossing the finish line. But as the 9-9:30 minute milers passed by and we got into the 10:00′s, I was too caught up in the race to leave. Here, in the thinning out rush of runners, were the people who needed that encouragement the most. Here were the pale determined faces, hunched shoulders and limping legs, form sloppy from exhaustion. Jog: A series of disconnected motions. Well, that seemed to fit in some instances here, but not in its second definition: to run at a leisurely, slow pace. Ask anyone moving past you, and if they had the energy, they would laugh in your face if you asked if this was leisurely. And that’s when I saw her.
She was someone I had helped with shoes within my first few months on the job. I’d watched her go from I’d-jog-but-it-makes-me-convulse-until-I-puke to her first 5k, her first 5k through winter training, winter training through Summer Safari, and suddenly this woman had dropped a width from her shoes, two sizes in clothing, and built such calf muscles they could have rivaled the colosseum in structural strength. She never became fast but she grew graceful and confident, and I had ridden with her on her 20 mile runs as she kept pace for hours. Now here she was, striding past me with a grin and a wave. I felt so much pride – for her strength, for what I’ve done to strengthen others, and for the people who have given up that quiet dismissal to claim the title of Runner. Being a runner isn’t about speed or skill for most. It’s about determination, overcoming frustration, the mental unraveling the first time they hit that distance they don’t think they can finish, and then running anyway. It’s running into obstacles, and running into oneself, literally and metaphorically, the emptying of ourselves into something greater.
I guess this is my good bye to the community I’ve served and taught and laughed with and learned from for two years. In one week, Seattle will be my home and I’ll have to learn all over again the faces and names and stories of the runners in my new community. What I know I can count on is their consistency of spirit.
A woman gets on the bus and sits next to me, then pulls a small, open package of Fig Newtons out of her pleather purse. The man across from her looks up from his phone and stares at the woman's cookies.
Man: how many you got in there?
Woman: Just one. (looks down at the package) They've only been in there a week.
Man: Can I have some?
Me: (Side-eyeing this business.)
The woman starts to hand him part of a cookie when he raises his hand to ward her off. "Don't eat that, there's blood."
She wipes it off and hands it back. "That's just from my hand." He nods, satisfied with this answer, and pinches off a small piece of cookie and pops it in his mouth.
An elderly man seated nearby moans and scratches at his arms. We're almost to the stop for the methadone clinic. We all side-eye him as he reaches into his pants, then coughs violently. Small flecks of phlegm dot the window. The man goes back to looking at his phone, slowly chewing, and I remember my earplugs for mornings on the back of the 150.
When I run at night, I always run faster, footfalls paired with glances over my shoulder, shuddering as I pass through shadows and under the highway. I didn't always fear night running, but several years ago my cavalier sense of safety was forced out of me, and the young man who did it was named Jason.
When Jason called me late that night, I had already been asleep for several hours and could barely focus on his voice. He was at a party down the road, he said. He didn't want to bike home this late, his lights needed new batteries. Sure, sure, I said, I wouldn't want to bike home this late. I unlocked the front door and headed back to bed, assured that he would lock it behind him when he came in.
What happened that night is still a blur, a blur partially imposed by my deep desire to forget. What I do remember is the smell of his breath as he climbed on top of me, breath like straight whiskey. I remember pushing him off of me, telling him to stop, go to sleep, wrestling against him as he tugged at my clothes. I remember thinking, "My roommates are going to hear. What will they think?" And I remember him holding down my arms as I tried to push against him, until I finally thought, "He's too strong. If I don't give in it'll be worse later. If I don't give in I'm going to be raped." And so I let go.
I remember getting up later to shower, numb and in pain. When I came back to my room, he was gone, the sole remnant of the night a text that he had sent on his way home. "Sorry. I wasn't a good friend last night." I remember sitting on my bed, staring at my phone until it rang, my father on the other end letting me know that my dog, Toy, had just passed away. I called the organization I was supposed to volunteer with that morning to let them know the news, that I needed some time to process my pup's death. What I didn't tell them was that I couldn't sit on a bike seat for the 1.5 hour ride, that my head was clouded from what had happened to me in the dark silence of my room that night.
"If I had been any younger that would have left me terrified," I thought. "He's lucky he didn't try that on someone his own age. I'm old enough to handle it. I'm strong." I rationalized myself into acceptance, this man 10 years younger who had overpowered me like I was a child. Eventually I began to wipe it out of my mind, and his presence slowly faded both from my daily life and memory.
Eight months later I got an email from him begging for help. "I've been accused of raping two women on campus! The university is threatening to kick me out of my house! Can I please come over and talk to you? I need a friend right now." I sat at my computer, stunned. He had done it. Again. To younger women. And now he was turning to me for help.
"You realize you raped me too, right?" I finally answered. It was the first time that I'd said that word in relation to what had happened between us, and I felt gutted by it.
"I wish you had told me that sooner," was all he could say, and he disappeared from my life as quickly as he had appeared. After that single confrontation, I thought that he was finally, completely gone.
Except that he wasn't. He was still in my body, in the form of terror that could burst out at any moment: Riding the bus, running at night, walking my dog. Walking Gumbo became a performance of body memory, as he tugged at his leash to run after some squirrel or skateboarder passing by, overpowering me and often knocking me to the ground. That sense of helplessness, of shear panic at being overwhelmed by the strength of this other being, the inability to control what was happening to me, would leave me shaking and in tears on the ground, stammering apologies and trying desperately to hold it together until I could get Gumbo back to the house.
When my good friend told me that she'd been raped, I knew exactly who had done it. Hers had happened about a year before mine, and I sat on a park bench on a sunny afternoon, the screams of children playing nearby piercing the caverns in our conversation, and I hugged her and cried and wondered who else had been hurt, and why I had thought that I was strong back when he'd held me down and forced me to let go of my will to fight back. Holding my friend, I wanted to fight again, but I couldn't face him. And so we sit with this secret between us, this shame for not being strong enough--then, and now.
And like so many rape victims before me, I just want to forget.
It's hard for many of us to understand the forced silence and shame that women feel around rape (and here I am talking solely of women in the United States, because each country has its own reasons behind sexual assault and the culture of silence, countries united by their commonality: complacency with violence against women.) And within the United States, each woman (and yes, men, too) faces her own intersectionality of secrecy, compounded by her racial/ethnic identity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and on and on. Yet I believe we do share a larger, US culture that at once expects purity and reservation, while also demanding that we look and act pleasing, that we give just enough, but within limits that morph with the eyes of our male beholder.
"You'd look prettier if you smile," I'm told, again and again as I quietly wait for the bus or scurry past the cafe downtown or simply sit on the park bench on a sun-streaming afternoon, weary from medication and late night homework.
"Come over here and talk to me, beautiful."
"Yeah, you fucking slut, you dyke, keep walking then!"
"Dress like a boy, don't want this dick?"
"Short little dress on, you know you want this."
"Bitch, look at me!"
"Stuck up cunt."
"Just give me a hug and I'll let you go."
"You're not that pretty."
"Fat bitch, nobody would fuck you anyway."
And that's just a walk through the park. Women are bombarded with messages their whole lives about what they can do, say, wear, and the punishment for transgressing these amorphous boundaries of acceptability is all too often violence. And so we internalize this shame, and we begin to doubt ourselves, and we begin to think that yes, perhaps I did deserve this, perhaps I did bring this on myself, because (my shorts were too short I was out at night I let him in I thought we were just friends I thought he loved me I didn't say hi I said hi too soon Why wasn't I smiling He's my husband Why did I drink I shouldn't have gone with him I shouldn't have gotten on that elevator alone Be more aware Be more vigilant Friendzone Don't lead him on Walk in pairs Don't wear headphones Nobody will believe me...) And we find ourselves trying to protect everyone but ourselves from the truth of what had happened (He'll be angry with me I deserved it I'm going to make people uncomfortable if I talk about it They shouldn't have to listen...)
And so they get away with it, and we hug on park benches and hope these tremors in our bodies will disappear.
Most undetected rapists go on to rape 6 times. The average age of a rapist is 31. Mine was barely in his 20's. I know of 4 of his victims. Who will the other two be? Why couldn't I name what had happened to me in time to prevent it from happening to someone else? Why can I still not talk about that night? Why does this stigma prevent me from telling others "I am a survivor?" But instead of being able to talk about what happened, we sit in our rooms, typing on our computers late into the night, isolated and filled with self-doubt, never able to comfortably name our trauma out loud.
I think it's time we start talking about it.
(Please join me in the comments section with your stories, testaments, and thoughts. You are welcome to leave them anonymously if you want to share your story but are not at the stage where you are comfortable publicly claiming it. We are all in different stages of our journey.)
The discovery of Depo-Provera as a contraceptive began, like many children or scientific discoveries, with an accident--an accident which continues to affect millions of women today.
In the early 1960's, Upjohn received FDA approval to use Depo-Provera to treat endometriosis and spontaneous abortion (approval that was later overturned), when a scientist accidentally discovered that Depo was an effective, long-term form of birth control. Upjohn began lobbying the FDA to approve Depo for use as a contraceptive, and in 1974, that approval was finally granted.
That approval lasted for 2 months. When animal testing revealed an increase in endometrial cancer among rhesus monkeys and beagles injected with Depo-Provera -- tumors that grew in response to Depo doses -- the FDA yanked its approval and rejected subsequent appeals for almost 20 more years.
During this time, Upjohn was conducting dozens of studies in (mostly developing) countries, as well as a large clinical trial (primarily among African American women who were low income) in Georgia. This study, called the Grady Trial, was widely criticized, citing subjects who were uninformed of the risks of the study -- or who had never given consent to be injected -- and the disproportionate number of poor women of color who were targeted for the federally-funded research. Forced sterilizations were once so common among these women that they had coined a term for the practice, "Mississippi Appendectomy"; this mentality was indicative of a strong movement that drove the approval of Depo Provera, and continues to drive its spread across the globe: Population Control.
Population control advocates were a strong push behind the eventual FDA approval of Depo as a contraceptive in 1994. Despite few long-term studies and growing complaints of side effects beyond those few that had been tightly controlled and studied during clinical trials (weight gain, breast cancer risk, and bone mineral density loss being those most commonly cited), Depo continues to be pushed primarily on women of color and the poor.
I'm a month and a half late for my birth control shot, and accidentally making babies is heavy on my mind. I'm spotting and crampy, though for some reason my breathing has become a bit easier in the past two weeks. I've been frantically searching the internet to find out whether my level of panic is on par with the level of risk that my birth control is no longer functioning. "Please oh please oh please no babies no babies no babies..." I was thinking as I skim the first few websites.
Planned Parenthood gives me this chipper information: "Safe! Effective! Lasts three months!"
WebMD tells me: "99% effective!" (Yay!) But they add in this piece of information that gives me pause:
Don't use if you have:
Unexplained vaginal bleeding
"Hmm..." I think, pondering why this medication may make these conditions appear or worsen.
And then, several links down, I come across this warning for the first time:
LOSS OF BONE MINERAL DENSITY
Women who use Depo-Provera Contraceptive Injection may lose significant bone mineral density. Bone loss is greater with increasing duration of use and may not be completely reversible... Depo-Provera Contraceptive Injection should not be used longer than 2 years unless other birth control methods are considered inadequate.
I'd been on it for almost 4.
Know what else causes bone loss? Menopause. Which is a lot like being on Depo...
When I finally got in to see my new doc, I asked him about this, and he assured me I'd be fine. "Take your calcium, you're not at risk," he said as he grabbed an assistant to give me my shot.
Oh, okay. Of course. I will be the magical exception, I believed. I pulled down my pants, relaxed my butt, and took that shot in my ass for what would be the upending, final shot of my life.
I run my race that weekend. I cough and hack and pout and hug my boyfriend and make it through that beautiful, lung-breaking run, and spend the rest of the weekend doped up on antihistamines.
A few days later, my guy starts to put all the clues together.
August 12, 2013
"Honey, come here! Look at this chart! I think I know what's wrong with you!"
It's 1:00 am, and my beloved is steadfastly researching what has been keeping me in bed the past few days, wrestling with my collapsing lungs, hives, and bewildering insomnia. I crawl out of bed and into the living room, where, on the screen on my love's computer, I see a chart of every single symptom I have been experiencing for the past few years, one piled on top of the other as time passed.
"Jesus!" I try to scream, but my throat is too swollen shut for anything more than raspy squeaking. "It's me, it's all me!"
"Honey, I think you have histamine intolerance."
"Yeah, but... why?"
A couple of days later, Jeff has my answer.
August 15, 2013
"Honey, when did you start your birth control?"
"My Depo? Pffft, pshht, there's no connection there. This started way before my Depo."
"Oh, hmm, okay, well, it may contribute because there's something here about a connection between estrogen and histamine and it could be key to your cause."
I guffawed a few more times, and then after several more sleepless nights, foodless days, and near-breakdowns at work, I start to wonder if my memory isn't quite serving me right. Thanks to the fact that the past few years of my life are fully documented on Facebook, email, blogs, Twitter, and various other online services, I start to piece the timeline of my cough together. And I suddenly realize, "Holy SHIT. He's RIGHT!" My cough had started within days of my Depo, but because of an inconveniently timed broken rib, I'd never made the connection.
And I'd just had my damn shot.
My brain has fallen apart. Between coughing and a new histamine-related side effect, insomnia, and the anti-histamines I'm taking to counteract the coughing and GI issues and endless symptoms, I come to work seeming, at best, gassy and somewhat drunk; at worse, suffering from sudden early-onset dementia.
"I swear I'm not drunk," I keep telling my new boss, praying that her alternative conclusion isn't that I'm simply kind of dumb. I'm working in Chinatown and have thus far avoided eating during the entirety of the work day. The one time I break down and get lunch, my throat, lungs, lips, and tongue swell up so badly that I almost stop breathing.
That night I direct the Children's Autumn Moon Festival, whispering to my volunteers across the shrieks of screaming, blissful children. Thanks to the last-minute, machine-like support of my amazing co-workers, the festival goes off without (many noticeable) issues, but I'm physically drained and sleep for most of the next few days.
According to the National Institute of Health, the half-life for Depo Provera is 50 days, with a peak of 3 weeks and exponentially decreasing until being undetectable after about 200 days. I begin my countdown to freedom.
My release date from my body is early March, 2014.
Miraculously, my healing seems to be on track. My symptoms are getting less intense as time goes by, though I still have a hard time breathing when I walk, and my lungs often sing to me in a soft whistle as I sit at my computer and type. I'm still exhausted, feel bloated and dizzy after meals, have days, weeks, where it's hard to concentrate, but the full-fledged anaphylactic reactions are ebbing. My research has turned up a lot of connections between histamine and Depo, and I suspect that my endocrine system has been shot from years of hormonal suppression from my birth control.
My new gynecologist, or as I like to call her, My Hero, agrees with my Depo-Histamine theory, and I could kiss her lovely, fashionably bespectacled face for 1.) listening to me without visible judgement, and 2.) verifying that all of the connections I've made are completely plausible.
"Depo is my last choice for birth control, ever. There are horrible side effects." You can say that again, lady doctor.
Getting my endocrine system back on track is going to be a much longer and messier bodily-prison sentence, entirely.
*If you have had side effects from Depo, or have successfully come off of it and want to give me some pointers, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. Support from others who've gone through this (and the support of my guy) help get me through this.