2014 Featured Prose

It by Genevieve Wong

2014 Winner "Best of Prose"

Girls blush when they get their period for the first time. They trade tales of how and when it happened in hushed, bashful-yet-proud tones when this first bleeding takes place, and shun those who have not yet crossed the messy line from girl to woman. It lurked then, and if I had known, I would not have welcomed the step over that line so eagerly. Would have said I would rather retard the process and remain a girl forever, a female Peter Pan. 

How does It feel like? It, this strange disease that takes what is a natural process and distorts it to something close to madness. Some researchers have even said that hysteria, that condition which has caused women to be locked up in madhouses and asylums for centuries, was in fact It. I understand that. A dear old lady prayed for me once in church. It's not time for healing, she said eventually, presumably after listening to God for a while. As she hugged me, her words came from afar, as if she were speaking into a small microphone at the far corner of the room. She held my cold, shivering hands and told me about having joy in sorrow, about how people thought she was crazy when she was so joyful after her husband died. People think I’m crazy too, I wanted to tell her.  I think I am crazy. I have stopped thinking and praying because I fear it would drive me crazy.  But I just cried.

It has a name, and when It is absent, I can look people in the eye and say it. En. Do. Me. Tri. O. Sis. There’s a steady, unwavering beat to the six syllables, a gentle blend of consonants and vowels.  But when the searing pain of It hits and robs me of my speech, covers me in cold sweat and overpowers my synapses, I can only say one shaky word: Stop. Scream it, rather, though no sound emerges. Sound requires energy, and It leaves me with none. Friends stare at me as I try to describe the stabbing pain. Imagine a bad migraine. In the absence of a more calibrated way to describe pain, I use a common pain to describe an uncommon one. It is also accompanied by migraines, so the memories of both kinds of pain are always quite fresh in my mind.  Then imagine the pain of the migraine on a 3-inch wide belt just above your hip bone. No, not evenly spread out. Imagine it travelling around the band on a random course. It appears and stays. Then disappears. Then reappears in another spot, usually finding its home at the front and back of the right hip, shooting nerve-like arrows down the right thigh, like muscle cramps. Now imagine this happening for about fourteen days and nights every month.  

When I am not hunched over, trying to distract myself with deep breathing exercises – a new technique I picked up from Google – I can then explain what It is in unfeeling scientific terms, buffering the wrenching, twisting agony with research findings and statistics. It becomes the Other. It becomes who I am not and who I want to fight. It becomes who I do not want to define myself by, an alternate reality I ignore. Or try to forget, until It reminds me of its presence. Whenever anyone brings up painkillers, I tell them how I tried various brands for close to two years. Pills that came prefaced with hope, but left the darkness intact. An electric heating pad, put on maximum, is my only source of comfort, its 65-degree heat distracting the body from It.

What causes It? Like one delivering a speech, I drone on about how during a normal period, the body sheds the endometrium, the lining of the uterus. Here, I sometimes see a twitch in my friends’ eyes, especially if they are male. These are not words used in daily conversation, although for some reason, nobody blinks when women talk about their labour process in detail over lunch. Perhaps that results in new life, whereas this just brings more darkness and pain. Yet sometimes I casually mention It to friends, to undergird my life with a sense of steel.  It is a badge. Of what, I don't know. Self-pity, probably. Suffering with no aim. A touch of trauma to a bourgeois urban existence. One of the many doctors I saw said It was in my mind. I suppose she was right. I have made It a part of my mind because I enjoy having It there. I have medals in the war against the self. Medals in a losing war.

However, for women suffering from endometriosis, some of this tissue is retained and is implanted in other internal areas.  Unlike normal endometrium, these implants have no way of exiting the body.  Here, I sometimes might insert a wry comment about how they, like me, are doomed to wander around forever, lost, uncertain and alone, with nary an exit door in sight. The internal and external are one.  Each month, about two weeks before my period, these implants bleed, and because there is no exit, the blood builds up and causes inflammation, which leads to pain. I never used to know these things; I decided one day after maybe twelve years – it’s about sixteen years of pain, by now – that I should at least know what was going on. Thank God for Wikipedia and Google. Though I’m not sure what knowing does. I am less clear about adhesions – the formation of internal scar tissue that fuses internal organs together – so I do not talk about that. It’s frightening to imagine your organs getting stuck together like plastic left in the sun for too long, creating a trap that blood --- the same blood that could have created a baby -- will never be able to escape from.  I also omit statistics on the links between It and infertility, certain types of cancers, notably some types of ovarian cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and brain cancer. Saying these might make it more real, though they are always with me.

The Eastern view is more hopeful. Traditional Chinese Medicine concurs that there is a stagnation of blood, but it believes that certain herbs can provide it with an escape route. For Qi, the body’s internal energy to flow, one also has to avoid anything that will cool the body down. Absolutely no cold water or tea, the Chinese sinseh tells me. Online, websites on Chinese medicine tell me to avoid showing too much emotion, and ironically, to avoid fear. The sinseh’s clinic is a large dusty room bordered by wooden drawers decorated with curvy Chinese script. Hopeful, barren couples sit in plastic chairs. This is the same crowd that I sit with in gynaecological clinics: anxious husbands needing to know every detail, holding the hands of their thirty- or forty- something year old wives. Wedding bands fresh on their hands. They shoot me curious glances and gossip in hushed tones. An abortion, probably. 

Once, I overhear. Girls these days, all so wild.

I wish that were true, I wanted to retort. Like you, I wish my body could hold a baby.

The sinseh is the man at the end of the tunnel holding a small match. He sits in his open office, on a plastic stool, at a worn wooden table. Stacks of index cards and school exercise books flank him: his registration system. A small stuffed cushion, covered with a kitschy cartoon fabric and sweat-soaked from decades of wrists, is his only instrument. As I wait for my turn in between the couples, I eavesdrop on the bedroom tips he gives. He seems to double-up as a sex therapist as well, replete with detailed diagrams and instructions that he scribbles on scrap paper. The idea of a bright-eyed elderly man in a singlet dispensing karma sutra-esque advice engages the voyeuristic side of me, and makes my wait worth the while. Even though I struggle to understand how this man, who occasionally blows his nose in a volley of mucus behind him, holds the answer that I crave, I choose to believe him. This is sheer desperation, probably.  A roomful of people and a four-hour wait to see someone does that to do. His wife piles an assortment of leaves and twigs on a square piece of bright pink paper and showers it with scoops of two kinds of black powder. She gets all these from different drawers around the room. Hen hei, she whispers to me, grimacing. Very black. I gather that this means it is very bitter, but wonder if she knows something about the darkness herself. At home, I down the opaque reduction in five gulps. It had taught me how to swallow bitterness and to be accustomed to the darkness, so the concoction was never too black or too bitter for me.

It was chased away by the leaves and twigs occasionally, but ricocheted with relentless pain at other times. The sinseh shrugged again when I asked him the reason for this inconsistency, or this vengeful nature. Who knows, he said. Only the body knows itself. That seemed like a strange thing for a physician to say, especially since my body was trying to abuse me, but I continued buying the pink paper packets of leaves and twigs, to feel more Chinese, if nothing else. Not for me your long chemical names and plastic capsules, your scans and devices, your experimental trials and patented drugs: my Asian body needs to be treated by nature’s secrets, gathered by wizened old men for centuries from the hills, valleys and grasslands of China. As the whole house is thick with the pungent-sweet-earthy smell, the darkness dissipates. 

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What Wikipedia and Traditional Chinese Medicine do not cover however, is the reaction of the body, mind and soul. When It comes, the body retches, and my frame recoils with a graceless spasm. I become a puppet held ransom by It, all self-assuredness striped away, a writhing shell over which I have no power. An action-reaction sequence, a law of motion beyond my control. That's why I'm thankful It usually makes an appearance behind closed doors, away from human company. But sometimes, it chooses not to. And that is when things get really awkward, when the wall between private and public is torn down, when base reactions take priority over politeness or socially-correct behaviour.

It came last year in a naked, public form. It seized me in the day, tortured me in the night. On a whim, I was attending a church ladies conference. My roommate saw me suddenly double over on multiple occasions, midway through conversations, through sermons. She saw my face crumple, saw me try to vomit, saw me running to the toilet. Nausea. Frequent urination and diarrhoea. Bloating. She couldn't imagine how anyone could go through It. I smiled at that; sympathy is worth something, though I felt ashamed for bringing her into my darkness. You must go up for healing, she said. No, I said. It will go when it is time. It sounded so philosophical when I said it so firmly. Of course she knew I was terrified and stubborn; fear and willpower make a potent, paralysing cocktail. I had gone up for such healing sessions before, and I always ended up in more acute despair and betrayal. And darkness.

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I told one boy about It once.

We can have dogs, he said, shrugging.

But he looked irritated and turned away when It came. Passion brings It out too, unfortunately. It is a killjoy on so many levels. Which man would tolerate that?

I leaned into the warmth of his arms, while It engulfed me. But I didn't think I could stand that look for the rest of my life.

So we parted. And he got married. I saw his wedding photos, and his son’s photos, on Facebook. I'm sure he's a wonderful father.

And I was left alone with It.

I think about It when I meet anyone new. As if It was a child from a previous relationship that I need to softly raise at an appropriate juncture. It rarely comes up though. I never let things get so far anymore.

Better to hide with It. To be a recluse with It. To keep It silent, hidden. To shush It. To lull it to sleep. To keep It unsaid. This is my private selfish horror, unshared, guarded and locked away in a private chamber of myself. 

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Sometimes, in the darkness, I find the mental space to pray. It indulges me, and pushes the mind to the spiritual. Then the tether to a childhood faith comes through. Take It away, I pray, gasping, grabbing grace, seeking mercy. I make bargains, promises, threats. I wonder what deeds or thoughts I might have committed or omitted. I wonder what the grand plan is and whether this is my cross to bear, and for how long, and for what purpose. Is this the thorn in the flesh? Had I brought this upon myself? Or was it a generation curse? A lack of forgiveness, I've been told. Bitterness. (Perhaps I have swallowed it too much?) I wonder if this affliction was a way of telling me that I was somehow excluded from a series of life events that normally happen to other people. Is this a way of controlling the population? Of letting me feel more empathy for a sinful fallen world? Of pushing me to my limits and leaving me hanging there, grasping, gasping? Awakened at night in a spasm of hard pain, I clutch at the bedsheets and bury my head under the pillow. “I'm sorry,” I whisper through clenched teeth, “I'm sorry.”

Sorry to… what? Sorry to my body, on one level, that It comes to interrupt sleep and ravage the mental faculties. Sorry to my existence, that It comes and robs moments of life. Sorry for Science and Faith, that their combined power has shrivelled in the presence of It. But I must not say that. It shows my bitterness and lack of forgiveness. It means I have no faith. That I have not persevered in trials. It means I have given up, that I have not run the race, not fought the good fight. I say sorry to God, but He is silent. In the darkness, the shades of black present themselves in a variety of tones, melding, veering, blending into each other. I take comfort in the lack of light sometimes, feeding the cynicism, fanning the pessimism. Much easier to remain in the negative, to look at a bleakness without the hope of salvation or redemption. There is a certain reassurance that the enveloping darkness will always be there, like a cloak, to hide, if not to protect, to be over-powering and overwhelming in its gapping emptiness.

But fighting is tiring.

Much easier to let It come, to surrender to It and not risk the deep disappointment that comes with being vulnerable before finding that there is nothing that can remove the appearance of It.

Much easier to expect the darkness and to survive in it, confidently groping in the dark like a blind man, instead of a sighted man who panics when plunged into darkness and starts searching desperately for the light switch.