July 2001

Wandering Uterus

        The word “hysteria” comes from Greek and translates approximately as “wandering uterus.” It was an ancient medical diagnosis with a simple cure, surgically incisive: removal of the offensive organ. I don’t know if early hysterectomies ever achieved the desired goal of bringing peace and balance to the woman, but many were performed in days before antibiotics (and even anesthesia) on otherwise healthy women who didn’t find happiness in the traditional female role.

        While such Machiavellian reasoning no longer justifies hysterectomies, it is one of the most common procedures done in the United States today. Twenty percent of aging white women have benign uterine fibroids and many turn to surgery for relief of symptoms. A rough sampling of my middle-aged female friends shows about half of them have lost their uterus or feel they soon will. Modern medical techniques have made this a simple procedure and generally without undue complications. Most of my friends tell me that the relief from bleeding, pressure, worry, vague pains, and abdominal girth has been a blessing. It seems to make sense.

        While considering my own growing fibroids I researched the options carefully. As a nurse working in birth and gynecology surgeries, I knew about physical complications: nicked bladder or bowel, urinary incontinence, pelvic abscess. I chose a well-known and caring surgeon. I even chose my room and nurses. In the hospital I was “proactive” in deep breathing and turning, keeping my catheter well-drained, drinking fluids, and taking pain medications on time.

        I did well and was home with a doting husband within fifty hours. I have been recovering steadily ever since. I am pleased by my reduced abdominal girth, with the thought of giving up Kotex, and in having gotten it is over with. I am content with my childbearing status. At 51, I was not planning on more than my one beautiful son. So what is this undefined empty feeling about?

        At first I was reluctant to take inventory of my body. It was already aware of something that my mind did not want to explore. Something was missing. When I mentally approached my pelvis, I reeled back from the edge as if teetering on the brink of a chasm. It feels—for lack of a better word—hollow, like a chocolate Easter bunny. My organs are having a difficult time adjusting to their new space. They seem to cling to the abdominal wall as if afraid that they will fall out. My bowel and bladder are not used to sleeping alone. They may have been crowded before, but they hadn’t expected this sudden, empty space. It makes them dizzy.

        Perhaps this sense of loss is true of any amputation. I hadn’t realized that organs communicate. They speak to us all the time, grumbling or purring as they go about their chores, and a uterus is far from quiet. Unlike my gallbladder, for example, or spleen, it had talked to me on a regular schedule most of my life. When I pay attention, I know that my visceral fear is real. My pelvic organs had considered themselves safe. Nestled in their bony ring and guarded by sturdy legs, they had never imagined that someone could reach up from below and drag one of them out. Now they are afraid to so much as sit on a toilet lest it happen again.

        I’m sure there is a mental component as well, for I find myself shrinking from the idea of truncated fallopian tubes with little ovaries hanging in space. However, this sensation is more than mental and physical. There is a blank hole in my center—a void that will take more than good nutrition and tissue restructuring to fill. Something is gone from my energy body, that template that organizes cells and keeps them on task. As I lay in bed tenderly taking stock of my changed pelvic cavity, I realize that I will need to fill this emptiness to become whole again, and that what I put into it will make a difference in how I live the rest of my life.

        A uterus is not just a tool for self-replication—a disposable organ once childbearing is over. Just as birth is more than contractions and fetal heart tones, there is a sacred life Energy that infuses this very center of the female body. It was through the birth of my child that I was born as a mother. It gave me insight and a depth of love that I had never touched before. That experience transformed me into a stronger, more compassionate, and powerful being. The energy is real, and I will be forever grateful to it.

        In a time of the medical machine, where belief in technology has erased or ridiculed deeper feelings about our bodies, it is those very feelings that need to be coaxed into the open. When we are damaged, most of us use reason to cover up the rawness and go on. We float on isolated rafts, afraid of the deep currents that command our lives. We are gifted at this self-deception for it allows us to behave “normally” in a world of other wounded people. Moving forward is not the same as healing. Healing comes from an Inner Light, an acceptance of our injured and imperfect selves. It comes from a willingness to get wet, to be hurt, to give up control, and to become the river. It takes time and courage; it takes our attention, our deep love, and compassion. It is the very core of our human Journey.

        My uterus has been gone for six days and I am just now climbing out of the discomfort enough to miss it. Perhaps I should have had the courage to ask for its lumpy and imperfect body to take home and bury under a tree. That would have been more fitting than a plastic bag in the medical waste incinerator. The question I now face is how can I recreate myself as whole? I lie in bed visualizing a tiny star in my pelvis. I will work on getting it to grow until my whole abdomen is again full of life. It will be my secret—like a pregnancy before anyone can see. Perhaps it will be the place where I can sequester everything I care about. Through this portal, I will be reach out with compassion for all of life, and love from the deepest center of my being. In time it will become an amulet, a place of power, my Center again—full this time of a larger world than my own. It once opened my universe to the power and beauty of bringing forth life. Now I have the choice of sealing it off and ignoring the void, or filling it with new light and bigger purpose.

        This is always true of growth. There is a sort of death and rebirth that happens throughout the various stages of our lives. I was once a child, then a juvenile. That person died and was reborn a young woman. The birth of my son brought an abrupt end and a beginning to life as I had known it. Now, as my son tests his own wings, I release that phase to become…what? I do not like the template that my culture holds out for me. Matron? Hag? Older woman?

        The term “elderly” is one of diminished value. The “elderly” are a drain on society, a group we that consumes resources and gives nothing in return. My Native American friends us the term “elder” in a tone of respect. An elder is someone who has traveled the path before us. That is what I now envision—becoming an elder, a woman of power and wisdom, someone with the time and insight to lend a hand to those who follow.

                Jean Aspen

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