Once upon a time, I remember hearing a teacher of developmental psychology say “the body is our first environment.” Indeed, it is the first place we live in and the place in which we will die. We are our body. Everything around us can change, and our bodies can also change. Still, it takes more work, and there are certainly things about our bodies that we cannot change. Unless some miraculous invention of modern medicine comes about, the lungs need air and the heart needs to keep beating.
I recently had a partial hysterectomy. I took my time researching what this would mean for me. I knew I wanted to keep my ovaries and wanted to know how I would be affected if my cervix were removed. I got a second opinion. I interviewed several women. I searched the Internet for more information. Although I heard over and over that getting a hysterectomy was common and safe, something inside of me just could not allow this to be minimized.
About three days before my surgery, I gradually became more flooded with, simply put, some of the most intense existential anxiety I’ve ever felt. I’ve been anxious about things like job stress, relationship troubles, and a dirty house. I’ve been the victim of crime more than once in my life, as have many people. That is not fun. Still, I found this anxiety that related to having an organ removed from my body to be totally unique. First, I was going to be put under anesthesia and have somebody cut into my stomach muscles. Second, I was going to have my uterus removed, and that would mean the most symbolic embodiment of my womanhood. This place was the first home of my two children. I have always called it my “second heart.”
I didn’t realize that there would be so much more that I would feel. The other losses would be temporary, but still teach lessons about this body that I just wouldn’t have realized before.
I puked the day after I came home, and it was the most painful experience of my life because my stomach was not healed. Not to mention, I couldn’t even laugh. This only lasted for about a week, but honestly, I realized, with gratitude, how much I laugh every day and what a hell it would be to not be able to physically laugh.
I am also a very physically active person. I swim 20 laps at least twice a week, dance for at least two hours every Sunday morning at dance church, hike my local hills, and strength train at least three times a week. I don’t just do this to keep in shape physically. I primarily do these things to keep in shape emotionally and mentally. Sadly, I didn’t learn until my early thirties just how af-fected I am by physically activity, let alone getting out in nature. Now, I could barely walk, let alone get up out of my chair. Not only did I feel my physical energy eroding, but my mood was also becoming increasingly low. I’ve also used movement to calm anxiety when I feel it, and that strategy was down the toilet, at least for a spell.
I felt trapped in my own body. Now, I don’t look like a supermodel or anything and I’ve worked hard over the years to let go of silly standards of beauty and just love myself (aging will certainly do that), but this was different. I realized I really love my body. It gets me places. It heaves with pleasure when I laugh. It dances. It processes things so I have energy. The list goes on. To have many of those wonderful things even temporarily altered was incredibly disheartening. A few times, it felt like torture. I had taken this amazing miraculous flesh and bones home for granted. I also realized that many people are not as fortunate as I am. They lose certain capacities for good.
I also miss my uterus. I’m going to take a risk here and write about orgasms. I was told that if I kept my cervix, my orgasms wouldn’t change. Not only did doctors tell me that, but other women told me that. Don’t get me wrong. I can still have them. But … they are not the same, and I have to be honest and say that I feel really sad about that. I will miss the way that the entire organ would clench up in a giant knot, like a ball of rubber bands just on the fringe of being cut and shooting out all of that energy like comets. That part is gone. I will never regain that. OK, so peo-ple may say that the “important part” won’t be gone. I don’t know. To me, it sort of feels like I still have the frosting but I’m really going to miss the cake. I will never have “that kind” of orgasm again.
And then it occurred to me … not one woman named missing that. Not one. I can’t be the only woman in the world who noticed what her uterus did during sex. Are we that out of touch with our bodies? Orgasms are a big deal. Let’s face it, whether shared or alone, they’re pretty much one of the most wonderful physical experiences we’re ever going to have. They are the high of all highs.
Finally, there is the occasional realization that I will never be able to carry a child in my body again. I have two teenagers who are the lights of my life. I don’t need more babies. Still, there is something about the finality that hurts. I think I’ve spent the last six weeks looking at my children in “that way” more often. They will never be little again. I will never feel that kicking again. And they lived inside of that sacred place that is gone. I just don’t know how to express this. It is the strangest loss I have ever experienced in my life.
I feel like the ghost of my uterus lives inside of me and is looking for the key to the front door of the Sistine Chapel as if it got locked out.
On the bright side, I don’t have to pee at least once an hour because a mass of fibroid tumors that cumulatively were larger than a grapefruit is no longer pressing up against my bladder. That means I sleep through the night now. That means I don’t hurt every day because the tumors were so big, they were impacting the blood supply to the uterus that is now gone. That means that I don’t bleed every day. That means I don’t look like I’m four months pregnant. Once again, the body matters. I miss a lot that is hinged upon the meaning of my uterus and what it did for me, but I am also more comfortable. People cautioned me about hysterectomies being the most over-performed procedure, but I’d tried alternative medicine, and my hesitant doctor and I had been discussing this for years. It was time. I needed it and I’m grateful for the ease it has brought me. Bleeding all the time and hurting every day is no fun.
Why do I tell this story? Because our bodies are one of the most enigmatic, miraculous, special gifts that we have and because we so often take them for granted. I know there are people who will disagree with this because of certain ideologies, but I personally believe that there is not one experience in this lifetime that occurs separately from our body. They really are our first envi-ronment. They are “home.”
What are the existential implications? Our bodies can be a great source of agency and freedom, and they also can be a great source of limitation and loss. The two are inextricably relevant. Ad-ditionally, existentialism concerns itself with consciousness. How strange to have an opportunity to become more conscious of what a gift my body is. How important to realize just how little we notice about what our bodies do. It is a temporary gift, kind of like being given a trip to Hawaii or a deep-sea diving lesson. The body is more than a physical place and environment. The body is an experience, and indeed one of the most central aspects of experiencing this life. I honestly feel that if I am going to truly live out this existence to the max, I am going to spend more time with this body in as many contexts as possible. If my limbs go out, I’ll dance with my face. I was singing Karaoke with some friends last weekend and when I became tired, I just laid down and closed my eyes and listened to the music. It felt wonderful. I told my friends, “if I ever become immobile, please play the most amazing music ever for me. I may be a lot happier than you will know just because I can hear this music and your voices.”
I close by inviting people to do something that you love. If you could commit to just five minutes of really paying attention to how your body is involved in that joy, you may be very pleasantly surprised. I highly recommend loving your body. No matter what your beliefs are, your body really is a miracle.
— Candice Hershman