People often talk about out-of-body experiences, usually during a dramatic scene on television or in a movie where someone is presumed dead but sees their life from the outside and fights to return.
I think this is a required scene for every season of Grey’s Anatomy, since someone on the brink of death gasps, choking in air, to symbolize the struggle it took for them to come back from the edge.
I’ve never experienced that. What I’ve processed is an inner-body experience. I understand both circumstances are the result of trauma, but one puts the victim on the outside, watching their person from above, whereas my inner turmoil is my body no longer recognizing myself. I’m internally and, perhaps, irreparably detached.
For the past three and a half years and seventy doctor appointments, I have undressed for an audience that poked, prodded, and studied me. The flesh on my chest has been cut into, pectoral muscles separated from my chest wall—and later, reattached—and tissue scraped from clavicle to midway down my ribs, implants placed inside, removed, then replaced, fat moved from my thighs and abdomen to my lean and delicate chest, and the same cuts stitched closed four times. My abdomen has been scanned and surveyed thirty times to watch follicles grow in my ovaries, monitor a spot on my uterus, and leave doctors in a state of confusion when my small intestine decided to choke itself one day. I’ve been strapped to a chair-like operating table and flipped to a forty-five-degree angle so a doctor could delicately insert a needle to extract nineteen of my eggs that were then frozen and sent a hundred miles away for safe-keeping.
Were it not for the pain and the scars and the memory of stark white operating and exam rooms where I was told to just breathe, I’d believe all of this happened to someone else. It couldn’t have been my body that survived each of these visits where I laid myself bare. Mine would have never survived this.
Growing up, the rules of my house were conservative. Not in the political sense but in the way we treated and displayed our bodies. As a teen in the aughts, low-riding jeans were bought in secret but were too revealing for me to feel confident wearing them. My bikini bottoms were what stores called “full-coverage” and slinky, low cut tops were a pipe-dream. School was no different; each day I wrapped a knee-length plaid skirt around my waist, pulling it low enough so only a sliver of my thigh and kneecaps could be seen once I slid into my dark-tone knee socks. My high-cut V-neck sweater allowed my neck just enough space to feel unrestricted but hung off my shoulders like a shroud of secrecy. You could not tell the size or shape of anything underneath.
Even if the rules permitted otherwise, I felt uncomfortable putting my body on display. I chose to lay myself bare in other ways. I was talkative—outspoken, and even noisy. I deliberately sat in the front row of classes so I could see my teachers react to my challenges. I tested my parents’ patience by tip-toeing through the front door at six in the morning because the sunrises on the beach were too good to miss, but so was the sand I tracked in behind me. But the teenage boys I was galivanting with never copped a feel under my shirt and attempts to unhook my bra were futile.
I was not prude, though. I was careful—selective of the parts I allowed people to see, in fear they would tarnish, rather than admire, it. It—I—was delicate; I thought in only revealing small parts of this body I carried that I could protect it from hurt.
And then I learned the body I spent twenty-seven years protecting had been damaged since its conception. Inside, my DNA was flawed; I had a BRCA1 genetic mutation. What began as a blood test lead to me uncomfortably changing into countless seersucker robes, left open, so doctors and nurses could scan and swab my insides. Suddenly no amount of clothing could protect me from damage.
Since learning this mutation I inherited increased my risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and skin cancer, I’ve underwent five surgeries to remove and reconstruct my breasts. Every six months, a woman named Antonina, who is gentle and kind, inserts a probe that scans my uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. After she is done, I dress and then undress in a separate exam room, where a nurse-practitioner who has become a key part of my survival manually checks for abnormalities Antonina’s thorough scans might have missed. These women are looking for the start of ovarian cancer, often called a silent killer.
One minute of my life—the moment I learned my body was already damaged—changed how I show myself to the world. This new requirement—the discomfort of disrobing for perfect (but credentialed) strangers—forever altered my connection to my body, as well as what it’s capable of.
Slowly chipping away at each doctor’s appointment and surgery was the body I knew as a thing of beauty, one that I revered, coddled, and protected, and transformed into an object of utility, a random piece of biology, a science experiment. I had to let go the modesty I once clung to, removing my shroud and both the fear and reverence I carried underneath it.
As I’ve peeled off the layers I’ve accumulated over the years, I’ve realized that our bodies carry more than they’re meant to, and I’ve been adding to that burden. Once I saw what my body can do, what it can recover from, the poking and prodding and nakedness unshackled me from the constraints I placed on myself.
For twenty-seven years, I coddled my body and underestimated its ability to endure, but the past three and a half years have taught me to give it freedom to pull me through raw, naked despair. But in this process, my body detached from my mind. I see the body I am attached to, but I’ve yet to make a connection to my new understanding of it. It remains foreign because it’s strength was something I never let it—or had to—put on display. When the nerves in my chest were severed during my mastectomy, my relationship to my body was severed as well. But nerves regenerate, slowly and not always along the same path. Perhaps the link between my mind and body I lost years ago will also grow anew.
You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.