Something was terribly wrong. My lower abdomen was swollen and sore. I had lost nearly ten pounds in the past two weeks. I could no longer keep my food down, and a screaming pain ripped through my vagina every time I peed. In order to keep this mysterious condition from my strict Mennonite missionary parents, I ran outside after almost every meal and vomited behind the hedge near the veranda of our house.
It was November of 1969. Just a few weeks earlier, I had graduated at the top of my high school class at the Liceo de San Carlos in Asunción, Paraguay. My life lay ahead of me like a shiny blank whiteboard, inviting me to imagine endless possibilities. Now, at home at my parents’ leprosy station for summer vacation, I felt only a dark cloud of pain and confusion.
It was early Spring in Los Angeles and the day was perfect; temperature in the high 60’s, an easy breeze drifting across the city. The conditions were ideal for sitting outside, listening to music and maybe even taking in a show. I have lived in Los Angeles for decades and learned to appreciate the colorful absurdity that is L.A., and the bizarre streak that runs through many of its inhabitants. As a purveyor of public transportation, I know that freaky things happen while riding the bus, but just as many occur while you wait.
Two days after it happened, my best friend told me she was eighty percent sure she was drugged and raped at her hostel in Panama.
We both willed her to be wrong, but there was the blood in her underwear, the sick feeling in her head the morning after a night she couldn’t remember, the slow piecing together of half-memories. There was the fear, bone-deep, that overwhelmed her when she locked eyes with a man who resembled one of her rapists. Her instinct told her that her body had been violated. We both trusted it, because this wasn’t the first time.
Sometimes I wake up slowly, sloughing off layers of sleep one at a time. On those days, there’s a witching moment where I float, suspended, on the crest of consciousness. My thoughts and feelings run on as normal, but no one’s in the driver’s seat.
Then, half a second behind, comes the tickle in the back of my mind—the nagging sense of unease. The sense that something is wrong. And that’s when I remember who I am, and what I fear, and the dread settles in my veins like cement.
I get up, and the dread rises with me. I go running, and imagine sweating the anxiety out. I shower, and the fear still clings, thick and oily, to my skin.
The urologist’s nurse shot me a quizzical look. That should have been my first clue. I guess I looked too happy.
“You know what you’re here for, right?”
“For a baseline on my bladder?”
Months earlier, I’d been shocked by a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. On my initial visits to the neurologist, cold dread had gripped my insides, squeezing the breath out of me in the waiting room as I moved chairs aside for patients in wheelchairs. I told myself to smile and make eye contact with them. Was I looking at my future self?
With time, I’d adjusted, and that day, I was feeling more upbeat than terrified. Bladder problems are common with MS, and since mine had misbehaved in the past, the neurologist had ordered this exam. I felt strong, though, and eager to receive a glowing report. I’d always excelled on tests. If confidence and determination could influence performance, my bladder might pass. Continue reading