In the summer of 2016, I sat before my gynecologist who had just run an ultrasound and concluded that I had several large cysts in my ovaries. As a naive teenager, I didn’t particularly know how to handle the gravity of those words and so dedicated my attention to cringing inwardly at the word “ovary.”
At the time, nothing seemed particularly earth-shattering or debilitating. I had spent the past five months nonchalantly dismissing the fact that I hadn’t had my period and writing off the sudden bouts of acne across my face as something “every other teenage girl” faces. I had pre-emptively concluded that my mother’s insistence on dragging me to the gynecologist was an over-reaction. I assumed I’d be given medication that I’d take for a brief period of time and would eventually be cured of these “cysts.”
Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
The gynecologist began to use phrases like “chronic disease,” as she attempted to gently explain my condition to me. Her speech started to arouse a slightly more perturbed reaction in me. She glossed over some side effects of my condition: “Hirsutism, weight gain, infertility ...” Wait, infertility? That particular word punctured my fog. “Infertility is a common issue ― most patients struggle with having children.” She attempted to reassure me with some statistics.
I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. The doctor called it a common and manageable illness affecting some 1 in 5 women in India. (In the U.S., it affects 1 in 10 women of childbearing age.) Her words did little to comfort me. I didn’t care about the other women going through what I was going through. How did it matter that we were all suffering together? It wasn’t particularly a community that I was aching to be part of.
When you’re 16, these are your massive decisions: picking high school courses, researching universities, deciding what shows to binge watch on Netflix. The least of your concerns is starting a family or raising a child. I had always told myself I would never have children. It was far too much responsibility and the thought of this tiny, swaddled human life completely dependent on me was, to put it plainly, unappealing. So the revelation at the gynecologist’s office shouldn’t have particularly shaken me.
But it did.
“When you’re 16, these are your massive decisions: picking high school courses, researching universities, deciding what shows to binge watch on Netflix. The least of your concerns is starting a family or raising a child.”
I cast a sideways glance at my mother, who sat beside me, in hopes of assuring myself that I was merely being melodramatic. I’m a student who enjoys theater ― melodrama is what I know best. And that’s what I told myself as I directed my gaze from the murky grays of the ultrasound scan toward her. But she betrayed the smallest signs of worry. If she was worried, I knew I should be terrified.
Of course, in her typical fashion, she put on a perfectly practiced smile of reassurance as we walked out of the clinic, which mocked me with its cheery pink walls and pictures of beaming patients who I vehemently concluded were far too happy to have discovered that they were ill. It made me nauseated. My mother suggested we grab some fast food. Naturally, I agreed.
As I gorged on a six-inch sub, it was as though I hadn’t just been diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there was no cure. We resumed our day as if nothing was different, and that deeply unsettled me.
“One in five.” I recall scanning the room, morbidly contemplating which of the women around me had the same condition, hiding it over laughter and lunch. I felt as though I had been contaminated with this ugly secret. I resolved that no one, except my parents and immediate friend circle, would ever know about it.
“I felt robbed of a decision that should have been mine to make in the future.”
I could pretend to the world that it didn’t bother me, but I couldn’t pretend to myself. My thoughts would turn grim when I’d watch mothers pushing their daughters on swings in the park, or when I marveled at the ridiculously minuscule shoes of my baby cousin, or when I’d have one of those “I’m going to tell my kids this story one day” moments. The numbers were against me. How could I ever compete with the absoluteness of statistics? I felt robbed of a decision that should have been mine to make in the future.
So I took to Google. My hands scrolled through forums where I’d occasionally stumble upon miracle stories, though the larger portion of the internet remained littered with tragic tales of couples struggling to get pregnant and even more heartbreaking narratives of repeated miscarriages. I was terrified. I was resentful. I was a 16-year-old girl who grew to hate her “dysfunctional” body.
Although I had a support system of friends and family who never treated me with the patronizing pity that I feared I would receive, I couldn’t bring myself to appreciate their consideration because I loathed the fundamental fact that others had something to be considerate about. I couldn’t change how I saw myself. One minute I was the girl who didn’t want to have kids and the next minute I became the girl who quite possibly couldn’t have kids.
My circumstances hadn’t really altered, but the way in which I assessed myself had. There is something so centrally female about bearing children and I didn’t like the idea that maternity might be stripped away from me. And so I resorted to humor. Empathy made me uncomfortable, as did serious conversations about feelings. Therefore, when I eventually told my friends and they told me that they were “sorry” and “always there to talk,” I’d grin and tell them not to be sorry that my future didn’t hold dirty diapers and whining kids. Humor was a reflex action. It sometimes still is.
“There is something so centrally female about bearing children and I didn’t like the idea that maternity might be stripped away from me.”
I wish it were as simple as learning to embrace my condition or revel in the glory that is life or whatever other Tumblr quote you’ll find framed on the bedroom wall of a teenage girl. But it isn’t that simple. Life rarely is.
It took me two years to learn to coexist with PCOS. I don’t particularly know how myself, but somewhere along the way I just became hopeful about every new potential cure as opposed to skeptical. I embraced veganism, threw myself into exercise and found that these alleviated the symptoms I faced. I learned to show myself compassion as opposed to belittling myself. I learned that talking about how I felt didn’t give power to PCOS; it gave power to me.
Over the last two years, I learned to admit that I don’t completely govern the course of my life and to let go of the reins a bit. It’s strangely liberating. When my thinking ceased to be clouded by the immediate shock and resentment, I saw that possibly being infertile doesn’t mean I can’t be a mother and that not being a mother doesn’t make me any less of a woman. I think about the little boys and girls around the world without families and homes and know that I still have a choice.
But as of now, I know Dhrithi Arun isn’t synonymous with PCOS or infertility. I am a writer, a journalist, a friend, a sister and a daughter. I am not my illness.
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