How 'Shark Week' Saved My Life
Surviving the stigma of being a bipolar woman.
Trigger Warning: Content references surgical procedures and illnesses that some readers may find disturbing.
Dramatization based on a true story.
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1. The ever-popular TV special.
2. A humorous slang for a woman's monthly cycle.
Fear. Relief. Camaraderie. Misery. Pride. Shame.
Over the years, there have been a multitude of feelings that have accompanied my SHARK WEEK. Like the toothy predators of the deep, when it comes to the scariest thing in the ocean that is a woman's psyche, periods-gone-wrong rank pretty high on the list of the stuff of nightmares.
At least, that's where the nightmare started for me: a childless, 33-year old Millennial, who had just inserted an ultrasound wand into her vagina on her own because she was too weirded out to let the technician do it for her. As I laid there half-naked while some stranger poked around my insides, I contemplated the irony of finally losing my ultrasound virginity after all these years, not because I might be carrying life—as I had always imagined my first time—but because I might be carrying death. All I could think was,
"It's probably stress. Lockdown has everyone stressed. And you're not getting any younger. Two heavy periods spaced eight days apart may not be normal, but it's not life-threatening."
Such was my attempt at talking down my paranoia, and it went over about as well as a white pair of pants 3-5 days a month. But in the end, the ultrasound results were clearer than anything I could have guessed at using WebMD anyway.
"A 9 cm x 6 cm x 6 cm mass is attached to your left ovary."
I couldn't understand what those numbers meant, so I built a scale model. For reference? It's about the size of a large pear.
Things moved fast after the ultrasound. An MRI showed my doctor that there were no blood vessels "feeding the mass," which was good because that meant it "probably" wasn't cancer. But no one could rule out the c-word for certain until the tumour was dissected. Either way, it had to come out. NOW.
What an oophorectomy means to me:
A twelve-inch vertical laparotomy scar, a left ovary removal (single oophorectomy), the removal of the mass, an omentum sampling and pelvic washings.
Talk about flesh being ripped apart because of SHARK WEEK! I won't describe the procedure in greater detail because, unless you're made of steel—like the superheroes that were my two-woman surgical team—you'll never get to sleep again.
Despite my best intentions to be brave, when the mask goes on to put me to sleep, tears flow, and I tremble. It's not the fear of not waking up that terrifies me most. It's the unknown of what the surgeons will find inside me. And something else: the monster that stalks me from the fathoms of my subconscious is the unexpected grief of losing a piece of my identity as a woman; I feel stupid to care about an ovary, but I do.
When I wake up, the pain is so bad, for a moment, I almost wish I hadn't woken up at all, but that thought flees quick enough. There is no room for anything else in my brain besides suppressing the urge to scream. I estimate I've pressed the pain-button attached to my IV drip at least a million times that first half-hour. A nurse later tells me it was 134. The cynic in me chuckles darkly, and I mumble,
"I guess those teenage years of playing Mario Party on N64 left me with some muscle memory."
She doesn't answer, and I'm unsure whether she's impressed or apathetic. After a time, porters arrive and they wheel me to my room. My bed moves up and down, but I can't; I never thought I'd be grateful for a catheter. After a couple of quick updates to family, I pass in and out of sleep until a nurse comes in to help me wash up. I figure the worst is over, but I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Pain was not a stranger.
I'd known pain. I'd had two other surgeries before, plus I'd had my wisdom teeth removed. A disc in my spine had ruptured in my early 20s and had left me with two years of crippling sciatica caused by leaking spinal fluid. Hell, I was the woman who, at 19 years old, had straightened her right pinkie after it broke clean in half during a car accident so I could pull my then-boyfriend out of the passenger seat and onto the safety of the side of the highway! But this pain. There are no words. I can't compare it to childbirth because I've never given birth, but at least with birth, the doctors know WHY you're in pain, and more importantly, they BELIEVE YOU!
I had already been dealing with a variety of gastrointestinal issues before the surgery. I'd been to the ER multiple times only to be sent home. Eventually, one of the doctors there had flippantly suggested the symptoms could be related to my mental health and directed me to speak to my psychiatrist. When it was clear I wasn't going away, I was put on the waitlist for a special study.
Then my SHARK WEEK screwed up, and I met this intuitive female doctor, who took my concerns seriously. Finally, I was sent for the proper tests, and the tumour was no longer a mysterious figment of my imagination. But the experience and trauma of being misunderstood for months had left their battle scars. So, when a new doctor—not either of my surgeons—came to check on me the second morning after my surgery and told me that the cause of my escalating pain was because nothing was "moving," I thought,
"No $hi+! Tell me something I don't know!"
I asked to have the IV pain meds reinstated—begged, actually. The doctor glanced over my chart, or whatever paperwork was in his hands, and responded with a blunt,
"Your pain is normal for this type of surgery, and we don't feel continuing your intravenous pain medication is appropriate. It has a risk of dependence."
Hold it. Dependence? Did he really just GO THERE??
You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I have bipolar disorder. Despite what you've seen on Dr. Phil, or heard anecdotally about your friend's-aunt's-gardener's-cousin, people with bipolar don't always live irresponsible, impulse-driven, un-medicated existences. Many of us are like me, and we work damn hard to stay mentally healthy, often sacrificing our physical health to stay sane because of the side effects of the medications that keep us stable.
I've had the same psychiatrist since 2011. I've done CBT, DBT, traditional and occupational therapy. I take all the meds I'm prescribed as prescribed. I graduated with an award from my alma mater, and, most importantly, I live a VERY clean life. Always have. But that's not what it says on paper. All it says is the term bipolar. Add the word woman in front of the diagnosis and I may as well tattoo HYPOCHONDRIAC on my forehead.
Essentially, as a bipolar woman, I have more in common with sharks than simply my SHARK WEEK: thanks to popular media and rumours, I'm every bit as judged and misunderstood as Great Whites.
I Lost it.
Inwardly only, of course; ten years of experience of living with the stigma of my mental health condition while seeking physical care from doctors had taught me that restraint and caution were needed if I wanted to survive. But this PAIN. It was UNREAL. I had to have those pain meds reinstated. It wasn't an option; it was life or death! So, summoning all of my courage, I swam out into the open waters. With what I hoped was a steady tone, I called his bluff.
"Is your decision based on the fact I have bipolar disorder?"
The doctor took a step back and sputtered out his response,
"Uhhh-um, no. No, it wasn't."
Rather than argue, I clenched my teeth, looked him in the eyes and nodded. I'd said my truth, and verbally sparring wasn't going to improve the situation. Instead, years of therapy— much of it completed in that same hospital—had taught me my next step: involve a mediator. So, after he left, I called the hospital switchboard from my bed and requested a social worker. The social worker floated in every bit like the angels-on-earth we expect them to be—which is probably how sharks feel about marine biologists—and things got a lot better for everyone involved right away.
Now, I'll never know the doctor's exact reason for declining to issue more pain medication in that moment. But, in the end, he did the right thing. He sent me for an x-ray. The x-ray provided empirical evidence for my pain; it indicated that I had three massive gas bubbles joined together down the left side of my body. I've since downloaded the x-ray, and while I can't share it, it is best described as if I'd swallowed a deranged, plastic snowman whole. Once there was a tangible explanation, the pain medication was reinstated, and my three-night stay was extended to five.
There will always be unanswered questions that prowl my subconscious like apex predators:
Will I face early menopause? Will I look and feel old before my time?
Will I be able to conceive, considering the other ovary is polycystic?
Will I ever feel comfortable looking at the scar in the mirror? Or will I be forever haunted by what it symbolizes: the possibility that the other ovary might also develop a tumour, and they'll have to cut me open again and take that one as well?
Or worse. If a new tumour does develop, will the next one be cancerous?
But what I do know, is that despite what I had felt about sharks before the surgery, the misunderstood predators metaphorically ended up saving my life. When my "SHARK WEEK" became irregular, it drew attention to the tumour.
More than that, I realized how, as a bipolar woman, sharks and I have more in common than a shared terminology. Like the Great Whites, people living with bipolar are a vital part of our ecosystem, and it's better to understand their motivations and actions instead of assuming the worst.
Besides the scar and the lingering unanswered questions, like a remora, the souvenir from this journey I will carry with me the rest of my life is how on that day—"a red day"—I dared to own my identity.
Come swim with me, and I promise that if you treat me with respect, I won't bite.
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Cover photo by adiprayogo liemena from Pexels
To all readers out there: this entry is submitted into the Deep Dive Challenge.
According to Vocal: To celebrate Shark Week, Untamed Photographer is offering 20% off select prints featuring these mysterious, misunderstood predators. Use code SHARK20 at checkout on Filipe DeAndrade's " Apex in Motion " or Brian Moghari's " Misunderstood Predators ." Profits from print sales are given to environmental causes.