On the 19 June 2015 just before 7, I climbed out of my relatively-comfortable double bed in a cheap hotel in central London, needing to pee. I forgot that urge, however, when I stood up, and blood poured down the inside of my thighs. I stumbled into the tiny ensuite and pulled down my knickers, which were stained all through. Blood had spilled down to my ankles now, and I ran back into the bedroom and frantically called my husband. The call went straight to voicemail, and so then I ran, in an old nightshirt that barely covered my bum, out into the hotel lobby, because I couldn’t remember the address of the hotel and needed the receptionist to tell me while I called 999.
I was thirty weeks pregnant. When the ambulance arrived mere minutes later, one of the paramedics asked me if I’d felt the baby kick this morning. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. So much of the kicking had become background noise that unless it was particularly fierce I might not really register it, especially when half-asleep. She wasn’t kicking right now. Was that bad? I told the paramedic, as my husband and I had told nobody else, what we were going to call the baby. She was going to be Grace.
And she was, and is, because my particular story has a happy ending, thank God. But it got me thinking about how we tell our stories, how stories become history (and history becomes stories), and how for me things always seem to end up coming back to blood.
Two years later, plus a couple of weeks, I walked myself into A&E. This time in Birmingham, at the hospital in whose lovely midwife-led unit my daughter had been born. I presented a rather garbled account, on the edge of tears of why I wasn’t feeling right, and why I was probably being silly, but…
A few minutes later I was taken to the Major Casualties side of the ward, where many hours and tests later I was found to have three small blood clots in my lung. It was probably caused by the contraceptive pill I had been taking in large part to control my painful and heavy periods.
I sent an apologetic email to my then department, saying I thought it was unlikely I would be able to complete my Finals marking because of said specks floating in the dark. Later I was CCed into a thread where I saw people complaining about the inconvenience of reassigning my work. I don’t think they expected me to see it. I was asked, though, if I would still be able to make the exams board a week later, because it would cause problems to have an examiner missing. For some reason I said yes. Partly because that’s what junior academics are programmed to do, say yes, but also I think because I wanted things to be normal. Which is why the next week I went to a conference as planned, spitting blood into the sink as I brushed my teeth, my body adjusting to a new regime of blood thinners. This is normal. In academia, as in so many other industries, we hide the bloody mess of our bodies or minds in our private spaces and carry on doing what we are meant to do to be successful.
A few months later, I was admitted to hospital for an elective procedure that burned out the lining of my womb. No longer able to take the contraceptive pill after my pulmonary embolism, my always-awful periods had become bloody nightmares: of lying on a towel in bed at night in case of leakages, of almost crying on a bus in humiliated fury as I felt blood seep through my trousers.
My endometrial ablation went well, and the blog post I wrote about it has been one of my most popular, generating comments from strangers who would otherwise be unlikely to read my blog: anxious women looking for resources about this common but strangely little-discussed operation, hoping for their own kind of miracle.
There’s a narrative of blood here, all connected to my reproductive history: one that began when I was eleven and found a smear of blood in my underwear after PE, and that seems to end in 2017, with the successful conquest of my uterus. But perhaps it’s a story that began before me, with my mother and her own history of reproductive pain. And perhaps it doesn’t end in 2017, either, but still unfolds now: when I think about all the days I have lost to pain and blood, to wondering what I might have done without all those blank places: months after major health incidents, but also a couple of days every month, sometimes more, every month for decades. Despite my interest in reproductive justice and feminist history, it is only recently that I asked on my own behalf: how might my life and my work have looked different if this pain had been better acknowledged, understood, and accommodated?
In my last job interview – which I got – I was blunt. I haven’t published as much out of my Leverhulme fellowship as I wanted yet, because I had a lot of time off work after a pulmonary embolism. I was sure I’d catch up.
I think I have spent a good deal of my life trying to catch up with myself, or rather the idea I have of who I should be. Each time I have wondered if I am close to death I have had a time after of clarity about my future, of accepting myself: but such revelations tend, as normality returns, to fade. Perhaps if I hadn’t striven so hard each time for that normalcy to come back I would have kept a stronger sense of that other path in my head and under my tongue.
In these fragments I have followed a particular vein of enquiry to come to the beating heart of what it means for me to be a historian. Because this is a writing of a history; memoir is self-history by another name. Both names have problems: memoir suggests that which is based on recollection, which can become smudged and blurred out of all measure. I can remember the carpet beneath my feet, the faded blue nightshirt I wore as I watched my own blood stain my legs, worried it meant my baby was dead. I can’t remember the names of any of the people who helped me that day. A history might have access to those records: details of doctors and midwives on duty, a hotel employee register; but nowhere would be recorded how I wept as I heard Grace’s heartbeat through a doppler in A&E.
Until, of course, I wrote it down just now.
Thank you for writing these things.
Though a minor point in your story, there is another issue signalled here (which a client also signalled as part of her story recently) about how academics don’t treat themselves as professionals and employees who are entitled to sick leave and the normal processes of reallocation of work and graduated return to work. Institutions also do not budget for those things, but it is interesting that academics don’t push for them either. The muddle through as if that would be an unreasonable request. Early career academics may face steeper consequences for this but it affects everyone. A pulmonary embolism could as easily affect a senior colleague, after all.
There’s definitely a culture of overwork in academia (and many white collar industries generally). I think the pressures on mid-career and senior colleagues are also very heavy, though perhaps exerted through slightly different mechanisms.
This is wonderful writing about topics that were never mentioned in the past: we tried to pretend we didn’t have families, or — for that matter — bodies, certainly not bodies that bled or felt pain or fatigue or stress . Thank you!
Thank you, Clarissa! Yes, and it’s so hard to shake off the mindset that we have to somehow “overcome” our bodily weaknesses. I hope we can build an academy that truly accommodates them, though there is still a long way to go! But I think these experiences have made me a better academic, in terms of the things I think about and the work I do. Probably not in terms of career progression!
I’m so glad you’re working on it!
Of course, one of the reasons why so many of us (women scholars) found Margery Kempe so appealing is that she too wrote about these matters . .
Thanks for your blunt and painful tale. I too, suffered with excruciating heavy hemorrhage type periods for over 25 years. They happened every 10 days an lasted 15 with only a few days of light flow. I sometimes spent nights in the bathtub just to bleed out. Doctor after doctor only said get a hysterectomy or lose weight. But the problem only made me gain weight as well and then it put me at risk if I were to go on any type of birth control which might ease some of the bleeding. Years of suffering and many vacations ruined because I had to stay in the room or bathroom. I was newly married and that wrecked any kind of ‘fun’. No one could pinpoint the cause, OB/GYN doctor thought I was crazy, no one could bleed that much of as often. I had 27 years of recording the days on my calendar.
Finally I talked with my diabetes doctor who also was my bariatric specialist and one day later she referred me to a new doctor. She suspected a certain condition that is rare and unique and the new doctor confirmed it.
After a D/C and removal of a pair of uterine polyps and endometriosis which was a day surgery, I went home. I bled for 4 weeks then like turning off a faucet it was over. After checkups and a few years now past I have never had another period or the hemorrhage problem. I was in menopause for 15 years. So to have the bleeding was bad.
What made it all so difficult was the attitude of the doctors even females no compassion or a cure other than the ultimate end hysterectomy.
I cry for your pain and that of probably millions of other women in similar circumstances. We aren’t taken seriously.
I am glad you had a happy end to every outcome and you have your Grace.
We must always be our own advocates in our care. If this type of thing happened to men, you bet there would be better care and answers!
Christine, I’m sorry you suffered so much for so long. I’m glad you finally got the treatment you needed. It’s so frustrating that we have to work so hard to get people to take our pain seriously!