Monday, 22 December 2014

I saw it through

Trigger warning : includes references to abuse - please take care of yourself

I've never heard a woman describe having a cervical smear test as a pleasant experience, but when your history includes sexual assault it's difficult to explain how genuinely traumatising it can be.  But, on Friday, I achieved a victory over my own history - it was something that might seem insignificant to most people, but I'm trying to celebrate the ups these days, so here goes.

I hadn't managed to keep any food down since Wednesday evening, I was running on fumes for sleep and I was snapping at everyone for everything.  My body and mind felt brittle, stiff, so tense that every sound seemed amplified a thousand times, and as I sat in the waiting room I could feel myself shaking.

When my name was called I exchanged a tight smile of acknowledgement with the doctor as I slowly stood and walked towards her, briefly wondering if it was too late to run screaming from the building before dismissing this as being likely to be noticed.

I am tagged as 'complex', something that means I'm seen at the sexual health clinic in the city centre as opposed to the treatment room at my gp surgery.  My reasoning is that staff who deal exclusively with sexual health are likely to be able to carry out the procedures more quickly than those who during the course of an ordinary day also carry out immunisations, change dressings and take blood.  The appointments for the complex clinic are longer, and the staff are aware that the women coming in might be struggling with all kinds of issues.

'So,' the doctor commented, 'Am I right in thinking you need a smear test today as well as a coil change?'  There was no stern look as I hesitantly explained the smear was two and a half years overdue, and the coil had reached it's expiry date six months ago - no tutting, no judgement, no fuss.  She nodded as I told her, in fits and starts, that this was something I dreaded intensely, and could not face submitting to as often as I knew that I should.  Hence the delayed smear test - although I'm recalled every three years, my coil lasts for five, and it had taken another six months to bring myself to arrange the appointment, and even then only because there were indicators the coil was becoming less effective.  Her calm and confident manner as she explained the order she would be carrying out the necessary tasks was reassuring to a point, but I could still feel anxiety churning up my insides.

'If you could just undress from the waist down and take a seat here, lay this paper over your lap and Helen [the newly introduced assistant who was tasked with supporting me] will show you how to position your legs'


Cold air on my clammy legs, the indignity of being partially clothed in the company of others, worrying about hairy legs and whether I smelled - it was all eclipsed in my mind as I struggled to get enough breath... images flashing before my eyes of times I'd had no control over what was happening to my body, I heard whispered threats, and heavy panting right next to my ear, faster and faster, and I clenched my eyes so tightly closed that I saw colours exploding...

I heard the doctor saying my name, asking me if I wanted them to talk to me for distraction, reminding me that I was in control and if I wanted them to stop then they would do so straight away.  'I'm okay' I whispered - of course I was far from it but the quicker this was done then the quicker I could get out of here.  'I'm fine'.  I tried to breathe slowly as I felt the speculum, as my insides were jacked open like a car in need of a new tyre.

'Lucas, the smear is done, you're doing really well...just try to relax, let your bottom sink into the couch, it's just going to take a minute...'

A twinge of pain, as if someone had flicked an elastic band against my insides...  I kept my eyes tight shut, and realised I was clutching Helen's gloved hand.  I was intensely aware that I was overreacting, but could do nothing about it, still focusing on breathing in and out.

'Okay - that's the old coil out Lucas - do you need me to stop?  You're doing great but we can leave it for now if you want, what do you think?'

My thoughts were whirling round - stop it stop it stop it stop it - but I knew I needed to see this through.  It was nothing to do with the pain (I've had three babies after all), or selfconsciousness of my body, but just the entirety of the situation - there was very little that could be done to make this easier for me.  It was about the struggle to get to this point, on this day, in this room, under this paper sheet - the struggle to relinquish control of my body to someone else.  'I'm okay, please finish' I managed to force out from between gritted teeth - I knew if I freaked out now it would be years before I was able to work myself back to here.

Another twinge and then 'okay Lucas, we're done...  I'm taking the speculum out now, we're finished.  Take a few deep breaths - you did it.  The smear is done, the old coil is out, and the new one is in.  You did so well Lucas - just relax a minute before you hop up, don't want you passing out.  I'm drawing the curtain round, to give you some privacy.  Sit up slowly once you feel okay, pop your trousers on and then there's just a couple of things to tell you and you can get out of here.'

Once I was sat back down, dressed but still shaking, I almost dissolved into hysterical giggling when the doctor commented that I looked pale - of course I did! - and asked if I needed to lie down for a while.  But I just wanted to be done and get home.  'You're not covered for seven days' she reminded me, and though I knew it was going to take longer than that to unwind from this I nodded and thanked her.  I was scared and dizzy and tearful and trembling, but I had seen it through and that was partly because of her.  She'd been professional, but thoughtful; empathetic, but not condescending; confident, but not pushy.  Because I had faith that if I needed it to stop then it would, I had been able to continue.

Mr Manley was waiting outside, having been barred from the women only complex clinic, and hugged me tight against him as he asked if I was okay.  I spent the afternoon on the sofa, wrapped in several blankets, with a steady supply of cups of tea and biscuits.  I have a follow up appointment in a few weeks which, to be completely honest, I will probably cancel as it will include an internal exam, and I just don't think I'll be able to do it.  Then, in five years I'll make another appointment, and go through it all again.

There's a voice in my head pointing out that the smear was way way way overdue; that the doctor and Helen are most likely laughing together over the state I was in (both emotional and physical - I mentioned the tears and the hairy legs, right?); that for most women, ordinary women, this is no big deal; that I should be over this by now.  But there's another voice in there too - a quiet voice...not quite a whisper, but without the confident tone implying years of practice.  A voice that tells me none of that matters.  A voice that suggests I concentrate on the fact that I saw it through, even though it was a struggle.  A voice that reminds me to look forward, instead of back.


  1. Hello, I just stopped by from twitter, and was reading back, what a big post to stumble upon....but thank you so much for your bravery and honesty in writing this sort of thing. I would feel sure the doctor and Helen wouldn't be laughing at you - you won't have been the first to be in a state, and you have "better reasons" than many (also, I suspect most of us have hairier legs than we'd like, and they must be good at overlooking them, I hope so anyway!)
    Thank you again, and I hope you don't mind a stranger sticking her head in!

    1. Of course I don't mind at all Helen - I think it's a little like your post on loss back in Sept 13 (very moving by the way, will comment in a minute) - when you're looking for info in the middle of the night for something that is occupying your mind it helps to know yours is not the only brain that has latched onto these thoughts at some point. I got my 'normal' result back yesterday, but still cringe a little at what the staff must have thought of me, so reading your comment has helped me feel a little better,

  2. I'm 38 and have never had a smear test. You are braver than me, and now you have made me consider the possibility that I could be as brave.

  3. Well done, I can only imagine how hard that must have been for you x


If reading this has made you smile, or left you feeling sad; if you're fuming in anger, or shaking your head in disgust; if you'd like to share something, or just want to say hi, please do so here. Thank you.