Review: An Eclectic Mix for the End of Summer

As my summer winds down and the last few weeks of personal freedom come to a close before the start of another school year, the familiar frenzied urge stirs again within my soul. It is time: I must read as many books as possible before my precious reading-for-pleasure hours dwindle to scraps of minutes here and there, between ball games and during plan periods and after the soft snores of my husband have begun.

Without further ado, I offer you fairly brief reviews of the eclectic combination that comprised my reading list for the beginning of August:

  1. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. Genre: history, true crime. img_4096 This nonfiction work, originally published in 2002, vividly paints a picture of 1890s-era Chicago and its strife to pull off one of the greatest one-uppers in history: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair. Following the debut of the Eiffel Tower, American architects felt a need to deliver something far more grand than the structure they felt was really quite hideous. In fewer than three years, several of the nation’s greatest architects, engineers, and creative minds collaborated to design the White City, a paradise so beautiful and magnificent it’s almost a mirage next to the crime-laden, filthy “Black City” of Chicago. While Larson spins a tale of the pop-up city and America’s obsession with proving itself capable of refined tastes and flourishes of beauty, he weaves in another captivating narrative thread: the development of Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes — America’s first serial killer. The story alternates between the many misfortunes and setbacks faced by the fair’s developers, and the inexplicably successful life of a most charming murderer. While many were frustrated that the bulk of the novel is dedicated to the building of the fair (and as such, that the title of the book is misleading), I would argue that Larson’s alternating storylines painted a vivid picture of the time period, place, and people, vital to readers’ understanding of how an individual like Holmes could get away with heinous crimes for so long. Holmes’ horrific crimes are mostly alluded to throughout the book, which is perfectly fine with me; I did not seek a macabre retelling of every evisceration or slaughter. The author provides a wealth of detail in describing the construction of Holmes’ castle, in which a gas chamber, crematorium, and body-chute all play prevalent roles. Readers are rewarded with a thrilling finish that is both mesmerizing and deeply chilling. I loved this book for its rich historical details and easy readability. 4/5 stars
  2. The High Divide, by Lin Enger. Genre: western, historical fiction. img_4095 This 2014 publication, set in the great Northern Plains of 1886, follows the melancholy tale of a family struggling for clarity after husband and father Ulysses Pope takes off without saying a word of farewell, and offering little explanation. True to small-town Midwest living, the Pope family’s Minnesota neighbors begin to gossip, certain the man has left for another woman. Meanwhile, the family struggles to survive in their dire financial straits. Ulysses’ teenage sons, Eli and Danny, take off after their father after intercepting a mysterious letter from an unknown woman in Bismarck, North Dakota. Faced with the threat of losing both her husband and her sons, Gretta Pope embarks on her own wild goose chase across the country, determined to salvage at least part of her family. Along the way, Gretta and her boys discover truths about their father they could never have dreamed — and all begin to ask themselves if their family is really what it seemed. This western is rich in its themes of the resilience of family ties, the expansive western frontier, and the great injustices committed by the U.S. government and its citizens due to a misled sense of “patriotic” duty. Overall, I enjoyed this story of a man’s struggle for redemption, but found the first half dragged on a bit and the ending was a bit too convenient and contrived for my taste. 3.5/5 stars
  3. Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah. Genre: fiction. Published in 2010 by Kristin Hannah (author of The Nightingale), Winter Garden tells the story of two sisters and their mother, each quite estranged from the others. img_4097Raised in an awkward home by a loving father who couldn’t quite make up for the distant frigidity of their Russian mother, Meredith and Nina are two distinctly different adults. Meredith is the image of a perfect wife and mother: she’s devoted the last twenty years of her life to raising her two daughters, who are well on their way to becoming successful women in their own rights. For all the love she didn’t receive from her own mother, Meredith bestows her own affection twofold upon her daughters — unfortunately, the same can’t be said for her treatment of her husband. Nina, on the other hand, lives a wild, unpredictable life as a world-famous photographer, known for her work in war-torn third-world countries. The three Whitson women are forced together again after the death of the family’s patriarch, and after a lifetime of ignoring one another, sparks are bound to fly. The novel reveals a lesser-known tear in the fabric of our world’s history in an engaging story you’ll want to stay up late to read. I was captivated (again) by Hannah’s fantastic storytelling abilities in this exploration of family relationships — especially, what it means to be a good wife and/or mother, while retaining personal identity. 4/5 stars

Now . . . I’m off to squeeze in a couple more reads before in-services begin Wednesday. Read on, friends.

Endometriosis: The “Solution,” Part 2

Tuesday, I began a rather lengthy dialogue about a relatively new and painful development in my life: endometriosis. If you haven’t read the post, I’d suggest starting here before continuing to read this post. (Which is also sort of lengthy, but it’s information every man and woman should read and share with their daughters, wives, girlfriends, sisters, and friends — because knowledge is power.) 

Note: This post doesn’t quite pick up exactly where I left off; I did some backtracking that tells what I feel is an important part of my story.

***

My encounters with doctors throughout the diagnosis process were complicated by that first doctor — the woman who should have been my advocate. Despite enduring excruciating pain on a regular basis, I didn’t want to go to doctors anymore; not a single one. For almost two years after that first visit about my pain, I refused to be seen by another physician. I preferred to suffer quietly each month, rather than risk being told by another doctor that my ailment was due to being “excessively overweight.”

The night before Zack and I went to meet my next doctor, I stared at the ceiling for hours, my eyes full of the deep blackness that was somehow both our bedroom and the sinking pit of my stomach. I just knew that this would be another dead end — another bout of disbelief, expensive tests, and dismissive shrugs. When we pulled up to the clinic, I couldn’t move. My body went rigid in the front seat of the Jeep, my palms trembled, and my tongue grew heavy and sour in my mouth.

I couldn’t handle another doctor telling me I was fat.

Zack had to pry me from the seat, alternating between frustrated exclamations and tender reassurances. You’re not fat, Nay, and if the doctors say that’s why you’re in pain — fuck ’em. We’ll go somewhere else until someone figures out what’s wrong with you.

Our new doctor had a nervous, twitchy sort of personality: a bit like a ferret in a lab coat, if you will. But he was kind — so very kindhearted — and dismissed my greatest fears right off the bat. You look exceptionally healthy, honestly, and even if you were overweight, that would have nothing to do with the pain you’re experiencing. I trembled with relief.

Since the female body is remarkably complicated, he recommended ruling out a number of other potential problems before looking at endometriosis. Over several months, I failed many ovulation tests, passed a test for polycystic-ovarian syndrome, and otherwise checked out as “normal”. Along the way, he frequently reminded me that if I ever became frustrated, or wanted a second opinion — he would gladly refer me to a specialist in Wichita. He was so incredibly sensitive to my pain (both physical and psychological), I could (mostly) overlook the fact that every visit to his office meant sitting in a waiting room chock-full of women whose bellies ballooned out, well beyond their head-to-feet line of sight. I never completely ignored the fact, though, that my stomach was much, much flatter than every other woman’s in the room. Under normal circumstances, I might have been glad about that; but as we studied my body up close, I began to feel increasingly insecure about the vacancy of my clearly flawed womb.

Then, on my fourth visit, I told the doctor the pain was no longer worth it — kids were something we’d often talked about raising, but if I had to continue with this hellish nightmare every month, Zack could count me out. I wanted my lady organs removed. Like, yesterday. This assertion changed everything: this is when the conversation about endometriosis really began.

Since the Olympic Trials of My Internal Organs had given up very little information and the look in my eyes had begun to resemble that of a crazed individual, he determined there was a “good chance” I had endometriosis. He described the disease as such:

“You know when you scrape your arm on cement, or skin your knee on a road, and a little scab forms? And you pick at it, all the time, never letting it heal? That’s what endometriosis does to your body. Every month, your body produces estrogen. And if you have blood/cysts/lesions formed outside the uterus, or on your fallopian tubes, or attached to your ovaries, or elsewhere — the estrogen aggravates these growths. It picks the scabs. When the estrogen levels decrease, your body heals a bit. But then the levels increase, and the scabs are ripped off again. The cycle never ends.”

What a relief.

You know when someone’s telling a story about something unbelievable, and things just become even more unbelievable, and they say, Here’s the kicker! — That’s what endometriosis is like. After we left the doctor that day, we were given a couple of choices to think about: I could undergo surgery, or I could get pregnant (a temporary fix for endo patients). At first, I was relieved: we already had some (potential) answers, and we were going to get more. But as the week progressed and I conducted hours of research online, I grew furious.

Here’s the kicker:

  • Endometriosis can only be truly diagnosed via laparoscopic surgery. It cannot be found via MRI, x-ray, ultrasound, blood work, etc. Doctors can suspect, but not firmly diagnose without surgery. During this exploratory surgery, doctors search for endometriosis, and, if located, laser or cut out the abnormalities that they can reach and safely remove.
  • Often, endometriosis has to be treated via hormone therapy in addition to the surgery. To put it plainly, a young woman must take pills that will force her body to enter early menopause for 3-6 months at a time, in order to “dry out” the hormones and reduce or eradicate the deviant internal bleeding. As though surgery weren’t enough, these women must also endure medically-induced hot flashes, depression, decreased libido, mood swings, etc.
  • If left untreated, endometriosis can make a woman’s life hell. (For reference: my previous post.) In some women, the disease means frequent constipation/diarrhea, frequent pain when exercising or existing (not exclusive to “that time of the month”), and painful sex — and that’s just not okay, people.
  • It doesn’t go away forever after surgery. The nightmare spreads its wings and stages a comeback; sometimes a few years after surgery, often within months.
  • There is no known cause for the disease, and there is no cure. I repeat: there is no cure. (Note: Hysterectomy is touted as the only “cure,” but I’ve discovered in rare cases, some women even continue to experience symptoms after their hysterectomies.)

I discovered that last little nugget on an online forum for women with endometriosis, and I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. You can probably imagine the sort of phrases that popped out of my mouth over and over again as I read articles, comments, and posts by women who had undergone surgery, only to battle the She-Satan of periods again a year later, or maybe 18 months.

I hadn’t even been truly “diagnosed” yet, and I already felt like I’d received a life sentence.

***

One week ago, I had surgery to diagnose and treat my endometriosis.

We opted to have the procedure after visiting a specialist in Wichita who was just the right combination of squirrelly and professional. He soothed my fears with a few well-timed jokes, and even promised to perform a presacral neurectomy, if I wanted. When I discovered that the neurectomy procedure essentially translated to “a rare but minimally-invasive technique in which the doctor removes nerves that transmit menstrual cramping pain to the brain,” the weight of hundreds of agonizing days rolled forth from my shoulders; light gleamed at the end of a shortening tunnel; an angel choir issued exaltations. All of the cliches occurred.

My follow-up isn’t for another week, so I’m still a bit foggy on some of the details; but the doctor sent photos with brief notes from my surgery that made a few things clear:

  • One of my ovaries had fused itself to my pelvic wall, due to scar tissue formed by endometriosis.
  • One of my fallopian tubes is essentially completely scarred over/closed for business.
  • Overall, the endometriosis was worse than they thought.

And here’s the kicker — there are women out there, living with this disease, who have it far, far worse than I.

***

Experts estimate that at least “176 million women across the world have endometriosis . . . one in ten women during the reproductive years” (Endometriosis.org). Still, somehow, so very few people have any knowledge that such a wicked disease exists — and often, when they discover its existence, dismiss most pain as figments of imagination. For most women, a diagnosis takes 6-10 years to obtain after the pain really digs in, because they are led to believe it’s “normal” by friends, family, media, and medical professionals; and once that pain truly is recognized, there are a gamut of other tests a woman must endure first because surgery is such an expensive and invasive means of diagnosis. Imagine that, for a moment, if you will: It’s 2016, our doctors are medical wizards, and this is the best we can do for women who display endometriosis symptoms right now — diagnostic surgery.

In writing this post, and the one that precedes it, I hope to battle those inaccurate and damaging skeptical beliefs about period pain and endometriosis, if only marginally. I hope that if you’ve stuck with me to the end, you have gleaned a bit of insight that might one day prove useful — though I pray that few others face the disease, one that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.

For now, I reside in a waiting room, of sorts; one of the mind as well as the body. Until my follow-up, I won’t know the stage or depth of damage that has been boiling within me for the past four years. I think I’ll always fear its return, and right now I’m especially terrified to find out if the surgery even worked. But that is what life with endometriosis becomes:

A waiting game.

Endometriosis: My (Private) Hell, Part 1

Foreword: This post may seem a bit “TMI” to some. I wholeheartedly disagree, thank you very much. This prevalent attitude that a woman’s period is something to be hidden and ashamed of and certainly never referred to (other than in jest by middle-school boys and idiotically unsympathetic men) is exactly why women end up in the predicament I faced for several years. The idea that our pain is something to simply be tolerated and never questioned — because, TMI — is exactly why so many women choose to endure pain and suffer in silence; because those conversations, that awareness . . . it’s uncomfortable. I believe we must have these uncomfortable, TMI conversations so that men and women come to a global understanding that there is nothing embarrassing or shameful about a typical bodily function gone horribly awry.

I’ve been afflicted with the woman’s curse since 8th grade, so discomfort is nothing new to me. But three or four years ago, something new began: a quiet, lonely battle for some semblance of normalcy and dignity during my “lady time” each month.

I don’t recall an exact year, or remember the first time She-Satan knocked at my door; instead, I remember experiencing unusually painful cramps that I dismissed as just that — unusual, but a fact of life. It was only after several months of what I believed to be “excessively painful” cramps that I decided to seek the medical opinion of a doctor, primarily due to a curiosity about the sort of inconvenienced annoyance I was battling each month. A friend had mentioned endometriosis in passing during a rare conversation of commiseration, but I’d never heard of the disorder and after a hasty Google search, I still thought I was just being unusually sensitive. I didn’t have most of the symptoms of the disorder, and I really just wanted someone to recognize my pain and give me a prescription that registered a bit stronger than Midol.

My doctor was a woman. Perfect, I thought. She’ll get this. It’s undeniably true that most men just do not comprehend the nature of our monthly beast; and that’s understandable since it’s not something they regularly (or ever) endure. At any rate, I was relieved to have a she-doctor, because I was certain she’d be able to empathize; plus, it made those all-too-awkward intimate checkups slightly less uncomfortable.

She told me I was fat. She looked me in the eye, with her equally-soft belly and age-thickened hips, and told me I needed to lose weight — that was the cause of my increasingly painful periods. Based on my BMI, which was on the higher end of “normal,” this woman — this comrade-in-arms — determined I was fat . . . thus, pain.

I was devastated. It’s no secret that shoddy self esteem has plagued me most of my adolescent and adult life; and in this moment of vulnerability, this woman gave me a shit-tastic piece of medical advice that four other medical professionals have since dismissed with nothing less than a huff of disgust and heartfelt apology for their colleague’s lack of tact and accuracy. Needless to say, I did not return to the physician for the blood work tests she wanted to run; instead, I continued to endure my own personal hell each month. But instead of “just” dealing with physical pain, I was now faced with an emotional barb, too; I began to re-engage in an inner conversation of self-loathing that I’d mostly stifled after high school. If you weren’t such a fatass, your cramps wouldn’t be so bad, I seethed.

Meanwhile, that initial pain which had seemed so bad many months ago evolved into a monster.

Over the course of two more years, my pain every month became stifling — nearly unbearable. In the past year alone, I missed five days of work for severe cramps; luckily, my other “worst days” fell on weekends or vacations. Luckily. Every month, I optimistically hoped for the best, but deep in my gut, expected the worst. I came to dread my cycle — I feared it. For days leading up to my period, I cramped. These were the most normal pangs I would feel for several days. Then came hell.

No position aided — doubled over, rolled in the fetal position, posed on all fours with my rear in the air — there was no physical contortion that would relieve the stabbing, searing pain in my abdomen. Exercise, which so many websites and doctors tout as a “great way to relieve menstrual cramping,” only aggravated the beast. Days before my cycle even began, running just one mile would lead to an hour of cramps that rolled in like furious waves upon the sand before a summer storm. Midol, Aleve, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Pamprin, Motrin — you name it, I’d tried it, all to no avail. I started popping Oxy and Hydrocodone pills that I had leftover from a kidney stone the previous year; even these prescription drugs could not assuage the raging warfare that was taking place within me. At best, they relaxed me enough to drift into a drugged sleep for a few hours, a welcome respite from days of not sleeping due to pain.

I started blacking out. My body would tense so much during that one week every month, trying to stave off the pain, I’d walk around like a zombie for days afterward — I was physically and emotionally drained. I had to change plans with friends so excursions didn’t coincide with my period. I found myself struggling not to vomit all over my students’ desks, because excessive nausea became a thing, too. I rolled through three heating pads in a year, none of which actually helped with my cramps — but I used them anyway. Call it desperation. At night, Zack became frustrated with my whimpers of pain: there was nothing he could do to help me.

In truth, it felt like I was dying. This wasn’t pain that would hit and then subside within a few hours — it was nonstop, days-long, excruciating agony. It could best be described as: rolling, aching, stabbing, searing, twisting, throbbing, shooting. I no longer wondered what it would feel like to be stabbed with a knife — I was certain I knew.

This infuriating pain led to depression. We’d already had a miscarriage, and now I could chalk this up to another list of my body’s shortcomings: my uterus was staging warfare against my body on a monthly basis. I fantasized about performing surgery on myself, certain that manually ripping the organs from my body would result in less pain than that which I experienced on a regular basis. I screamed sometimes, through hot tears — Why are you doing this to me, God?

So we went to another doctor. We endured multiple tests — sonograms, blood work, pap smears, in-home ovulation predictor kits (which are not cheap, in case you’re wondering), more blood work, and so on. Finally, six months after I had come to this new doctor (who I did like, quite a bit), I told him: I want a hysterectomy. I cannot handle this pain anymore. It’s not worth it to me. This is the moment a doctor finally realized, for the first time, that I was not exaggerating my pain. Maybe there was something more to this case than unusually painful cramps.

For months, I’d been told by countless women that it could be something worse, but it was probably just my “new normal.” They had bad pain sometimes, too. Doctors said more of the same. One physician actually told me, “A 10 to you might be a 5 to someone else.” I briefly considered strangling him with my bare hands.

Now, it seemed, I would finally get help. A doctor finally believed me. Hallelujah!

***

This post is getting rather long, so for now — to be continued in a later entry.

Pick of the Summer: The Girls

Since joining the fairly new app for bibliophiles, Litsy, I’ve broadened my reading horizons a bit. I’ve tried a few books I normally wouldn’t have picked up (The Martian, Me Before You, and a few others not reviewed on this blog), and I’ve developed an ever-growing list of quotes, insights, and reviews about books I’ve devoured.

The app is wonderful. Think Instagram-meets Goodreads-meets Twitter. You can add books to “stacks” (to be read, or already read), write 451-character reviews (because Ray Bradbury, of course), and add photos and quotes from those marvelous book things that your friends on Facebook might not appreciate but your pals on Litsy surely will.

Anyway.

I saw numerous posts this summer from this vibrantly colored novel with a trippy cover and a simple but memorable title: The Girls, by newcomer Emma Cline. I was both repelled and drawn to the cover — the colors and Warhol-esque imagery are way outside my book-cover-judgement comfort zone. After seeing numerous posts with (mostly) rave reviews on Litsy and finding the hardcover on sale for $15 at a local bookstore, I decided to dive in.

img_3945

This photo seems super appropriate for a summer pick: jammies, run-tanned legs, and lots of cushy pillows to recline against. *Big teacher sigh*

The Girls kicks off with some beautiful, if not unconventional, prose. Cline writes in short, sometimes choppy sentences, a feature that several reviewers have touted as a turn-off. Normally, I’d agree: I can’t stand choppy prose. In this case, though, I thought her snippet-y sentence fragments worked. The prose was vivid and it felt very in-the-moment, which made my connection to the storyline that much easier.  

In the first several chapters, Cline had so many quotable passages. I salivated over lines like —

“I waited to be told what was good about me. . . . All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you — the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”

and

“I was quiet, trying to imagine how that would feel: to be so known to someone that you had almost become the same person.”

This writing nuggetry continued over the 300-some pages that comprised The Girls, and I really had to hold myself back when it came to posting on Litsy.

The novel has a feminist feel to it, but not an in-your-f***ing-face vibe. It feels like an honest, raw exploration of the evolution of girl. The story follows a fourteen-year-old named Evie, who is living in California in the late 1960s. Her parents are split, supervision is minimal, and everyone is vibin’ — after all, it is 1969. Evie is the epitome of a blossoming teenage girl: filled to the brim with curiosity and a desire to belong to someone, or somewhere; overwhelmingly insecure and in need of approval; naturally curious about her sexuality and place in the world. These characteristics create the perfect storm for young Evie, who quickly finds herself lured into a cult of grungy, oversexed girls and young women, led by the simultaneously enigmatic and charismatic Russell.

Evie is quickly drawn further into the world of the cult members, who seem to live “honestly” and without the burden of societal norms. Her previously-wholesome life takes a turn down a dark, twisty road of drugs, sex, and identity crisis. While the bulk of the novel centers on Evie’s storied past, these parts are flashbacks; readers are exposed to “modern-day” Evie only a few times in the book, and she seems to be a perfectly confused and guilt-ridden product of her chaotic brush with the wild side.

The novel reads like a spin-off of the Manson murders, which take place the same year. Having had little exposure to the Manson cult’s storied past, I conducted some light research as I read and found many parallels between the characters of the book and the infamous figures of Manson’s murder spree. Some criticized Cline for this parallel; but I chose to focus more on the tale as a representation of the complexities that arise on the path to becoming a woman, and as such, was extremely satisfied with the novel. Also, given my limited knowledge of the time period or murders, I thought the parallel was intriguing and made for a quickly-paced read.

The Girls is a page-turner filled with stark nuggets of truth about the struggles of being a young girl in the 1960s (and 70s, and 80s, and 90s, and so on). My chest began to ache as I followed Evie’s tale and recalled my own floundering efforts to discover myself as a teenager; while I couldn’t relate to the chaotic, drug-infused lifestyle Evie experienced, I could connect to her feelings of uncertainty, inadequacy, and desire — to belong, to be loved, to be woman.

Rating: 5/5 stars, highly recommended.