How my OB became my therapist

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On romance, regret, and reproductive health: one woman sets off on a journey of stress-related self-discovery. Illustration by FRANCES ERIDIO

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I’m not saying I’m trying to get pregnant, but my myoma could really screw up my chances.

Common in 30% of women in their 30s or older, this tumor, which occurs in the womb, just happens for reasons unknown. Myomas aren’t cancerous, but they can block, restrict and complicate a pregnancy, and in my case, make a period last for 30 days. Every woman’s flow is different, and mine has the tendency to make me anemic. In fact when Charmee made these menstrual boy-shorts, I felt seen.

On the advice of my gynecologist, I’m on one of those holistic treatment plans to regulate my hormones and manage my myoma so it doesn’t get any bigger. Eat by 6 p.m., sleep by 9 p.m. Feed organically. Cut down on red meat. Eat a rainbow of nutrients, because all you eat is beige and brown, she said. As a result, I have become the girl who does her groceries at Healthy Options, peeling and snacking on fruit all the time, and tasting my way around farmers’ markets with only one word coming out of my mouth: Organic? Organic? Once, I came home with muscovado sugar and our helper, who is from Bacolod, glared at the Certified Organic label and told me: alam mo, An, lahat ng muscovado, organic.

This was a decidedly lifestyle-y route compared to the one I backed away from when I consulted my first gynecologist, the one with a lab coat on and an iPad set to a drawing of a uterus. With her finger, she drew a flattened disc on it like it was MS Paint, to show me where my myoma could be, and how that could cause more bleeding than normal. She then shaded over the outlines, rubbing her pointer finger on the screen while telling me that Trust pills were inexpensive and could reduce the estrogen hormone responsible for thickening my uterine walls, and therefore the bleeding.

I asked if the condition was hereditary, because I remember my mom having very strong periods, too. After my first communion, we rode home in her sister, my godmother’s car which had white seat covers, and I was ashamed for her when she stood up and they had a red stain the size of a continent on a map. The gynecologist replied, No, it isn't. But the tendency to form abnormal growths in or on a uterus can run in the family.

Maybe it was that matter-of-fact tone, or the speed with which she prescribed me contraceptives. But after I bought them from Mercury Drug, I felt worry wash over me. I remembered horror stories from the girls at the magazine where I used to work, who said that once they got off the pill, they felt like they were going crazy.

I stuffed the Trust pills in my dresser drawer.

Eventually I found my current gynecologist, Miss Hypewoman-for-organics. At my first consultation she had on these nice garden shoes. A geode on her desk. Framed certificates in Ayurveda and functional medicine. A black-and-white picture of a baby smiling cheek to chubby cheek stuck to the ceiling. I focused on its dimples when she had my legs splayed out in the stirrups to examine me.

“The body has layers,” she said. And even if she couldn’t treat everything right away, she wrote me a prescription for four kinds of liver and cell cleaners, and pro- and prebiotics that made my face glow like a fish when I took them. She said, things will come up when they are ready to heal. That comforted me.

When I got home, she had emailed me a PDF, a daily log to fill in with everything I ate, the times I slept and woke up, and things I never thought to ask myself:

I kept at it every day for as long as I could help it. There were just so many different fields. I ended up copying them into a Google Sheet that I shared with her. Under Stressors, I typed: Uncertainty about treatment plan for myoma. Four days later: Sorting out thoughts of my ex. It was eight years ago, I met him after a party, and while getting us rum cokes, he saved my hair from getting burned by a tealight candle...

“Where is Anna?” My gynecologist, in the present time, interrupted me. “In all your stories, I keep wondering where you are.”

Though I had a tendency to drift off into my thoughts, the tedium of the log, the ritual of the markets, the peeling of the fruit, snapped me back. They soothed in how banal they were, like calorie counting. Which I also used to do in my post-breakup late twenties to get back my ideal weight in my early twenties. The window of being a viable woman felt so small.

If my life were a sandwich, say, a sweet, juicy hamburger (that I can’t even really eat anymore), the meat layer would probably be my mid-twenties, when I was in New York for my postgraduate studies in journalism.

Dead set on being a writer since girlhood, I had started my career at a fashion magazine in Manila, but after what felt like a whole season of benders, I caught myself unable to put a caption together and decided to take some time off from work. And so, I applied for my Master’s abroad. At around the same time I met my ex and we both fell for each other so totally we rushed into an engagement. He proposed in Boracay shortly before I left, I didn’t even get to tell my parents. And once I flew off to New York, he, a musician, followed. He took me to all the small music venues, read everything I wrote for class and kept telling me I was good. I felt like a girl in a Woody Allen film (this was 2013), but also an Aerosmith video, and an Antoinette Jadaone screenplay? The roles were plenty and I claimed them all.

When my program finished, I went home to Manila to be with him, and for work, I edited the website of the fashion magazine I had left. A clicky enterprise in the service of female optimization, it ran lists like “Top Celebrity Selfies of the Week” and “10 Fabulous Flat Chests.” Which frankly weren’t me.

Nine months in, I escaped by accepting a job offer with zero writing involved in the corporate world. In my mind: If I’m not going to be the type of writer I want to be, at least I can make a decent amount of money while I figure it out. And anyway I need to help pay for a wedding, then housing, then eventually a child... For this reverie (or was it a delusion?), I’d like to thank:

Because of their pictures of success, I had this vision of being married off pretty early so I could get on with the rest of my life, even if my own reality at age 25 did not compute.

The truth was, my family and my lover didn’t get along. I felt caught in the middle of every plan even if it was just dinner out. And so, I scheduled separate blocks of time for each after work, which was becoming even more demanding. I didn’t know it then, but I always picked my family first, thinking I might save quality time for my relationship for the end of the day. But my body had its limits. Towards the end, I was like this infant, forever falling asleep in the holding room at Route 196 waiting for his band to go on, or on car rides home after our dates, which became rarer. One night we had a fight about it and I could barely keep my eyelids open to argue.

I gave back the ring. I thought, one day when I have everything sorted out, it will find its way back to me. But it didn’t.

I knew we weren’t getting back together because weeks after we broke up, he asked me to tell him when I started seeing someone else, and I agreed. But when he did start to see someone else, way before I found someone else, he didn’t mention it to me.

When I saw the first pictures of them together on his Instagram, I just kept working on my laptop in my gray office cubicle. One week, I contracted a mysterious chill all over my body. But I wasn’t breaking into a fever.

I recalled this episode and some of the backstory to my gynecologist at our first meeting. She took out a thermometer and concurred that my base temperature was cold.

She said, “You have a tendency to underreact.” Which made me burst into tears. She got out a tissue box and said it was OK to cry. “But I’m not a psychologist.”

How are you today? She asked at our next checkup.

It’s not that I’m not over the breakup, I sobbed.

No, I don’t think so, she said.

Still, I kept at the log. I kept at the organics. I even took hot soup at night or cooked vegetables instead of a salad to keep my systems inside from being cold. By this time, I was sticking a thermometer under my tongue every single morning — 35.8. 36.4. 36.9, always hovering below 37. Also I cried a lot, as if the tissue box passed to me in the clinic was permission to release everything I held inside. I cried on planes. I cried in the sun. I cried on top of a mountain when I saw an old man playing a guitar. But worst of all, I cried in the bathroom when people started pouring into the bar I was in at Poblacion — Limbo — wearing suits and cocktail dresses and a friend had to break it to me, tonight’s his wedding.

You can't treat everything at once, my gynecologist had said. Things come up to the surface when they're ready to heal.

And now, a year out from when I first visited her, I’ve gotten my bleeding down to a less alarming timeframe. I’ve noticed how the days where I feel better are the days when I work on myself⁠ — either through exercising, rinsing salad leaves individually (munching fresh greens are my own small rebellion), or reaching out to my writer-friends. Luxuriating in what they write, especially when my own first attempts felt like clutter that I just end up journaling my dreams in a notebook:

I dreamed I ran away, packed my stuff in my bag. Including a mass of spaghetti:

With red sauce
It hung in one piece in my hand
When I went to pick it up

Underneath that I drew the spaghetti in concentric loops of red ink, a hallucinogenic oyster shape that resembled yonic architecture. But my sister, an actual architect, declared, “It looks like your myoma.”

Only in the getting back of it now in glimmers do I realize that I lost my connection to my creative life by submitting to outside forces: money, practicality, a union with another person when I was still forming. I didn’t take care of the person inside me, but now I’m trying to. Like my gynecologist concluded in one of our sessions: “Congratulations! You’re pregnant — with yourself.”