I have the religious zest of a lemon, but still, sometimes I pray. One of the few times I prayed in a church was in Buhl, Idaho, a small farm town with more people planted in its cemetery than roaming its streets. The church was white clapboard, a picturesque Little House on the Prairie-type building surrounded by snowy fields and straight empty roads built for DUIs. Inside, the church was gussied up for Christmas. Tinsel hung in clumps from the rafters, plastic manger scenes vied for attention on the dais, and behind the reverend, a stained glass Jesus preached to his followers with a felt candy cane taped to his hand.
I sat in a front pew between my mother and grandmother while Reverend Neil, a young, chinless man with the muscle mass of a toddler, rhetorically wondered if suicide victims deserve a place in heaven. “Some people have asked me, ‘Does the sin of suicide bar a person from entering heaven?’” the reverend said. “Some would say yes, some would say no—it’s not for me to say for certain. We only know it is not an unpardonable sin, which means God can grant forgiveness and entrance into heaven if He chooses.”
I had only met Reverend Neil the day before, but he’d already earned my hatred. I hadn’t slept in four days, and fantasizing about flushing a fetal pig down his church toilet was one of two things keeping me awake. The other thing was my current prayer, which went like this: When I stand up, please don’t let it look like I’ve pissed myself.
My tampon had been on the brink of failing me for the last hour and I knew that soon I was going to have to stand and usher people down to a basement filled with casseroles and summer sausage party platters. The question was whether my tampon would hold until I could reach a bathroom, or whether it would ride a tide of fluid straight out of my body, staining my dark gray skirt in the process.
Many women can relate to the fear of having a leaky tampon. However, I wasn’t on my period. For several weeks, a clear fluid had been slowly seeping out of my vagina. I was up to wearing two tampons a day, and now it looked like I would have to add a third. So I prayed: Please don’t let it look like I’ve pissed myself at my dad’s funeral, in front of all these people.
Reverend Neil finished up his sermon as an ancient organist launched into what sounded like a solemn rendition of “Jingle Bells,” even though my grandmother and I had requested no Christmas music. My father had hated Christmas music.
I uncrossed my legs and stood with a slow grace I do not normally possess. A rivulet of fluid ran down my leg but the tampon held. I needed a bathroom, so I left my mother to make awkward small talk with her ex-mother-in-law and headed for the door. This is where Reverend Neil intercepted me.
“Cienna, I am a demon here to take a fresh dump upon your exceptionally shitty day,” is what I remember him saying, but it was probably something more benign, like, “Hello.”
“Hello,” I said. Up close, his white robes were stained at the cuffs and his wireless microphone was scotch taped to his ear and neck in three places. This pleased me.
“What did you think of the sermon?” he asked.
“My grandmother loved it, thanks.” I took another mincing step towards the door.
“Did you give some thought to our talk yesterday?” he asked.
Not as much thought as I’d given to flushing a fetal pig down his toilet, imagining his surprise and horror when his toilet plunger suctioned it out. He deserved this, I reasoned, because he’d turned my father’s funeral planning session into a spiritual intervention. “Do you attend church?” he had asked me in his office, as I sat flanked by my grandmother, mother, and uncle. Then, upon hearing my halting response: “What do you believe in if not in God? How do you heal without Him in your life? How do you move forward? I ask because I would hate for you to end up in the same dark place as your father.”
For several weeks, a clear fluid had been slowly seeping out of my vagina. I was up to wearing two tampons a day, and now it looked like I would have to add a third.
My dad was a lifelong alcoholic, a man I saw on occasional weekends whose words and movements were often shadowed by a threat of violence. As a child, sometimes I liked him and often I feared him. As an adult, I watched his life fall apart—five DUIs cost him his career as a chemist, and at age 55, he petitioned his mother’s retirement community for permission to live with her. The retirement board acquiesced, so long as he agreed to mow all their lawns. I dreaded what would happen when my grandmother died and he became my burden. In this way, his suicide offered me freedom. The only emotion more horrible to process than grief when a family member dies is relief.
The last time we spoke, the day before Thanksgiving, he reminded me to wish my mom a happy birthday. When I’m feeling melodramatic, I say he killed himself on her birthday, but that is not accurate—he shot himself in the head the day before, he just didn’t die right away.
When my grandmother called me at work to explain, I couldn’t stop clutching my head, as if my hands were now the only two things in the world holding it together. This feeling persisted for days. I couldn’t drive or open doors or make all the phone calls I needed to make because my hands were busy holding my head, making sure it was still there. We took him off life support on December 5, 2013.
And now this man—a reverend who had only just learned my name—was informing me that I would never heal from the trauma of his suicide without God in my life. I wish I had laughed at him, or at least reminded him that wearing gaudy robes didn’t give his convictions any more weight in this world than my own, but I did neither. My hands were tired from holding my head in place and I was seated next to a grieving old woman, a loving enabler who wished above all things to believe that her son was drinking tequila on a rum-soaked cloud in heaven, and I didn’t want to argue otherwise. So I kept my mouth shut.
“If you need someone to talk to, I am listening and God is listening,” Reverend Neil toldme now. I nodded. Candy cane Jesus appeared to give me a sad side-eye as I minced away to the bathroom.
Once there, I removed my tampon and held it aloft, studying it as one would any specimen of interest. I’d heard plumbers call tampons “little white mice.” They are the bread and butter of the plumbing industry, as their bloated cotton bodies and tail-like strings clog the sewage pipes of people foolish enough to flush them down.
I studied my own little white mouse. It was bright white but heavy and bloated with fluid, and like all the others, there was not a speck of blood on it. I still had regular periods, but this was something new. The fluid had started as a slow drip, an amount so slight that I assumed it was sweat at first. Then its cadence had increased to a slow but steady weeping. As I’d told the doctor at Planned Parenthood weeks ago, my vagina was now like one of those miraculous Virgin Mary statues, cursed to bless everything I sat on. She seemed skeptical of my symptoms and sent me home with yeast infection medication.
Now I lightly sniffed the tampon, because that is what you do when you’re in private and confronted with the grotesque and mysterious workings of your own body. It smelled innocent, like warm cotton. Then I turned and flushed it down the church toilet.
On the day of my dad’s funeral, I upgraded to three regular tampons a day, or two supers. I was up to three supers a day when I quit my job as a journalist, and was flirting with four when my boyfriend of seven years, an Amazon temp who grew pot in his closet, dabbled in Magic: The Gathering, and had the personality of Garfield the cat, announced that he was dumping me. “I’ve realized that I want to get married and have kids someday and I can’t see myself doing that with you,” he explained. I cried a little, from my eyes this time. But what is there to say when a smug, overweight tabby states that he can’t imagine having kittens with you?
“I can’t really imagine that, either,” I said. And that was that. In the space of three months, I had lost three defining facets of my identity: I was no longer a journalist, no longer a girlfriend, no longer a daughter to a father. Through it all, my body wept its clear, unscented fluid. Once or twice I tried googling my symptoms—“clear vagina fluid what is it?” and “crying from my vagina, why?”—but the search results were ominous, I was fresh out of insurance, and making another doctor’s appointment meant acknowledging a problem I didn’t have the strength or energy to tackle.
In my experience, grief is not an explosion, it is an undertow. It drags you down so slowly and steadily that it is imperceptible to those around you, who may just compliment you on how much weight you’ve lost. When you are grieving, you are not yourself. Being happy is hard. Planning for the future is ludicrous. Optimism feels like a season blooming on the other side of the planet.
So instead of going to the doctor, I went to Costco and bought boxes of heavy-duty tampons—the kind that new mothers wear—and I hummed my way through winter, spring, and summer, stubbornly ignoring my body as the weeping became as strong and regular as a heartbeat.
Please let this end, or at least let something nice leak out of my body, like golden eggs. Please let me meet and marry a tampon baron. Please let me not ruin Jess’ new couch with my mystery juice.
I adapted to living my life by an hourglass instead of a clock and planned my days around bathrooms. My new reality meant long movies were a stretch, hikes were tricky, and backpacking trips were out of the question. I didn’t talk to my friends or family about my condition because women’s reproductive health is often an uncomfortable topic even for those who actively fight for it. Also, I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t need to hear people telling me that my symptoms sounded serious, that it might be cancer, that I should go see a doctor. I didn’t need more bad news. I really needed a fucking win.
So instead, I prayed. I prayed because I don’t think prayer is predicated on a belief in God. The act of prayer is one of supplication, of humbling yourself before some mysterious and unknowable force that is resistant to bribes and charm. In my case, that mysterious and unknowable thing was my body. Every day I prayed for its cooperation. Please let this end, or at least let something nice leak out of my body, like golden eggs. Please let me meet and marry a tampon baron. Please let me not ruin Jess’ new couch with my mystery juice.
My fluid output tapered off around seven regular or four super-absorbent tampons a day. Around this time, I quit Seattle and moved to my hometown of Boise, Idaho, where I could afford to buy a house without selling any organs. I got a new job with good insurance, and I forced myself to smile until it felt natural again. In my new city, I made new friends who were fun and funny and generously overlooked my quiet obsession with bathrooms.
As life normalized, I was able to contemplate the future for the first time in over a year. In the future, I knew I wanted to watch movies, go on backpacking trips, and sit carefree on couches. I also knew that, eventually, I wanted to have sex again and it wouldn’t be fun to tell an attractive stranger, “Before we begin, you should know that I am clinically wet. Don’t worry about your sheets, I brought my own ShamWow(™) and a waterproof placemat.”
I scheduled my second trip to the doctor nearly 15 months after my dad’s death and 16 months after my symptoms first began. It was a quick visit. My new doctor was a woman named Kathleen with a vagina tattooed on one arm and on the other, Tinkerbell with what looked like the word “cunt” written in flowery cursive underneath. I liked her until she dipped her head between my stirruped legs, unplugged my white mouse and said after a pause, “Well, that’s not normal—we’re going to schedule you an ultrasound and you’re going to need surgery. But first, do you want to see what’s going on?”
Before I could answer, she handed me a small mirror and guided my hand down for my first and only view of the small cluster of benign fibroid tumors growing out of my uterus. No, I didn’t particularly want to see what was going on down there, but I was finally ready to face it.
By Cienna Madrid
Illustration by Heather Benjamin
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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