In Memoriam: My Gallbladder

By | May 4, 2010

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Gallbladder, RIP Yesterday I remarked to my husband: I just realized that this month marks the tenth anniversary of my de-galling, that is, the day I had my gallbladder removed.

I mention this experience here frequently. I hesitate to call it traumatic but it was, in a way, insofar as being an experience I went into with a wide-eyed obliviousness to reality and was subsequently shocked by the truth of things after the fact. It definitely left a mark on me, one with farther-reaching effects than the nearly-invisible laparoscopy scars — a few soft dashes I can feel, still, with my fingertips on my abdomen, but which I can no longer see unless I look very, very closely.

It was a surgery I went into with absolutely no idea of what abdominal surgery — even the laparoscopic kind — involved, aside from the tiny camera on its flexible tube. During an unexpected delay, I lay in the pre-surgery ward for two hours, terrified, wearing only a hospital gown, my resolve melting, my future husband trying to keep me engaged, a nurse having drugged me with something — valium? — that she said would make me feel as though I’d “had a glass of wine”. It did make me drowsy, but my anxiety skyrocketed, adrenaline surging, realizing if I had to fight my way out of the hospital (I might!) then it would be all the more difficult to do with this slow muck in my veins. (When she came around a second time, I declined.) Eventually I had to go to the bathroom, and there I was, a freeze-frame from a million sitcoms, wobbling unsteadily down a corridor, carrying my IV bag in one hand and with my bare-ass behind, nonplussed by the open-backed robe, swinging in the sterile air.

My future husband helped me, but stopped at the bathroom door to give me some privacy (ironic, that). I did my business, and when I rose to flush I realized I’d been holding the IV bag too low, and my blood had backed up into the long and narrow connecting tube, turning it from clear and antiseptic to red-black and ominous. I nearly lost my bearings then, seeing my blood backing up into that IV bag. I opened the door and told D, “I messed it up,” or something, and showed him the tube and the blood creeping slowly upward, threatening to contaminate the saline solution in the bag at its end. He hefted it high enough, and my blood came back in (recess is over, blood!), and he walked me back to the hospital bed where I would wait some more.

There was a point, minutes before they brought me in for the surgery, that I could not manage my fear and rage anymore, and I cried. I said, “Why can’t they just get on with it?”

The anesthesiologist, whom I’d met a few days before and whom I’d made a little uncomfortable with my probing questions about the state of my brain during the anesthesia (”Like, how close to dead will I be?”), had told me at our meeting that once I was put under, there’d be no time, no awareness. I’d had tubes in my ears twice as a kid, and I remembered the vivid dreams I had during those minor procedures. But no, with this sort of anesthesia there’d be none of that. He said, “It will feel as though you’ve just closed your eyes, and then opened them again.”

They wheeled me down the hall to the operating room, which was high-ceilinged, very white, brightly lit, and monumentally terrifying. The anesthesiologist I’d met with before was not the anesthesiologist who was here now; evidently the delay had resulted in some changes. The man’s face is a literal blank, in my memory, as are the faces of everyone in the operating room, though he was friendly and kind-voiced. Things seemed to go very fast, and I felt very slow. The mask came down; it wasn’t secure and I tried to tell him, “It’s not…”

I closed my eyes.

I opened my eyes.

Well, except I didn’t. I wanted to open them but couldn’t; they were taped shut. My eyes rolled fruitlessly against my lids, and I could hear the room, and had an odd sensory awareness of the space, but I could not move anything else. I spiked into a terrible panic and immediately heard multiple voices telling me to calm down. It’s just the anesthesia. I couldn’t listen; clearly they didn’t understand that I couldn’t fucking move and if anything was worth panicking over, that was. But then, all at once, I could feel my muscles again. Okay.

It was only after they’d wheeled me out of the operating room that I realized the surgery must be over.

In recovery, they brought me ice, and a giant white elastic band, at least ten inches wide, to wrap around and compress my midsection. It was too small, but the nurse heaved and pulled — me apologizing groggily as she did so, for my girth? my inability to assist? — and managed to secure it. Velcro. Another nurse came by and noted that it seemed to be too small. I murmured, “I doubt I am the fattest person ever to have my gallbladder removed.” They said they’d find me a larger one, but they never came back.

My throat hurt; someone mentioned that was because of the tube. Why did they put a tube in my throat, I wondered. I was beginning to grasp that my body had gone on some strange adventure without me. My brain choked off. My voice eclipsed by a tube. A heap of meat on an operating table, one in an assembly-line of common surgeries.

I’d begun to look at fat acceptance four years prior to this. It’s a long process, and if it’s not a long process then you may be doing it wrong, or else you just may not realize when it began. I had stopped trying to lose weight; I had come to love myself, uneasily, and to live in a truce with my body, if not in contentment or pleasure.

These things had happened to my body and I wasn’t there. It was as though the whole of my history of body-hatred and self-punishment rose up on me like a towering black monolith, all at once, and I practically saw through time to realize the immensity of the damage I’d done, the disdain I’d held for myself, my body, my health, during my years of self-induced deprivation.

I thought, Fuck: what did I do all that for? Why did I work so hard to beat up the awesome vessel that brings me to the world?

My surgery was straightforward and complication-free. I had expected, hilariously in retrospect, that this was a true outpatient situation. That I’d have the surgery and a few hours later would go home. I don’t know why I believed this. I don’t know why no one corrected me beforehand. I was never told anything, in advance or after, about what to expect.

I was lucky; they found me a room relatively quickly, and I was out of recovery and into a room with some other woman whose face I never saw. A bathroom separated our little alcoves. Once settled, I was overwhelmed with a desire to put on some underpants. I could think of nothing else. A nurse came in; I asked her if I was allowed to use the bathroom, as a ruse to achieve my true purpose. She said oh, I’ll bring you a pan for that. WHAT. I said. Of course immediately I really did have to go to the bathroom. The nurse forgot to bring me the pee-pot anyway.

Shortly thereafter the shift changed, and another nurse came by and introduced herself. In spite of my efforts to seem casual about it, I burst out in a hail of barely-restrained tears, “Can I use the bathroom?” Of course, she said. I nearly wept with gratitude. “Can I also put on some underwear?” Yes, she said. I momentarily imagined her an underpants-bearing angel. I wobbled into the bathroom, peed, put on my underwear. I felt slightly more human, slightly less meat-like. Overnight I would face gruesome pain as the anesthesia wore off, but my pain tolerance is legendary and I knew that all I must do is hang on til morning. I watched television. When it got so late that nothing was on, I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the first time, straight through, and when I finally nodded into light sleep I dreamed of my gallbladder sprouting wings and taking flight from the cage of my body.

In the morning, my surgeon came round to check on me and his expression upon seeing me standing beside the bed was one of astonishment. “You’re up,” he said. I was perplexed and annoyed. “Am I not supposed to be up?” I asked. I felt insulted. Of course I was up. I had made a full pass of the corridor outside my room in the hours before he showed up. I thought, why the hell wouldn’t I be up? This is an outpatient procedure. I should leave now. Around 10:30 that morning, 24 hours after I’d arrived, I was sent home to convalesce for a full week, which I did with all the patience and care that you might expect — that is, none at all.

Even at the time I was confused by my apparent need to exorcise my gallbladder. The only correlating risk factor I had was my fat. I was young, and gallbladder problems requiring surgery are quite rare in those under 60. I was a strict vegetarian and had been for several years, and vegetarians virtually never get gallstones (fiber is an enemy of gallstones, and the typical vegetarian diet is fiber-heavy; also, diets high in animal fat and cholesterol are gallstone-friendly, and vegetarians don’t consume animal-based foods, period). The only risk factor I had was a history of dramatic weight cycling, in which I would lose and regain weight repeatedly.

Again: I thought, Fuck: what did I do all that for? Why did I work so hard to beat up the awesome vessel that brings me to the world?

I still feel sad for my gallbladder, a Lost Boy forever wandering the bodily-organ version of Neverland, maybe hand-in-hand (duct-in-duct?) with the other innocent gallbladders parted from their abdominal homes too soon. I never meant to hurt myself so badly; at the time I thought of my compulsive crash diets as open-handed slaps to my hated fatness, not the kind of deep trauma that could ever result in long-term damage. I made mistakes. I suffered the consequences.

More than that, however, I emerged from this experience more ferociously in favor of body acceptance and self-love than ever before. I felt, vividly, the importance of owning one’s body and living in it fully, and realized that all the abuse we heap upon ourselves does take a toll, be it emotional or physical. I came to understand for the first time ever the importance of being healthy, and I don’t mean the universalizing and troubling concept of “healthy” our culture currently prefers, but the kind of healthy that encourages and cultivates a knowledge and awareness of your unique body, and what it can be reasonably asked to do, and to never feel shame if your body does not operate by the same parameters of someone else’s body. I’m talking about a “healthy” that is rooted in self-determination and individual autonomy, and is thus equally applicable along a spectrum of bodies, including professional athletes, cancer survivors, gym rats, the doctor-phobic, the poor, you joggers, and folks with a limited supply of spoons in equal measures — a healthy that excludes no one and that is specific and relative to the individual.

All of this is why I reflect so often on my gallbladder: because it changed me, and made me a fiercer and louder proponent of fat acceptance, indeed, it made me the activist I am today. And because sometimes we need to lose something in order to appreciate what we have.

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