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Disability and Catholic Feminism: The Wide Reach of Ableism Narratives

In the first part of this series on disability and Catholic feminism, I wrote an introduction to disability advocacy and vocabulary. As you engage in online spaces, you will often see disability advocacy label itself as working against “ableism.”

Recognizing Ableism

“Ableism” is a broad term that refers to treating others (and ourselves!) better or worse based on physical ability, health, or capacity. It is important to recognize that ableism is always a functional negative — even if the things you say seem positive — because it insinuates that the opposite (disability, sickness, or injury) is negative. For example, my brother Matthew uses a wheelchair when we are out of the house. This is not because he can’t walk, but rather because he can. And he is fast and strong! Since he doesn’t understand boundaries and the differences between things we do and do not own, if we go to Target and he’s not in his wheelchair, he would tear toys from their boxes faster than lightning! He would grab people we don’t know thinking they are friends, and if we heard an unexpected loud sound, he might become frightened and collapse onto the floor, unwilling to move. He knows that he is safe and secure in his wheelchair.

However, many of my friends first meet him when he is in his wheelchair and assume that he can’t walk. If they find out he can walk and say, “Oh, good! He’s not as disabled as I thought!”, we could consider that statement to be ableist, because it assumes that people who can’t walk are “worse off” than those who can. Even if such a statement is well-meaning, it sows a seed of looking down on others.

The Intersection of Ableism and Feminism

Ableism and feminism intersect in many ways, in no small part because for centuries, women were treated in medical settings that viewed men as the standard and, therefore, saw women’s bodies as “atypical,” a word often used nowadays to refer to disabled persons. Women’s bodies are still treated in many medical schools as the non-normative, or non-standard, version of the human body. Gynecology and obstetrics are specializations not all residents choose to pursue in depth, and even then, many issues of women’s health may actually be more accurately housed under other specializations. Not all doctors have experience with the unique components of the female body, and not all women’s health problems are traced back to the womb.

We see these issues in the ways that birth control and weight loss are viewed as the catch-all solutions to a variety of women’s health concerns, replacing exploration into their root causes. Women’s pain is often taken less seriously, and these issues are even more likely to occur for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) women. The maternal mortality rate is astronomical in the United States, particularly for women of color. These problems can be situated under the umbrella of ableism and can be masked when we settle for the narrative of “strong women” without asking why they have to be strong in the first place.

In my last article, I talked about vocabulary and how we can be disability advocates in ways as simple as changing the terms we use and share online. When we discuss social narratives, we are talking about the stories, feelings, and beliefs we cultivate through experiences and media. Beyond interpersonal relationships, larger narratives are at work in the entertainment we consume. When we think about the pressure placed on women’s bodies, it is easy to see how the media impacts our opinions. Hollywood actors, fashion week models, and Instagram influencers all present, through their success, narratives about which “kinds” of women are beautiful.

Feminism and ableism also intersect prominently in the areas of weight loss and wellness culture. Women are constantly sold ableist lies:

“You’re always healthier if you’re skinnier.”

“You can achieve perfect health on your own.”

“You’re a better mother if you do things naturally.”

As we continue to unmask how beauty standards are both racist and sexist, we can also see how they are ableist. Not all bodies are skinny! Not all bodies move in the same way! Not all bodies work as we’re told they should!

Fat phobia (the fear of being at a larger weight or clothing size) is deeply ableist and hurts women of all sizes. Women who struggle with eating disorders have a more difficult time recovering, women who are larger feel pressure to slim down in order to be taken seriously, and women who find themselves at our culture’s “ideal size” face immense pressure to stay that way — when, as women, our bodies are not meant to “stay” any way. We cycle and flow on purpose.

The “Need” for Healing

It is also important to recognize that the media functions in ableist ways regarding physically and cognitively disabled persons. More often than not, cognitively disabled characters in movies and television function in stereotypical and harmful ways. We call them “tropes”: common, clichéd narrative devices. Some tropes of cognitively disabled persons include being childlike, being frequently confused, pining after a romantic partner who will never return their affections because of their disability, being untrustworthy and having to prove their worthiness, being the subject of miracles or the impetus behind the protagonist’s personal growth, and (most frequently) being killed or sacrificing themselves after proving their worth in order to elicit emotion from the audience.

This is a reflection of “inspiration porn,” and it is deeply harmful, especially in media directed at children. Our kids need to know that people with disabilities are kind, trustworthy, and no one to be afraid of. We need to teach our loved ones that disabled people do not exist solely to inspire us and that disabled persons are just as worthy and capable of familial and romantic love as anyone else. We need to see disabled characters as heroes in their own right.

We also need to accept disabled persons regardless of whether or not their story includes healing of any kind. This acceptance can be difficult within church settings, where we often focus on healing narratives. Some priests might use stereotypes of healing in their homilies when expounding upon Gospel readings that feature Christ’s healing miracles, especially of the deaf and blind. We must be careful not to assume that all people experiencing disability desperately yearn for healing. Some do, but others don’t!

Disability and illness can be so challenging, both for the person experiencing it and for people who care for them. It can be painful, ostracizing, and confusing. But this should not mean that the end goal for all persons is perfect healing. It is neither realistic nor helpful to assume that a person’s existence should be oriented toward perfect healing, because there’s no such thing as perfect health in this life. Sickness, disability, and injury are a part of human life. Even if you are fortunate enough to have perfect health and live until a ripe old age, you will likely experience disabling conditions as a natural part of aging. What’s more, God is no less good and no less present in the life of a sick, injured, or disabled person if he or she never receives healing.

We also need to be careful about how we frame our discussions of Heaven. Some people in my extended family say things like, “I can’t wait to see what Matthew will be like in Heaven,” or “In Heaven, Matthew will be exactly as he should be.” Statements like these ones hurt, because they suggest that Matthew is some sort of mistake that God will work to rectify in this life and the next. We don’t know what Heaven will be like, nor do we know exactly what our bodies will be like when our souls are reunited with them. We do know that Jesus retained his wounds after his resurrection. We also know from Scripture (John 9:1-3) that disability is not a function of or punishment for sin (though some Christians still think so).

We should stop using disability as the go-to example of worldly suffering that will be rewarded with perfect healing, because doing so creates a narrative that we can somehow achieve or earn perfect health. But what happens when we don’t? We might feel we have failed, that our faith isn’t strong enough, or that God doesn’t love us.

Ableism and Our Own Bodies

The most insidious ableism is often the ableism with which we treat ourselves. Even as an able-bodied person with a disabled family member, I often catch myself being hard on myself when I’m not as productive, physically active, or alert as I think I should be. I catch myself saying, “If only you’d do X workout, take Y supplement, lose Z amount of weight, then you’d feel better and be a better person.”

Negative self-talk is often deeply ableist. When we expect ourselves to prove our worth through high levels of productivity, earn bodily autonomy through diet or exercise, or look like others in order to be accepted, we’re operating with the  assumption that one type of body is best — which suggests that all other bodies, whether yours or someone else’s, are bad. The first and best way we can fight ableism is by changing the narratives in our head around our own bodies. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. How can we love our disabled neighbors well and be anti-ableist if we perceive ourselves in an ableist way?

The first and best way we can fight ableism is by changing the narratives in our head around our own bodies.

Much of the work to combat ableism comes down to fully accepting bodies that won’t become the bodies we think of as “normal,” “healthy,” and “beautiful.” One way of doing so is offering a prayer that sounds like, “Lord, help me see that all bodies are good, exactly as they are.”

Self-hatred can run deep, as can grief around ourselves or our loved ones’ being disabled. Accepting all bodies as good can begin with working to think neutrally about our own bodies by not passing judgment on them. It means starting from “I am” or “It is” and moving to “I am good” or “It is good.” It means simply thinking, “This is how it looks and feels to be in this particular body. This is my body.”

I am.

I am.

This is my body.

This is my body.

It is good.

It is good.

Read Part 1 of the Disability and Catholic Feminism Series on FemCatholic HERE

*When I originally wrote this series, FemCatholic was a free publication. As of October 2021, FemCatholic is now behind a paywall. In the spirit of access, I believe it is important for my writing to remain free-to-read. FemCatholic is an incredible space, and I am thrilled every time I have the chance to write for them! If you have the means to do so, I encourage you to subscribe to one of their passes ($5-$10/month.) Their collection of writers, videos, and events are creating much-needed space for Catholic women to come as they are. However, all of my writing for FemCatholic will always be free to read here on TheologyForEveryBody.com

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Disability & Catholic Feminism: Including Disability in Our Vocabulary

As Catholics, we are called to build community with and advocate for the marginalized. There are several populations of people who may come to mind when we think of those who are marginalized: BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), women, the poor, the sick, the homeless, LGBT persons, the imprisoned, the immigrant. Catholic social teaching and Scripture outline how we ought to build community with persons from these populations.

This teaching is part of what helps us understand how someone can be both Catholic and feminist: Working toward just treatment for all people necessitates doing so for women. It is important to remember that women’s collective experiences are not homogenous, which motivates our advocacy for intersectional feminism. Our work toward just treatment for all persons ought to reflect this diversity within feminine experiences. Women from every marginalized group not only deserve a seat at the table, but they also should be the leaders we look to in order to fully understand the diverse challenges that women face.

One group of people that we often neglect in discussions of marginalization and inequality are people with disabilities. If we are to achieve truly intersectional feminism, we must include women with disabilities and women who care for people with disabilities. Over the coming months, we will dive into a series that addresses how disability advocacy is both Catholic and feminist. We will begin with vocabulary: common terms and pitfalls.

Words for Disability

Why do I and other disability writers spend so much time clarifying terms? Because words are powerful! They can hurt people or make them feel loved and seen. It is important to use words thoughtfully and intentionally, especially in a society where it is so easy to broadcast and weaponize them.

As with any other topic, there are varying opinions about how we ought to discuss disability. For example, some don’t like the word “disabled” because it suggests a negative orientation toward living and ability (“You are dis-abled.”). They might use the phrase “differently-abled” instead. While this latter phrase is well-intentioned, it can also suggest that we’re all differently-abled and, therefore, that we all experience similar limitations when it comes to our differences — which is simply not true.

Some people prefer to use person-centered language, such as “person with a disability” or “person experiencing disability” rather than “disabled person” in order to emphasize humanity, rather than the characteristics that qualify humanity. A person’s level of need or ability does not constitute their whole identity! Person-centered language also allows for the possibility of these experiences being temporary; after all, a person may not always be homeless, disabled, or sick. That being said, some disabled persons do view their disability as an expression of part of their identity and prefer “disabled person.”

The most important thing is that you are engaging in conversation with the disabled person directly! It is always better to speak toward the person in question, even if a caregiver, accompanier, or family member is present. Doing so shows that you acknowledge the individuality and dignity of the person, even if it does not appear that he or she is verbal or conventionally communicative. Corrections and preferences are much more likely to be given in kind, with no offense taken, if you start from a place of respect.

Several words used to be common when describing people with disabilities but are less so today. Words or phrases such as “handicapped,” “impaired,”  “crippled,” and “special needs” have fallen out of popular use for a variety of reasons. The first three words call to mind physical disabilities and were popularized after the Vietnam War, when there was a surge of physically disabled post-war veterans. While some people still feel comfortable using them, others may consider them to be insulting. “Special needs” often refers to people with cognitive disabilities; some now see this phrase as infantilizing, while others are comfortable using it. For example, when I talk about my own brother, Matthew, who has two genetic disabilities, I sometimes use “special needs” when speaking with people who are unfamiliar with disability, because it can help them understand that his disabilities are not solely physical in nature.

The language we use to discuss disability most often depends on the preferences of the individuals who live with disability. As we can see, there is some room for different, well-intentioned decisions about the vocabulary we use. However, there is one word we should never use, whether or not we’re describing a person with a disability: “retard.” Our refusal or decision to use this word is, frankly, a matter of respecting human dignity.

The word “retard” was used to describe people with intellectual disabilities in the early 1900s. It has since become used colloquially to mean “stupid,” “unfair,” “slow,” “ridiculous,” “upsetting,” and so on. This term is no longer used in medical settings, because we have a fuller understanding of what cognitive disability is; it isn’t just being “slow” (which is what “retard” means in French). Unfortunately, some still use this word as slang. One simple way to be a disability advocate is to lovingly correct friends and family who use this word and remind them that it is offensive, because it equates being disabled with being the terms listed above.

Personally, I use “disabled persons” and “person with a disability” interchangeably. I prefer “persons” over “people” for the same reason the Church often uses “persons” in her documents: It highlights individual, personal dignity over the homogenous notion of “people.”

Disability and The Word

As Catholics, we believe that the most powerful words are the Word of God: Scripture. As such, our engagement with Scripture ought to shape how we perceive and treat members of marginalized communities. In the Gospels, we see Jesus heal people experiencing a variety of disabilities: blindness (Mark 8:22-26), deafness (Mark 7:31-37), hemorrhaging (Matthew 9:20-22), paralysis (Matthew 9:1-7), and more. This inclusion shows us that disability is not just a modern phenomenon, even if it is a modern term.

When we read the stories of Jesus’ healing miracles in Scripture, we should remember the people involved and accurately situate the stories within their historical context. During Jesus’ time, people with disabilities were viewed as “unclean” and were, therefore, shunned by society. Others could not touch or dine with them, and they were not welcome at religious services. Keeping this context in mind, we can see that Jesus’ engagement with persons with disabilities was a radical upheaval of social norms.

Aside from healing their physical ailments, Jesus’ interaction with these persons — especially given His use of physical touch — is, itself, a form of healing. Jesus healed the aching wounds of an excluded person. It is also this relationship and His love that heal them.

Both forms of healing are important and, in fact, parallel the two foremost models of disability as understood in secular disability study: the medical model and the social model. The medical model defines disability as a primarily medical phenomenon. It says that disability is something that can be scientifically understood and, therefore, that solutions to the challenges of disability are medical in nature. The social model understands disability as a primarily social phenomenon. It asserts that the challenges of disability are the limitations in access, political protections, and community, and so the solution is to increase access, protections, and opportunities for genuine connection with others.

In the early 1900s, disability was largely viewed through the medical lens. With the rise of disability advocacy on behalf of physically disabled veterans after the Vietnam War, disability came to be seen through a more social lens. Today, disability scholars largely agree that disability is a combination of both the medical and the social models. It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, provided us with a model that integrates both, long before explicit disability advocacy existed.

One of the most important passages in Scripture regarding disability is found in the Gospel of John. Jesus comes upon a man who was born blind. His disciples ask Him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Christ responds, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:1-3). This passage demonstrates that disability is not a result of sin. Furthermore, it positions disabled persons as conduits of God’s goodness and power.

Not all interpretations of this passage are helpful, however. Some people without disabilities interpret this passage as meaning that the purpose of disability is to make others feel close to God. This interpretation can lead people to think that the reason for the existence of disabled persons is to “be inspiring.” But people do not exist to make us feel a certain way. Disability does not exist simply to teach those who don’t have a disability. We must remember that disabled persons are whole, unique persons with aspirations for their own lives.

Words Online

The notion that disability exists to inspire is described by a term you might see when involved in disability advocacy: “inspiration porn.” The phrase draws a parallel between the way pornography seeks ot make us feel good and how we’re made to feel when watching a video or applying a meaning to a person’s life or actions that we are not participating in. Simply put, the phrase “inspiration porn” highlights how videos and other media can exploit others, even if unintentionally. I personally use the term “inspirationalizing” instead of “inspiration porn,” but I mean the same thing: We don’t know the people in the video. We aren’t those people. We have never been in their particular situation. Using their life or experience for our own purpose offends their dignity, because it reduces them to how they make us feel.

For example: Have you ever seen or even shared a viral video on Facebook of a teen with autism being asked by his classmate to prom? Or of a baby with Down syndrome giggling, accompanied by a caption saying that abortion snuffs out the joy of seeing that smile? While these videos make us feel good and do work against the exclusion of people with disabilities, they can support the idea that the core of a person’s worth is the joy they bring others. We should never base a person’s right to love, life, and acceptance on the way they make us feel. Furthermore, these types of videos and photographs are often used to propagate political messages and can treat a human person as a prop.

Using Words Thoughtfully

I have three suggestions for how we, as Catholic feminists, can begin including persons with disabilities in our advocacy:

  • When sharing a story or video, make sure the featured disabled person consented to its sharing.
  • Work in our own lives to engage with disabled persons and teach our children about disability.
  • Use language that emphasizes human dignity, rather than a political or inspirational message.

God’s examples of healing in Scripture can invite us to understand the lived, real experiences of disabled persons in our own community.

Suggestions for Further Reading

If you want to learn more about language, Scripture, and the history of disability advocacy, I recommend A Healing Homiletic by Kathy Black and Copious Hosting by Jennie Weiss Block.

Read Part 2 of the Disability & Catholic Feminism Series on FemCatholic HERE

*When I originally wrote this series, FemCatholic was a free publication. As of October 2021, FemCatholic is now behind a paywall. In the spirit of access, I believe it is important for my writing to remain free-to-read. FemCatholic is an incredible space, and I am thrilled every time I have the chance to write for them! If you have the means to do so, I encourage you to subscribe to one of their passes ($5-$10/month.) Their collection of writers, videos, and events are creating much-needed space for Catholic women to come as they are. However, all of my writing for FemCatholic will always be free to read here on TheologyForEveryBody.com

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A Letter to Caregivers

This is the first piece I wrote and had published on the internet. It was spring of 2018, I was living in Tulsa, and had entirely lost myself in religious community and the 10 hours of teaching I was doing every day and as such, felt like I had lost my ability to envision myself in the Church. I’m feeling pretty similarly, today.

I found so much solace in the letters being compiled at The Catholic Woman, a then-new online space for women to write letters to women who had had similar life experiences, encouraging them that there is space in the Church for their unique experiences and wisdom.

When considering the spaces I felt were lacking then, in 2018, and what I might contribute to this library of letters, I reflected back on the previous times in which I didn’t feel there was space for me in the Church, that doing so might enlighten where I could discover space amidst my then-present wanderings. I’m doing similarly, today.

I wrote my letter on disability. Specifically, disability caregiving. I had yet to go to graduate school. I hadn’t even decided where I would go! I hadn’t encountered secular Queer and Crip Theories about the body. I hadn’t jumped head-first into Christian disability theology. All I knew was my own experience as a caregiver of a sibling with profound cognitive and physical disabilities, and I was emboldened by the sliver of theology I had learned in undergrad. To be frank, I was at the peak of that pesky Dunning-Kruger bell curve (which I write about here.)

When I was growing up, not-belonging in Church (and in many other social spaces, like in stores and barbecues and friend groups) was almost entirely contingent upon Matthew not belonging. I didn’t feel comfortable at Mass because Matthew would be loud, people would stare, and he would potentially kick the paten out of the priest’s hands at Communion time, scattering Jesus across the floor to a chorus of gasps. When we moved, not belonging at Mass looked like not being able to fit his wheelchair into the old Church and down the aisle. There was no place for him to sit without taking him out of his wheelchair and wrestling him into the pew (which, with his behavioral difficulties, is not realistic.) At that early age of not-belonging, my youngest brother Michael was also young and impatient. At first he was a baby, crying and pooping and screaming and needing my mother’s comfort. At the later stages, he was whiny and insatiable and tantrum-ridden.

My perspective on all of this not-belonging was a place of young shame. Of immense responsibility as my mom’s primary caregiving support. Of anger that my dad was deployed or working or not wanting to come to Mass with us (though, he eventually came around and even ended up converting.) It was also my fledgling notice that disability was not welcomed in the Church, despite being present in so many Gospel messages of Christ healing the blind, deaf, and paralyzed. It was the beginnings of the fire that would be ignited about the hypocrisy of loving those on the margins while scoffing at them when they laughed loudly during the consecration because they found the tinkling of the bells enjoyable. It was the beginning of my questions about welcoming all to the table while not looking Matthew in the eye.

These were my first tastes of not-belonging at Church, and it was these moments that brought me solace in 2018 as I sat to write my letter. It was that not-belonging that I wanted to speak to.

As such, the title of my original Letter to Women was “Making Space for the Disabled.” It was meant as a riff on the lack of physical space made for Matthew and others like him, in so many situations, some of which I spoke to in the letter.

And it worked! I found a space for myself in writing and studying disability and Catholicism, a belonging I continue to lean into today. I went on to study it in graduate school. I pursued volunteer opportunities that would foster relationships with disabled persons. I wrote more about it on the internet. I combatted my not-belonging by writing about not-belonging.

But now, as I look back on the letter, as I attempt to house the sum total of my writing these last 3 years for various publications on this blog in some form or another, with the experience I’ve gained in my study and work and friendships, I can see that in some ways I was conflating the experience of the disabled person with the one giving them care. These experiences are not the same.

However, the experiences of giving care to a disabled family member are some of the most intimate you can get when not disabled yourself. You feel the stares, you recognize the inaccessibility of a space, you field the ignorant questions if your loved one is nonverbal, and you advocate on their behalf if their cognition limits their self-determination. This was, and in some ways still is, my experience.

I also recognize that some may bristle at the idea that I, as a sibling, would in some ways equate myself with other kinds of caregivers, whether they be parents or teachers or nurses or aides. I recognize that the ways my parents have given care supersede some of the ways I was required to give care (but it was a requirement, because of the relationship I had with my parents and siblings, even if others might view it as my choice to serve my family.) But as I learn more about being a sibling to disability, and as more and more siblings share their own stories online, I invite the patient consideration from both outside and internal voices that I did experience a comparable pressure and responsibility to give care that many don’t experience until they are the parents of their own children. That I did experience a comparable responsibility for another individual’s safety, health, nutrition, and happiness that draws me into conversation with similar responsibilities from various walks of life.

My experience of responsibility was then and remains today valid.

For these reasons, if I could go back, I think I’d change the title of my letter to what I’ve named it here: A Letter to Caregivers. Nowadays, I could write a different and better letter on what it would take to make space for disability for disability’s sake, and it would start by passing the mic to a disabled person and going from there. I still think my letter speaks to the heart of making space for disability, for the caregiver’s sake. For that reason I’m still proud to host my letter here. And it continues to prod me to write more here about what it was really like being a sibling to Matthew. (So more on that is coming soon.)

Here’s the opening of the letter, and I invite you to read the rest of it at The Catholic Woman:

Dear Family,

This ones for the caretakers. For the people who don’t buy white clothing because it’s just going to get dirty. 

My younger brother Matthew was born with Cri du Chat and DiGeorge Syndromes. Combined, these chromosomal mutations look a little like Cerebral Palsy, and a lot like cognitive delay, a compromised immune system, a pacemaker, a lack of consistent toilet use, and a love of crackers, cereal, and a good restaurant. 

I have always been involved with Matthew’s care. I have confronted the stares, the lack of a wheelchair ramp, and the soiled bedsheets alongside my parents and other younger brother Michael.

Lesson: Taking someone in a wheelchair to the movies requires two spaces. A space for the wheelchair, and a seat beside them…” To read the rest of the letter about how I LEARNED this lesson, click here.

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Categories
health PCOS

Supplements and Supports

So I’ve nearly bled to death. I’ve gotten on (and then off) the birth control pill. My period is gone and my gut is wrecked. What does past-Madison do next?

In this final installment of my PCOS series I am going to try and do two things:

  1. Walk you through what I’ve tried
  2. Repeat, over and over again, that I am not a doctor

Because two things can be true:

I almost exclusively came to the understanding of my potential health diagnoses through independent research, online resources, and trial and error.

And it is important to seek the insight of medical professionals anytime it is accessible for you to do so.

In the now-three years immediately following the complete collapse of my sense of health, I did not have access to my primary care physician, and my health insurance plan required her referral to see any specialists. It wasn’t until I finally saw a young, female doctor through the student health services at my graduate school that a medical professional confirmed for me, in-person, that I probably have PCOS and can get a period with proper non-birth-control mediation. But when we left off, I was sure that I had Post-Birth Control Syndrome (PBCS) and my period hadn’t come back. How did I get from that to a different but similar acronym?

In my prior post I talked about Dr. Jolene Brighten, whose website and resources popped up as I manically Googled “I just got off birth control and my body is destroyed.” After reading a bunch of her articles and participating in her free online conference on hormonal health, I paid for access to her “Birth Control Hormone Reset” course (it was $150 at the time.)

In this course, I was taught the ins and outs of my hormones and their cycling, and I was instructed to try a number of things. Some of them worked. Some of them might have worked. Some of them definitely did NOT work. That’s how I’ll organize them:

PBCS things that DEFINITELY worked:

  • Eating a whole food (or “paleo”) diet : For the first year I was off birth control and in Chicago, I ate as un-processed and un-packaged as I could. In part due to my neighborhood becoming a food desert one month into my residence, I began using Imperfect Produce* and designing my meals around veggies and fruits. I did not do this exclusively: I still ate pasta, rice, canned veggies, and fast food. I still ate at restaurants and had a cup of noodles when the school day ran me to the ground. I made cookies and brownies, and finally got in the habit of eating breakfast via Cheerios and instant oatmeal. Most important was that I tried AND that I did not count calories or restrict myself in any capacity. I just ordered fruit and veggies and knew I had to use them before they went bad. It’s still the most consistent cooking I’ve ever done in my life, and it drastically changed how I felt in my body, for the better. I will also say it loud-ish and proud-ish: I don’t eat this way anymore. I have far less time to cook, and I found in the middle of my shift from PBCS to PCOS diagnosis, I began to feel very self-conscious about my weight. I actively dieted for two months, watching my caloric and nutritional intake, and to nobody’s surprise felt so much worse about myself. So I stopped. And I’ve been letting myself eat whatever sounds good since, because COVID. The last thing your body needs during an excruciatingly stressful time is to count calories. Sure, I’ve swung the opposite direction now, back to not getting enough fruits and veggies. But I’m getting back on the horse! (* This link is my referral link. If you use it to sign up, you get $80 in the form of $20 off 4 consecutive boxes. And I get $30 off my next box. Just call me a veggie influencer I guess.)
  • Cutting back on dairy: I grew up in a house where we had at least one if not more glasses of 1-2% dairy milk with dinner every night, so I’m LOVING the “got milk?” memes about the hold the dairy industry had on our generation. The rise in alternative milks has been life-saving for someone with a sensitive stomach, constipation, hormone issues, and terrible acne. Cutting back on dairy is the #1 thing that has revolutionized my skin and made my stomach far less nauseous and irritated. For those who are curious about the most eco-and-hormone-friendly alternative milk options? Oat milk and flax milk. Oat milk is now so widely accessible it’s surpassed almond milk in popularity. Flax milk’s taste is hit or miss, so I go with oat 100% of the time.
  • Eating MORE: People with hormonal imbalances often gain weight uncontrollably. With the hold diet culture has on us, it should come as no surprise that many women under-eat in response. Under-eating increases insulin sensitivity, increase stress hormones, and increase fat production as your body produces and stores what it needs to survive. Eat when you are hungry.
  • Pelvic floor exercises (and peeing more regularly): As is the case with many women who undergo any type of hormone supplementation, my pelvic muscles and bladder control dramatically decreased during my time on the birth control pill. Once, I had to walk home four blocks from a bar where I’d had 2 beers. In the 10 minutes between the bar and my apartment, without even a full bladder, I couldn’t hold my urine. In the hallway out front my door, I completely wet myself (and then had to explain it through embarrassed tears to my roommate.) I share this because it’s not talked about, even though it still brings up feelings of shame. Incontinence happens, and is tied up in our hormones. There is not much you can do about it beyond pelvic muscle exercises, and going to the bathroom as frequently as you need to avoid urgency.
  • Getting more sleep: This was hard in a cockroach-infested apartment in a city. But I tried to set aside 8-10 hours every night for sleep. I needed it. And I stuck to it. (Except for on paper-writing or exam nights…) Your body needs to rest to heal. Period. I know it’s not realistic for everyone, especially for mothers with small children, but I can’t stress enough how constantly fatigued I was after my digestive illness. I couldn’t heal without sleep.
  • Drinking more water: Grad school and illness finally did it to me. I FINALLY got — and actually USED — a water bottle. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from feeling like you’re dying to remembering that life is worth living by drinking a glass of water.

PBCS things that MAYBE worked? (Maybe it’s the placebo effect?)

  • Collagen Powder: I began taking Vital Proteins, mixing it into baked goods and beverages, because I won a giant container in an Instagram giveaway. That’s the truth. But as I looked into it, I found some feedback that suggested not only that it was good for skin, nails, and hair, but that collagen is crucial to a healthy stomach and colon lining. I will say, I experienced far fewer pinching and burning feelings that had previously accompanied my mild ulcerative colitis. But who knows: It could also be attributed to the other things I did. Collagen powder is still a great way to incorporate protein into your diet, regardless.
  • Drinking tea: I began drinking a cup of tea every morning and every evening. A number of herbal teas had been recommended to me during my illnesses (ginger, green, peppermint, hibiscus, raspberry leaf, and dandelion root being the key players.) With my sensitive stomach lining, I began avoiding peppermint because it’s an irritant. The others I alternated. The most helpful for me seemed to be ginger (I bought THIS probiotic kind from Celestial Seasonings) and green. Word to the wise: Green tea makes me bloated and burp-y. Not sure why. But I did find my stomach soothed and repaired after making tea a habit. Maybe it’s nothing more than drinking more water, but it can’t hurt!
  • Supplements: I’ve tried so many, with mixed and unclear results. If my general trajectory indicates their success, I’d say give them a try. But I cannot trace any particular result to any particular supplement.
    • Dr. Brighten’s Balance: This is the supplement I’ve taken most consistently. I didn’t notice any significant changes until I started my prescription to induce a period (we’ll discuss momentarily.) I find my PMS, headache, muscle ache, and cramping symptoms associated with my cycle are far less brutal taking this supplement.
    • Dr. Brighten’s Adrenal Support: I took this for about a year, to combat constant feelings of tired-upon-waking. It seems to have helped.
    • Dr. Brighten’s Adrenal Calm: I take it like melatonin in the evenings if I’m wired, traveling, or haven’t been sleeping well.
    • Whole food multivitamin: Certainly helped me fill some gaps in my diet, but I found them very difficult to digest. If I didn’t eat a large meal with each pill, I would experience severe stomach pain and bloating.
    • N-Acetyl Cysteine: Amino acid that is supposed to aid in production and absorption of glutathione, a key player in the balancing of hormones. Who knows if it’s doing anything.
    • Vitex: Also known as chaste tree, vitex is meant to help cycle progesterone. Since it’s found in Dr. Brighten’s Balance blend, I don’t take it unless I run out of Balance.
    • Spore-form probiotic: This is the kind of probiotic Dr. Brighten and others recommend, especially for those with leaky gut or other digestive issues. Probiotics in spore form have a better chance of surviving the journey to the center of the gut. I didn’t notice any difference in success compared to a regular probiotic.
  • Castor Oil Packs: A number of online hormone healers recommend taking up the practice of castor oil packs for liver and gallbladder soothing as well as pelvic detoxification. You soak a flannel or cotton rag in castor oil, place it directly on your skin, and then put a hot water bottle on top of that. I think any and all positive benefits I experienced could just be attributed to the benefits of a soothing hot water bottle. Who knows if the castor oil is anything more than a woo woo fluke. But I tried it! And it seemed to help in the midst of gallbladder spams and abdominal cramps.
  • Yoga (and otherwise not working out): I have always loved yoga. I pop into the classes my mom takes every time I go home. I made good use of the free yoga classes for students during grad school. I sometimes did self-directed yoga at home or in the park. I feel strong and soft and peaceful when I do yoga. I can only imagine this helped. Otherwise, working out really stresses me. I don’t find it fun. Doing high intensity workouts increase stress hormones and the soreness and inflammation of the muscles can be difficult for me to navigate on top of digestive and reproductive pain. So besides yoga, I didn’t do any other physical activity.
  • Kombucha (and other fermented things!): Dr. Brighten suggested fermented foods to aid in digestion and repopulate your stomach microbiome, which is often depleted from consistent birth control usage. I had never tried kombucha before trying her protocol, but I fell in love with it. Unfortunately, they stopped making my favorite kind and I’ve since given up the habit (@ Health Ade: Bring back your Original flavor. Please and thank you.) But I still snack on pickled ginger that I request in bulk from my local sushi place.

PBCS things that did NOT work:

  • Cutting out coffee: Lots of people online, especially those with anxiety, suggest cutting out coffee to reduce the production of cortisol, our stress hormone. I’ll admit it: Coffee can make me feel jittery and anxious. Especially if I have it on an empty stomach. But I cut out coffee entirely for three months during this protocol and did not experience a single bit of a decrease to my anxiety. I didn’t experience a natural boost in energy after the withdrawal symptoms subsided. I didn’t experience any increase in mood. When I brought coffee back, I didn’t experience any symptoms either. It seems coffee doesn’t do all that much to me, so long as I eat. And I enjoy the taste so much, I’m keeping it around!
  • Prebiotics: With the gut dysbiosis that comes from being on birth control, everyone and their mother suggests a probiotic. That, I can do. But so may probiotics now come with PREbiotics, which are meant to feed the probiotics to keep them alive and well in the journey to the center of the gut. Every prebiotic I’ve ever taken has made me so bloated and uncomfortable, it just isn’t worth it. I’ll stick to my pickled ginger, thanks.
  • Seed Cycling: The woo woo spouse to castor oil packs is seed cycling. During the first half of your cycle, you crush and eat two specific kinds of seeds. During the back half of your cycle, you crush and eat another two types of seeds. The nutrients in these seeds are meant to mimic the release and rise of the various female hormones. I tried it for three months and felt so silly, and felt so little of a difference other than increased stress having to figure out how to incorporate sesame seeds into my every day for two weeks straight, it just didn’t seem worth it. Maybe it works, but it’s too much prep for me.
  • Dr. Brighten’s food protocol: It’s important to consider the ways that, had I not been in dialogue with gastrointestinal medical professionals the year prior, I might not have recognized the risks of following her protocol to a T. Her dietary protocol is devoid of processed carbs and dairy and heavy on fat and cruciferous vegetables. This is, in part, because these foods are high in nutrients your body is naturally depleted from due to the birth control pill. However, these are exactly the same foods that populate my “gallbladder no-go list”: They are extremely difficult to digest. Ultimately, I couldn’t follow her meal plan without posing myself some serious risks. I also found that participating in her online Facebook group form was not helpful for me: None of the women could relate to these health risks posed by the diet. And when I proffered my difficulties, the moderators had little more to say than, “just stick with it!”

I’ve written for The Young Catholic Woman an article on online influencer courses and the dangers of investing time and money into someone who doesn’t personally know you. I can confirm that Dr. Brighten’s protocols were an absolutely pivotal catapult into the world of menstrual and hormonal health. Absolutely irreplaceable. But my feelings might have been different if I didn’t have the insight of other medical professionals also in my back pocket. All this to say: Please be careful. “Doing your own research” doesn’t mean “stop looking after the first aesthetically pleasing doctor with an online presence.” It means looking into numerous opinions. And remember that these thoughts in these lists are my own, personal experience. I AM NOT A DOCTOR.

One of the people Dr. Brighten herself directs her clients to for additional insight is Dr. Lara Briden, author of the Period Repair Manual. I read this book cover to cover and began to compare what I was reading there with what I had read from Dr. Brighten. It became clear to me that, what with my period not coming back after a year of following Dr. Brighten’s protocols, something else might be awry. One year is definitely enough time to cleanse your body of artificial hormones and restore depleted nutrients. It began to seem like my hormones were cycling, but I wasn’t ovulating. This led me to begin researching PCOS. The symptoms Dr. Briden included in her book’s examination into Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) were compelling. Many of the symptoms of PCOS and PBCS are similar, but there are a couple of key differences. The biggest two? Insulin resistance and uncontrollable weight gain.

Since coming off of the birth control pill, I had not experienced any weight loss, despite having gained it so suddenly and immediately upon starting the pill. I was eating healthy and getting good sleep. But the weight kept piling on. Additionally, I was noticing that my sensitivity to sugar (which I briefly discussed in the Birth Control installment) was getting worse. My stomach was immediately upset after eating sugar. I would get fatigued and bloated, with brain fog to boot. I was also showing symptoms of male-pattern hair growth. So, at the same time that I was exploring Dr. Briden’s PCOS information, I began to see a doctor through school.

This was the doctor that finally ordered my first ever blood work for a comprehensive hormone panel. The results came back “normal” across the board, except for a slight spike in testosterone. Heightened testosterone can be a sign of PCOS. This is how we’ve landed on this “probably” diagnosis.

In response to this “probably,” and having a year and some change between actively trying to treat PBCS and feeling better, I began incorporating some new things unique to PCOS treatment:

PCOS things that DEFINITELY worked:

  • 10-Day Progesterone prescription: THIS is how I’ve gotten my period back. And while it’s not a “natural” period, it is my body naturally cycling in response to an appropriate, bioidentical hormone increase. I can ovulate while on this prescription (though it’s unclear if I am), and my periods are a normal length, consistency, and amount. I start taking each 10-day cycle on day 21 of my cycle so by day 31 I start bleeding. Periods occur in response to heightened progesterone after the collapse of a follicle. This medication mirrors that process.
  • Period cup: This and period underwear I began using moreso in effort to go as low-waste as possible across my lifestyle, but I HAVE to include them both because they’ve absolutely revolutionized my cycle for so many other reasons. When it comes to the period cup, it’s namely that having it in reduces my cramps, significantly. What’s more (and to get real with you) as a person with profound gastrointestinal issues, the period cup helps reduce bowel movement discomfort. Have you ever had the experience of wiping and your tampon string gets yanked? It’s truly awful. No such issue with a period cup. Period cups ARE however notoriously difficult to insert and remove. Here are my tips for discerning cup life:
    • If you’ve never liked tampons, period cups are probably not for you.
    • I do the “tulip” or “pinch down fold” pictured HERE. I have a tilted cervix and find this is the only way I can get it up in there. That link will also provide details for other methods of insertion and removal.
    • The period cup popping open inside you is an odd experience. Not painful, but sudden. You’ll know if it’s open.
    • I highly recommend buying the Dot Cup. It comes with a pouch, and they often run sales. In fact, during COVID they gave away hundreds for free. That’s how I got mine.
    • There’s not good way to remove a period cup in a public restroom with more than one stall. Your hands do get bloody.
    • Because period cups are made from antibacterial plastic, your chances of experiencing toxic shock syndrome are significantly reduced. Meaning, you can wear them for a significantly longer amount of time than a tampon before emptying it.
    • The first time I used it I wept because I thought I got it stuck inside me and Guy had to talk me down through the bathroom door. We laugh about it now. Don’t read the horror stories on the internet.
  • Period underwear: If you’ll recall from my Bleeding To Death installment, I am used to having to change a pad every hour. I was very resistant to period underwear for that very reason: You can’t change out a pad without changing your whole underwear, and then where do you put the used pair? They’re also typically very expensive. But I don’t trust just a tampon or cup without backup, I really wanted to reduce my waste, and I’d heard such amazing stories about period underwear decreasing period anxiety, particularly during sleep. I finally bit the bullet during Thinx’s major annual sale and it changed. my. life. It’s everything I hoped it would be. Comfortable. Doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a diaper. It really IS moisture wicking (so you don’t FEEL like you’re sitting in blood.) I sleep so much better on my period. But I DO have some pro tips:
    • BUY THE TARGET BRAND: Thinx recently partnered with Target to do a discounted line of period underwear. But here’s the deal: It’s the exact. same. product. In fact, the “changes” actually make the product BETTER. Thinx’s original line of period products are not cotton and they’re twice as expensive. Everyone and their mom knows that you should be in cotton underwear, especially when you’re on your period, and especially especially if you’re prone to UTIs. Cotton is moisture-wicking, antimicrobial, and breathable. Thinx’s Target line? All cotton. And half the price. I see absolutely zero reason why you should be buying the original line.
    • Buy the HIGHEST absorbency: They all feel the same, no matter how absorbing they are. There is no difference in thin-ness or comfort, and there’s no difference in price. So do yourself a favor and just buy the ultra absorbent pair because…
    • You can’t tell how much you’ve bled: The entire interior of the underwear is black. Which make sense, but also makes it extremely difficult to tell if you’re leaking. The only problems with leaks I’ve ever had have been in “Level 2” absorbency rather than ultra OR leaking around the edges of the “pad” after lying down. Still far fewer leaks than conventional pads.
    • Hand-rinse them in warm water before putting them in the laundry: Maybe I’m just paranoid, but better to be safe than sorry. This prevents blood from getting in the rest of your laundry, and extra-prevents the growth of bacteria.
  • Eating more protein: This is hard with a broken gallbladder. I can’t eat pork, I can hardly eat beef, and I avoid dairy as much as possible. But I’ve found that when protein is an intentional part of each of my meals, I feel significantly better. I have less fatigue and more energy throughout the day. I naturally eat less because I’m fuller longer. My proteins of choice are eggs, string cheese, peanut butter, Greek yogurt with added protein, chicken, beans, and tofu.
  • Fertility tracking: Even before I got OFF birth control, I began tracking my cyclical symptoms using FEMM fertility tracker. It’s the most intuitive and comprehensive app I’ve found, and it’s completely free. You have access to trained FEMM educators at any time as well, if you have questions. It has options for Creighton, Marquette, and other methods to input respective data. FEMM is also committed to providing comprehensive reproductive health education to young girls. I’ve learned so much about my body through this app, and throughout my PBCS and PCOS diagnoses, it’s been helpful to note what is and is not happening.
  • Strength training: In the last two months, I’ve begun boxing again. I do it once a week and I pace myself, but nothing makes me feel as good and strong and beautiful and healthy in my body as boxing. I am THRILLED to be back. What’s more, I’ve noticed a steady decline in fat on my body and increased muscle. It’s not about weight (I weigh the same, actually.) It’s about the strength of my body and recognizing it as “me” when I look in the mirror.
  • Massage: I am a very, very lucky person. My fiancé is not averse to giving me foot massages. I’ve found that physical touch has been a grounding, key aspect of my healing (to which the pandemic has posed a distinct challenge.) Being held in a variety of ways has brought me back into my body when it has not otherwise felt like mine. Whether caring touch comes from a loved one or a trained professional, regular massage has been a gift from God.

PCOS things that MAYBE worked? (Maybe it’s still the placebo effect?)

  • Ovasitol: This is the #1 recommended supplement for PCOS. Inositols have shown in a variety of studies to work similarly to Metformin with fewer side effects, helping improve egg quality and combat insulin resistance. I used it once daily for a year. I certainly noticed less of a sensitivity to sugar, but my period never came back naturally, so it’s uncertain how much credit I can give it.
  • Seeing a chiropractor: Well into working from home from my desk, I began to experience debilitating pain in my mid-back and hips. I went to a chiropractor–paying out of pocket, because I still didn’t have access to a primary care doctor–and found that while it helped treat my immediate joint and muscle pain and answered to some long-running challenges in my shoulders and hips, it also exacerbated shoulder tension and mental stress if I wasn’t going regularly (which I could not afford to do.) I am now going once a month and that feels helpful, but I’m uncertain if I can call it a net-win outside of acute treatment.
  • CBD: Lots of people who know I have anxiety have shared their miraculous stories of taking CBD and recommended it to me. It seems to be a wonder supplement: Decreased anxiety, decreased inflammation, decreased pain, increased focus, better sleep. I’ve been using Equilibria for about 4 months and despite loving their brand, their customer service, and their commitment to quality, I’ve discovered that CBD only minorly works for me: It reduces anxiety, but it increases my focus so much it actually impedes my sleep, and I haven’t noticed any improvement in my pain.

PCOS things that did NOT work:

  • Going gluten-free: Lots of PCOS gurus online suggest cutting out gluten for PCOS. Here’s the truth: Only people with sensitivity to gluten will see any sort of result from cutting it out. I do not have any sort of gluten sensitivity. Cutting it out, even for just a week, made me irritable and stressed. Like cutting out coffee, maybe it will work for you? It did not work for me.
  • Going back on birth control: It’s the #1 thing doctors tell people with PCOS to do, and its the #1 thing I will NOT do. Birth control got me into this mess, and it doesn’t actually do anything to treat what’s causing it. It just stops a person from ovulating, decreasing the likelihood that cysts will grow from post-ovulation follicles. Using birth control can do a lot of things (manage pain is one of them!) But it cannot balance your hormones.

The only thing left to do to turn this “probably” diagnosis into a “definitely” would be to examine my ovaries for cysts via pelvic ultrasound. If you’ll recall, I had one of those done before after I nearly bled to death, but it came back “inconclusive.” I haven’t had one since and, unfortunately, still haven’t had one. Ultrasounds are not a procedure covered by student health services. Until I have my own health insurance, off of my parents’ plan and onto one accepted in Illinois wherein I can also get a new primary care physician, I can’t access that exam unless I go to the ER.

So it’s here that I want to talk briefly about healthcare access and inequality.

I am a white, upper middle class white lady living in a neighborhood that houses one of the best medical facilities in the state of Illinois. But because of the drama and inaccessibility of the US healthcare system, I can’t access it for routine or acute care. My only option is Emergency Services and Urgent Care. I have incredible health care coverage through my parents’ military health insurance that I am fortunate, through the Affordable Care Act, to still qualify for until I turn 26 this September. But because this healthcare plan is an HMO, I cannot use this incredible health coverage unless I see and am then referred out by my family’s primary care physician….in California. I lose this healthcare in September on my birthday. My only hope is to receive healthcare through my employer (or Guy’s once we’re married…. a whole year later.) Guy’s job does not have corporate health coverage. He had to go through the marketplace, and then have a portion of it paid for indirectly by his boss. While still an immensely privileged opportunity, to still HAVE the marketplace option, the coverage options on the marketplace are…not great. All because the United States makes healthcare a reward for labor, rather than a right.

Now imagine all of that drama, for a person whose parents don’t have good coverage or coverage at all. For a person working a job that doesn’t offer any sort of healthcare. For a person who is unemployed.

Now imagine that this person is chronically ill or disabled, with dire, routine medical needs. With prescriptions they need to survive, at absolutely unjustifiable prices.

Now imagine that person is a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community (or both.) The very few opportunities for care FINALLY available to them very well might be tinged with disrespect. The care they receive might not be care at all. It might be imbued with racism and personal prejudice. It might be actively violent towards them. It might put them MORE at risk.

Imagine that person has kids.

And then remember: We are penalized by our government for NOT having medical care come tax season!

This. System. Is. Nuts.

It makes health a reward for working, and the more work you do the more of your body you are allowed to possess. What’s more, it disproportionately rewards those positions occupied by persons who came to the job with the help of inordinate privilege.

Health should not be a reward for work. You should not have to work to deserve health. To think this is the case is deeply ableist. It views people as only worthy to the extent of what they can do and produce.

This is, additionally, why it is so important to divest from religious models that encourage “praying pain away” and the like.

I write more about it for The Young Catholic Woman HERE. But I’ll briefly say more now: I prayed for healing, for years. I prayed that God would take my excruciating H. Pylori pain away. I prayed God would stop my bleeding. I prayed God would stop me from gaining more birth control weight. I prayed God would bring my period back. I prayed for my anxiety to go away. I prayed to be able to eat beef. I prayed for an end to hormonal acne. I’ve prayed for it all.

God did not enact any physical healing miracles in my life.

For a good long while, I was pissed. I thought God was entirely absent. I thought I “deserved” this pain for making choices I thought were in my best interest and maybe weren’t? I thought God wasn’t real. If He were, He would hear my prayers and answer me.

So many Christians feel this way. And it is wholly, completely untrue.

In fact, it’s ableist of us to think it IS true.

What’s more: God does not will suffering. God is not punishing you by making you sick. Disability and chronic illness and mental illness or not symptoms of sin. (He tells us so, right in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9.) They are natural functions of the body that everyone experiences, at some point in their life.

Again: We cannot and should not have to earn our health, just as we cannot earn our holiness. We think we can, especially as we’re inundated with stories about sainthood. We think these people earned their sainthood through their lives of service and prayer. This is not the proper way to conceive of sainthood. The saints were people who received grace-filled gifts, and then did something with them. They didn’t do something and then earn grace-filled gifts.

Catholics are especially guilty of this mindset, with our emphasis on practices, rote prayers, and sacramental milestones. We think that if we check all the boxes, God MUST respond in x, y, z ways. (I talk about this in the context of dating and marriage in THIS article.)

We can also approach the earning of health from a totally secular path that leads us to the same place. We are equally inundated with influencer advertisement for practices, supplements, workout regimens, etc. To a certain extent, this post is guilty of doing just that! We can believe that if we do all of these things, we DESERVE good health as the result and we WILL achieve it.

This is also not true. I tried every single one of those things listed under PBCS resources. Not ONE of them led me to getting my period back “naturally.” Sure, they made me feel better. They attended to other concerns I had. Not one led me to the ultimate outcome I was praying for.

Even if we do ALL the things, we might NEVER be healed. Neither by our own hand or by Gods. Healing is not earned. Physical health is not a right. It is an immense, immense privilege.

This doesn’t mean stop praying. It also doesn’t mean stop seeking medical attention. To quote my man Hans Urs von Balthasar: It means we “reasonably hope” for healing.

We can pray for our healing to end, offering it up as a form of prayer in and of itself, and reasonably hope that healing comes, with the full knowledge that if it doesn’t, it is not a reflection of our goodness. We can reasonably hope the supplements work, with the full knowledge that if they don’t, we are not to blame. We can hope from a place of true humility in one hand. And we can rage about how much this f*cking HURTS in the other. Both are very good. God holds space for both.

As of today, June 25th, 2021, I have had one major update: During this last cycle, I spotted on my 15th day. Ovulation typically takes place half-way through one’s cycle, around day 15. While this is not a surefire way of indicated that I’ve ovulated, given that this used to occur long before my birth control experience, I’m taking it as a good sign. However, this doesn’t rule out the likelihood that I have ovarian cysts. If I am in fact ovulating again, bleeding while I do very well might indicate some sort of obstruction or growth that is impacting the process. There is a real part of me that actively fears ovarian cancer. What I need is a pelvic ultrasound.

I’m hoping and praying that August 1st comes quickly, so I can shift onto workplace medical care and see a specialist as soon as possible. Until then, I’m going to keep doing what works, keep filtering out what doesn’t, and keep sharing in some form or another this series of unfortunate menstrual events. It’s only by sharing our experiences that they can become normalized. I’m grateful you’ve taken the time to listen to mine.

With love — Madison

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Categories
health

Disability & Star Wars

Yesterday was Star Wars day (and also my father’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Dadison!) Along with May the Fourth came the premier episode of the new animated series The Bad Batch. Outside of the fact that I misread the title every time, I gave the series next to no attention before yesterday. Then, I saw an announcement poster, and was immediately amazed. I scrambled to Disney+ to watch the first episode right away:

The Bad Batch is about disability.

It isn’t even veiled. The name The Bad Batch” is meant to allude to the general bad-assery of this troop of renegade clone troopers, but is most directly referring to the fact that these clones are “genetically defective.”

For those less familiar with the Star Wars universe–or perhaps you, like my Dad, often joke that the last time you saw a Star Wars movie was when the original premiered in theaters–let’s talk clones.

In the decades before the original trilogy, we generally follow the story of Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker’s father who eventually becomes Darth Vader.

Do I even NEED to say *SPOILER ALERT* for that one?? For what it’s worth, this piece will be riddled with small Bad Batch and Clone Wars spoilers. But, only the first episode has been released as of me writing this, so I truly cannot spoil all too much.

During the time in which Anakin Skywalker is developing his Jedi skills, and struggling to navigate emotions he is told are ill-suited to the life of a Jedi, the Republic is locked in an ongoing war with a group of Separatists. The Republic consists of representatives from a variety of planets, with Emperor Sheev Palpatine at the helm. The Separatists consist of a variety of generally sketchy individuals, with a number of various sketchier “bosses” leading various charges, and with the exceedingly ugly Darth Sidious at the helm. The Republic is using an army of genetically cloned soldiers. The Separatists are using an army of droids. The Jedi fight as knights on behalf of the Republic. This is the period known as The Clone Wars.

Again, is it even a spoiler to remind us that Sidious and Palpatine are the same person? He’s footing the bill of both sides of The Clone Wars to destabilize the Republic, that he might more easily take control and establish a Galactic Empire in their wake. This is exactly what happens, and is exactly where The Bad Batch picks up.

The show’s protagonists are a group of genetically defective clones. Clones are meant to be genetically identical to the original clone candidate: Jango Fett. They all generally look alike, speak alike, and bear the same militaristic aptitude of Fett, if only generally differentiated by various colored uniforms and sick hairstyles. Except… not these clones, Clone Force 99, “The Bad Batch.” Each clone in Force 99 has some sort of physical or cognitive divergence from the original clone model.

Hunter: The leader. His only variation appears to be a marking that covers half of his face. It seems to be a tattoo of half a skull, the symbol of Clone Force 99, though it may be functioning to hide some sort of burn or birthmark.

Wrecker: The “gentle giant.” He is physically larger and appears to be blind in one eye, with a large spiderweb scar across the same side of his bald head. It is unclear if these physical differences were sustained from birth or whether they were the result of an injury. He is uncharacteristically strong and inclined towards physical brutality. He maintains some sort of cognitive disability. He is the Lennie to Hunter’s George (and the likeness to Of Mice and Men is clearly intentional: Wrecker’s most prized possession is a stuffed plush bunny named Lula. If you’ll recall, Steinbeck’s Lennie was led to imagine being on a bunny farm, as he was calmed down by the thought of stroking something small and soft.)

Crosshair: The sniper. He is significantly more gaunt than a standard clone, with a tattoo of a crosshair over his dominant eye. He is rigid, obedient, and cold.

Tech: The nerd. He is more gaunt than a typical clone as well, wears glasses, and functions as a sort of human C3PO for the group. It will be interesting to see whether, in future episodes, the narrative leans into the typical trope of “has lots of knowledge but misses major social clues,” often used in film to suggest an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Echo: The “reg.” Echo is a cyborg clone. Having sustained a number of injuries in battle, Echo displays signs of albinism and is an amputee. He is called a “reg” because, unlike the other four, he was born a genetically normate clone. He has become disabled, rather than having been born that way. It would seem that his disabilities are relatively new, as the audience sees Echo deal begrudgingly with his limitations, apparently traumatized and sometimes embarrassed. Echo is important, and we’ll return to him very shortly.

So wait, are the clones (with Echo being the exception) of Clone Force 99 really disabled? Judging by the language used to describe them, it would certainly seem this way. They are described as genetically abnormal, and they maintain numerous physical differences that ostracize them from their “reg” peers and leave them struggling to engage according to normalized social cues.

However, returning to the double meaning of the show’s title, the other thing that distinguishes them from their peers is their effectiveness. They are outliers with a unique skill set, sent on unique missions and operating under a different set of rules, some externally imposed and others self-imposed. Their genetic differences give them exceptional utility despite social exclusion.

And that’s because they were designed that way.

Clone Force 99 were intentionally bred to be genetically abnormal. They didn’t happen to be disabled when they were born. They were genetically manipulated with an intentional, utilitarian outcome.

The stakes are raised when Admiral Tarkin arrives and observes the performance of Clone Force 99. He makes his opinions on clones very clear: The Empire no longer needs them, and in any case, they are by virtue of being clones, genetically inferior to other humans. “Reg” clones have all been “programmed” to some degree with decreased decision-making, to enhance their ability to follow orders. However, Clone Force 99’s unique skill set and supposed immunity from the cognitive programming strikes Tarkin as unexpectedly useful in their divergence from traditional clone tactics. Tarkin inquires whether or not these sorts of intentional genetic manipulations can be replicated, but with order-following forcibly enhanced as well to increase aggression.

So I could have started this blog post a different way:

The Bad Batch is about eugenics.

As such, it is still unclear to me whether or not we should consider Clone Force 99 disabled, even if the show is about genetic disability. Which makes the title of the show a bit misleading, yeah? A “bad batch” calls to mind a situationally defective batch of product. Something to be tossed out or ignored, like data or eggs.

This is not the reality of Clone Force 99. According to the performance standards of clone troopers and the Kaminoans who produced them, Clone Force 99 are not “bad” at all! They are very, very good. They are designer clones.

If we want to truly engage with a “defective clone product,” that was accidentally, congenitally disabled, then we must step back into The Bad Batch‘s series’ predecessor: The Clone Wars animated series.

I have been sitting on a post about The Clone Wars for quite some time, but haven’t been able to bring myself to write it. Which is part of the reason that my stomach leapt into my throat when I saw yesterday’s ads for The Bad Batch, and why I was on the edge of my seat for my entire viewing of the first episode.

Clone Force 99 is not the first introduction we have to genetically abnormal clones.

Clone 99 is.

In Episode 1 of Season 3 of The Clone Wars, “Clone Cadets,” the audience follows the training of a new squad of clones called Domino. Echo (member #5 of “the bad batch”) is a member of this earlier squad. As Domino trains and struggles to work together as a team, they engage with a clone called 99. 99 is described as genetically “malformed” and “defective.” He appears and speaks in a way reminiscent of the physically and cognitively disabled. His skin is wrinkled and discolored, with one droopy eye. He has a hunched back and walks with a limp. He is deemed unfit for combat. He works as a janitor.

He is characterized as wise, hopeful, interested, interpersonal, and ultimately, inspiring. As Domino pushes back against teamwork and relationship, 99 teaches them how to care for and work with each other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he becomes the linchpin to the final battle at the end of Episode 2, “ARC Troopers”, saving the day, and sacrificing his life. He is made an honorary member of Domino Squad, receiving accolades in death. “We lost a true soldier. He really was one of us.”

I am teary as I type it, for the same reason I avoided writing the post I’d wanted to write about 99 for almost a full year. It was deeply triggering to watch. I haven’t watched The Clone Wars since.

99’s story follows the arc so many pieces of fiction do: The cognitively disabled person is underestimated, neglected, ostracized, but tugs at the heartstrings of the audience as he or she proves themselves both thoughtful and worthy. These sorts of characters almost always end up dying at the conclusion of their narrative, a “necessary sacrifice” that is meant to call to our minds the senselessness of war. And yet, it is also a “reasonable” death meant to keep us placated. None of the main, non-disabled characters would ever die in such a way. Disabled side characters exist to invoke the gravity of the situation, without causing any “real” harm to the core of the story. It all hinges on the suspicion that they probably would’ve died anyway, are somehow closer to death than non-disabled persons, and somehow more suitable to it. It is “inspiration porn” in the clearest sense.

So lest any viewers of The Bad Batch come away thinking Star Wars is veering into new territory, know this: The Star Wars universe already has a disabled clone in 99. It is after him that Clone Troop 99, “the bad batch” itself, is named.

In fact: the title of the whole show, The Bad Batch, comes from a line of dialogue in “Clone Cadets.” One of Domino’s members, Hevy, tells 99 that the reason the team cannot seem to work together is that they are a “bad batch” of “failures.” Here, what defines a “bad batch” is an inability to work together. In this episode, the “real” defective clones are those who do not see themselves as brothers in relationship to one another, contrasted with the “apparent” defective clone 99 who is literally genetically deviant but has a better sense of the brotherhood relationship than any of them. This is, again, very different from the sense of a “bad batch” that we get from the show of the same name.

It is interesting then that of all the Clone Force 99 members, Echo is the most clearly physically disabled. That he, who knew 99 in-person, is the one who carries on that legacy of truly readable disability in his body. However, in my mind, it is Wrecker who appears most akin to 99 narratively. I am already bracing for him to die.

Star Wars has dealt with explicit disability before in two instances that I can recall:

First, Luke’s amputated arm at the end of Episode V. His injury is immediately rectified by a sleek prosthetic limb. No harm, no foul.

Second, the blind Force-believer (and, arguably, user) Chirrut Imwe from Rogue One. While his blindness contributes to a number of humorous interactions and scenes, he is ultimately uninhibited by his disability. In fact, in the conclusion of the film, with the again arguable assistance of the Force, he is able to miraculously achieve a feat that turns the tides of the battle before succumbing to his death. It is, again, a death that is used to deeply move the audience towards sadness. I knew the moment he appeared onscreen that he would not survive. Perhaps fortunately, the story of Rogue One does not single him out like The Clone Wars does 99.

It is important to note here the connection between a disabled person and a heightened sense of spirituality. This is also a very common trope in media depicting disabled persons, as well as in religious communities in our own real world. It is how we in Christian spaces have been taught to interpret Jesus Christ’s healing miracles against the backdrop of the Gospel of John 9: 1-3…

“Now as Jesus passed by He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.'” (NASB)

Now to be sure, associating disabled persons with unique spiritual abilities or favor with God is certainly better than associating disabled persons with sin. And, to be sure, Christ does indeed favor the marginalized, including the disabled, in particular ways (namely, in the attention he gives, to use the brilliant theological proffering of my friend and classmate Rebecca MacMaster.) As such, we can indeed learn something about community and Christlike, reciprocal relationship by spending time among people on the margins.

However, these views can also easily slip into inspiration porn again. We can start viewing the purpose of disabled people as being to teach us something about God, love, relationship, holiness, etc. (Sound like 99, anyone?) Disabled persons are human individuals in their own right, with their own desires, goals, skills, dislikes, and relationships with both other persons and God.

This is, again, why narratives like 99’s are so harmful: His character clearly served the sole purpose of teaching the main characters something about love. We must start to see disabled persons as main characters in their own right.

Views about spiritual and religious favor or power also encourage the opinion that the disability is “special,” when in reality, disability is supremely normal. All societies contain disabled persons, even if the responses to disability is different. All people will experience disabling conditions at some point in their lives, even if its the privileged disabling experience of old age. I shudder to think of what became of other genetically malformed clones; the Kaminoans admit of Clone Force 99 in episode one: “Five are all that remain.”

We should see that, across these Star Wars installments, disability is viewed as an ultimately useful impediment narratively. However, it is those who experience cognitive disabilities who fall prey to the most harmful of tropes. This is consistent with various other kinds of media, as well as various narratives in our society writ-large. Physical disabilities are generally viewed as more acceptable than cognitive ones. During one hospital scene, Clone Force 99 are informed by a medical droid that they are “genetically defective.” Tech is quick to reassure them, “we’re more deviant than defective.” Oh phew, crisis averted. In other words: “we’re not as bad as 99 was, because we are obviously more normative and useful.”

In the very next breath of the same scene, Clone Force 99 is made aware of Admiral Tarkin’s presence, to the chagrin of Echo, whose wartime injuries and mechanical enhancements had something to do with Tarkin. The “bad batch” is encouraged to do everything they can to appease the Admiral, lest they wind up “turned into that,” pointing back at Echo. Even though they are all on the same team, and Echo himself is not genetically deviant like the rest of them are, his teammates still treat his disabilities as markedly worse than theirs because their physical bodies are intact.

Above all, clones assert that they are far superior to droids. This is, in part, why Echo is singled out: Tech explicitly says “you are more machine than man, at this point.” We know how machines are treated by clones. We also know that droids are given personalities, memories, and feelings in the Star Wars universe. They’re not quite human, but they’re just animalistic enough to tug at our heartstrings when they die. I hope you see the similarities between these narrative functions and the narratives of cognitively disabled characters. This is not to speak to beliefs about human relationship to animals, but to call out the ways the cognitively disabled are often described in wild, animalistic, non-rational, even non-human terms. (*nods directly and aggressively to Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals*)

Because of the very same discriminate preferences–physical disabilities are better than cognitive ones, invisible ones more manageable than visible ones, persons with aids and prosthesis are proportionally less human than those with full use of all their limbs and organs– various laws and medical protections in our own country were written first in terms of physical accessibility. We still, today, see “access” as the leading call-to-arms for disability advocacy movements. It is vital that we see that “access” does very little to…

1). Meet the needs of cognitively disabled persons

2). Address the stigma faced by all disabled persons

In other words: a ramp, a lift, or a hearing aid won’t make people talk to you more respectfully. Access only goes so far.

In many cases, access is really just a tool for assimilation. The goal of many physical aids is to enable the body to operate normatively, that a person might come to participate more fully in social positions. Now, many disabled persons may desire aids. But some may not. Regardless, as consumers of media and participants in a society that contains disabled individuals, we must come to see that we continue to orient disabled persons towards utility. Getting and keeping jobs, participating “normally” in school, family, and Church, etc. These circumstances contain inherent dignity, and they are deeply worth protecting. However, they continue to trick us into viewing the disabled along a spectrum of usefulness and productivity. How much can that person do or understand? How old are they mentally, that I might appropriately label their behaviors for my own comfort? How could they be of use in “their own special way”?

Having this knowledge or demanding these skills of disabled persons should change absolutely nothing about the way they are viewed and treated.

It strikes me that this is the statement The Bad Batch has made thus far: These clones are genetically imperfect, BUT they are exceedingly useful.

This is not to say that exploring genetically divergent clones should be avoided. On the contrary: This is so, so important.

For one thing, it is vital that we see genetic divergence in every world we construct, fictional or real. Period.

I have felt such unrectified anger since watching 99’s The Clone Wars episodes. How dare Star Wars, a completely fictitious universe full of every imaginable type of creature, handle *literal* human genetic variants so stereotypically? I view The Bad Batch as an opportunity to expand this absolutely essential exploration, with the full knowledge that they might not do it perfectly. At least they’re doing it more.

For another, exploring genetically divergent clones makes way for examination into the ethics of cloning, questions of where in a person one’s personality and identity lies, and the bounds of science. Since meeting 99, I have long wondered about the bounds of genetic defectiveness of clones. Most interestingly: Could the clones’ sex chromosomes be genetically divergent? Could we ever see an intersex or female clone? (I’m thrilled to *spoil* that The Bad Batch gives us an answer: Yes!)

Depending on where the story goes from here, this could have amazing implications for the representation of intersex folks. Especially for those who believe transgender identities and the existence of a spectrum of gender all violate natural laws, increased discussion and representation of the genetically intersex can show that this is scientifically untrue. People are in fact born with divergent–in some cases, both!–sets of sex chromosomes and characteristics.

However, Star Wars is walking a very dangerous line on topics of eugenics and survival of the fittest. In one scene of The Bad Batch, the audience gets a glimpse of young Saw Gerrera, who is still reeling from Order 66 and the transition from Republic to Empire. In response to Clone Force 99 questioning their own allegiance to the Empire, Gerrera asserts that everyone must “adapt and survive, or die…” While this can certainly be interpreted as a realistic, political call to managing one’s expectations in order to stay alive, it is also explicitly reminiscent of arguments for natural selection and survival of the fittest, topics that explicitly implicate genetic variance.

In short: The Bad Batch will need to be careful not to implicitly or explicitly make the argument that only through intentional genetic manipulation can a clone survive. With the Jedi gone, clones are some of the only humans the audience can see themselves in and follow narratively. What are we being told about our own genetics if this is the case? It is certainly worth considering.

Like I said, there has only been one episode thus far. I greatly look forward to seeing where the show goes from here. I am hopeful that this might be the beginning of greater, more explicit exploration of disabled protagonists in Disney’s media.

It is worth considering how superhero stories are often implicitly about topics of disability and bodily variance (I think the X-Men stories handle these topics most explicitly), but that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely avoided these conversations. Perhaps a topic for another post?

I hope you watch The Bad Batch. But I implore you to watch Season 3 Episodes 1 and 2 of The Clone Wars first. It seems profoundly unjust not to include 99 himself in the story of Clone Force 99. Luckily, you can find both in the same place, as they’re both on Disney+.

May the Force be With You, Always– Madison

(Okay…say it back: “And with your Spirit.”)

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Our Planetary Body: Series Introduction

It’s Earth Day.

You probably know this already from the 37 emails you got advertising Earth Day sales.

In recent years, the attractiveness of an eco-friendly, “all-natural,” low-waste lifestyle has skyrocketed. By contrast, the states of our waterways, forests, soil, weather, ocean levels, atmosphere, biodiversity, and more are still rapidly worsening.

Perhaps less commonly-known is that this worsening is not a result of individual failings. The biggest contributors to environmental degradation are corporations and governments. Through the burning of fossil fuels, air travel, factory production, deforestation, destruction of land and waterways, and more, the biggest culprits are the exact people who want us to think it’s all our individual faults. We used too much aerosol hairspray, we didn’t recycle enough.

The “all-natural,” “go green,” and “reduce, reuse, recycle” movements we were raised with were developed in part to place the onus of responsibility on the individual. This is not entirely inappropriate–we do each have an individual responsibility to protect our common home–but nevertheless we were taught these things in part to distract from the real culprits: commercial enterprise.

What do macro-responsibilities and micro-responsibilities have in common? Gluttony. Consumption. Stuff.

Whether the stuff is clothing, plastic, packaging, dairy, crude oil, hunting, fishing, driving and traveling… we have too much stuff.

This is where we see the rise in popularity of “minimalism.” Sparsely decorated walls, capsule wardrobes, plant-based diets, wooden toys… We have made “having less” extremely attractive. The number of white, Christian influencers peddling celery juice in repurposed mason jars while wearing yesterday’s thrifted all-white ensemble they dried using woolen balls is too many to count. And yet it’s true! If we all had less stuff, the planet would be healthier.

The issue is this: The problem does not go away simply by yelling at people to have less stuff. Why? Because having less stuff requires having access to higher quality stuff that will last longer as well as package-free options that reduce waste. All of these things cost $$$$. All-natural alternatives often cost significantly more than the cheap, plastic, packaged, single-use, or fast-fashion alternatives.

This is not actually bad, because it often means companies are paying their workers a living wage in order to produce their items (Now, this is certainly not always the case. Many brands will hike up their prices simply because they know people will pay for the prestige of a minimalist life, still underpaying and overworking their employees.) But the difference in cost of living as eco-friendly of a life as possible is enormous, and ignores the very real problems that make environmental protection a clear issue of justice: Food deserts in rural and under-resourced communities, the racially-motivated locations of hazardous and pollutant factories, lack of nutritional education, monopolies on consumerism by big-box stores like Amazon and Walmart, just to name a few.

And even then, even if you have the money to invest in a minimalist lifestyle, 9 times out of 10 this requires a transition from a maximalist lifestyle through downsizing. Where does all the stuff you already have go if it doesn’t match your minimalist aesthetic? Well, if we’re not careful, to the landfill. See, by glamorizing eco-friendly minimalism, every brand on Earth is jumping onto the bandwagon and coming out with products labeled “green,” “clean,” “organic,” “natural,” “vegan,” etc. Their ads look just like that influencer’s home. If it’s a big company, their options are probably significantly cheaper than the small business they’re competing with. And yet it still all hinges on the temptation to have more stuff. This is “green-washing.”

It’s Earth Day.

Praise God for ecological leadership we’ve seen take precedence in recent years. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical Laudato Si brought our ecological crisis to the front of Christians’ minds everywhere.

We have an ecological body. We have a planetary body. When we talk about Theology for Every Body, we must include this body, the body we are polluting and abusing. The first body entrusted to Adam’s care, before even that of Eve or their children (Genesis 2).

Maybe it feels a bit uncomfortable to call it a body. But isn’t it? With its veins, its air, its limbs, its water? Its pockets and cracks and bony plates?

From the moment I began Theology for EveryBody, I knew ecological justice would be a key component of its ethos. It must be. The Body of Christ necessarily includes the Earth, because it is from whence we all come and where we all end up. It is what we are made stewards of, a key component of so many miracles.

So, welcome to this series! It’s going to be an exceptionally fun and unique one, because not only am I going to write on ecological justice and theology (handing the metaphorical mic over to BIPOC leaders in these fields whenever I can) but I’m going to have Guy weigh in as well. That’s right folks: STEMforEveryBody crossover series!

Guy is a theoretical space physicist. His research centers on the interaction between the sun’s plasma particles and the Earth’s magnetosphere (did you even know the Earth had such a thing? A magnetic atmosphere? I sure didn’t!) This might not seem to have much to do with our climate crisis, but it does.

Guy is also currently back in night school studying public policy, as he prepares for a job transition into the world of science policy and advocacy. Issues of climate justice are nuanced, and are the responsibility of our federal, state, and local governments to navigate on the behalf of their constituents whose present and future livelihoods are immediately at stake. We’re long past imagining what the world will look like for our children’s children. Things are dire: The next 40 years will be make or break.

What’s more, Guy is passionate about learning about, advocating for, and supporting Indigenous education, leadership, land-management, and history. He has a fair bit of knowledge about and referrals to make to various Indigenous practices, leaders, scholars, traditions, and more. The conversation on ecological preservation and protection cannot occur without deferring to the ancestral knowledge of the people who cared for the land before we forced them off of it. The Church is explicitly culpable.

Guy and I have both committed to living as ecologically conscious of a lifestyle as we can. We’ve made numerous “swaps,” as well as larger dietary and lifestyle choices, that we look forward to sharing with you. Perhaps unsurprisingly: Minimalism is NOT a part of this lifestyle, and I’ll end up arguing that rejecting aesthetic minimalism might be one of the best things you can do.

I’ll also be sure and talk about ecological theologies. How can we see the Earth as God’s body? Is there such a thing as ecological sin? I’m particularly excited to explore “Franciscan Theology with my Non-Catholic Fiance.” Guy more than anyone else has introduced me to the Spirit of the outdoors, the holiness of flora and fauna, the necessity of breathing deep in fresh air, and respecting natural spaces through our own reverent activity.

If you only do one thing today to mark Earth Day: Read THIS book. Get it from your library, order it from your favorite small or used book store. Ashlee Piper’s knowledge is comprehensive, funny, easy to understand, and just might change your life. I’ve met her IRL and consider her one of my wisest and funnest Internet friends (DM me and I’ll show you our fun bathroom mirror selfies!)

Climate Change is not a myth. It isn’t disproven by dangerous, uncharacteristic temperature lows. It isn’t disproven by the saving of a few endangered or thought-to-be-extinct species or fewer plastic straws in the ocean. The only opinion we should have on Climate Change is that it is imminent. The only difference of opinion we should have on Climate Change is how we personally commit to fighting it.

I would say “we can’t wait to walk the path to a safer planet with you,” but it’s too late to walk.

We must run. As fast as we possibly can.

With urgent love — Madison and Guy

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Categories
health PCOS

Trust Your Gut

My Mom raised me to trust my gut. If something was wrong, I felt it deep in what she called my “conscience.” People I know now tell me it’s “Catholic guilt,” but it’s not. I didn’t grow up in a household where God was frightening and mad at me. I didn’t grow up going to Confession. I grew up with a Mom who regularly reminded me that my body would tell me–through an upset stomach, anxious feelings, a knot in my chest, poor sleep or bad dreams–that something was wrong.

My body on birth control was telling me something was wrong. So I got off the birth control pill. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. Very, very wrong.

I assumed that, because I was forcibly cycling my body through hormones every month, that it would continue cycling using the hormones it naturally produced. Maybe that would be the case if the hormones you were supplementing with were bioidentical (in other words, structurally similar or identical to hormones the body naturally creates.) Hormonal birth control is not. The “cycle” I experienced on the Pill was not a cycle at all. So, when I got off of it, my body. freaked. out.

I went a month anxiously anticipating a period. In fact, I expected my severe blood loss to come back like it had when I was prompted to get on the Pill in the first place. I also (secretly) hoped the weight I’d gained would fall off as quickly and effortlessly as I’d gained it. It feels silly, and deeply sad, to say it aloud.

I didn’t have a period. What I did have was stomach pain. I first noticed it after eating. At the same 30 minute interval, after eating dinner every night, a specific spot in my upper abdomen felt a sudden, sharp stab. It was accompanied by nausea, cramping, severe bloating and dizziness. Suddenly, I had the need to drink water and lie down after every dinner.

Given that I was living in intentional religious community, this was my first experience of the difficulty of explaining chronic illness symptoms to loved ones and coworkers. I had been struggling in community for months, retreating to my room after work as the most introverted in the house, butting heads with a cranky Brother, and grieving the death of a community loved one. Now, I couldn’t bring myself to sit through night prayer without doubling over in discomfort. I suspected that my community members questioned whether I was simply moody and resisting community involvement.

After four or five days of experiencing this nightly discomfort, I began experiencing it in the middle of the day. At the time, I was teaching middle school religion in the afternoons post-lunch. I would eat, go to teach, and start feeling sick by half-way through my first class. I immediately confided in my mentor teacher, who suspected I was experiencing a stress-induced ulcer. I was told the same things the internet told me: To get more rest and try to reduce my stress.

As a full-time, volunteer middle school teacher living in a community in which I felt unsafe, grieving and lonely… how? Besides taking my time to attend to my post-meal pain, there was not much else I could do, and I didn’t have much spare time. I needed to be present in community, and I also needed to be present at our short-staffed school. Despite these anxieties, and not having access to a regular physician, I finally bucked up the courage to pursue medical care, and went to a local Tulsa urgent care clinic.

I was examined and given an abdominal x-ray. I informed the doctor about my recent shift off of birth control, and asked if perhaps my digestive issues had anything to do with that? The doctor assured me, no. Looking at my x-ray results, I was extremely constipated. She encouraged me to drink lots of water, keep taking Miralax, if that didn’t work take Metamucil, and if THAT didn’t work, Citric Acid. After that, if I still experienced the stabbing pain, I was probably experiencing intestinal irritation from being backed up and was told to take Zantac and Pepto-Bismol.

I won’t burden you with the details of my bowel movement failures. Let’s just say: I ended up having to take all 3 laxatives and they worked as expected, yet none of my symptoms actually changed. In fact, my pain worsened into unpredictable bouts of the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. Eating or drinking anything–or not eating or drinking anything–could leave me keeled over on the toilet, screaming in pain. Like being stabbed from the inside out, unable to move, unable to eat, I went three days self-medicating with antacids, milk, mashed potatoes, crackers, Pedialyte, and stool softeners, praying that whatever was inside me would just get out.

The doctor at the Urgent Care clinic had told me if things got worse that I may have an intestinal blockage. This scared me. I hadn’t eaten anything nonedible. If I had a blockage, it was either some sort of bump or twist from overeating, or it was some sort of growth. Colon cancer does not run in my family, but it is becoming increasingly common among young people. After three days of excruciating pain, trying to stay present to my students and my community, I went to the Emergency Room. Twice.

The first visit, they did triage and then sent me to the dangerously backed-up waiting room. There was a young girl in a hospital bed that had been rolled into the waiting room, sweating profusely, keeled over in pain, wailing about having been waiting for 13 hours. I looked at Brother Richard, horrified. We couldn’t wait that long. So we left.

I didn’t sleep a wink that night, slumped over the toilet bawling. We went back to the ER the next morning. This time, it was far less busy, and I was able to be seen right away. They performed another X-ray and CAT scan. They examined my colon, liver, appendix, and spleen. They also tested my blood for infection. They noticed no inflammation or blockages in any of my organs, and I came back free of infection. But I was heartbroken: No answers. And they said there was nothing else they could do for me except refer me to a GI.

I took the referral and went two days later. The GI took a stool sample, which came back with trace evidence of a stomach bacterial infection. He schedule me for an endoscopy, a procedure similar to a colonoscopy where your digestive tract is examined (just from the top-down instead of bottom-up… literally.) I would be given anesthesia and the procedure would take a couple hours as they both inserted a scope down into my intestines and took a small excision sample. It was and is still the only surgical procedure I’ve had done outside of wisdom teeth. I was scared. Brother Richard went with me, and let me sing a loopy song about how excited I was to be able to eat chicken nuggets after my procedure. I hadn’t eaten solid food in two weeks.

Again, my heart breaks to say it. The doctor said the scope came back inconclusive. I showed evidence of having recently healed from a number of ulcers, but I had no active ulcers. The excision, again, showed trace evidence of a stomach bacterial infection. But, the doctor said there wasn’t enough evidence to be concerned. He could prescribe me antibiotics, but he didn’t think I needed them. He said I could control my pain through diet, exercise, and stress-management.

I was distraught. Wasn’t that what I was doing? I wasn’t eating ANYTHING! I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. All I could think of was that whatever I was doing to manage it, I wasn’t doing enough. Not to mention I had just shelled out money for urgent care, not one but two ER visits, a GI appointment, and now an inconclusive procedure. I guess I just had to keep suffering until I was better. No chicken nuggets.

My pain did not improve. I still could not eat. Guy came to be with me for a few days, as I prepared to go back to teaching for the final two weeks of the school year. I couldn’t imagine not seeing my students again and closing out the year. He shopped with me for baby food, in the hopes that I could safely stomach the vile puree. At the time, he and I were 8 months into long distance between Oklahoma and Alberta, Canada. He was the only person who came to visit me during my time of illness.

Just before my last week of my year of service, I traveled to Chicago for our volunteer program’s debriefing weekend. I still could hardly eat, and when I did eat, I was still left doubled over in pain and horribly nauseous. After every meal, I had to take time in my room instead of immediately transitioning to the next of the weekend’s activities. I couldn’t connect with any of my fellow volunteers from around the country (and given that I’d spent a year being pretty relentlessly bullied and ostracized by a good portion of them for college-old rumors, none of them particularly cared what I was experiencing anyway. Again, the volunteer environment I was in left me ripe for judgment and suspicion. She’s probably just looking for attention.)

Finally, on my last day of debriefing, pieces clicked into place for my boss. She paused, pulled me aside and said, “Wait. Do you have H. Pylori?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“Why aren’t you on antibiotics?!”

“The doctor said I didn’t need them, and could manage with diet and rest.”

She was seething as she told me her story of having an H. Pylori infection in high school. It was excruciating. All she could stomach was Gatorade. The only thing that helped was antibiotics.

In fact, with a stomach infection like mine, all of the things I had been told to do by the urgent care doctor had actually made all of my symptoms worse. H. Pylori feeds off of fibrous material, like mashed potatoes, baby food, and Metamucil. Antacids may have reduced acid caused by the ulcerous bacteria, but it was also coated my stomach lining and allowing the bacteria to dig even deeper.

I was floored. “Why would the doctor tell me I don’t need antibiotics then?”

“Because he sounds like an asshole male doctor who devalues women’s pain and has never had it himself.”

It was my first time experiencing such explicit bias against women and women’s pain. This bias is so rampant, and is 3x higher against women of color.

Because I was going home to California in a week, I waited and scheduled an appointment with my primary care physician in which I directly requested antibiotics after presenting a folder full of the findings from the endoscopy.

Within 3 days of taking them, I felt better. I no longer had that stabbing pain the middle of my abdomen, and I could eat food without immediately triggering an onslaught of excruciating pain.

If there’s anything to be learnt here it’s this: H. Pylori is the cause of ulcers 90% of the time. Stress can make it worse, but the root cause is typically bacterial infection. You cannot fight bacteria without antibiotics. You can get lucky and maybe it goes away, but to actively fight an invasive bacteria, you need an antibacterial. Your pain is valid. You deserve the relief trusted medication provides.

But even after antibiotics, I still felt extremely nauseous. Eating still tired me out like no other activity. I still had to go lie down after every meal. I still had extreme bloating.

Now I’m going to pause here and yell at diet culture for a minute: 9 times out of 10, when we see or hear complaints about bloating, it’s that it makes your stomach bigger and your pants not fit. Nobody talks about the fact that bloating can be extremely, extremely painful. Again, when we talk about the problems facing women’s digestive health, so much of it surrounds weight gain that the solutions often focus solely on weight loss, completely sanitizing the reality of pain. Hear me now, bloated women: You deserve to not be bloated, not because it makes you larger, but because it. hurts. very. much. And you deserve to not be in pain.

When I followed-up with my primary care physician after finishing my round of antibiotics, she asked if gallbladder problems run in my family.

Yep, they do. Not a single Chastain over the age of 21 has a working gallbladder, actually.

My doctor sent me to get a HIDA scan, in which you lie on a table and are injected with a dye that lights up your gallbladder. You then consume a substance that tells your body to mimic its response to food in need of digestion. As you lie on the table for 45 minutes, the large machine above you monitors the release of the dye from your gallbladder. For those who have never given any thought to their gallbladder, this is what the gallbladder does: While your liver always and everywhere stores and releases bile to help break down your food, your gallbladder (which is connected to your liver) stores extra bile to be released when you eat food that needs extra help breaking down. Think greasy food, processed food, fatty food, leafy greens, red meat, and highly acidic foods. Your body also relies on bile from your gallbladder if you eat while drinking, as alcohol naturally impairs the liver.

The physical results from the scan were immediate: I broke out in sweats, my stomach bloated immediately, I felt nauseous and dizzy. The data was just as telling: Over the course of 45 minutes, my gallbladder had only released 4% of its contents. My gallbladder wasn’t working.

Now, gallbladder failure can have a number of causes: Gallstones, inflammation (cholecystitis), or… it can simply stop working. This is called “lazy gallbladder,” and it’s what runs in my family. No inflammation, no stones, just… a broken organ.

The nurse at the hospital who conducted my scan was extremely comforting and understanding. She let me cry tears of relief at finally having an answer and walked me through my options. The most important thing is managing my diet by avoiding the foods I listed above. If I don’t, and I continuously tell my body I need extra bile it can’t provide, my liver will continue to send extra bile to my gallbladder to store, not understanding that my gallbladder isn’t releasing any. This can cause a back-up, which can then lead to gallstones or inflammation. This is what leads to people getting their gallbladders removed alltogether.

This choice is different for everyone. The HIDA nurse herself told me she has a broken gallbladder but hadn’t had hers removed. My dad and many of his family members have had theirs removed, but a couple family members still have theirs. A conversation I had with my dad was really helpful: “Once you get an organ out, you can’t get it put back in,” he said, “and truthfully, getting it out doesn’t actually save you from digestive problems, it just gives you new ones.” Meaning, if you take out the organ that regulates bile release, when you eat those problem foods I named, instead of being backed up with not enough bile, your liver overproduces bile, which leads to you digesting too quickly. Which leads to problems like chronic diarrhea and lack of nutrient absorption. Gallbladder problems are like being between a rock and a hard place: There’s no perfect solution.

To this day, I am still managing my gallbladder failure. Up until about a year ago, I still experienced regular symptoms. If I ate too much food, I often ended up vomiting because my body couldn’t digest it all. There was a time I couldn’t eat if I was also drinking alcohol for the same reason (definitely doesn’t help that “pub food” is pretty much exclusively foods on that list of “no-go’s.”) The first time Guy ever saw me puke was after my former roommate’s graduation party. I had eaten pizza and drank a lot of wine (it was hosted at an Italian restaurant! What are you gonna do??) I was FaceTiming Guy afterwards– we were still long-distance–and with absolutely zero warning, I projectile vomited all over myself, my bed, and the phone I was using to call him. It was… gross. And again, I had to explain my mad dash to the bathroom not only to my roommate, but to her entire family that was there for her graduation. I am sure there was some small part of them that wondered, like my fellow volunteers and my intentional community the year before, what on Earth was wrong with me and if it wasn’t in some part an attention grab. I was extremely embarrassed.

Learning from these moments, here are my “gallbladder management” habits:

  • I don’t eat tomatoes, pork, or cauliflower. Basically ever.
  • I eat beef, broccoli, and brussel sprouts very rarely.
  • If I experience gallbladder pain (which to me, feels like a pinching or stabbing feeling up under my right ribcage) I take a hot shower or bath, apply a hot compress, take a multivitamin, and drink a ton of water. In my early days I occasionally utilized castor oil packs, to some success.
  • If I experience a gallbladder attack (which is when I experience massive bloating, cramping, nausea, and vomiting due to overeating or constipation), all I can do is drink a ton of water, sit on the toilet with a cold compress on my forehead and neck, and wait for it to pass. Gallbladder attacks are really scary, and the immense pain often sends me back to my weeks in Tulsa alone and afraid of what was happening in my body. Now, with the help of counseling, I’m learning to try and extend my body pride and compassion. It knows something is wrong. It knows it cannot process all the food inside of it. It wants it all out. And it is doing a good job, its exact job, to try and fix the problem.

I suspect that, with the work I’ve done on managing my diet, my gallbladder is functioning more than it used to. I can eat more processed foods and healthy fat without experiencing pain, and of all of my symptoms I’ve noticed the most marked difference in my bloating. I’m really proud of myself.

That being said, figuring out what to do and not to do took years of trial and error. After over a month in Tulsa of not being able to eat at all, I had developed a disordered relationship to food: I was scared of eating. Not because I was scared of gaining weight, but because I was scared of messing up my stomach and causing myself pain. I didn’t trust myself, neither my food choices nor my body. I was anxious any time I went out to eat with friends. I got really into cooking, if only because I was forced to try a new combination of foods every night to see how my body responded. I didn’t trust doctors to tell me the truth, either. Not after my experience in Tulsa.

I am still healing. I am still learning to trust my body’s ability to digest, and my mind in making smart choices. Most importantly, I still really struggle with beating myself up during a flare-up. I often blame myself, that if I hadn’t eaten X, drank Y, or stressed out about Z, I wouldn’t feel this way. I often also catastrophize: Meaning, I often jump to a worst case scenario. “This is going to make me vomit,” or “This is going to send me back to the hospital.” Thanks to counseling, I can now identify these as trauma responses. I am working on them.

But Madison, this is a series on PCOS. What on Earth does ANY of this have to do with your period or hormones?

Remember when I asked the Urgent Care doctor if any of this had to do with getting off the birth control pill and she said no?

Ha. Haha.

I should’ve trusted my gut.

I could go on and on explaining the science, but I would rather direct you to the person who pioneered it: Dr. Jolene Brighten. Dr. Brighten is a leader in women’s menstrual irregularities and has coined the term “Post-Birth Control Syndrome.” Again, thanks to my counselor (who I hope you’re starting to see is a key player along my health journey), I was referred to Dr. Brighten after sharing the story I’ve just shared with you.

Here’s the gist of what I have learned: When you take medication, much of it is filtered through your liver. Especially when that medication is hormonal in nature, your liver works overtime processing the foreign hormones. We know that there are many frequently-prescribed drugs currently on the market that pose risks to liver function for this very reason. Birth control, we are actively learning, is one of them. And what threatens the liver, threatens the gallbladder. For those genetically pre-disposed, birth control can lead to early liver or gallbladder stress and even failure.

What’s more, hormonal birth control has been linked to decreased immune function and irritation of the digestive tract. Meaning? A person on hormonal birth control, like many other medications, is at increased risk of infection.

With your body on such high alert, when its primary concern of processing these hormones and forcing a non-cycle cycle is taken away and you get off birth control, it typically takes a very long time for your period to come back. Not only does your body have to relearn how to naturally produce and cycle all your natural hormones, but it also has to address the outlying issues of infection, inflammation, organ failure, stomach dysbiosis, and more. Sound familiar?

Now, one of the things I appreciate about Dr. Brighten is that she is not outright anti-Pill. She repeatedly affirms that not only is it sometimes truly the best medical option for a woman, but that beyond anything else it is extremely difficult for a woman to avoid birth control in the first place, since it is prescribed as the band-aid for so many women’s health issues. But, Dr. Brighten frequently says, it is important to get to root causes of hormonal imbalance before applying the Pill as a band-aid solution AND there are many things it is important for women to do while on the Pill to support the body.

This should be at the heart of Catholic theological and ethical discussions of birth control: Has the woman had ample time and resources made available for her to explore the root cause of her symptoms? Is her primary concern that of her health and not of contraception? Has she been educated in the ways she can support her health and fertility while on the Pill? Health and safety should always be held in priority above “a slippery slope to enabling promiscuity.” If women fear taking the Pill, it should be because they are fully informed about the real and severe medical risks, not because their Church has made them feel guilty for pursuing something viewed as heightening sexual temptation. In fact, the latter actually enables distrust of one’s body: If you are constantly being told by religious or moral figures that you can’t trust your body not to lead you astray, then you are not going to trust your gut when it’s telling you something is wrong. Your body is good, it knows what to do. Listen to it.

For those who seem suspicious, I get it. Dr. Brighten has a line of supplements, a book, her own series of courses you can pay to take, and she hosts a yearly conference on hormonal health. I have paid for one of these courses, read her book, taken the supplements, and frequently refer back to her hundreds of free articles. Let me assure you, I am not on any sort of payroll. Nor do I necessarily agree with the popular, online influencer strategy of putting life-changing information and helpful supplementation behind steep paywalls. This is why I urge you, if any of my experiences sound like yours, to read her articles (with a grain of salt.) Read her book (with a grain of salt. AND request it from your local library: In this house, we support local communities and the environment and always go to the library first!) I also recommend the Period Repair Manual by Lara Briden, which alongside Dr. Brighten’s book, is the other leading text exploring contemporary science about menstrual health. Pursue the free knowledge first before diving deeper.

Most importantly, talk to your doctor (but take their advice with a grain of salt, too.) Medical practices you find in the doctor’s office, unless your doctor is affiliated with a research institution or is reading up on contemporary research, averages 17 years behind results from current studies. Just because your doctor doesn’t know about a study doesn’t make the study false. A good doctor will explore it with you. In the same breath, just because a study says something is true doesn’t mean it is. Scientific discoveries must be repeatable to be valid AND if they are to be just and equitable, they need to be repeatable across a wider demographic than the usual suspects. In short: If Black women weren’t consulted, there’s more work to be done.

I also urge you: Listen to your body. Trust your gut. No matter what any professional says, not everything will work for you. I couldn’t follow Dr. Brighten’s course to a T, because her food plans did not account for gallbladder failure, and many of the ingredients were on that “difficult to digest” list. When my primary care physician finally prescribed me antibiotics, she also suggested I get back on the birth control Pill. In Tulsa, I needed fewer antacids. In college, I needed to explore why I was bleeding before I jumped to birth control to make the bleeding stop. My body was showing me, all along, that something was not right. But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not listening the first, second, third, or thirtieth time. If anything, from this story it should be clear that whether you’re the patient or the medical professional, it’s all basically (and extremely unfairly and unfortunately) a guessing game when it comes to women’s health until this all becomes prioritized, common knowledge.

So that’s the end of my health past, but I am still surmounting a health present. For the next and final installment of this series, I’m going to briefly explain how I got from Post-Birth Control Syndrome (PBCS) to Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and identifying as chronically ill, and then present you with my totalizing list of things I’ve tried, broken down into categories of things that…

  1. Definitely helped
  2. Maybe helped? Maybe it was a placebo effect?
  3. Didn’t help at all

My email and DM’s on Instagram are always open. As you may be able to infer from my digestive ailments, nothing (polite) grosses me out anymore. Maybe don’t send me unsolicited toilet bowl pics, but if you have a question, experience, or concern, I love to hear them and walk with you through whatever you’re experiencing.

Big love–Madison

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Categories
faith relationships

Dating a Non-Catholic

When I first announced my relationship with my now-fiancé to my parents, the first thing my dad said was, “Really? The least Catholic person you know?”

This was rich coming from a man who was not Catholic when he married my very Catholic mother and then converted 25 years later when he had truly and personally come to the faith (this was the crux of my rebuttal to his comment). In truth, his comment was the response I knew many of our friends and family shared but didn’t have the courage to say.

From the start, my boyfriend and I were drawn to each other because of our shared passion for leadership, learning, and serving others. We have always had fantastic conversations at the intersections of our scientific and theological studies. As we got to know each other more deeply, we discovered shared difficulties in our family lives growing up, a shared desire for self-improvement, and shared political beliefs.

Over the course of four years of friendship and dating other people, we discovered the uniqueness of our trust and honesty with each other, and attraction naturally grew. We have learned how to communicate effectively through three years of long distance dating and, through personal tragedy, we have come together to mourn and ask big questions about what “beyond” looks like. It seems to me that, if you removed the outside personas of “church girl” and “agnostic scientist,” our inner selves would look pretty darn similar.

We also still share many essential beliefs: that the ordering of the natural world implies the existence of an all-knowing, first-motion Creator; that there are mysteries that science cannot explain; that miracles happen; that we are both soul and body; and that service to the poor is the crux of the Gospel.

This is not to say that there have not been important conversations surrounding topics like marriage, sex, and children. It is with these subjects that most Catholics begin and end the conversation about dating a non-Catholic…

Read the rest at FemCatholic.com

*When I originally wrote this article, FemCatholic was a free publication. As of October 2021, FemCatholic is now behind a paywall. In the spirit of access, I believe it is important for my writing to remain free-to-read. FemCatholic is an incredible space, and I am thrilled every time I have the chance to write for them! If you have the means to do so, I encourage you to subscribe to one of their passes ($5-$10/month.) Their collection of writers, videos, and events are creating much-needed space for Catholic women to come as they are. However, all of my writing for FemCatholic will always be free to read here on TheologyForEveryBody.com

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Categories
health PCOS

Second Puberty: Thoughts on Birth Control

Last time we talked, we were chatting about periods and bleeding to death. At the end of that story, the ER’s on-call OBGYN said I needed to get on the birth control pill to stop my excessive bleeding. When you’ve almost died from blood loss, anything that makes you stop bleeding sounds like a good idea.

To be honest, the thought of taking birth control made me feel… mature. I was a junior in college who was not sexually active and wasn’t interested in being sexually active. Waiting to have sex until I was with my spouse was something I personally valued. But I had so many friends who were on birth control, whether it was for acne or cramps or otherwise. Like my cheerleading teammates whose neon green tampons I yearned to borrow in high school, I felt like I was joining the ranks of young adult womanhood by having a tiny pill to take every day.

I am sure there is something to be said here for how modern-day feminism has sold women’s physical (particularly sexual) independence. Pill packs come in all sorts of candy colors. IUD ads populate romcom commercial breaks. It is glamorous to have a habit that suggests sexual maturity. Much work has been done breaking down the harm this push for birth control does to women. Of biggest concern to me is the way this glamour masks a lack of informed consent and comprehensive sexual education.

The Church situates itself staunchly against this idea of a woman’s maturity or freedom meaning dependence upon sterilization, abortion, or contraception. However, only very recently has the reasoning for this set of beliefs really shifted towards “wanting women to understand their bodies, chart their cycles, and get to root causes in defense of human dignity for every life” and away from “these medications and practices encourage sexual immorality and irresponsibility.” This is in no small part due to the increase of lay women driving Catholic conversations online. As a result, there seems to be a greater space for topics of sexual violence and medical complications among these discussions. But between the old-school concerns about a slippery sexual slope and contemporary “wellness culture” that says you should be able to know and treat your body’s concerns 100% on your own by peeing on a test strip, charting cervical mucus daily, taking your temperature as soon as the alarm goes off, and using a unique blend of herbs and spices designed to balance your hormones, the Catholic world still doesn’t talk much about situations like mine.

Taking birth control for a valid health reason does not violate Catholic Church teaching.

Let me say that again: It doesn’t violate Church teaching to take hormonal birth control for a health reason independent from contraceptive use. Even if you’re married and having sex! If you are using hormonal birth control primarily for a valid health reason separate from contraception, then the intended consequence takes primacy over the secondary consequence of preventing pregnancy. This is what’s called the ethical principle of Double Effect. But, you have to 100% NOT intend the secondary consequence. So if there’s even a small part of you utilizing hormonal birth control for a contraceptive reason, then yes. That would violate Catholic Church teaching.

What we see is a confusion about what it means when the Church requires a marriage be “open to children.” When the Church says “openness to children,” it means that you agree to not act in such a way that intentionally prevents children and, if you were to become pregnant, you would bring that child to term. It is confusing: hormonal birth control prevents children 91% of the time. But if you do not intend to prevent children, and are taking birth control because you are literally bleeding to death, you’re in the clear.

There may be a bit of debate around weighing the proportional significance of certain outcomes. For example, if you are a married person taking birth control pills to prevent acne primarily, all the while it is acting as contraception secondarily, the Church might say that the secondary outcome is proportionally greater than the first. Proportional justification is difficult, and I’ve taken us into the weeds a bit with medical ethics. But it is important to me that YOU, reader, know that you don’t have to forgo birth control and put yourself at risk of reproductive injury (or death) to receive the Eucharist. And hey you, if you’re on birth control, Jesus wants to be with you in every part of your life, no matter the reason you’re on it (even if it IS for contraceptive reasons.)

The number of church leaders, men and women alike, who have articulated to me in one form or another that it is impossible for women to not implicitly desire contraception when on birth control is astonishing. Time and again we see the theme that women are intrinsically sexual and seductive, dating all the way back to our girl Eve. This anti-pill rhetoric is reminiscent of the mid-20th century, where ads arguing against birth control displayed a new type of woman that was dangerous, feminist, financially independent, sexually exploratory, and a threat to traditional, maternal family values (a type of rhetoric we now often see used to characterize LGBTQ+ folx…)

But these are not the only groups that suffer from discrimination within conversations of birth control. For decades, it was customary to put women with disabilities on the pill, regardless of symptoms or circumstances. This custom was both eugenic and predatory: It was designed to combat the potential for the passing on of “compromised genes,” all the while making it easier for disabled women to be sexually abused in care facilities. The justification for the procedure was often that intellectually disabled persons had heightened sexual appetites, in some cases even believed to be natural-born sexual predators. Sometimes, it was done simply to make caregivers’ cleaning jobs easier: No menstrual blood. Many disabled women were also forcibly given hysterectomies.

This violence against disabled people is sickening. For these reasons, contraception among the disabled community is a tricky subject. It is important to combat stereotypes about heightened sexual desire. However, disabled persons also suffer from paternalistic infantilization that suggests the disabled are more childlike and lack sexual appetites completely. Even well-meaning parents can minimize their children’s sexuality, often viewing pubescent and adult family members with disabilities as younger than they are. This is also dangerous and untrue. People with disabilities can experience attraction just like anyone else, and to restrict opportunities for dating, marriage, and intimacy would itself be discrimination as well.

Care must be given to acquire full, informed consent, given to the degree that it can be from the individual (secondarily, the individual’s family.) Just as we work to dismantle the virgin/slut dichotomy under which women are held to both “pure” and “sexy” standards, so too must we work to dismantle the same dichotomy as it appears to oppress disabled persons.

Disability complicates this theological discussion of birth control in important ways. The Church would say that prescribing birth control for contraceptive reasons is always wrong, and to encourage sexual intimacy outside of marriage is wrong as well. However, we must understand that the acceptance of the Church’s moral teachings falls to the responsibility each individual has to their own conscience. To force a Church teaching upon a person who does not fully comprehend it, in a way that would infringe that individual’s rights to self-determination, if that person expressly articulates the desire to act in a contrary way, and in a circumstance where that individual depends upon assistance to achieve their goals, is something we should consider a sin. It is perfectly acceptable for us to say, “It would violate my conscience to help you do that, so you might need to find someone else to help you.” But, to outright deny a person the aid they request or to implicitly work to prevent it is prejudicial.

Through conversations I had with youth ministers, pastors, and teachers while I was on the pill, it became clear that hormonal birth control is still largely viewed as a “gateway drug” to sexual behavior. “Once you have the pill, what’s stopping you from having the sex?” Well…. self-control. Lack of desire. Lack of partnership. Personal values. Religious values.

The reality is, birth control pills are medicine. Even if they shouldn’t be medicine.

There is no reason we ought to accept birth control as the height of women’s medicine. With the immense amount of risks and side effects involved, with the uneven distribution of pressure it places on women for sexual responsibility, and with the ignorance of the female body that it fosters among medical communities, I think it’s about time we kick hormonal birth control the curb and discover something else!

But for now–and back then, when I myself got on birth control– the pill is the near-universal response to hormonal disruption and reproductive concerns. I didn’t want to have sex. I just wanted to stop bleeding and cure my iron-deficiency anemia. I wanted to be able to go to a store while on my period. I wanted a pair of underwear to last longer than a month.

For all of these reasons, I never asked my doctor any follow-up questions about hormonal birth control, and he provided me no facts. Other than an aside from the pharmacist that birth control can increase risk of cancer and that I should invest in compression socks when traveling to avoid clotting, I was told nothing.

At first I was put on the “low dose” pill. But after a week of pills, which should have indicated to my body that my period was done, I was still bleeding from that original period that induced my hospital stay. My doctor indicated to me that this meant the pills were not working, so he put me on a higher dose. Looking back now, I can see what my hormones were trying to say: something was really low.

The higher dose worked immediately. I FINALLY stopped bleeding.

But you know what else happened immediately? Weight gain. Within 2 weeks of birth control pill-taking, I grew two cups sizes and none of my pants fit. I had to go shopping for all new bras, underwear, bathing suit, pants, and even some shirts.

I don’t think women quite talk about this enough, the financial strain and frustration of fluctuating weight gain. Shopping for clothes when your body looks and feels unfamiliar is extremely challenging. I felt like a stranger to my body, and I didn’t know how to dress her or make her feel like me. I still don’t. Even after all these years, I’m still dealing with weight gain, stretch marks, hair loss, and more that have left my body feeling like not-my-body. This isn’t about being upset at my body’s largeness, it’s about being upset at my body’s unfamiliarity. At first, I felt so much shame in those feelings. I felt like I was betraying my friends and family whose bodies mine now looked more like. But there is a way to articulate disappointment at weight gain that isn’t inherently judgmental or fatphobic. My body has changed. That is hard.

Besides the weight gain, only one other side effect became immediately apparent: Sensitivity to sugar. My sophomore year of college I pretty much only ate Captain Crunch. From the moment I started on birth control, my stomach was upset when I ate anything sweet. Those frosted cake cookies from Safeway? I couldn’t eat a single one without feeling nauseated. I. Was. Bummed.

In many ways, I noticed less happened than I expected. My acne persisted. My iron-deficiency improved dramatically. I even started having cramps during my periods, something I’d never experienced before. But between my new body and my new surges of hormones, my emotions were all over the place. I cried at the drop of a hat (still do.) My rage felt stronger than before (still is.) I felt like I was going through a second puberty. Women will respond to hormonal birth control differently. Many women I know started taking it specifically to quell acne and cramps, with success. This wasn’t my experience.

Things plateaued for Madison. I went through my junior and senior years of college relatively unperturbed. But I still had to buy new bras and clothes every few months as my weight steadily increased. There was one instance my senior year where, for my trip to India, I took both an oral typhoid vaccine and daily malaria pills. I’m not sure which was contraindicated, but I started bleeding at the airport and bled for 17 days. It wasn’t a high quantity of blood, but it was a long period, despite me being on the pill.

Things got more serious the year after I graduated college. My year of post-grad service was challenging for a host of reasons, so my feelings of depression at first felt circumstantial. But as months went on and I established a regular workout routine of boxing, in part to deal with my negative emotions and in part to combat the weight gain that was still ongoing, I realized that neither were improving. They were, in fact, getting worse.

I began watching fitness videos on YouTube, to supplement my serious lack of income with which to pay for regular boxing classes, which led me down a rabbit hole of videos on hormonal health and fitness. (More to come on which channels/YouTubers helped me the most!) Through these videos, it occurred to me that we never did any work to determine the root cause of my immense bleeding before I got on birth control. When a pelvic ultrasound came back inconclusive, the doctor scrapped it and said “eh, it’s probably not an issue.” When I asked to do hormonal blood work, they said “You’ve lost too much blood and your hormones are already too out of whack for us to glean anything from them.” And in the years since, every time I saw the doctor, I was told that being on birth control was the best thing I could be doing anyway, and it wouldn’t serve anyone to look into my reproductive health any further until I was ready to have children.

I know this is a refrain many women hear. This is how doctors have been trained to respond to women’s health! Hormonal birth control has been sold to doctors as the magic solution to a host of women’s hormonal ailments, and so it is sold to us. Childbirth is sold as the be-all, end-all of a woman’s vocation. It doesn’t occur to doctors that a woman might value her health in and of itself rather than as a tool for her future childbearing. What about women who don’t want children? In case I haven’t said it in a while: God cares about your body, regardless of what it can or will do or produce.

It is good for you to be healthy, and to have greater knowledge about your body, regardless of whether or not childbirth is a part of your story.

In my upcoming post on the educational tools, tips, etc. that I found helped me in my understanding both of the way birth control works and the contributing factors to root cause diseases, I will refer you to the medical professionals I myself leaned on. I am not a doctor.

I will say, through my initial research that post-grad year, I leaned that the hormones I was putting into my body were not bio-identical. Progesterone and progestin are different: The first is what your body makes, the second is a chemical that looks like it. All of this to say, the bleed you experience while on birth control is not a period. It’s a “withdrawal bleed.”

What’s more, I began to see that if hormonal imbalance was at the root of my heavy bleeding, supplementing my body’s natural cycle with artificial hormones was not going to allow my body to “right itself” and start cycling properly. I was, however, hopeful that my body might have learned something after 2 and a half years on the pill, and that my cycle might come back a bit less heavy afterwards.

(Spoiler alert: It did not come back. At all. Still hasn’t. Not really.)

The April of my post-grad year, I transitioned off of the birth control pill. I was tired of feeling like I wanted to crawl into a void every day, like no one would miss me if I were missing or dead. I had never had thoughts like those before. I was also tired of working hard on strength training only to find that I was still gaining an average of 10 pounds every 6 months.

What happened after I transitioned off the pill was the scariest place I’ve been health-wise. That will be the subject of the next installment in this series. Want a sneak peek? It has almost nothing to do with hormones or my period, and everything to do with my gut.

I am proud of the way I made the most of being on hormonal birth control. It got me thinking about the Church’s stance on birth control. It got me researching my cycle for the first time. And I used my experience as a launch point for discussions with religiously conservative friends and family with whom I tried to expand on limited views of hormonal birth control and women’s sexuality.

What’s more? I told my middle school students I was on the pill. Think that’s crazy? TMI? Breach of boundaries? Inappropriate for a Catholic school? I would’ve thought so too, but 1) they asked 2) I don’t lie and 3) it ended up being the best lesson I ever had with my students. I wouldn’t change a single thing. I’ll be writing about that soon too 🙂

In brief? Women are in control of their bodies and sexuality. Providing all women with accessible healthcare is important. Birth control is healthcare, but that doesn’t mean it’s the pinnacle of healthcare. We can do better and we should, because birth control’s side effects are extremely dangerous. Disability is a part of this conversation. And you should never be afraid to pursue genuine medical help as a Catholic woman.

Looking forward to talking more soon about tools, gut health, PCOS, and comprehensive sex education.

Hug — Madison

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faith family

Rethinking St. Joseph

St. Joseph is a saint who follows me around. I’ve belonged to more than one St. Joseph parish, and my eyes always well up a little when I happen across a statue or a prayer. To be honest, I’m not happy about St. Joseph’s lingering presence. I have often thought of him as a shadow I didn’t understand (which is, interestingly, one of the ways Pope Francis charactered St. Joseph in his most recent letter, as a saint “in the shadows.”)

So when Pope Francis announced the upcoming year as the Year of St. Joseph, I had that familiar tingly “he showed up again!” excitement, followed by confusion. What does it mean for a year to be St. Joseph’s? Who is he? Why do I gravitate towards him so much?

I let the first months of the new liturgical year roll by and then like a whisper, while kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass a few weeks ago, after having my first panic attack in years just before the service began, I felt it in my chest: He’s the dad saint.

I decided that this whisper was enough for me to finally pay some attention to the liturgical year’s designation. I remembered seeing the Consecration to St. Joseph by Donald Calloway being advertised last year and felt like a deep dive and commitment to getting to know St. Joseph was the right move for me to make.

Now, I hate “consecration” language. Not because I don’t think the notion of being consecrated is a beautiful or good thing: it is. But most commonly in the circles young Catholic Madison swam in, “consecrated” has always been paired with “virgin” (and I don’t really like the history and use of that word either.) I hate that so often, discussions of consecration and women’s sexuality revolve around the most interesting thing about a woman being her virginity. It’s the least interesting thing about Mary, it’s the least interesting thing about the single people you know, and it’s the least interesting thing about vowed religious too. Even with St. Joseph, his liturgical designation is “most chaste spouse.” I bet there are a million things more interesting about St. Joseph than his sex life. Consecration is a commitment, and it’s a commitment to more than virginity. It’s a commitment to the vocation you’ve chosen, that God has set on your heart.

So what would it mean to be “consecrated” to St. Joseph? There was (and is) still a little part of me that says, “Is it not better to just talk straight to Christ instead?” I haven’t felt a single nudge towards a Marian consecration, despite its greater popularity. But St. Joseph has followed me around. And after that teary Mass, there’s a not-so-small part of me that yearns to rewrite the feelings that arise when considering the phrase “you’ll have to tell your dad.”

For my non-Catholic friends who still aren’t sure what it means to be consecrated to a saint (or maybe you’re still confused about what the Catholic relationship to Saints is in the first place): Saints are really cool holy dead people who did something awesome on Earth and now hang out in Heaven with Jesus. If you were friends with a famous person who had a lot of money to spend on causes you care about, you would tell them often about that cause to drum up support banking on your mutual respect. If something comes up in your life that you want someone to be your prayer wingman on, you can pray to the Saint who cares about that something and they put in a good word for you with the Big Man Himself.

For example: If you’re a Wiedenfeld-Chastain grandchild who lost their favorite baseball hat, you pray to St. Anthony, the patron Saint of lost things, and you find it two months later in your parents’ vacation Yahtzee bag.

That was maybe one too many family jokes for one blog post, but hopefully you get the picture. You have a need, you pray to the Saint who cares about the subject matter of that need, they advocate for you to God.

Now consecration is a commitment on your end to give special consideration to a Saint that means a lot to you. So in doing a consecration to St. Joseph, I’m committing to praying to St. Joseph regularly, and entrusting to him ALL the things, with the understanding that he is real and present and cares for me.

Having a better understanding of this definition of consecration, I bought the Consecration to St. Joseph book, and was pleased that I hadn’t missed the most common start date: Today (as I write this), February 15th. I will complete the 33 day of prayers and meditation on St. Joseph’s life on his feast day.

But I also plan on spending the next 33 days (and then some: Hallow has dedicated their whole Lent challenge to St. Joseph!) offering up my commitment to a relationship with St. Joseph for the sake of some unusual intentions that have risen in my heart as I’ve begun my preliminary preparation for the consecration. I read Pope Francis’ letter on St. Joseph, “Patris Corde,” and found myself reflecting on who and what St. Joseph seems, to me, to have a soft spot for. And many of these things seem, to me, to not have many other places to call home in the Church.

St. Joseph is the patron of the UNIVERSAL Church. Like I write about in Theology for EveryBody’s “Why” Statement, Catholic might literally mean universal, but what we think of as universal—equal consideration, equal participation, and diverse and fair treatment—are not actually reflected in our church spaces or in our society. To that degree, St. Joseph is the defender of those for whom a universal church home is most desperately needed.

St. Joseph is entrusted the Holy Family, and thereby entrusted with our notions of family writ large. Family looks different than it did back then. And while many Catholics, the author of the St. Joseph consecration book included, like to use language of “war on family” or “family being under attack,” I vehemently disagree that this is what is happening.

Let’s be extremely plain: When Christians, especially Catholics, speak about “losing family values” or “war on family,” they’re talking about gay folx. End of story. I mean, maybe they’re also talking about families with children resulting from sex outside of marriage, but for the Church, these sins are the same.

Perhaps no one has ever laid it out explicitly, but I am happy to do so: The core reason homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of the Church stems from the Church’s beliefs about the components of sexual intimacy. For a Catholic, sex must be both 1.) unitive and 2.) procreative. Gay sex can’t naturally be both. That’s it. That’s the problem.

Well, the problem Catholics and Christians generally make of it is that “gay culture” promotes behaviors that lead to non-procreative sexual intimacy. Dating someone of the same sex, expressing any sort of physical affection, having children, etc. The slippery slope actually slides back even further; anyone who behaves “conventionally queer” is considered to be “flaunting a sinful lifestyle.” But that has more to do with conventional notions of gender norms #HarryStylesInADress. For the sake of this article, let’s keep with the sex problems.

What this all ultimately means is that LGBTQ+ people who identify as Catholic but pursue romantic relationships and families have an extremely difficult time being welcomed into the Church. Even though the sins they have technically committed are no greater than a straight couple that has non-procreative sex or who pursues assisted reproductive technologies, because of the stigma against LGBTQ+ folx, their sins are cast back in their faces as far more egregious.

What might our Church look like if the pews were filled with queer folx? With families whose parents were the same sex? Would we be uncomfortable?

As I was reading about St. Joseph, these are the families that came to my mind. These are the families truly under attack. And if I could invite you to think imaginatively with me, not only do I think there is precedent to entrust St. Joseph with these families, but I also don’t think working for this vision of the Church “encourages lewd behavior.” Jesus came to dine with sinners. All of them. The straight ones and the gay ones, amen hallelujah.

This is certainly not the only unusual community, family, or issue I think we might entrust to St. Joseph. St. Joseph’s own life, the precious little we know of it in Scripture, shows a man largely abiding by societal norms, but willing to quietly bend them for the sake of Mary’s well-being. It is through the message of an angel that St. Joseph fully breaks with the societal tradition and welcomes a woman pregnant with a child that is not his into his home as his wife. (Matthew 1:19-25)

St. Joseph is an example of what it looks like to believe what a woman says about her body and her sex life, without shaming her.

St. Joseph is an example of what it looks like to father a child who is not biologically yours (whether via adoption, fostering, or as a stepfather.)

St. Joseph is an example of a spouse whose wife and child are more famous than he is! And he doesn’t seem particularly threatened…

St. Joseph is an example of someone who works quietly, tirelessly, perhaps without adequate recognition, to support an unusual family dynamic. He is someone who perhaps dreamt of a family situation different from the one he was given.

St. Joseph is patron of workers. Of craftsmen, artists, those skilled in some sort of trade. You know, the work that kept us hopeful during this pandemic. Patron of the #RatatouilleMusical, if I may.

St. Joseph is called the “Terror of Demons.” Might I invite us to consider our actual demons? The public shame and oppression of women and their sexuality. Physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual violence against women. Our refusal to accept unconventional families, like those named before, or those who look, vote, or pray differently than we do. Those children who are excluded or rejected from their families, especially those who are LGBTQ+. The rejection of arts and craftsmanship produced by skilled small business owners in favor of soulless, mass-produced items that only make the rich richer and the planet deader.

Might these be the demons St. Joseph cares for? To be certain, they are things Christ cares about, for He is ultimate and perfect love. It is reasonable to believe Christ learned what it meant to be a protector from His father, and so it is reasonable to think that same father might teach us a thing or two as well.

In the Consecration to St. Joseph book, St. Joseph is described as “alert to God’s wonders.” At the very least, I am looking forward to spending these next 33 days praying for greater wonder and awe. I will be praying for an increase of willing tenderness that I might show my partner and my family. I will be offering up my current crossroads of professional discernment, that the patron saint of workers might place my work at the foot of Christ for Him to kick down the road He wants me to set out on. And I will be praying for all unusual families. For families who don’t see themselves reflected in our pews. Who are what our favorite Instagram counselors might identify as dysfunctional. For couples and parents and children.

There’s a part of me that thinks, if I’m misinterpreting what St. Joseph might mean for me and for the church, that he’ll just stop showing up. But that’s not what a loving father does. And so I’m 1 day down and 32 to go, already blessed by the consistency of a commitment between father and daughter.

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