by Stephanie Barton
CN: illness, endometriosis, surgery, anorexia, anxiety, depression, self-harm, anorexia, orthorexia, poverty
My mother fainted in the toy shop when I was two and a half, and she was twenty-five, and pregnant.
It happened like this: she became dizzy, and suddenly was on the ground. I ran over, trying to shake her awake, calling “Mummy.” She finally responded, in a weak voice that sounded like she had run up a mountain. I was a precocious child, and people fainted in the fairy stories I already knew how to read; I would have known what had happened, even if an adult standing behind me hadn’t confirmed it. In any case, I knew my mother was sick and her pregnancy had made her sicker, because each day back then I reminded her to take her pills. That day, we were driven up the hill to our house in an ambulance.
My mother spent much her life both being unwell and not having medicines about the house if she could help it, as she didn’t want to rely on them. There was never ibuprofen or paracetamol, and seldom were there plasters. Pain was inescapably linked to being an adult woman. Mum had bronchitis every winter, the result of growing up in a mould-encrusted flat, but there were other, less explicable things, such as her fainting fits, when she would need to eat sugar fast (she carried a single chocolate bar in her bag despite being, like me, averse to dessert,) the fact that she ate like a bird but could never lose weight, and her horrifying periods.
“I inferred some messages. Being female means gore, agony and mess. Being successful means being thin. Being adult and having children means being chubby irrespective of how much I exercise, and having a frightening body that is out of my control”
Sometimes she would stand up, and a rush of blood downwards would send her dashing to a toilet. Her bedsheets were stained like one of the old Union Jacks in Bath cathedral—the off yellow of aged linen; the splashed red of battle. This was dismissed by the medical profession as an inevitable consequence of her three pregnancies—as a child, I never knew a doctor take her seriously. The same pregnancies had taken away her tiny frame with its seventeen-inch waist, which had graced the West End stage in her teens. I inferred some messages. Being female means gore, agony and mess. Being successful means being thin. Being adult and having children means being chubby irrespective of how much I exercise, and having a frightening body that is out of my control.
The mysteries of my mother’s ailments were dispelled years later, when I had grown into an adult myself. As the credit crisis struck, and I emigrated to Korea for work, our old family GP retired. His replacement, rather than insulting my mother for supposedly gorging on cookies, immediately diagnosed her with endometriosis and acute fibromyalgia. Her serious illnesses had not been picked up on due to the belief that a woman with endometriosis cannot have children (and, I firmly believe, the sexist stereotype of the chocolate-munching, wine-swilling mother). Her distended belly was ‘pregnant’ with fibrous triplets – blind, lifeless, goitre-like growths, the biggest of which weighed 8lb. They took out her womb, usually a 45 minute operation, but for her, they cleared 6 hours of surgeries; the only other patient that day was a girl with advanced uterine cancer. Mum could have died. I knew, in spite of her attempts to hide it from me over in Asia; we had been so close that it was clear something was wrong.
“My mother would have been ill regardless, but I sensed my birth had made her worse”
In her book analysing teenage girls’ development, Dr Lisa Damour asserts that every girl needs to go through a rebellious phase. The exceptions are those who know their mothers have relinquished much to benefit them. My mother would have been ill regardless, but I sensed my birth had made her worse; certainly she had given up money to return to poverty and bear me, and a bad diet likely hadn’t helped her. Rebellion was a luxury I didn’t have, especially because of the support she had given me when I was sitting scholarship exams for an independent school.
I never shoplifted, called my mother a bitch, or engaged in catfighting with other girls, and I still can’t fathom the motives that drive these behaviours. I turned any unhappy thoughts I had inwards. Unhappy thoughts cropped up a lot, as I suffer with anxiety and depression, and self-harmed until I was seventeen. My mother caught me, and in my sole act of defiance, I refused to express either pride or shame over the action, which she found incomprehensible. It was just ‘something I had done.’ I’ve never felt remorse and never will. I stopped doing it for her; the problem is that control mechanisms and self-destructive behaviours do not vanish that way.
My terror of the wayward, expanding, uncontrollable adult body that plagued my mother peaked at eighteen, when I reached adulthood and my metabolism changed. I also grew an approximation of my final size of breasts (an F cup: I now have an H). At the time, almost nowhere catered for bustier women, and I was treated like a freak and as though I was a compulsive eater. I was also told that my natural shape was caused by hormones in the water, as though I were a mutant in some horror B movie – despite the women of my mother’s family always having hourglass figures. Pretty underwear was not made in my size, and would not be until a bra manufacturers’ conference in Britain in the mid-2000s, where it was agreed to change to fit the market.
“My terror of the wayward, expanding, uncontrollable adult body that plagued my mother peaked at eighteen”
The only way to get my breasts smaller was to exercise continually and restrict my diet, which would then bring my body into more of a successful shape, and less like the inimical body my mother had. I went through a phase of orthorexia, and then developed anorexia during my Masters. Poverty justified not eating, or living off 1 bowl of porridge a day; I celebrated the fact that my ribcage was entirely tangible and visible, felt I was saving money, and imagined that my stomach, slightly bloated in my body’s attempts to save itself, was fat. I got down to a ten, sometimes an eight on a bad day. As normal as those sizes might be for some (as reflected on a Facebook group where Oxonian students sell their old clothing and where I can’t wear any of the ballgowns) a woman of my height and with my bone structure shouldn’t healthily be either, but I didn’t realise that.
I got out of bed one day and collapsed, retching, to the floor, with my temperature rocketing and stars exploding before my eyes. Starvation caused it, but I didn’t know that either. I never lost my periods, but because I was on the Pill, I have to consider that I was having withdrawal bleeds and that, unmedicated, I would have entered amenorrhea. I would probably have seen that as a benefit, despite the health risks.
Finally, I stopped starving myself, without therapy, because I didn’t want to distress my mum by getting sick and dying. I retained the psychological issues that caused the anorexia, but found that eight years of counselling, feminism and body-positivity were effective ways of fighting them. Incidentally, I consider myself and my mum a two-woman example of why body-positivity must be inclusive of so-called ‘straight sized’ women, firstly because society’s treatment of disabled bodies is backward, and secondly because diversity within straight sizes (such as having bigger breasts, or having a wide waist while still being below the cut-off size 16-18) is treated with contempt by the fashion industry and the public.
“I’ll probably never have children. It is my mother I’ll care for, who gave me life in the first place”
I have two sisters, both of whom have obvious endo symptoms, but both of whom have had children, which hypothetically reduces one’s chance of falling ill. I remain uncertain what that idea is based on, as my mother’s third pregnancy most profoundly damaged her body and confined her to the house at one point with on-off endo bleeding. I don’t have symptoms right now, though in my teens I used to clutch the toilet walls with agony during loo visits while menstruating. The pathetic state of sex ed. at that time prevented me realising this was abnormal. Bluntly: if shitting whilst on your period makes you want to shriek in pain, that is a first sign of endometriosis.
I had a bout of symptoms again while living on the breadline in a deprived area of England, including severe bleeding and period pain so bad it woke me from sleep, but that might just have been malnutrition. Regardless, unlike my sisters, I’ll probably never have children, not because I fear passing the disease on to them (which one of my sisters has done, to her daughter) but for deeper reasons. It is my mother I’ll care for, who gave me life in the first place. Furthermore, as a recovered anorexic, and someone who has seen what I have seen, the concept of something growing inside me, taking over my body and controlling its shape is horrifying. I am no longer running from the possibility of an adult life in thrall to what my internal organs might do to me, however. Rather, I am taking ownership of my mental health and my choices and saying a firm ‘no’ to it.
All images by Khánh Hmoong