I hate being vulnerable and I suspect that most people don’t particularly enjoy the feeling either. Recently, I had to be in a situation of physical vulnerability (i.e., naked) in order to access radiation treatment and I started thinking about how often those of us who are patients are put into a position of vulnerability.
Let’s first start with the definition:
vulnerable adjective vul·ner·a·ble | ˈvəl-n(ə-)rə-bəl, ˈvəl-nər-bəl
Definition: 1) capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; or 2) open to attack or damage : ASSAILABLE: vulnerable to criticism.https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerable
As a woman, I have often found myself in positions where I felt vulnerable around men simply because I’m smaller and men often instinctively (and sometimes on purpose) invade the personal space of others to influence or intimidate. I’m also pretty short (5’3″ on a good day) so having to look up at nearly everyone is also an experience where I feel vulnerable. I grew up as the shortest in my family, though, and I’ve had a lot of practice addressing those feelings of vulnerability during my life, especially since I think attorneys are probably some of the most aggressive people on the plant! Plus, my dad and all three of my brothers are over 6′ and I grew up in a family system steeped in patriarchy where I was the eldest chronologically. I’ve learned to have some pretty thick armor emotionally and mentally.
And then I became a full time patient.
Prior to radiation, the most vulnerable I’d felt as a patient was during times of surgery or when I was in the hospital and sleepy or otherwise out of it. Anesthesia affects me pretty strongly so I’ve often felt very exposed/vulnerable when groggy in post-op or when I’ve woken up in severe pain or when I couldn’t get to the bathroom by myself. It’s a really vulnerable feeling when you can’t move around or accomplish basic tasks for yourself. Dependence on perfect strangers who are there to do a job is just not comfortable — some of these people are amazing, others you can tell are just punching a clock. My mom has worked in and around hospitals as a physical therapist for a large portion of her life and career, so she has prioritized having someone with me each time I’ve had to be in the hospital overnight because she knows how important that is.
And then I encountered radiation on my pelvis.
In order to get me into the right position and secure me to the table in order to ensure that I didn’t move at all, I had to take all of my clothes off. Once I laid down on the table, some sheets were placed strategically to cover my breasts and my pelvis, but the process of going from wearing a gown standing up, to laying naked on the table required exposing myself in the transition. During the planning sessions, I had a few female therapists who helped shield me, but when I walked into the actual treatment the first day, there were three (3) grown men looking at me.
Let me back up and say that I was raised in a Christian bubble where I was told overtly and covertly that my body was a distraction to men and that I had to take responsibility to hide my body to protect the eyes of the men around me. That’s a foundational lesson that’s hard to shake. I’ve been married twice, I’ve had two children, and now I’m a patient when the “private areas” of my body are front and center in my treatment, so I’ve lost a lot of the modesty that became so ingrained in me.
HOWEVER, it’s still really daunting to realize that I had to take off the flimsy shield of fabric in front of men who were complete strangers.
I did it because I had to.
I did it because that was the only way to ensure that the radiation was targeted on the pesky met alone and the other structures around it were protected as much as possible.
I did it because there was no other way offered to me even after I expressed concern and asked.
And yet, I felt some very intense feelings and a pretty loud voice inside my head telling me “NO!!!!!!!”
I’ve never been physically attacked. I’ve felt like it was a possibility at several points in my life and I’ve carried pepper spray when I’ve lived by myself or was walking at night to class or work or wherever. But, I’ve not experienced a physical or sexual assault as so many women have. I remarked to my husband and my parents after the radiation concluded that if I’d been attacked in that way at some other point in my life, I don’t know that I would have been able to disrobe and lay down on the table. I think I would have had to be provided medication or asleep and I would have been much closer to a panic attack than I was.
I pride myself on being pretty unflappable and yet I was pretty close to freaking out.
No one asked me if disrobing and laying naked on the table was going to be an issue for me. I wasn’t even told that this would be the situation until I walked into the room for the planning sessions. The last time I had radiation, I was able to wear loose clothing to provide access and I’d assumed that this would be the case this time too. It would have helped if someone had sat down with me and clearly explained what was required rather than just telling me to disrobe at the time I needed to simply get naked.
Everyone I dealt with was very professional and I know that it was necessary for me to disrobe in order to ensure that the radiation not only attacked the pesky met but that my skin, my bladder, my remaining lady parts, my rectum, my colon, and all the other soft tissue around my right pubic synthesis were protected as much as possible. I know that intellectually, but it took at lot emotionally and mentally for me to handle the entire process and that was not addressed or explained or acknowledged.
As a forever patient, I need to have my whole person addressed and supported; otherwise, we will encounter being treated as less over and over and over. At some point, being treated that way has lasting consequences, the least of which is a pretty significant PTSD response.