As I lay on my back on the exam table, trembling and terrified, with my bare feet in stirrups, I felt a cold sweat drip down the back of my neck and through the thin, paper sheet.
I faded in and out of consciousness. I gripped the edges of the table so hard with my hands that my arms went numb. I screamed madly for the nurse to stop the procedure.
And I heard that little voice inside my head, the one I’d disregarded for the past few weeks, say, “You should’ve just risked having a heart attack or stroke.”
A woman and her reproductive system don’t share a birthday, so when a woman turns 35, her reproductive system turns 80. This is the geriatric age when birth control options dwindle. Stay on the pill? Risk having a stroke or a heart attack. Use a condom? Not since I was 20. Try the rhythm method? Well, everyone knows what happens there.
I’d been with my husband for 10 years, but we were still unsure about bringing a child into our lives, and I knew that after 18 worry-free years of being on the pill, I had to find another form of birth control.
I had begun to hear a buzz about a tiny, magical, plastic device you could have installed in your uterus that would create a hostile environment for sperm. So I called my best friend, Alicia, who’s not only an early adopter, but who also spends an excessive amount of time on WebMD, and I solicited her advice. She told me she was getting an IUD installed the following week at Planned Parenthood, which is where all the online forums said to go, even if you have normal health insurance.
We agreed that I should wait until she got her IUD, and depending on how it went, I’d decide if it was right for me.
She called me a week later and said, “It hurts like a bitch and I screamed at the nurse while she was installing it. It probably feels like giving birth. But then I just took a bunch of painkillers and sat on the couch for 3 days watching the Kardashians. Now I’m fine.”
Alicia has an unusually high pain threshold. She once took a spontaneous trip to Belize with me five days after undergoing invasive breast surgery. So for her to say it was the most excruciating pain she’d ever felt gave me pause.
But I was so desperate for a viable birth control option that I shoved my fears aside and made an appointment for a consultation, not at Planned Parenthood. It was more convenient for me to go to my regular Ob/Gyn through Sharp healthcare, mostly because I already had their number stored in my phone.
When the nurse practitioner peered into my cervix with her spelunking headlamp, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness. That’s the tiniest little cervix I’ve ever seen. But don’t worry. I’ll get that sucker up there.”
There was that sinking feeling again in the pit of my stomach. Maybe I shouldn’t do this, I thought. What about that sponge thing Elaine was always talking about on Seinfeld? But I reminded myself that I was tough, and that I, too, had a high pain threshold, having survived a sprained ankle when I was 10 years old.
I scheduled my appointment for the very next morning, and casually mentioned to my husband that I had solved all of our baby drama and was getting an IUD. He strongly discouraged me from doing this, though he knew nothing about the device, the procedure, or the entire female reproductive system for that matter.
I once asked him what he thought PMS meant, and he said, “Period Menstrual System?”
Although his reaction was distressing, I disregarded it based on his ignorance about female anatomy. But as I stood in my room the next morning, trying to decide which panties to wear (I chose black in case of minor bleeding), I panicked, called the doctor’s office, and pretended I had gotten my period so they’d have to reschedule the procedure.
For the next 5-7 days while I pretend menstruated, I spent every waking hour online, researching IUDs. I knew the very worst thing I could do in this situation was to turn to Google for advice. But I couldn’t help it. For every article I read about the advantages of the IUD, I read 10 more about the risks….things like pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, and in very rare instances, perforation of the uterus. I talked myself in and out of having the procedure several times every day, until I convinced myself none of these dangerous, life-threatening side effects would happen to me.
One week later, I got undressed from the waist down and climbed onto the cold exam table, awaiting my new sexual freedom. The first step in an IUD installation is to insert a series of rings into the cervix to stretch it out, each ring bigger than the next. There were 8 rings in all.
When number 2 barely squeezed in, I started to worry. By number 4, full panic mode had set in. I was moaning and sweating profusely…not something I like to do in public.
And at number 5, a scream escaped me that I’d never heard before and didn’t know existed… “STOOOOOOPPPPPPPP. FUCK this. You have to stop. I’m in too much pain. Please stop.”
I whimpered as my head writhed from side to side like a woman possessed by a demon, and tears streamed down my cheeks.
And there was the nurse practitioner, calm as a Hindu cow, acting like this was all part of the plan. In her soft, reassuring nurse voice, she tried her best to soothe me…“Just another couple of minutes and we’ll be done, sweetie. You’re doing great! Come on now, take deep breaths.”
This was an obstetrics nurse, so she was used to women screaming when stuff came out of their bodies. But it didn’t work in reverse. I had a choice, and I demanded that she stop. The pain was unimaginable, and I wanted to die.
But she wouldn’t stop, and I became too weak to do anything about it. The horrific torture continued for a full 45 minutes. And then it was over.
My uterus immediately began contracting. It took my breath away, and I stumbled out of the room hunched over, my face contorted in pain. I’ll never forget the petrified, wide-eyed stares of the girls at the front desk and the patients in the waiting room as I walked out the door.
I drove to work, thinking my body just needed time to adjust to its new inhabitant. But as I walked from my car to the office, a contraction knocked me down and I had to crawl back to my car on hands and knees. My husband brought me home, where I fell to the floor in the fetal position and thrashed around in agony for the next 3 days.
On day 3, when you’re supposed to fish around in your private parts to find the strings that hang down to indicate the IUD is safe, secure, and holding down the fort, I reached into some very swollen flesh and found nothing except thick chunks of dried, brown blood.
I thought it must be the angle at which I was standing, so I tried a couple of other positions, just like you do when you’re a teenage girl and you’re trying to install a tampon for the first time.
I squatted, I lifted one leg and set it on the edge of the bathtub, bent down on all fours...still nothing.
When I called the doctor’s office, they said, “Oh, don’t worry. The IUD probably fell out, or maybe we trimmed the strings a little short. Come on in and we’ll find it.”
The next day, I again undressed, my head pounding from the past few days of relentless pain, bleeding and lack of sleep. I flinched when the nurse touched me, and neither her fingers, nor the ultrasound machine, could find anything.
A real doctor was called in, and I knew I was in trouble. But he was convinced the IUD had fallen out while I was going to the bathroom.
“Judging by the battle that was waged getting it up there, there’s no way it fell out. Furthermore, don’t you think I would’ve noticed a T-shaped, plastic device floating around in the toilet?” I asked.
“Well, if you insist, you can go down to the lab and get an X-ray,” the doctor said dismissively.
I received a phone call the next day from my very uncomfortable nurse practitioner. You know when a healthcare provider calls you and heaves out a long sigh before they utter a single word that you’re about to get some shitty news.
“I’m so very sorry, honey. But we found the IUD. And it’s juuust outside your uterus. Floating around next to your spine…” As if she were telling me that today’s special had just a liiiittle bit of a kick to it. “You’re going to need to come in for surgery right away.”
Once I recovered from my panic attack a few hours later, I was relieved, because I’d get to be anesthetized when that tiny beast came out of me.
During my pre-op appointment, the doctor had the nerve to ask, “So, while I’m in there, would you like me to install another IUD?”
“Are you joking?” I asked. “Anything would be better than that. An unplanned pregnancy. An abortion. Never having sex again. We’re just going to pull out. Planned Parenthood’s website says it’s 96% effective, and they know a lot more about unplanned pregnancy than you do.”
The surgery went off without a hitch, and when the doctor went to talk to my family afterward, he very cheerfully and with a perfectly straight face announced to my father, my husband, and my husband’s friend, “Your wife has a beautiful pelvic region. Just textbook perfect. You oughta see it.”
About a year ago, after 20 years of trying not to have a baby, we finally felt open to the possibility of a geriatric pregnancy, and come to find out, we were infertile all along. The chances of us making a baby are roughly 1 in 1,000, the same as the chances of having an IUD perforate your uterus.