Taking back control of my life after a hysterectomy

Elizabeth O’Neill had a fibroid and cyst on her uterus, and had to have a total hysterectomy. Then, she quit her job. She explains why.

‘I quit’ — those two words fantasised about by anyone who’s ever had a job. We’ve all had bad days, or bad bosses, when we’ve dreamed of cashing in our chips, and walking off into a new life. Probably in a hot country.

What would it actually take for you to walk away?

Although we hear jobs are no longer for life, with the so-called gig economy on the rise, and more people working remotely, few employees actually leave a stable job. At what point would you feel justified in throwing in the towel?

When someone dies? A relationship break up? A trauma?

Some time ago, this was on my mind constantly. Could I cash in my pension? Quit work? Go travelling? I was at home convalescing from surgery, and while the physical wounds were healing fine, something in my soul was beginning to unravel.

Cut to 2018, and here I am planning for an uncertain future. I didn’t have to cash in my pension, because I was granted a voluntary redundancy package. This is both terrifying and completely exhilarating.

After 11 years researching for RTÉ Radio 1, I’ll be packing up my desk, putting away my headphones, for now, and trying to make a living from writing. There will be some sadness leaving valued colleagues, but mainly there will be excitement about a completely unwritten future. It feels like finishing college except with the advantage of knowledge and hindsight. There might also be some travel and head standing along the way.

Most people have been supportive or at the very least curious about my decision — some even wistful. Many have called me brave, but I disagree with that assessment.

It is merely a choice I’ve had the luxury of making and no matter what the future holds, I will honour that choice. Only a few people have told me I’m mad to throw away a permanent, pensionable job. But as one wise counsellor said, ‘would you be made to stay?’ Because only I’m fully in possession of all the facts of my life and the reality. Most people have no idea of the truth. Or the unhappiness.

So here, at least, is some of that truth, and why sometimes circumstances force your hand and make you consider what you really want and how to make your life valuable. Sometimes, the narrative imposed upon you has to be rewritten.

Eighteen months ago, my so-called childbearing years came to a complete full stop. No equivocation. My fertility had fully nosedived off a cliff. For medical reasons, I had a hysterectomy and that was the end of that. Except it wasn’t the end. It was to be just the very beginning. Of a new kind of loss. A new body. New sensations, or lack thereof. And a realisation that my life would be just that, with no family of my own. I was to be in the childless category, to be pitied and somehow ‘incomplete’.

At first, I just took in the news that I had a fibroid and cyst on my uterus. I had never heard the term before and didn’t know a fibroid is a benign tumour with its own blood supply. Early tests showed no cancer, which I can only accept now as extremely lucky. My ‘twins’, as I jokingly referred to them, were the equivalent size of a three-month pregnancy. The cyst turned out to be 15cm, while the tumour was bigger than my uterus and probably there for years.

Initially I was relieved a cause for the constant and often heavy bleeding was found. It was still a shock to learn the recommended course was a total hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, and, in my case, one ovary. The other remains, doubling up production of hormones and holding off menopause. Of course it also means children are not possible for me. Having already reached 41, I’d figure my own children were unlikely (although right now I know five woman over 40 who are pregnant).

When something becomes an absolute full stop, when its possibility is taken away, it’s then you might realise how much you wanted it.

It wasn’t until after the surgery, back home, when the physical wounds were healing, that I started to unravel. I could see all the lives around me that I wouldn’t have. I would never hold my own child, never have use for those favourite names. Never be a mother. The tide going back out after surgery, swept me into a tsunami of grief. I cried everywhere, for months.

The first successful hysterectomy was performed in Massachusetts in 1853 and the procedure reached a peak in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Now it’s estimated some 2,500 a year are performed in Ireland, with the majority of women in their mid-40s or older. My own mum had the surgery aged 36, along with at least one aunt on my dad’s side. For me it was a genetic roll of the dice.

I also wondered when I had crossed some imaginary threshold from fertile into ‘barren’. In literature, a woman without offspring is always to be pitied, that’s the narrative, and she will almost always be willing to commit monstrous acts or steal children.

The truth is, as a childless woman, there is no escaping a certain level of stigma and unchecked bias. In this society, the full expression of your womanhood is a pregnant womb. Initially, I was particularly sensitive to all comments regarding fertility.

It is not OK to tell a woman that bearing children is the single most important thing she will do. How often have I heard it said, ‘oh I just felt it more because, you know, I have children’? Mothers are not naturally more empathetic, as much as childless woman are not automatically selfish. More recently a colleague implied I had chosen not to have children. Infertility is not a choice. It is not something anyone would wish for. Surgically removing part of your own sexual organs can only be a medical necessity, and the visceral numbness, never mind the existential angst, is not something I would wish on anyone.

Another fact of family rearing is that having a family automatically imposes a shape on your life. It gives you a timetable going forward, cycles of nativity plays, parent-teacher meetings, holidays, graduations, celebrations. There’ll be certain photos on your walls, certain destinations to get your children to.

So where does that leave those without families?

If life hasn’t worked out as expected or you find other people’s narratives taking a stranglehold on your own life, you can choose to find another way to live.

I refuse to be defined by my own body’s limitations and the limitations society has placed on me. So I quit. I’ve taken the redundancy and the only thing I know for certain, is that I will no longer have a 9 to 5 existence and the rest is as yet unwritten.


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