I arrived in Sweden with my first, most unbearable case of food poisoning. More unbearable than my fantasies of what unbearable food poisoning might be like — fantasies that, when anxious, I often convince myself to be true. I also, when anxious, dissociate; I become estranged from my body, its place in the world. These reactions are certainly related (hypochondria and bodily alienation, respectively). I am sure, as with the food poisoning, that someone who knows more than me about science — by which I mean almost anyone — could explain each by way of reason: hormones on the one hand, fucked-up chicken on the other.
Late in my sophomore year, more anxious and dissociative than ever, I was advised that birth control might be a two-in-one solution to my troubles. The central ones being (1) my depression and the dissociation it produces and (2) my long, painful period and the depression it bolsters. In short, everything gets worse in proximity to menstruation. Of course, that I could even consider birth control an obtainable aid is an immense privilege. I don’t mean to take that lightly. Access to contraceptives is a right all people should be entitled to regardless of reason or circumstance, and often are not. I am lucky, and choice is everything. But the choices available are pretty shitty: psychologically, physically and financially. Birth control isn’t like this for everyone — disappointing and dysphoric. But for me, it was.
My supposedly birth control-curable problems have always been related to gender. My dissociating is not only from an anxious mind, but also from a body that speaks femininity in a way I do not usually control. I did not mention this at my medical consultation. No one asked me about it. In defense of the doctor I saw that day, it took us a long time to get past why a lesbian needed the pill in the first place. Her confusion was so sincere I could only muster up embarrassment on behalf of the two of us, and of the tiptoeing involved in reaching an understanding. At that point, it was clear: No other peculiarities were making their way into this 20-minute appointment. A gender-angsty lez? It would probably kill us both.
I should have said something; I am not the first to undergo discomfort in the clinic, and what I’m describing is mild. I’m grateful to have been treated with care by a variety of doctors throughout my life, something many cannot say (and even fewer queers). My visit was not a case of discrimination, though I do hope we might think more frequently about the consistent mistreatment (or nontreatment) of trans and queer people, women and people of color at the hands of the medical-industrial complex.
But as for me, on that day, I was just embarrassed. I could have said something, and I didn’t — in part because I didn’t have the language to talk about myself with fluency or concision. All I knew was the dissociation spurred by noticing what my body looks like as a thing in the world: a chest larger than it is in my mind, hips meant for something to which I feel no connection, being read as female in a relentless, specific way that is, of course, no one’s fault. Which is somehow worse. My body has all the clues, but I didn’t place any of them, or tell anyone to go looking.
It’s wild, how quickly the pill affects you. You can really feel it working away. And see it too: My bra size increased seemingly overnight; I looked different. More like a woman, maybe, whatever that aesthetic implication might mean. My period did disappear, but my wobbly relationship with having a body became unbearable. Like the chicken I vomited into a minimalist Scandinavian toilet, the lesson was unfortunate and irreversible. You can’t unswallow something, not all the way. No matter how much you regret the consumption.
My first day on birth control marked the first day of my yearlong celibacy. I didn’t seek out abstinence, or desire it. I love sex. But my body had other plans. I stayed on the pill in fear of my period’s vengeful return, but even after quitting, my body and I were damaged in our cohabitation. I know, bodies are not inherently gendered. But it can still feel hard to look. There are also those elements of femininity that I love, which I came to feel distant from. What I want is impossible: equilibrium between two sides of something when neither the sides nor the thing exist in the first place. Damn. Gender fucks you up. Really, I just want my body to be an occasion for play in many kinds of pleasure, but that answer makes you seem truly unhinged in a round of pronouns before class.
And so I took a semester off and went to study in Sweden. Sure, I had academic cause for being there, but mostly, my motivations were opportunistic. I wanted the darkness of a Nordic winter, time for self-searching during the long days of February. And once spring broke, I would emerge from my winter cocoon to bound through the hills uninhibited by my body or its limitations or its pains. Bathed by the midnight sun in a “Midsommar”-esque frock, I would fuck whomever I pleased with a newly inspired passion. In this fantasy, I share my sunshine-filled romp with some Swedish sheep-herding-type dykes. Do they exist? I can’t say for sure, as I never made it to springtime. Sex (the verb) and gender are different things, but I need to settle one to have the other.
The inauguration of the world we live in now, dependent more than ever on the care and kindness of doctors, constitutes a far larger catastrophe than that of my body shame or sexlessness. Grieving has become widespread, or rather, more interlinked across disparate manifestations. Staying untouched is no longer a personal problem but a political imperative. I don’t know how to write a sex column in the time of the coronavirus. Not because sex is over, but because body-writing about one body (mine) feels small in its adjacency to global bodily disaster. My fantasies of having a body I can want to have sex in are not the most worldly dreams I could entertain. But I have them even so.
Until birth control, sex was a way of dealing with these feelings for me: Both self-deprecation and grief are put on hold for orgasm. If it’s good. I will not be frolicking in a Sapphic, Swedish daydream this summer. And I have trouble imagining a scenario where I could, being single, ever have sex again. But I know that the inability to imagine something now does not foreclose on its potential to occasion in the blurry future. To both positive and negative ends. I’ll need other mechanisms of reemergence, as the natural opportunity for rebirth allotted to us in the transition from winter to spring was, to put it lightly, postponed. But I do believe we will fuck again; I will, I think. I’m a few months off the pill and trying to indulge in new kinds of patience with my body. It’s slow going, but it’s going. Sex too will reemerge. And I will take my body with me when it tells me we can.
Scout Turkel writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]