In October 1987 I am admitted to Wanstead Hospital for surgery. This is earlier than intended. I remember wandering around the little supermarket close to QMW on the Mile End Road the lunchtime after I have been informed, and my colleague Cathy discovering me in a state of some distress and confusion. She takes care of me and calms me down, despite not really knowing what is going on (see below).
The hospital is already “in trouble”. It will close altogether not long afterwards but some wards have already closed, and the ward I am in has a mirror image adjacent ward which is spookily empty. I have, of course, had to tell work, family and friends that I am going into hospital, but I am too embarrassed, self-conscious and anxious to be open about what treatment I am having. I have to tell my boss Sue, of course, but I am vaguer when talking to my Liaison colleagues Cathy and Elizabeth. And I certainly don’t want my parents to know – it’s ironic that the original problems happened under their care but that I still feel in some way “responsible” and ashamed – so much so that I can’t talk to them about it. Somehow, I come up with some vague form of words – I can’t remember what exactly now. But I do remember my parents visiting (separately, as they are long divorced) and Nigel visiting with his girlfriend Deborah, and my putting a brave face on my recovery, while being extremely vague about what I am recovering from.
This is hard to wrtie about. Like my hospital stay in 1971, this is a horrible, horrible time in my life, much worse than I expect it to be. Just as when I was a child of 13, I dutifully shuffle into the ward, get into my pyjamas and put myself at the mercy of the “experts”. My expectation is that a long-standing “problem” (as I and the doctors see it then) is about to be “put right”. That, after all, is what I have been told will happen.
I have a blood test in the morning, and later the surgeon does his rounds, accompanied by the junior doctors in the time-honoured styel of Sir Lancelot Spratt. When he gets to me, he identifies that some test results seem to be telling a conflicting story. He orders one of the tests to be redone.
The second set of results come back quite quickly, and tell a different story from the first. The implications – in terms of my body and any proposed treatment – are profound. I have less than thirty seconds to digest this information before the surgeon smoothly moves on from his original plans to much more invasive, frightening and irreversible surgery. Tomorrow. After all, I’m already admitted as a patient. Keeps things simple.
OK, as I couldn’t examine this rationally in 1987, let’s investigate this rationally now. I have two sets of results completely at odds with each other. Assuming the first set is the “wrong” set, what happened. Did the lab mix up samples? Should I believe the second results, particularly as it means I am suddenly, and imminently facing a much more significant medical experience? How can the consultant be so casual about such a screw-up? But also, what the hell does he think he’s doing? Here I am on a surgical conveyor belt and that takes priority over me as a patient? After all, he’s a busy man, it would cost the NHS more to discharge and re-admit me, might as well press on, psychological effects, what are they, medical negligence, what’s that? Shove the poor bugger through the system.
You might think that, lying there, I would be outraged, and would want to take control of the situation, ask for a second opinion, want to be discharged etc etc. You would be wrong. I feel utterly powerless. To understand why, you have to appreciate how for me, this is a complete re-run of 1971, but also to appreciate how totally 1971 shaped my adolescent and early adult life, how utterly it reinforced my sense of difference, of freakishness, of unworthiness. Yes, I am scared as hell and don’t want this to happen. Yes, I am trying to understand why the test results were so different. Yes, at some level I understand that I am being treated like a piece of meat, a problem to be solved, an intellectual exercise for the surgeon which has slightly shifted. I should be standing up for myself, I should be stopping this now, at least to get them to consider whether this it the best course of action. I can’t. Psychologically I am completely back in 1971 – not an adult, but a helpless child about to be butchered yet again.
So I don’t say anything much. I meekly agree to the proposed procedure. I am complicit in the surgeon’s view of me as essentially worthless, not a human being at all. No one else comes to discuss the surgery with me, or to ask how I’m feeling, or explore the emotional consequences. Beth comes to see me but I can’t recall whether this is before the surgery, or afterwards. I do tell her what is going on but it is, I think, a bit much for her to take in. She is practically very supportive, for which I’m grateful, but she no more knows what to say than I do.
So, the following day, I meekly allow them to take me to surgery. I’ve been screwed up once so sure, do it again. You should know that I am not alone. A lot of trans and intersex people have been misdiagnosed, mistreated, “corrected” over the decades. Forced into society and the medical establishment’s conceptions of “norms” – not consulted, or properly informed, or cared for. In 1987 I am just a rabbit in the headlights as I go to my fate. Months later, when the impact of what takes place finally hits me, I am in a terrible state. Today in 2010 I am angry – a cold, determined anger – about what is done to us, what continues to be done. Medical responses to gender and sexual variance are improving, though disgracefully slowly. Terrible things still happen – to find a high profile example you only need to see how Caster Semenya has been treated. Her treatment is the tip of the iceberg. Things need to change. Perhaps you can help.
Back in 1987, Beth meets me when I am discharged and helps me to get home. I remember shuffling painfully down a long, echoing staircase as she ploughs on ahead with my possessions. I return to my flat in Walthamstow, to an autumn full of signs, portents and omens.