I am 25 years old and until one week ago, I had never been to the gynecologist. I had actively avoided going for 13 years. Just the idea of making an appointment was enough to bring me to tears and panic.
I overcame a lot last Thursday. I genuinely thought I wasn’t going to make it at some points. Despite that, I am here, and I went to the gynecologist.
I can barely believe it. I have been dissecting the event since I got home from my trip and decided to write it out. I realized I’ve never read an advice post for childhood sexual abuse survivors taking the trip to the — for me, dreaded — gyno.
Here is what worked for me (and matching gifs of cute animals doing things, because animals are cute like you and make me feel relaxed/better when I read heavy stuff).
1. Honor what you can do, take your time, and try and try again!
I decided a year ago that I absolutely had to make the appointment and began thinking about it as a reality. I made turning 25 the marker of really needing to go. The idea was terrifying but I set the time limit to come to terms with making the appointment.
It took me the whole year do it, but that is okay. I gave myself that time to do a lot of thinking and try a little more every day. I may not have been able to make that call 364 days out of 365, but that is also okay. I only needed one day out of all of them to find the power to make the call.
2. “I need to have this exam and I need to have it right now!“
The day of the appointment, I called Planned Parenthood as soon as they opened. I decided to go with Planned Parenthood because I realized having an appointment looming over my head for days or weeks would make me really upset and anxious all the time. I needed a same-day appointment and a time slot that was very soon so I had a limited time for panic, anger, sadness, and all my other survivor feelings.
3. Practice makes perfect.
Making the call to Planned Parenthood was incredibly difficult for me. I cried for about 15 minutes before I made the call, and when I thought I was strong enough to call, I would dial the number and then burst into tears and hang up. It was so so so hard. I would build myself up and be ready, and then hearing the phone ring would reduce me to a blubbering puddle.
After doing that a few times, I could make it through the ringing. When someone actually answered and I would break when I heard their voice. I laid in bed and cried a bit longer.
It was a difficult cycle: cry, call, say hello, hang up. After about a half dozen of those, I managed to choke out, “I need to come in for a exam.”
4. “What did you say?” “What does that mean?“
When the lady at Planned Parenthood started asking me specific questions, I didn’t really know the answers. Pap smear? Wellness exam? Check-up? What does any of that mean?
Instead of hanging up or just saying okay, I asked her to explain what those things mean. (Do NOT be afraid to ask questions! It is their JOB to keep you informed, armed with knowledge, and healthy. It may feel odd for you to ask but honestly, they do not mind. The do this all day long and would rather take a few minutes to explain things to you and have you get the care you need than not.) She suggested she put me down for a pap smear. I asked her for a soon-ish time slot and she gave me an appointment for an hour and a half later. I thanked her, hung up, and then things got a little overwhelming.
5. Breathe. Stay calm. Keep swimming.
This is when I started to have a panic attack. A gynecologist visit in just an hour? Let the freak out commence, right?
I don’t know where I would have been if I didn’t have a lifeline, someone to connect to and bring me out of my own head. My past can creep up and act like fog to my brain, and I get so lost in the way that things were. It is very important for me to have someone to reach out to when this happens, like a lighthouse, to bring me back to shore safely.
In this instance, I had a friend with me and a family member on the phone. They both talked to me and then they talked to each other. That ate up about 20 minutes of time. Then I realized it was really time to get ready!
6. Grab the essentials.
I had basically 15 minutes to get ready and be ready to leave. So I started rounding up what I needed. My wallet, my purse, my identification card, and so on. Then I started grabbing things I thought would help me. This is what I chose:
- A sports bra, a comfy t shirt, and yoga pants. Things that made me feel secure and safe, that would be easy to take on and off.
- Tennis shoes that tie. I wanted to have something I put on my body stay there and be tight on me.
- A necklace with my name on it. I think any necklace would help, mine happened to have letter beads with my name spelled out. But anything that you can grab on to, maybe a necklace that reminds you of something good, a nice holiday, someone who loves you.
- Silver bangle bracelets. I stacked roughly 15 thin, silver bangles on my wrist. They are cold, make a lot of noise when I shake them, and are heavy when they are all together on my wrist.
- My iPod. Music has a great way of setting or changing my mood. I brought my iPod and listened to India.Arie and rain sounds to calm my nerves.
- A bottle of fingernail polish. I brought a bottle of my least favorite fingernail polish to smell in case I got carried away in a flashback before or after the exam. It is a small thing that packs a powerful punch and travels well.
- Some bubbles. I have a bunch of bubble necklaces from the kids section of Dollar Tree. I brought one of them just in case I needed something light and fun. Bubbles in an instant!
- A whistle/noise maker. I brought a little whistle on a string just in case I needed to make some noise. Sometimes I find that silence makes me more nervous than sound does, and being able to have a whistle, a kazoo, or a harmonica might help. Because it isn’t just random noise (which can also be stressful); it is musical noise that you have control over.
- Something to squeeze. I packed a little bit of Play-Doh to come with me. I would imagine sticky tack, Flarp, moon sand, Silly Putty, or something else similar would give you the same release. I wanted something squishy that I could pull apart, squeeze between my fingers, roll between my palms, or just toss from hand to hand. A lot of my nerves come out through my hands when I’m stressed, and I crack my knuckles or bite my nails, neither of which are great for my hands. This item was to get the fidgets out in a peaceful way.
- A notebook. Just in case I thought of something I didn’t want to forget under the stress of the visit, or if I wanted to write down things I couldn’t or didn’t want to say out loud.
- A couple stuffed animals. I brought three stuffed animals that I love with me to sit in the car for when I got back. I wanted everything from the moment I left the office to be mine and welcoming. Having stuffed animals, your pillow, your favorite blanket, or whatever else brings you comfort at night in the car waiting for you after the appointment is a really nice thing to see.
- Lotion, gum, spray perfume. I brought all three in my bag. They are instant sense changes. The gum is taste-based, while the lotion is physical as well as smell-based like the perfume. Stuck in a past memory? One of these things can always force me back to reality pretty fast.
- My phone and a friend. It was important for me to have someone there to talk to and be with. I held hands with my friend and stayed on the phone with my old therapist for the entire exam. It made a world of difference for me.
7. Write it down; our brains can get fuzzy!
One minute my brain is ready to take in or give out info and then I get triggered and it’s all gone. It’s like a train derailment, and I have no idea how to get back on the tracks.
I assumed that I would be overwhelmed and have “fuzzy brain” (when nothing coming in sticks, and nothing going out really ever makes its way out), so I typed all the things I wanted to ask or talk to my doctor about on my phone. I checked them off one by one and wrote her responses down quickly before the exam. I’m really glad I did, because now that I’m a week out, I am realizing that I really don’t remember much from the conversation. And that is okay.
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I used to get really frustrated with myself when I would get triggered or have a flashback. As a result, I couldn’t remember what had happened. But my therapist told me our brain puts things in order from most important to least important. And in moments of flashbacks and triggers, the most important thing is keeping ourselves safe and sane, so our brains focus on that instead of what is being said to us. Because of this, just to be safe, write it down so you get all the info no matter what happens.
8. You set the rules, the bar, the tone. YOU are the one in charge.
Something I was really afraid of was feeling powerless again. Doctors usually occupy a position of authority, and for people who have had figures of authority abuse them, that is a scary thing.
My friend reminded me that my body is my body, and I am allowed to say, “Slow down, not like that, no…” Whatever I want to say to feel okay. I could ultimately leave the appointment if I wanted!
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When we first got there, the waiting room staff told me that my friend would not be allowed back. I politely told them that it was mandatory that he come with me, and the reasoning behind that is that I am a survivor of abuse, my friend is my only support I have with me, and I will not be able to complete the visit without my friend. They were very understanding and allowed my friend to be with me at every point except my vital signs. And that was okay for me.
They bent the rules of “no secondary people in the exam rooms” for me because they understood the position I was in. That brought me a lot of comfort.
In the exam room, I told my doctor that I was an abuse survivor and this is how I needed my visit to go: my friend would be in the room with me the whole time, my therapist would be on the phone the whole time, and that my doctor needed to verbally describe what she was about to do to me before she did it. Knowing what to expect was a huge help and gave me a heads-up on what I would be feeling. It made me feel a little more in control.
9. You did it!
And you should do a little dance like this duck just did!
I could hardly believe I did it, that I made it through the exam without anything terrible happening to me. I cried happy tears on the phone to my happy-crying therapist while my happy-crying friend stood by my side. It was a huge moment, a moment I definitely never thought I would see.
I remember telling my therapist when I was 15, “I am more scared of that doctor than I am of dying.” And I still had that amount of fear, anxiety, and panic in me when I went at 25. I wish I could say I went out of concern for myself, but it was mainly because my parents wouldn’t stop talking about it, friends kept talking about cancers, and knowing I would have to go one day mixed with being scared it wouldn’t be on my terms. But none of that matters now because it got done anyway. One thing at a time.
Maybe next time I will go out of concern for my well-being, maybe not. This is a process.
10. Go celebrate!
When you complete one of the most daunting, intimidating, and terrifying tasks in your life… you deserve to treat yourself in whatever positive way you want!
I left the building and saw my stuffed animals waiting for me in the passenger seat. They were the official sign that I had survived and made it to the other side. I hugged them tight, gave myself a moment to digest everything that had happened over the past two hours, and then I went to The Humane Society. I like going there because I can visit with animals who need love and care just as much as I do, and I know they will be kept safe and sound until they find a forever home (thanks for all the hard work, Humane Society!) with someone who loves them.
Then I ate at one of my favorite restaurants and took a nap. I didn’t feel on top of the world necessarily, but I felt strong, grounded, and happy that I could overcome such a giant hurdle in my life and do what was right for me despite my crippling fear. At the very least, I know this: if I can do it.. you can do it. You really can do it. I promise. <3
This is just how my visit went and what I found helpful for surviving my exam. If anyone needs further explanation on any of the steps I took, my ask box is wide open. And if you want someone to talk on the phone to who totally gets it and 100% doesn’t mind being there, send me a message and I will be your phone buddy for your exam. I completely, totally, absolutely do not mind. I WANT to be that lifeline for anyone who needs it. ‘Cause you know…
We have to look out for each other.
Sage is an actor/writer with a passion for visual arts. When she isn’t creating, she can be found playing in the Kentucky sun with her pugs. Find her on Twitter at @HiSageMartin.