Lately, when I get really wound up about my mastectomy, there are some recurring questions I get stuck on. Normally, they’re recurring obsessive thoughts. The longer I think about them, the more upset I get. Luckily, my attention span and short-term memory both got a lot worse over the last few years, so normally I just distract myself as necessary when I feel like I have to think about anything. But if I’m badly upset around someone I feel comfortable vocalizing this stuff to, which is vanishingly rare, I sob an awful lot and tend to repeat a few different questions with very noisy terror. They’re not really the kind of thing anyone else can answer for me, I don’t think. I’ll probably make a post about each of my questions eventually.
I’m gonna go a little bit into my best guesses at where these phrases I repeat are coming from. The way I talk about my own chest shouldn’t be read as feelings or judgements I have about anyone else post-op, just to be clear. It’s been a long time since I had issues with externalizing my body issues and thinking nasty shit about others’ appearances. This is 100% about my trauma, not the aesthetic results of this surgery or defining anyone else’s experiences with transitional surgery. That being said… here’s the post.
“WHO’S GOING TO LOVE ME NOW?”
I actually am well aware that a lot of people love me at this point in my life, mostly other women, and I’m endlessly grateful for the many positive relationships I’m able to be a part of. On the surface this should be easy to talk myself down from, since there’s a lot of examples of who does love me now. It’s not exactly about that, though.
What I really mean is just that I feel like a repulsive freak when I see or remember what exists now where my breasts were. As a result of that, I don’t feel like anyone could really love me ever again. I know this is irrational. There’s a couple directions where it comes from.
One of them is horror at the knowledge of what actions were performed to change my body from how it was to how it is now. I get very distressed when I see footage, illustrations, or detailed descriptions of surgery. I did even before I had it. I can only watch the absolute fakest movie gore without freaking out the rest of the day about it. Even in cartoons, watching harm being done to living creatures (or corpses, actually, although that’s not pertinent here) upsets me. Like, as a child I used to be pretty troubled by Loony Tunes dropping anvils on people. I empathize with corpses, too, to the extent where I couldn’t participate in my 10th grade fetal pig dissection. I couldn’t make myself cut into something that still looked alive to me.
The winter before my transition, when I was visiting my (also FTM, we ended up getting our mastectomies a couple weeks apart) partner in Canada, I remember how M liked to play through instructional surgery games on a smartphone. I tried to play the rhinoplasty one once out of morbid curiosity, didn’t finish, and still have intrusive thoughts about the cartoon graphics years later. After that, when M had those games open, I would make a point not to look.
Until my consult, I had successfully avoided thinking very much about how you go from having breasts to not having breasts. I had obsessively researched every aspect of transition but I’d always skip over actual descriptions of surgeries. To his credit, Dr Crane did make me listen to a frank description of what double mastectomy entailed, even though I said I would rather not hear it. I felt like I shouldn’t have to- I’d be unconscious for it. He said it was important to know what you’re getting into. Fair enough. I still hate him.
What I remember of the description he gave was that for each breast, they make an incision on the top of the breast itself, and then an incision beneath it. Everything between those two incisions gets cut away. They cut a hole in the tissue of the upper flap so that they can reattach the nipples, which they snipped away from all the rest of my breast tissue, which they’re just gonna toss. The upper and lower flaps are stitched together. The stitches dissolve, I think. I would have remembered them being taken out, I would hope. I’ve been scared of stitches my whole life. Surgical glue is used along with the stitches to minimize scarring. After that, they cut slits in the sides to put the draining tubes into. The drains fill with pus (I think?? It was yellow) and blood. Little chunks of tissue aren’t unusual. I got a paper saying how much blood and pus (probably) I should expect. You empty the drains every few hours…3 or 6 or something, god, I don’t remember. You come back in some number of days to get the drains taken out. After some other number of days, they take the cast off. I can’t remember which comes first.
M was the last operation Dr Crane did drains on, by the way, 2 weeks after my operation. At least that’s what he told us. Now Crane is the guy who doesn’t need to do drains. Anyway… my memory is shit and I’ve been actively repressing this for years, so I would be very surprised if what I remember of him describing his operation was entirely accurate. Sequencing isn’t intuitive to me at the best of times but it’s one of many things that goes totally to shit when I’m upset, which I am, because thinking about this is upsetting.
I made myself look at my chest in the mirror a lot after surgery, with the cast on and after it was off. I don’t remember how it made me feel.
The other angle on why feeling like my body is disgusting upsets me is broader, more about transition as a whole than the more episodic trauma of surgery. Growing up as a butch lesbian had already made me feel pretty monstrous. I thought transition would deliver me from that, turning an unlovable girl into a lovable man. It didn’t work- I have never been a man and never will be. Grieving this broader disappointment is pretty tied up in grieving the failure of my mastectomy to give me a chest that I could feel good about- without having to do a shit ton of emotional work to get there.
I thought I was taking a shortcut. In reality, I was using all of my notably limited emotional, physical, and financial resources to stomp in the opposite direction with great enthusiasm. It doesn’t feel good to think about this. Sunk cost fallacy and transition (especially transitional surgery) should probably be a whole separate post, though, because that is some real fuckin shit.