How A Phantom Tampon Helped Me Understand My Anxiety



mhw2017

Health

Every time I felt like I had a grip on it, it would slip out
of reach and I would need to start the process again.

Posted on October 06, 2017, 19:39 GMT

Hannah K. Lee for BuzzFeed News

When you do the same task all the time, sometimes your
brain turns off (yes, that’s the medical term) while you do
it. Did I set my alarm? I obviously don’t know. Did I lock
the door? You’ve got to be kidding if you think I have any
idea. Did I put in a new tampon when I took the old one out?
One Sunday night when I was 23 I couldn’t answer that last
question.

I went into the bathroom to change my tampon, but when I went
to take the old one out, there was nothing there. There were
two possibilities, a likely one and a life-or-death
melodrama. Either I had forgotten to put a tampon in, or the
tampon was so far inside my body that I couldn’t reach the
dangling string to remove it, and I might already be
developing toxic shock syndrome and going into organ failure.
I couldn’t feel anything there, so I just put in a new tampon
and tried to forget about my worry — something that as a
person with anxiety I have not traditionally excelled at.

At my first ever therapy session, my therapist said she was
writing “generalized anxiety disorder” on my forms as a sort
of placeholder until she got to know me better, but I knew
she wasn’t going to take it back when she saw all the
creative ways I could freak out. And after she heard me give
an apology speech for potentially hovering while she unlocked
her office door, spent many moments sitting across from me
silently staring at her because I was too paralyzed to talk
about my life, heard about my history with disordered eating,
and noticed my hobby of catastrophizing, the diagnosis stuck.

After feeling around as far as I could reach, I finally
touched something that I thought was the rounded bottom end
of the tampon. Relieved, I realized I just needed to maneuver
it out and everything would be fine. But I couldn’t.

At work the Monday after I noticed the missing tampon, I
started to feel nauseous, and my mind immediately flashed
through tampon doom scenarios. It says on tampon boxes that
you shouldn’t keep one in for more than eight hours, and if
there was after all a tampon somewhere deep inside me, it had
been there for at least 18. And what exactly does toxic shock
syndrome do? I reflected on all the horror stories I’d heard
from camp friends and read about in teen magazines, and
remembered that symptoms could be as benign as a fever or as
severe as a beautiful young woman who made just one innocent
mistake facing an untimely death.

I needed to get the tampon out of my body, or at least figure
out if I had one in. But it was hard for me to get away at
work. I’d gotten my job as a copywriter at a tech startup the
week after I graduated college, and the work environment
lacked these abstract things that I now know are called
“boundaries.” I had said at my job interview that I was
available to start immediately, so the cofounder asked me to
stay and work the rest of the day. I got notes by someone
looking at their computer in our open plan office and loudly
asking, “Wait what?” until I walked over. Sometimes one of my
male superiors would walk up behind me when I was sitting at
my desk, place his folded hands on top of my head, and just
apply pressure. I didn’t know how to talk about it, and never
did. Spending day in and day out in an environment where
coworkers were butting into my mental and physical space
every few minutes turned my anxiety way up, which in turn
made it almost impossible to put the brakes on
catastrophizing, especially when it came to the phantom
tampon.

So I dashed into a stall in the work bathroom for a quick,
secretive tampon exploratory/retrieval mission. After feeling
around as far as I could reach, I finally touched something
that I thought was the rounded bottom end of the tampon.
Relieved, I realized I just needed to maneuver it out and
everything would be fine. But I couldn’t. Every time I felt
like I had a grip on it, it would slip out of reach and I
would need to start the process again. I would feel a tiny
portion of what I was sure was the tampon, get a hold, and
start pulling, slowly working it out of my body until I’d
suddenly lose my grasp and feel nothing. At one point I gave
up and went back to my desk because I’d been at it for almost
an hour, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the phantom
tampon. I was feeling a lot more nauseous, probably thanks to
all the internal dragging and (sorry) scraping, so my body
was all I could focus on. Whatever I was looking at on my
computer screen, I was also thinking about the queasiness I
felt, and mortality. It was exhausting to hold everything in
my mind at the same time, so I returned to the bathroom for
more frantic clawing at my insides. I still couldn’t find the
tampon, but I couldn’t accept that it wasn’t there.

The bad dreams that really shake me feature body horrors: a
chimney growing out of my head, mushrooms extending out of my
armpit, strings attached to my cheeks.

I realized the only way I would be able to get out of my
nerve-racking thought circles was to get reassurance from an
expert. And while I didn’t feel comfortable leaving work in
the middle of the day, I felt less comfortable with the idea
of my family members whispering at my funeral about how it’s
really better to use a menstrual cup. I steeled myself before
telling my editor I was having a “medical emergency” and
prepared for pushback, but she had the more grounded response
of offering to call an ambulance. I declined, walked a few
steps out of the office, and tried to figure out where to go.

I didn’t yet have an OB-GYN in New York and didn’t know if my
GP attended to tampon horror stories, so I ended up making
many phone calls that inevitably lead to me stating, “I have
a tampon lost inside my body.” That seemed the most socially
acceptable way to describe it — I wasn’t embarrassed then and
I’m not now, but I didn’t want to make others uncomfortable.
The way I was able to get through repeating that sentence to
so many strangers was simple: I wanted to live. On some level
I knew I probably wouldn’t die. But what if I did?

That’s how my anxiety often feels. I know in my mind what
makes the most sense, but I can’t stop obsessing on a
negative thought. In this case: Will I die by tampon? This
wasn’t the only time my anxious thinking had crept into my
daily life, or had been focused on my body. I’ve spent
therapy sessions planning outfits to wear for important
moments, because my worries glom together into overwhelming
panic about how people see me and how that could irrevocably
change the course of my life.

On my way to the startup job, I would often stare at my
reflection in the F train window until I talked myself down
from the unrelenting uneasiness I was feeling about my
appearance. The bad dreams that really shake me feature body
horrors: a chimney growing out of my head, mushrooms
extending out of my armpit, strings attached to my cheeks. I
get these dreams when I’m particularly stressed out, and they
stick with me for days afterward, popping into my mind at
unwanted times along with a distracting feeling of dread. And
the anxiety doesn’t disappear when I go to sleep. I’ve had
months go by where every night as I’m drifting off, I
suddenly wake up gasping for air.

Finally, I sat with my feet in stirrups while two medical
professionals told me to please calm down because my body was
“spitting out the instrument.”

At that point, almost two years into my startup job, all
these symptoms were in rotation on my anxiety playlist. Plus,
I’d leave work with a sort of residual buzzing that I eased
by drinking every night, and eventually drinking instead of
feeding myself properly. I would stay up until all hours and
then, running on anxiety, adrenaline, and caffeine, was able
to wake up for work every day and do it all again. So when I
realized I wouldn’t be able to let go of my tampon thought
spiral without proceeding through a number of humiliating
steps, I just accepted it. I was used to living in constant
discomfort and pushing through whatever I needed to do to
keep going. And I was living in such a heightened state that
I couldn’t help but filter everything through
emergency-tinted glasses. It was like my emotions were
controlled by a light switch; they were either all the way
off, or blowing a circuit causing a citywide blackout. When
the fourth doctor’s office receptionist on the phone told me
to go to the emergency room, I decided to google the nearest
hospital.

I didn’t want to talk about what was wrong with me anymore,
but I was comforted by the fact that people who work in a
hospital see all kinds of afflictions. I imagined a job
orientation where employees practiced empathetically and
nonchalantly welcoming patients with poles impaling their
chests or tiny fish stuck in their urethras. (I was mostly
thinking about Grey’s Anatomy.) There were other
people waiting to check in with the ER receptionist, so I
quietly said, hoping it would be the last time, “I have a
tampon lost inside my body.” She blurted, “What?”

“I have a tampon lost inside my body,” I told her again, and
then the nurse, and then the doctor. Finally, I sat with my
feet in stirrups while two medical professionals told me to
please calm down because my body was “spitting out the
instrument.” I had spent the day wondering if I was dying,
picking at the inside of my body, and talking to many
strangers about my vagina while trying not to say the word
“vagina.” I couldn’t just suddenly be chill. Finally the
doctor asked if she could use her gloved hand. She reached in
and felt around both sides of my uterus while I tried not to
scream, and then said she didn’t see anything there. Was it
possible I had just forgotten to put a tampon in? As she
gently explained, “There’s nowhere for it to go.”

Since my tampon meltdown, I’ve become more aware of when my
anxiety is taking over. That doesn’t make it go away, but
does cut down on embarrassing death scares.

Turns out, women’s bodies actually aren’t mysterious black
holes you can just lose stuff in. Where are my keys? Did I
throw them on the counter when I walked in the door, or are
they floating around inside the deep female abyss?

I left the hospital as the sun was starting to set. I
resisted the urge to check in with work, which felt very
radical. The doctor had told me she was glad I came to the
hospital just to be sure, and didn’t make me feel ashamed for
letting my anxiety overwhelm me to the point that I thought a
ghostly menstrual hygiene product might be trying to murder
me. That empathy was a relief as I tried to process my
behavior from that day. I was relieved to officially not be
dying, though that also meant I was perhaps losing it.

Since my tampon meltdown, I’ve become more aware of when my
anxiety is taking over. That doesn’t make it go away, but
does cut down on embarrassing death scares. Sometimes a
well-meaning friend will try to soothe me by saying I’m just
having anxiety. Yes, I am, and it feels very bad. But I’m
working on it, as sort of a freelance gig I didn’t apply for
or want. When I get overwhelmed by a crowd, I’ll walk away
from the rest of my group. To practice boundaries, I’ll
decide before a social event specifically what I’m willing
and not willing to share. I’ve even learned how to prevent a
body nightmare by refocusing my thoughts and breath when I’m
going to sleep. Yes, I can incept myself.

My therapist once had me put my harmful body perspectives in
an imaginary box, which felt really silly at the time, but
I’m obviously willing to do anything to ease my troubling
thought patterns (remember the tampon thing?). It actually
turned out to be a memorable ritual, and I imaginarily left
the box in my New York apartment when I quit my job and moved
to LA. Hopefully my bad thoughts are not bothering the new
tenants. ●

Ariel Karlin is a writer and comedian in Los
Angeles.

To learn more about anxiety, check out the resources at
the National Institute of Mental Health here.

And if you need to talk to someone immediately, you can
reach the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and
or the Crisis Text
Line by texting HOME to 741741. Suicide helplines outside
the US can be found here.

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