Hot Cheeks and Other Lessons on Listening to our Bodies

You know how you know when you’re embarrassed, because the heat rises up through your body and spreads out into two rosy red circles on your cheeks, and you know instantly, this feeling of horror at what you just did, this wish that you could go back in time and do it right— that moment that caused the heat to rise up your belly and into your throat and to spread out into two rosy red circle on your cheeks, circles that feel like they are on fire?

That is your body’s way of telling you, “Hey, dude, you’re embarrassed.” We rely on our bodies for signals, body cues about how we are feeling, when we are feeling, what we are feeling. Our minds and souls rely on us to listen to our body cues, heed them, care about them.

So imagine this: Sitting at the dinner table alone, finishing up grades with a cup of lemon tea and the evening sunlight dancing in the window.

….when, on cue, your body screams to you: YOU ARE EMBARRASSED. Red cheeks, flooded with heat. Except you’re not. You are all alone, grading student work. You might be bored or tired or frustrated, but certainly not embarrassed. Except you are. You take a minute to try and figure out where the sudden embarrassment came from. But you’re persistently not embarrassed. But there’s your body, telling you, screaming to you, embarrassment.

Is it a hot flash? The new hormone therapy I am on, the one that involves inducing false menopause? It can cause hot flashes. Immediately I send text messages out into the ethers, because I know the young adult cancer community will know. They’ve always known- they knew about neuropathy and constipation, they knew about social isolation and how to hide surgical drains, they knew about fear of dying and chemotherapy ports and feeling like no one understood. They knew, and they would know about hot flashes, too.

Beads of sweat, they respond. “Are there beads of sweat? There are always sudden, unexplained, beads of sweat during a chemopause* or false menopause** or cancer-induced menopause*** hot flash.” But my hot, embarrassed cheeks are dry. My upper lip boasts not a single droplet of sweat. What confusion, brought on by a new hormone therapy, about the signals my body is sending me, about how I am supposed to know the world, about how I make sense of the body signals that normally orient me to the world. Am I embarrassed, about something I cannot identify? Ashamed, and I don’t know of what? Is it really a hot flash, are the drugs finally putting me into false menopause, and can I really not know, do I really not know, can I really be so unsure, of what a hot flash feels like?

What a silly thing to be so onsure about, what a silly thing to not be able to identify.

But we are so unsure. So unsure of our bodies, these days. Every where I turn, at every step, I notice that I am unsure of what my body is telling me. And I notice that you are unsure of what your body is telling you, too. And I notice that collectively, we are not listening to our bodies.

I am unsure because I am medically regulated, my patterns thrown off by medications and surgeries. I am unsure because parts of me are not me at all, but plastic and silicone in my place, fooling you. I am unsure because you have told me, so often, what I am feeling even though my gut said something else, and I unsure because I followed along and I listened for so long, until I forgot how to tell if my gut was telling me something else. I am unsure because for so long, I didn’t know there was something growing in my breast, I am unsure because my own cells forgot I mattered and morphed into a deadly dis/ease. I am at a profound dis/ease, because I don’t know how to read my body.

Do you?

The other night, a four year old girl explained to me that her kobo was the bad part of her body. How could any part of her be possibly bad? Her little four year old body and soul is built of a love of running and a willingness to try even the oddest of foods- where, I wondered, was the bad hiding, lurking? Her kobo. What is that? Why do we make these words up, these words for vagina, and why do we call that part of our body- our vaginas- bad? And isn’t a Kobo a tablet on which you read books? What’s that got to do with a part of your body that can erupt in pleasure or serve your everyday peeing needs? And worse, why is it the bad part of her?

Moreover, how is she ever supposed to trust herself if the adults around her fill her mind with ideas about her vagina being bad? What if they can’t even call it a vagina at all, and they call it a kobo, and a kobo is an e-reader? I suppose if we are going to re-name a vagina, I would be on board with naming it after a digital tool used exclusively for reading and knowledge-seeking, but really? A kobo?

But you know, the name isn’t so concerning to me. Of course, I will tell our daughters they have vaginas with clitorises and labia, and we will never call their vaginas kobos. But I think we are in the minority. Critically, is this little girl learning not to name herself, not to trust herself, not to pay heed to her body, her body signals, the knowledge deep inside her flesh? How will she know how to read her body signals, and especially, the ones coming from her vagina (err, kobo) if all we ever tell her is that her kobo is the bad part of her?

And then this little girl grows up, and she’s on the brink of knowing what her gut is telling her, of being able to know from deep inside her soul that she is enough- what if she’s on the brink of being able to be herself— and then she remembers, that there is a bad part of her? A part that shouldn’t be trusted? What if she ignores the pain and the pleasure, the hope and the embarrassment? What if she ignores signals from her vagina about sex, because someone told her that was a bad part of her? What if she ignores signals of illness, coming from her vagina? What if she ignores the signals her brain receives from her body, the signals that show her how to interface with the world?

These are devastating what-ifs. Devastating.

I think it’s time we listen to our bodies.

But sometimes I think we forgot how. I think we forgot, because people called our vaginas kobos instead of showing us how to navigate the feelings from them. I think we forgot, because people told us who and what we loved, instead of inquiring after our hearts. I think we forgot, because we got caught up in the rush of life, in the need to build bigger and better and fancier homes and facades and vacations, instead of listening silent, to that tiny inside voice, the one that is so easily drowned out by the world. I think we forgot, because they taught us to use our minds, to rationalize, to think ourselves outside of situations because being emotional or being in your body is being not smart enough. I think we forgot, because our bodies are so hopelessly tied up in all this social forgetting, so hopelessly affected by the toxins we threw into the world when we forgot, so hopelessly knotted together with our carelessness about the world and about the communities living next door to us and about the people sharing our food and about the air we breathe.

I think I forgot. I forgot to listen to my body.

I listened once, and it saved my life. I listened when I knew I had cancer, and no one believed me.

I had to listen again, to my body, when I was on the brink of mastectomy. I had to listen because for the first time, it became crystal clear to me that no one had the answers, that your opinions had no weight, that I couldn’t try to please anyone this time, because for the first time, a decision lay in front of me that only I could make, a decision lay in front of me for which only I could be accountable.

And I had to listen to my body. I had to learn again, how to listen to my body. Because I forgot.

It’s time to learn again, to learn in the everyday, to learn in the mundane, how to listen to my body. Not in the OHMYGOD I HAVE A PROFOUND DIS/EASE THAT COULD KILL ME AND YOU ARE NOT PAYING ATTENTION kind of way. It’s time to listen to my body in the I have to decide what to have for lunch kind of way, and the I need to figure out what courses I want to teach kind of way, and the I have to know what to name the babies kind of way, and the I need to decide how to handle these complicated relationships in my life kind of way. I forgot before, how to listen to my body. It’s time now, to listen up. To pay mind. To learn. To know, from deep inside. Not to theorize, but to know from my gut, even when I want nothing more but to dance in theoretical knowledge and abstract ideas. To listen to my body, even when books and articles and scholarly exchange are easier, comforting, intelligible. To listen to my body, a body no one else can know from. It is time.

It’s time now, to listen to our bodies. Our lives depend on it. Our world relies on it. It is our today, and it will make our future.

*Chemotherapy routinely causes amenoreah. Most refer to it as “chemopause” as it is often associated with menopause symptoms like lowered sex drive, weigh gain, and hot flashes. Sometimes chemopause associated with higher survival rates.

**False menopause is when the doctors trick your body into halting the production of estrogen, so that they can administer anti-cancer medication that they think will keep your cancer at bay. It involves menopause-like symptoms like lowered sex drive, weight gain, and hot flashes. The think that once they stop inducing false menopause, my body should go back to normal. In my case, they are trying to induce false menopause by means of a monthly pellet inserted into my stomach fat. My doctor has warned me against looking at the shot she gives me, the one loaded with the pellet, because in her words, “its too big for you to feel OK about this after you see it.”

***Cancer-induced menopause is when some part of cancer treatment- be it chemotherapy, surgically removing the ovaries, or hormone therapy (or something else) causes permanent, irreversible menopause in a woman too early to be experiencing such body changes. Sometimes it happens decades and decades before it should have.

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