difficult thoughts

Here is a sad story prompted by a passing comment by Ms Tartan:

It didn’t help that the kid who drew out my blood had the full Myspace emo thing going on, with asymetrical dyed black hair and a scowl and a black spike through one ear, and under his nurse blouse, a studded leather wristcuff. He seemed determined to either spit in my blood or drink some.

It reminds me of another brush with altfashion in a medical context which I had a couple of years ago.
When my mother was very ill in hospital (ie, in a coma in intensive care, or else distressed and disoriented in intensive care) – the most horrible month or two of my life – I remember noticing a (young female) doctor’s piercing – she had a couple of those tiny gold ‘pins’ through the skin at the mid-point of her chest above her breasts. It peeked out through the unbuttoned bit of her collared shirt.
I remember thinking that that was the most inappropriate piercing (or display thereof) that I’d ever seen. It really disturbed me, and not in any logical way.
I’m ordinarily fairly blase about piercings – not my cup of tea, but aesthetically ok, so long as they’re well placed and well done. In any other circumstances I’d have been fine with this.
But, at that moment, in this place of blood and needles and pain and despair, where my mother was deliriously pleading with me to “take it – take it out!” as she pulled at her IV tube, this doctor’s piercing was disturbing.
I’m not sure why. But thinking about it makes me feel bad, even now.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that in the intensive care unit patients have no dignity. And their distressed families have just as little. My mother had no rights – she couldn’t choose not to have that needle in her body. A woman who usually takes such care of her appearance, and who is usually so assertive and capable, strapped to a bed so she wouldn’t tear out the various tubes that were keeping her alive. And for me, being faced with the realisation that my mother wasn’t going to be the one who looked after me, but that I was the one who had to make the difficult decisions and to look after her. Even more distressing, being the one who gave permission for my mother to be sedated, intubated, made vulnerable in a frightening and dangerous moment.
To see that doctor with that piercing made me think that all that display of bodily adornment was really just a display of self-mutilation. A way of saying “I choose to make my body imperfect, to marr it, to flaw the safety of my skin, so as to make a point of fashion or politics” which seemed profoundly insulting and arrogant in that context. In that place, that piercing, to me, seemed like a flaunting of the power and health of that woman. For the patients (and more importantly, family), it seemed as if her choosing to make her (otherwise perfect, healthy) body inperfect was a slap in the face to people who would have given anything for an immune system robust enough to manage a piercing. At that moment, for me, it felt as if she was flaunting her body’s ability to fight off infection (and deliberate mutilation), when it was an infection that was killing my mother. And that there was nothing I could do.
I still don’t understand why I felt so strongly about that tiny, fairly unobtrusive piercing. No doubt in my then-state of heightened emotion, it took very little to spark off anger or frustration. And I know I was always close to tears.
But it reminds me of the way I feel about some christian religions.
Those faiths which endorse refusing medical attention – discourage taking medications, having operations, blood transfusions, and so on – disturb me. And while, on the one hand, I do feel that they have a right to make these choices, on the other, I think that this is a choice only available to the healthy, middle class living in a developed country.
Living in Melbourne, in Australia, in a comfortably middle class home, choosing not to take antiobiotics or see a conventional doctor is a luxury made possible by our high standard of living. But choosing not to be immunised against curable disease, or not to take a course of antiobiotics seems an insult to someone who lives without access to clean water, whose immune system is compromised by malnutrition or starvation or violence or war. Again, a flaunting of privilege in the face of such powerlessness. And while I see the value in principles like ‘living simply so that others may simply live’, it feels like a flaunting of health and wealth and privilege in the face of others who do not.
This is a difficult concept to think about, because I do feel strongly about ‘living simply’ – I choose not to drive a car, I choose to ride my bike, I choose to garden organically, I choose to make my own clothes and so on, because I feel that I need to tread more lightly on the earth. And, as a feminist, I choose not to ‘just take it’ when I hear or see or experience sexism or chauvenism. But at the same time, I am very much aware of the fact that I can make these choices – that I can practice these sorts of everyday eco- and politico- awareness because I am living in privileged place, at a privileged time. I was the child of a middle class family, I have a tertiary education and work in a very socially ‘safe’ environment. I do have the option of choosing how and when I will work. I do not have three children to feed and clothe and get to school every day. I am healthy enough and physically able to ride my bike. I do have the luxury of a garden where I can plant food for my family. I have the skills and access to resources to make my own clothes. And so on.
It is a conundrum: does this make me a hypocrite in the context of the religious issue?
I’m not sure that it does, particularly as there are other issues which frustrate me in terms of certain of those faiths and their approaches to gender and power within their own heirarchies.
I mean, it is a fact that access to proper health care and education, including information about contraception is essential to improving conditions for women (for children – for families) in developing countries. I have difficulty with the idea that choosing not to use contraception, not to use adequate health care, not to be educated, can in any way be a good thing for women, for societies.
And it really, really bothers me that a faith would actively discourage the use of medication or education in a developed country, because it also implicitly (if not explicitly) discourages followers in less fortunate circumstances as well. I smell a frightening use of power to secure loyalty and dependency. Particularly when the only ‘acceptable’ form of ‘medical intervention’ is prayer. Prayer with certain members of the church.
…but that’s a lot to think about on such a nice day, when I have (more!) marking to do.