At 25-years-old, I had never been to the gynecologist. I had actively avoided going since 8th grade, just the idea of making an appointment was enough to bring me to tears and panic. I overcame a lot during my first successful office visit, but I genuinely thought I wasn’t going to make it at some points. Despite that, I am still here after seeing the gynecologist. Even still, I can barely believe I did it. I began dissecting the time leading up to, during and after my exam almost immediately after I got home and decided to write it out. I realized I had never read an advice post for childhood sexual abuse survivors taking the dreaded trip to the gyno, and I wanted to do whatever I could to lessen the fear and panic in fellow survivors.
Here is what worked for me, and allowed me to make it through my appointment safe and sound:
1. Honor what you can do, take your time, try and try again.
At 24, I decided 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 OK. 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 it’s OK. 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 of my other survivor feelings.
3. Practice makes perfect.
Actually 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, 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 then hearing the phone ring would reduce me to a blubbering puddle. After doing that a few times, I made it through the ringing. Then someone actually answered and I broke 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 “OK,” I asked her to explain what those things meant. 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. They 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.
Related: What I Do When PTSD Makes Me Dissociate
5. Breathe. Stay calm. Keep swimming.
A gynecologist visit in just an hour? This is when I started to have a panic attack. 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 in, fogging up my brain space, and I get so lost in the way that things were back then. 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 so I started rounding up everything I needed to take with me. My wallet, my purse, my identification card, etc. Then I started grabbing things I thought would help me. Here is what I picked:
- 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 (specifically on my lower half) 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. Anything that you can grab on to and fiddle with should work. Maybe pick 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 the dollar tree. I brought one of them just incase I needed something light and fun. Instant bubbles are a joy!
- A whistle/noise maker. I brought a little whistle on a string just incase I needed to make some noise. Sometimes I find that silence makes me more nervous than sounds. Being able to have something like a whistle, a kazoo or a harmonica might help because it isn’t just random noise (which can also be nerve-racking). Musical noise that you have control over can be a stress reliever.
- Something to squeeze. I brought a little pack of Play-Doh to come with me. I would imagine sticky tack, flarp, moon sand, silly putty, etc. would give you the same release. I wanted something squishy that I could pull apart, squeeze through 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 am stressed, I crack my knuckles/bite my nails/anything else that isn’t great for my hands. This item was to get the fidgets out in a peaceful way.
- A notebook. Just incase I thought of something I didn’t want to forget under the stress of the visit. It also could work 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 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, whatever brings you comfort 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 changers. The gum is taste-based, the lotion is physical as well as smell-based and the perfume grabs the attention of your nose and your ears with the spritz sound. Stuck in a past memory? One of these things can always force me back to reality pretty fast.
- Your phone/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.
My brain can be ready to take in or give out info, but then I get triggered and it is all gone. It is 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 it’s way out) so I wrote down 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 real quick before the exam. I am really glad I did because I now recognize that I really don’t remember much from conversations in high-stress-environments. And that is OK! I used to get really frustrated with myself when I would have a flashback and as a result not remember what had happened. My therapist told me our brain puts thoughts and memories in order from most important to least important. In moments of flashbacks and triggers, the most important thing to your body is keeping you safe and sane. So your brain focuses on that instead of what is being said to you. In the end, 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.
I was really afraid of feeling powerless again prior to my visit. Doctors have a position of authority and for people who’ve had 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 OK. I could ultimately leave the appointment if I wanted. 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 he come with me because I am a survivor of abuse, my friend is my only support that 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. I felt like that was acceptable as vital signs are just how tall you are, how much you weigh, etc. They bent the rules of “no secondary people in the exam room” for me because they understood the position I was in, and 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 will be in the room with me the whole time, my therapist would be on the phone the whole time and she 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!
Just like that… done. I could hardly believe that I did it. 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, “I am more scared of that doctor than I am of dying,” when I was 15. I still had that same fear, anxiety and panic in me when I was at my appointment over a decade later. 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, my friends kept mentioning cancers I was at high-risk for and knowing I would have to go one day. All of it was mixed in with being scared it wouldn’t be on my terms. However, none of that matters now because it got done. 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’s 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 a shelter where I could pet cats and dogs. I like going there because I can visit with a lot of animals who need love and care just like I do, I know they will be kept safe and sound until they find a forever home 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. I did what was right for me despite my crippling fear and found strength I didn’t know I had. At the very least, I know this — if I can do it, you can do it. You really can do it. I promise.
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, you can find me on social media. 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.