“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled.”
— Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Association, June 24, 2022
When I swallowed an acid reducer pill the evening of June 23, 2022, I remembered what the psychic who read my tarot cards at my sister’s bachelorette party a couple of weeks ago told me: I needed to find ways to release my anger. “Holding all of that anger in is causing digestive problems,” the psychic said while she sat on a fellow bridesmaid’s couch, fondling a crystal in her hands, occasionally sitting it aside to turn over the next round of cards on the coffee table. Both of my sisters, the one getting married and the youngest of our trio, were in the room, too, watching the reading progress with genuine interest. I was the last of my siblings to go, mostly because I was anxious that the psychic was going to tell me I was about to die even though she started the session by saying she didn’t channel that kind of energy. Instead, when she read the cards of my sister getting married, the psychic made contact with our maternal grandfather who died two weeks before she was born. “He says he’s always been there, watching over all of you,” the psychic said. The mention of digestive issues at the beginning of my reading felt a little anticlimactic.
The psychic wasn’t wrong. By the time I swallowed that acid reducer on June 23, nineteen days after my sister’s party, my stomach had been in knots for weeks, triggered by an onslaught of food meant for convenience and avoiding the stove and oven in the oppressive ninety-plus degree heat: pizza with zesty tomato sauce from the local mom-and-pop pizza place, a box of fried chicken and jo-jo potatoes, sandwiches with Italian deli meats from Subway the next town over, heavy comfort food from one of the few restaurants my dad would eat at without complaining.
The summer of 2022 was one in which summer passed in the blink of an eye: I graduated with my doctorate in May, went on a road trip to Connecticut for two dear friends’ wedding two weeks later, taught at summer camp two weeks after the road trip, stood beside my sister as she got married two weeks after camp, and then moved 700 miles away from my hometown two weeks after my sister said her vows. When I looked at my spiral-bound planner, every weekend had stickers noting several obligations. I barely had time to breathe, let alone help my mom with cooking meals for the two months I spent at my parents’ house. Parts of my extended family weren’t helping, either, unless you count suggestions about how they wanted the summer of 2022 to pan out as help – which it wasn’t.
I spent the week before I swallowed the acid reducer pill teaching at the week-long leadership development program I had volunteered for every summer except two since 2006. My stomach was such a mess from the lack of sleep, the heat, college cafeteria food, and the responsibility of looking after forty-one seventeen-year-old girls that my co-counselor handed me candy-colored Tums on a regular basis. I placed them on my tongue and swallowed them with several big gulps of water without pausing to chew the tablets first. My co-counselor watched me with an expression on her face that showed her concern; after all, we had been co-counselors at this program for years and I was her counselor when she attended this program in high school. She knew that this was not normal. I am usually level-headed, calm, and steady. “Are you okay?’ she asked as she handed me two more Tums, one yellow and one a peachy orange color, while our group worked on a budget.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Must have been something we had for breakfast,” I said. The breakfast menu for our program had been relatively the same since 2011, so I guessed it was unlikely that the food I ate was what bothered my stomach.
For as long as I can remember, taking care of myself has been something I struggled with. Rest is not a skill that I count among my strengths; in fact, I think that my inability to rest is intricately woven in and around my intolerance for boredom. Surprisingly, something I am known for is my ability to care for others. Nine-point-nine chances out of ten, I will put someone else’s needs before my own, stretching my grocery budget to help a friend out with an emergency expense or talking on the phone late into the night when someone needed consoling. My tendency to put my needs and priorities last is also a point of frustration because, in many instances in the post-2016 world I found myself in, I could not fathom how little care people had for others, going out of their way to make care of all shapes and sizes inaccessible or discouraged those who wanted to offer it.
June 23, 2022, was at least the third night in a row that I reached for the small white bottle of acid reducer pills after feeling the burning sensation rise in my throat. Tomato sauce, mild banana peppers, fryer grease, Italian deli meats, taco seasoning. They all came back to haunt me, night after night, before I even had a chance to lie down to sleep. Even my favorite food, tacos, burned in my throat and chest while they kept me awake at night. The acid reducers only lasted so long. I knew I would need another pill around two or three in the morning to get me through until dawn.
Normally, at thirty-five, I relied on a cast iron stomach – a phrase my maternal grandmother used to say when describing a person who could eat anything without food bothering them – someone who can take anything that doesn’t have gluten in it. I still down spicy Mexican food without a second thought. Greasy foods don’t bother me in moderation. As long as I tried to avoid gluten as much as possible – no big bowls of pasta smothered in tomato sauce for me – I was usually just fine. When the psychic said something about digestive issues, I tilted my head in confusion.
Normally, I relied on a stunning ability to repress my feelings to such a degree that people wondered if I was capable of being angry. I almost always have a smile on my face. It is a rare occasion for me to raise my voice in anger at someone. I am known as sweet, kind, and warm with a touch of sass – but not angry. I suppress anger, repress anger, push it so far down that when it does make its presence known, I usually don’t understand why I’m angry until I’ve had the chance to sit with my feelings for some time. There are times when, even after I work through my feelings, I never figure out why I am angry. I wonder if my anger comes from a place where I am only able to process care for others but not care for myself; the acts that I have been told were selfish and criticized because they are not for others.
The problem with a cast iron anything – stomach, skillet, or otherwise – is that introducing acid to the cast iron ruins the seasoning, the protective coating that builds up through repeated use and meticulous care. Acid erodes the ways in which cast iron protects itself and is able to do what people want it to do, leaving it vulnerable and exposed.
When the news about the Dobbs case broke the morning after I swallowed the acid reducer, the morning after I had the panic attack, the morning eight days after my co-counselor handed me the Tums I swallowed whole, the morning twenty days after I sat across the coffee table from the psychic who told me about my anger, I felt raw. Cast iron can only be exposed to so much acid before the protective coating breaks down. Reactions from pundits, analysts, friends, and family swung so widely across the spectrum that I only felt the need to burn something to the ground. The cognitive dissonance was astounding: a woman can be anything she wants to be – until someone else says otherwise. The messaging: I cannot be anything but sweet and kind, caring and mild. A vessel for bringing life into the world, regardless of whether or not that act is safe or desired. Be helpful, be kind, be supportive, be a specific kind of polite. Don’t be angry.
I had known that somehow something was about to change. Earlier that evening on the 23rd, before I took the acid reducer, before the announcement of the ruling in the Dobbs case, I had a panic attack at my parents’ house. My mom was the only one who witnessed what happened. I could not stop crying. I struggled to breathe and stopped drawing in air for a moment. My body shook. I felt my heart racing. My mom sat there with a concerned look on her face as she reminded me to keep breathing. Judging by the look on her face, I’m not sure she knew what else to do. Before this moment, if I had a panic attack at home, I made sure I was out of sight before I broke down in private.
“I’m so tired,” I said in between my gasps for air. “I’m just so, so tired.”
I was tired. I completed a doctorate a month and a half ago. My sister’s wedding was eight days away. I was in limbo, living with my parents for two months that summer before moving back to Columbia, Missouri, to start my first full-time teaching gig. I spent the past five years completing my degree while also working a second job. And for the past few months, I endured an increasing amount of scrutiny and criticism – some would call it abuse – from my father’s side of the family, especially from certain family members who had spent most of my adult life infantilizing me because I chose a life path that was not normal. I didn’t have a house with a mortgage, I didn’t have plans for a wedding, I didn’t have plans for children. In their estimation, I had never really had a job, either, let alone a career.
Repressing had been the name of the game for so long. I would like to think of it as a strategy for survival. If the acid never makes contact with the seasoning, then the cast iron won’t be left exposed to the elements.
“I’m so tired,” I repeated after several forced deep breaths. “I’m just so stinkin’ tired.”
It wasn’t until the next morning that I wished I knew how to fix it. By it, I mean the tiredness, the weariness, of being unseen, unvalued, unable to feel that I can unleash my anger without being physically, mentally, emotionally, politically forced into a corner where my anger was invalidated and brushed aside because of who I am.
I’m not supposed to be angry. After all, messages from corners of society who spoke the loudest said it can’t be that bad. Your rights are now an issue of individual states, as if a lack of continuity and security for anyone, let alone for people like me who don’t stay in one place for an extended amount of time, was supposed to be a source of comfort.
I wished I knew how to fix it the next evening when driving home from my sister’s house after a packed day of preparing for her wedding. I noticed a pickup truck following me at an abnormally close distance; so close, in fact, that there were times when I could not see the truck’s headlights. I drove several miles before I caught a glimpse of the driver while stopped at a red light just after the darkness of night fully settled in. The person driving the truck was a man, his facial features and build obscured just enough by the night that I couldn’t tell if he was particularly old or young, threatening or safe, kind or aggressive.
He followed me for miles. And miles. And miles. He followed me so close that I couldn’t see his headlights or license plate as I drove through residential neighborhoods, past churches that cast the Virgin Mary in the glow of floodlights, past outlet malls and through wealthy industrial parks.
I thought about my options aloud as my radio filled the silence, and I repeatedly looked in my rear-view mirror. Send my sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law my location in case something happened. Call my parents; my mom would be asleep, and my dad would likely do nothing in the event of an emergency. He probably wouldn’t answer the phone, especially if I called the landline, because getting out of his recliner and walking five or six feet to the phone was too much effort he wasn’t interested in expending. I thought about the possibilities of what could happen and how I would react. If I stopped at a gas station, would he continue to follow me? What if I took an unexpected turn into the McDonald’s parking lot? As I drove past those houses and churches and decorated regional offices attached to clean concrete warehouses, I found the dead weight of my anger stirring in my stomach, reminding me of the hot dogs my sister grilled on the back patio for the two of us and her fiancé just a couple of hours ago.
I was angry. I was scared. I tried to keep calm as this unknown man followed me so relentlessly that, for a moment, I thought he was a police officer in pursuit. Was one of my taillights out? Was I speeding? Did I forget to use a turn signal? My mind raced and weighed the dangers of turning onto an unlit back road just twelve hours after the news broke that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. I learned of the decision just as it hit the major news networks that morning because my phone sprung to life with alerts. I tried to bring it up with my sister as we sorted and boxed decorations, wrote directions and made charts, and checked tasks off her to-do list. “Yeah, that’s why I try to stay out of politics,” she said in an attempt to change the subject.
But what about me? I sometimes wonder. I have wants and needs and rights, but increasingly – especially in the tense morning hours following the acid reducer and the panic attack when I and millions of others were processing what we knew was coming but had now completely come to fruition – those no longer mattered. I am not worthy of care but am only “worth” the care I would provide others in the sanctity of roles that, in some ways, I am not prepared to play. A name on a mortgage, a wife, a mother. A person to be surveilled and followed down dark roads at night. An object to be pursued.
He followed me through four different cities in at least two counties before he made a left turn into a gas station parking lot and I felt every muscle in my body relax. It wasn’t until I turned onto the state route that would almost take me back to my parents’ house that I realized my stomach had been churning the entire time the man followed me. The world in which I swallowed an acid reducer and had a panic attack was a much different world than the one in which a random man in a truck rode the bumper of my car across county lines. The world had changed and the way I felt in it had changed, too.
I knew that I was in a world that was not safe for me. Not only was it not safe, but I also had increasingly less control over how safe or unsafe the world was for me: my rights taken away by Supreme Court rulings, my health threatened because I could make fewer and fewer of my own choices, my psyche battered and worn raw by those that society says are supposed to support me.
My stomach acid rose in my throat again and again and again, the burning sensation waking me up at night when the medicine failed. The under-eye circles became so entrenched on my face that I wondered if I would ever look rested again. I lost weight and I knew it, which made me deliberately wait until the last possible minute to have my bridesmaid dress altered because it had become too big. Nothing felt safe anymore, not even the confines of my beloved Kia Soul I named Kiwi, not even the plate of food sitting in front of me, not even being in the same room as parts of my family.
I pulled into my parents’ driveway and brought my car to a stop under the basketball hoop. A raccoon that seemed to be the size of a young German Shepard stared me down, looking at me with accusing and angry eyes for interrupting whatever it was doing in the yard. Its eyes glowed ominously bright in my headlights.
I sent a text message to my sister letting her know I made it home and about the raccoon. “Oh no! Don’t let it get any of the snacks!” she wrote back, meaning the snacks we bought at Costco earlier that day for the morning of the wedding.
I looked up from my phone and tried to glare at the raccoon through my windshield. I knew it couldn’t see my face, but in some way, I felt that it was the only way I could let the raccoon know that I had had enough of it sitting in the yard, just close enough to my car that I didn’t want to get out. The raccoon looked like it knew something about coping with anger that I wish I could figure out. Instead, I flashed my headlights at it until the raccoon sauntered away, into the weeds and presumably into the neighbor’s yard. I heard their hunting dog bark not long after the raccoon was out of sight.
I wish I knew how to fix “it,” but fixing “it” first required naming what “it” is. Naming “it,” for me, is the bigger issue than determining what the fix is. When someone – me – gets so good at repressing and suppressing “it,” also known as anger, the task of naming becomes increasingly impossible until I am forced to stare that anger down at a close distance with little more than that distance to protect me from the anger that I have been told time and time again needs fixed. Just like sitting in my car, staring down the overgrown raccoon with nothing more than a short distance and my windshield between us.
The salty taste of the hot dogs I ate for dinner burned at the back of my throat as I slid out of my car and used my phone’s flashlight to make my way across the driveway and into the house. Everyone else was asleep. A baseball game still unfolded on the TV in the living room.
After I set my purse on the kitchen table, I instinctively reached for the small white bottle of acid reducer pills on top of the microwave. As the past few days taught me, these would only last for a short while. The longer-term solution needed to be something stronger, something more powerful than ten milligrams of famotidine. I don’t know what that something must be. All I knew was that the acid reducers gave me a chance to think about what it would take to get me, this anger, and this belly full of hot dogs and heartburn through until I could think about what it means to exist in a world such as the one I stood in at that time, pill between my right thumb and index finger, glass of water in the other.
The fact of the matter I swallow with the pill is that I simply don’t know what to do with this anger, with this world I’m in. All I can control is my stomach, and even then, the relief is only temporary.