By Halina Newberry Grant
I’m lying on a table in a fancy pink clinic, holding my massive right breast—engorged with milk and infection—to keep it from rolling into my armpit. When I move, the lemon-sized lump shoots daggers of white fire through my body. My all-natural, back busting labor from three months ago was a foot massage compared to this. I pray to the Big-Natural-Gods that the doctor can give me some relief from the week of progressive pain I have endured. Instead, as punishment for some unknown crime, I would become a science experiment: my already awkward postpartum body would be tricked out with tubes and pouches I would try to hide under a loose fitting tunic. The physical pain could be medicated, but the life-long Feelings War between me and my massive melons had reached its biggest battle to date, and they had won.
I expected to feel relief when I finally used my big naturals for their intended purpose: breastfeeding. I imagined that nursing would allow me to feel connected to them in a spiritual way, unlike the detached resentment I have always felt toward my breasts. I was prepared for them to grow when I got pregnant. I accepted that they’d expand when my milk came in. But I never imagined they’d turn on me, in a massive, G cup sized way.
I was always a circus freak because of my breasts. When I developed my external sex parts they were public displays of my most intimate self, the part of me I didn’t want to share with anyone. I felt shameful and exposed. My scarlet letter was two D cups. Public exercise was live soft porn.
This external transformation brought so much inner turmoil that I developed an eating disorder to avoid the tsunami of feelings. As I binged, my body grew and masked the obviousness of my chest. I was still miserable, but my new layer of fat was a shield. Being overweight was better than being sexualized without my consent.
There was a solution, and I fantasized about it constantly through my teen years. I stood before the mirror, looking over my shoulder at my profile, flattening my chest with my hands to see how clothes would fit after I had a reduction surgery. My mother had one, my sister had one. But even at that young age, I knew that someday I would have kids and want to breastfeed, and the surgery damages the milk ducts which can make nursing impossible in some cases. Also, my breasts would surely morph into even more perverse versions of themselves during pregnancy, so why waste the money on a procedure that would have to be repeated? It would have to wait. Unfortunately, I was also deferring self-acceptance.
My surgeon, a dead ringer for Robin Wright with a sleek bob cut, pointed to the ultrasound image and said with wry astonishment that it was the “biggest abscess she’d ever seen.” To drain the mass, she would cut a hole into my breast, insert a tube, and massage the lump doing her best to extricate the poison—a witch’s brew of blood, milk, and pus.
So I was finally using these udders for what God and nature intended, the manna was flowing, the life-force transferring from mother to baby. I was nursing on demand, waiting patiently for my milk to come in, drinking the Earth Angel Heaven Hippie Milk of Thistle Whatever tea to help with production, setting up 10 pillows so that my arms were relaxed, my shoulders down, trying every nursing hold to find the right one for us, and these bitches turned on me. The cracked, hardened, enlarged nipples surrounded by someone else’s areolas looked me in the eye and said, “Let there be pain.” Their message was clear: I had been a fool to wait for a reduction.
A trip to Nordstrom’s lingerie department with mom was PTSD-inducing. An elderly woman with cold, dry hands and a tape measure clinically took numbers down and brought me durable beige monstrosities with wide straps, seams everywhere and extra hooks in back. “Lean forward, and fall into the bra to fill the cups,” my mom coached. The crowded fitting room became a cell, and I was condemned for life to being special-needs.
I developed a sense of humor about my dirty pillows, but they have become my identity. I may be an accomplished and terrific singer, actor, comedienne, writer, and friend, but when I am being described, it is always with reference to my breasts.
While I was pregnant I pursued positive mindfulness. In my pre-natal yoga classes for once I didn’t feel awkward and embarrassed when my body didn’t collapse comfortably into the postures. The jugs had always been intruders on my practice—falling into my face during downward dog and suffocating me during forward bends. But now my belly was the biggest, most obvious part of my body. My proportions were normal (for a pregnant woman). My recovery from my eating disorder had brought some spiritual reprieve from my negative self-talk. So I welcomed breastfeeding as an extension of that recovery, a beautiful privilege, with my body of service to another life.
In my first months of breastfeeding, I developed a clogged milk duct. My doctor suggested I massage it, take hot showers, and apply cabbage leaves. The pea-sized lump became infected, and in a blink became a golf-ball sized mass on the bottom of my right breast, so hard and inflamed it became impossible for me to move without screaming in labor-like pain. But I still had to breastfeed and pump regularly. After a week of frantic phone calls, I got an appointment with the top breast surgeon in LA. To avoid the abscess refilling over the weekend, Angelina Jolie’s doctor taped the tube hanging out of the hole in my breast, which drained the foulness into a pouch carried in my pocket, which I would empty
periodically during the longest weekend of my life.
Both pain and resentment become muted memories when you are high on Vicodin. I was also prescribed strong antibiotics. I returned twice to the surgeon’s office to have the abscess manually drained. The hole where the tube had been was stitched closed, and I changed the dressing every day until it healed. After three weeks, I felt normal. There was no lump, and movement and nursing pain free.
I continue to breastfeed my baby but feel more detached from my breasts than ever. They’re a biological necessity but I don’t want them. Their bigness makes me feel small and vulnerable to judgment, they affect the way people perceive me and they reduce my identity to my physical form.
But I want the best for my baby, and she needs them and so will her potential future siblings. As uncomfortable as I feel in my body and as complicated as “God’s Bounty” make my life, the reduction is still a fantasy. Instead, what I want more than anything is to accept my body as my genetic code has it ordered. I wonder: Can I be a confident, feminist example to my daughter if I decide to have a breast reduction?
I won’t make any decisions until I’m done having kids. Maybe I’ll decide the only way to teach my kids to love themselves is for me to do the same—as I am. But I might also set an example as someone who empowered herself and used modern medicine to set herself free from wide-strapped, six-hooked, black-eye-while-jogging bondage.
The blocked milk duct cum mastitis cum abscess could happen to anyone—it’s not just because of my size. And with time, perhaps I will make peace with the ladies. Maybe I’ll let them stay. Maybe we’ll continue to have a conflicted relationship with each other, but we’ll endure. Like it or not, we’re family.
Halina Newberry Grant is a writer, actor, singer and songwriter. She enjoys writing about comedy, tragedy, comedic tragedy, tragic funny things and everything in between. She has performed dramas in cemeteries, comedy in basement bars and Christmas music in Bloomingdale’s display windows. She lives with her husband, her dog and her daughter in Culver City, CA. This article was originally published on the hairpin.