One of the perks of being a student at UW-EC was free health care. More correctly, the cost of it was included in our tuition. So you just walked into the clinic and they took care of you. In the fall of my freshman year, I walked in and told the doctor I hadn’t had a period for over a year. He asked if I’d ever had milk discharged from my breast. I stared at him with big eyes. “Any time, ever, even once?” he encouraged me. “Yes,” I admitted. I had.

When I was a junior in high school, Melinda and I had gone up to the cabin one weekend during the winter. The place had been winterized for Pete and Mary, but they had moved up the road to Spooner when Pete transferred to the lumberyard there. As Melinda and I were playing Scrabble, there was a knock on the door. It was two friends of Pete’s, Dan and Ivan.

You’d have been hard-pressed to find two better-looking guys within 100 miles. In fact, Ivan had been Melinda’s boyfriend a few years prior. After a short conversation about where Pete was now and what we girls were up to, the two left. A short while later, they returned. With beer. Let’s get this party started.

We were both virgins when they arrived, and we were still both virgins when they left. But I looked down at my grey sweatshirt the next morning and there was a huge stain in front of my left breast. What the…? One other time after that, when I was taking a bath, I’d noticed that if I pushed on my breasts, milk would come out. I racked my brain for what they’d taught us in Sex Ed, and I didn’t remember anything like that.

I didn’t tell anyone about the milk, but I did mention to my parents that I had stopped getting my period. My mother told me I should go see a doctor and left me to set up the appointment myself. I also rode my bike to the appointment by myself. Having a pelvic exam is not pleasant for anyone at any age, but having one as a 17-year old virgin was beyond the pale. The doctor basically just shrugged and said everything looked fine.

But the doctor in the college exam room hit the nail on the head. He ran some blood work and my prolactin level, which in a normal, not-pregnant woman should be <25 ng/dL, came back at 120. He sent me off to a specialist at the hospital on top of the hill. In conversations with my mom, that doctor turned out to be an arrogant ass. So our family doctor, Dr. Henningson, tracked down an endocrinologist named Dr. Tagatz at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who specialized in this area.

My parents and I would make many trips back and forth to the Cities for doctor’s visits in the coming years. Note, by my sophomore year, after my dad had gone through his fifth round of treatment for alcoholism, he had moved back in with my mother. So my parents were essentially dating again.

State-of-the-art technology for the first few visits meant getting a CT scan using radioactive dye. The part of me that needed scanning was my pituitary gland, which sits at the base of the brain. Put one finger on your nose and one on your ear, and the coordinates of where they intersect is roughly the location of this pea-sized gland.

To get a picture of it, they needed my head to be vertical, but upside down. With the chair tipped all the way back, they then tilted my head into position, straight up and down with my chin towards the ceiling. Then they’d open up the stopcock on the IV in my arm and a cool tingle would travel through all of my blood vessels.

The pituitary gland is what regulates prolactin levels, so they were looking to see if there was a growth on mine. There was. It was only a few millimeters in diameter, maybe 4 mm or so in the beginning, so it was called a pituitary microadenoma, which is how they categorize a benign tumor that’s less than 10 mm in diameter. Years later, I would be seeing a doctor about something else who said, “My wife had one of those. Do you have any idea how common they are?” Half of all cases, reportedly, are non-functioning, meaning they don’t really do anything. Unfortunately, mine did.

The pituitary gland itself does a lot. It is often called the master gland because it controls several other hormone glands in our bodies, including the thyroid and adrenals, the ovaries and testicles. All our hormones are linked together in a complicated cascade of activities that fires off whenever something happens that causes us to react: “The reaction begins in the amygdala, which triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus. The initial reaction is followed by activation of the pituitary gland and secretion of the hormone ACTH. The adrenal gland is activated almost simultaneously, via the sympathetic nervous system, and releases the hormone epinephrine. The release of chemical messengers results in the production of the hormone cortisol,…” per Wikipedia.

Years later, I would come across a more simple statement that basically said the pituitary gland is linked to our fight-or-flight response. There it is, in a nutshell. The constant stimulation of a fight-or-flight reaction in me had led to this tiny benign tumor. I don’t know if I’m right about that, but I believe I am.

The milk discharge was a possible nuisance—fortunately, I didn’t leak—but there was a bigger concern: acromegaly. This is a disorder that develops when the pituitary gland makes too much growth hormone during adulthood. If that happens, your hands, feet and face grow, and not in a pretty sort of way. I’d gone to the library and done some research, and this really didn’t look good.

Acromegaly doesn’t come on until middle age, so sometimes it’s not detected right away, and more than 95% of the time it’s caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. So while my little bugger was only messing with my prolactin levels, that didn’t mean things wouldn’t change. The doctor was looking at my long fingers and size-10 feet with concern.

At the time, there were a couple of courses of treatment: surgery or medication. The surgery, called ‘transphenoidal surgery,’ involved going under the upper lip and over the gums to get to the gland without disturbing the brain. Time was of the essence if we opted to go this route, as the doctor who invented the technique was still practicing, but pushing retirement. Decades later, I would know a woman in Atlanta who’d gone this route, with that doctor, because she couldn’t tolerate the medication.

The name of the medicine, which I ended up taking daily for many years, was Parlodel® bromocriptine mesylate. It had two strikes against it: cost (~$300 a month) and side effects. Thankfully, since my dad worked at the University of Wisconsin, I had good health care coverage. As for side effects, I was lucky. I got low blood pressure and a stuffed up nose, which wasn’t noticeable once I started taking the medicine before going to bed. (This drug is no longer being prescribed to treat this type of problem due to the side effects.)

Best of all, the Parlodel worked. My prolactin levels came back into the normal range and the tumor shrank. At some point, after they had mercifully switched to doing MRI scans, the tumor was no longer detectable. I stopped taking the drug before I finished college.

Fun fact: MRI machines, which stands for Magnetic Resonant Imaging, operate using the same principle as the NMR equipment, for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, we used in the lab at school. Makers of MRI machines changed the acronym to remove the word “nuclear”—and of course add the word “imaging”—so people wouldn’t wrongly think “radiation.”

I hate to admit this, but the sickest part of the whole drama was the little inner thrill I felt about the possibility of having “brain surgery.” Then they will notice me! No joke, the young parts of my psyche that had fractured off in childhood were almost giddy about the attention I would receive if I were laying in a hospital bed with a shaved head. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve done a lot of work on myself, and frankly, I had a lot of work to do. Later, I even discovered how all this tied into sexual fantasies I’d had that involved me lying in a hospital bed.

In the end, it was all good. Well, actually, there was one hitch. The reason I was taking this medicine was essentially to restore my hormones to rightful functioning. So that meant the option of taking birth control pills was off the table. Dr. Tagatz fitted me for a diaphragm, which was to be used with a messy amount of spermicide.

At the time, condoms were getting more and more popular because AIDS was starting to be talked about, but that seemed too much like leaving coverage up to the guy. Decades later, I would know better and tell my kids this: “Use a condom every time. And no means no. I think that about covers it.” I’m not sure I did any better than my parents playing that record for Pete.

Anyway, long story short, my senior in college I got pregnant. I blame alcohol, messy birth control—did I mention it was messy?—and the stupidity of youth, or some combination thereof. Of course, in the end, there’s nothing and no one to blame other than myself and the choices I made. Dr. Tagatz, who was a straight-up good guy, while writing me the prescription for the diaphragm and spermicide, had said, “And if you should ever find yourself pregnant, call me. Right away.” Bless that man.

I hadn’t been with Scott for very long when the pregnancy turned up. I called Dr. Tagatz just one week after my period was late and he offered that I could come in for an appointment—right away—and another doctor could do what’s called a menstrual extraction. Fortunately, Scott had a car. Unfortunately, it wasn’t reliable enough for driving to the Cities and back.

So that’s how we found ourselves in the sales offices for Rent-a-Wreck, convincing the kind salesman to let us rent a car even though we didn’t fully meet their requirements. We had cooked up a fib about why we urgently needed to go to Minneapolis. The guy looked at us and said, “I think I know what’s going on here. I’m going to let you have a car.” Bless him too.

I won’t lie, a menstrual extraction hurts like hell. Scott stayed in the lobby for the procedure, then they brought him in right after to hold my hand. I had the sense they didn’t use any anesthesia as a way to send a message: Don’t do this again! I got the message, loud and clear. The University of Minnesota is a teaching hospital, and I also had the sense as they whisked the beaker full of murky liquid out of the room that some student was going to learn something from this as well.

My other mission that day was to keep this adventure off the insurance records that went to my parents. We paid for the procedure ourselves, but computer systems have a way of not being discrete in tracking and reporting about patients to those who typically pay the bills. If my parents ever knew, I was never aware that they did.

Over thirty years later, I would be attending an event at Sevenoaks Retreat Center, a Pathwork center in Madison VA, signing up for a daylong Hellinger workshop that my brother Pete would also be participating in. This type of work is designed to heal the trauma that often gets passed down from one generation to another. Here was the setup:

When it was your turn to work, five people—out of roughly 12—would leave the room. They were the ones who were going to play the role—actually take on inhabiting the being or energy—of five people you identify as being related to a problem or issue you want to heal. I had gone into this workshop with the intention of doing some kind of important work with Pete, and was happy to see he was included in the five who went out of the room. We would get to do a piece of work together.

Then the two leaders asked me what I wanted to work on. If I had an idea, it went out of my head when I started to talk. What came up was that I felt I had no connection to my mother—“if you told me there are no chords connecting me to her, I would believe you”—and that I had had an abortion long ago, and wondered what impact that might still be having on my life.

One of the teachings, and reasons for doing this type of work, is that people who are no longer living—including children, siblings, parents or ancestors who have died—can have an effect on everyone in the family until the trauma related to them is healed. I had never felt any guilt about the abortion—regret about my lack of self-responsibility in getting pregnant, yes, but not guilt that I hadn’t had a child at 21—but I also had never explored it very deeply.

In my scenario, the five people coming back into the room were going to inhabit the presence of 1) me, 2) the unborn baby, 3) Charlie (my first son), 4) Jackson (my second son) and 5) my mother, based on whatever random order they were in when they walked in. So the people remaining in the room knew the story and the setup, but the people coming back in did not.

My job was to position the five people relative to each other, however I felt called to do that. Pete, it turned out, was inhabiting me. Note, before that day, he didn’t know about the abortion either. Here are a few of the things reported by the five volunteers:

• Pete, in his role as me, didn’t feel anything one way or the other about Darlene, the woman who was playing the aborted child.

• Darlene felt there was a being attaching very strongly to her who did not want to leave. The leaders later helped her release that being so it could go onto wherever it was destined to go next.

• Both of the people playing my sons reported feeling super curious about Darlene, and also somehow divided by her. It seemed there was a way the unborn baby was creating tension between my two boys. She was asked to let them go so they could connect more with each other.

• Janeil, the woman playing my mother (a former spiritual teacher of Pete’s and now a dear friend of mine) said, “I don’t feel connected with any of this.”

So, would it really have derailed my life if I had left college my senior year to have that baby? Probably. Do I believe what the Pathwork Guide teaches, which is that the spirit of a person enters the body at the time of birth (not conception), and if birth gets disrupted they will go on to be born to someone else? Yes, I do. That means I don’t understand what was happening with Darlene, who happened to be a very experienced Pathworker, but whom I hadn’t yet met at the time. In other words, I guess I don’t yet have all the answers.

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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