I Don’t Wanna Be Sedated: The Fear of Going Under

Last week, I had six teeth yanked (or cut!) out of my mouth. I’ll wait for you to stop screaming. Finshed? Alright, so as I was saying, I had major oral surgery last week. The whole thing was quite a surprise, really. I knew that my wisdom teeth, of which I had the misfortune to house SIX of rather than the typical four or fewer, were going to have to come out eventaully, lest they stage mouth mutiny and push all my other teeth out. I was planning on having them removed in a few months’ time, when I was on the second half of my summer break, but a pesky infection made it necessary for me to have what was essentially emergency surgery. Along with the normal panic that comes with a doctor looking at you, making an OHMYGOD face, and saying, “Yeah, those need to come out soon. Like, today or tomorrow soon,” I got the kind of panic that plagues advocates like myself (and others, of course). I was going to be under sedation, with everything out of my control. What if something happened to me that wasn’t supposed to happen? What if I was violated in some way? I trusted my dentist, it wasn’t about that. It was about that possibility in the back of my mind that something could happen to me, and I might never know.

Luckily, I don’t believe that anything happened to me. The office in which I had my surgery is quite open; there aren’t any doors to patient rooms. There was at least one femal dental assistant present at all times, and other assistants were, as I was told, often popping in and out of my room to see the patient with the mutant mouth. Plus, I was not under full general anesthesia, but twilight sleep, so I was a little bit conscious.. I knew all of these things prior to my procedure, but none of it stopped that nagging fear. It’s something that we who live within a patriarchy must always contend with, this possibility of being violated. Even in spaces where we should feel safe, such as in a doctor’s office, many of us do not for myriad reasons. I personally do not feel comfortable any time when my ability to make decsisions is impaired. I knew that if anything were to happen to me in that office that I was not comfortable with, I would be powerless to do anything about it. For one thing, I had at least one hand and a few instruments in my mouth at all times. I was floating towards the heavens on whatever was in my IV line, and I barely remember being mentally present, mostly because I wasn’t. I was completely at the mercy of the dental staff, and I am fortunate that they were so wonderful.

I know that it isn’t just women who contend with the fear of being assaulted while under anesthesia, but we and other marginalized and oft-victimized groups (gender non-conforming people, trans* people, etc.) know it so well that for many of us, it’s a major concern right up there with pain, time, and cost. We worry about this because we can’t afford to not worry about it. In an environment where women’s bodies are increasingly seen as objects and means to some end, these worries sit at the backs of our minds. And I think that they sit there, in the back, because we don’t want to think about them. It’s easy to think about what you might do if you’re grabbed off of the street by some masked assailant, like in the movies, but it’s much more difficult to think about what would happen if you were raped while under sedation.  You can’t do anything, can’t verbally state non-consent, can’t fight. You might not remember. If you do, you might doubt yourself. Others may doubt you, blame it on the drugs, brush you off, tell you it’s in your head. You might not ever know. It’s terrrifying, and I admit that I fought those thoughts in the hours before my surgery.

A few weeks ago, an article was published over at Tiger Beatdown voicing many of the same concerns and detailing some of the horrors that happen to those under anesthesia. I read it over, my stomach churning at the links provided. I pushed it to the back of my mind and didn’t think of it until last week, when I started wondering “What if this happens to me?” I wondered what I would do, how I would know, who I would talk to. The thoughts were endless. I will forever be terrified of losing that control and that power to say yes or no that I hold so dearly. I imagine that I’ll probably have at least one or two more times in my life were I’ll have to think about this once again, and I do not look forward to it. I imagine myself being rolled into surgery some day for some ailment, covered in Sharpie scrawls of “I DO NOT CONSENT TO [insert actions here]” in order to nip at some would-be assailant’s conscience. Like all assault, there’s no way to really prevent it on our parts, because it isn’t our fault if something happens. I suppose that’s why,as long as we continue to live in this patriarchy. the fear will always be there.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

8 replies on “I Don’t Wanna Be Sedated: The Fear of Going Under”

I so relate to this…not only does anesthesia freak me out, but I ended up having 7 wisdom teeth. It was weird, because going under for their removal has been my only experience with anesthesia so far and as I was counting backward, in that very moment–I was seized with the panic of “what is REALLY going to happen to me?!” but it was too late and I was out.

When I had my gallbladder out, I was more afraid of the anesthesia than the actual surgery. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of being violated, I was just afraid of being unconscious and having no control about anything that might happen, or that I wouldn’t wake up, or that I would wake up at the wrong time – basically just the complete loss of control tat comes with being out. the plus side to this is that I was so scared when they wheeled me into the OR that I was shaking violently. The nurses told me they had to give me something to calm me down, I remember saying “Thank you” with all the gratitude I had in me, and then I fainted. The next thing I remember is waking up asking if I could see my scars. The fainting meant I didn’t have to feel myself going “under,” and I have no complaints about that.

I’ve never thought about this! But it truly does give me the heebie jeebies to hear. For me, the more worrisome problem when going under is never waking up due to complications with anaesthesia or waking up with mental difficulties that are unexplainable (which actually happens a lot). The upside of surgery at a hospital is that you are highly unlikely to ever be left alone with only one person in the room while under, and even in a dental office there is almost always an assistant in with the dentist. That doesn’t mean what you mentioned can’t happen but that the chances of it are greatly reduced. I wonder if you could request before surgery that there is always a female nurse present while you are under?

Side note #1: You had SIX wisdom teeth??!! I’ve never heard of that before! Were you in much pain?

Side note #2: I actually had my wisdom teeth taken out *without* anaesthesia (just good ol’ Novocaine and some laughing gas) and I would like to say for the record that it was absolutely horrible, extremely painful, and in the end a bit traumatizing. We didn’t go the anaesthesia route because our insurance didn’t cover it and my mom couldn’t afford it but I wish she had paid for it. I really, really wish she had. Having a big ass needle literally shoved into the roof of my mouth rose me off my seat screaming. And I mean shoved. The doctor used so much force that I really did raise off my seat screaming. I’m not sure if that kind of force is standard in this procedure (I thankfully only had to go through it once) but it was horrifying.

Side note #3: I once asked my surgeon before surgery if he ever had people talk in their sleep while under and he said it happens all the time. In fact, he once had a patient grab a nurse and kiss her in his sleep! Knowing that really broke the ice for me and brings me some comfort before I go in for surgery now.

Side Note #3- It’s soooooooooo funny when people talk when they’re under.

And also embarrassing.  I am a CHATTERBOX when I’m sedated.  I know I was talking during one procedure of mine because I unfortunately remember it…as for when my wisdom teeth were pulled, my mom informed me they had to give me more sedation to knock me out because I wouldn’t shut up.  I don’t even remember leaving the house to get them taken out.  All I remember is waking up and my mom telling me to stop talking.

Medical students practicing pelvic exams on anaesthetised women (general, for gynae surgery) without their consent used to be quite common and possibly still is, depending on the medical school – my Irish doctor friends tell me it’s an absolute total no-no here but this post (earlier on the same topic here)  has comments suggesting that it was done til very recently in some US medical schools against AMA ethics guidelines. It’s not necessarily something I’d have a problem with if I was asked first, but as us ethical, reasonable people know, consent is kinda important.

I can’t say I’ve ever thought about this as it relates to myself because I’ve never had any kind of anaesthesia, general or local. I’m sure there’ll be a first time at some point

This was very, very interesting to read and, frankly, a little weird. I’ve had seven general anaesthetics and never once have these thoughts crossed my mind. I’m wondering if this is, perhaps, because for all but one of those surgeries, I was a kid and so, that worry isn’t even a concept to many children. Having been anaesthetised several times though, it has often given rise to the question of consent but in an entirely separate way (if that makes sense!) with respect to consenting to something which you can’t be concious of. Anyway, I’m rambling, but thank you for this, it certainly been thought provoking!

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