Portrait of a Pre-Existing Condition

By Hannah Rose Neuhauser

On the surgery table, I dreamt of drowning. Fish opened and closed their mouths in dreamsicle-orange water. Everything bubbled, pulling me under. I lay without sensation. But my body was exposed, plattered. My skin peeled back. My wrists upturned. Needles slipped. Packs of hands pried tissue and carefully rearranged, reordered valves.

When I was eight, I hallucinated in pastels, awoke to mint-green clean. Masked faces rolled me through sterile corridors. A scrubbed voice hushed, the more you cry the more you’ll bleed. I quieted myself. Inside—my dry throat. Outside—my skin, a sunset scream of iodine, darkening. I lay gowned and gauzed, while new constellations glowed across my skin.

I knew my body didn’t belong to me. It had failed me from birth, and I separated myself from it. Doctors talked of my body as an experiment. They tried to salvage me, tried and tried and tried. My body was a collective, a puppet, its strings pulled by a team just trying to keep me breathing. When I undressed for x-rays, exams, I disconnected, withdrew my mind from the stripped figure. I saw the body of a girl through a film. Nurses would always tell me to look away, but I always watched. I watched vials fill with blood. I watched a heart on screen. The doctor knew what I knew–he would talk about my future surgeries to my father when I was still in the recovery room, as if my body weren’t attached to my thoughts. He would rip my pressure bandages off without a word to me.

It’s easier to not be embarrassed by a body if you don’t consider it your own. In the hospital, my body became a body of work. I felt no shame about being undressed, because nothing was projected onto me. My body was a scientific body. A body of fact. It was unrelated to me.


After my surgeries, I attended a camp for children who were born with congenital heart defects. It was a place where we could compare the scars that shone over our blueing skin. Some glistened raised and red. Others were so sharp, you could still imagine the scalpel. Mine appeared like a static cross down my middle, side to side. After my sternum was opened three times and the bones finally fused, the two halves jutted up, a bolt in the middle of my chest.

Before I went to camp, I hated swimwear. The way it clung over misshapen bone, exposed newly reopened scars. I always tried to cross my arms and submerge myself quickly in the water. But at camp, it was different. We shared stories of our hospital stays, nodding along. Our eyes were never judging. The summer I was eight, I arrived with a brand new bathing suit. It was a plain one-piece. Dazzling white. I glittered carelessly through the water. My counselor pulled me aside. Your bathing suit is see-through. You can’t wear that. It’s inappropriate. Disgust blistered through my stomach.

The pool sat at the bottom of a big hill. I often hitched a piggy-back ride from someone for the trek up. I lost breath easily. That day, I heaved myself up the hill to change swimsuits. My lungs lit. A new sensation of vulnerability opened me up. I was no longer detached from my body—I felt every edge. I was so tenderly a girl. A girl who should cross her legs. A girl who should conceal her skin. A girl who was indecent and scarred. I had something new to hide—my eight-year-old girl body.

At camp, I had worn my scars easily. It was the neighborhood pool where I noticed gazes gathering on my chest, where I always wrapped myself in a towel. Once, I stood with a group of girls, by the side of the pool chattering. I was in a hot pink and orange checkered bikini with daisies on the shoulders—it was a gift and I had finally garnered the guts to wear it. What is that ugly thing on your chest, one girl seared. Everything turned hot and turquoise. I swallowed pool water until I couldn’t tell the difference between chlorine and hurt.

People passed out cheap words like plastic, glow-in-the-dark Band-Aids. We might look different, but we are the same on the inside, the adults told us to tell the girls with the pointing fingers, sharp laughs, and bronze-sparkled shoulder blades—girls who were already taught that women’s bodies should all be packaged pristine.

This skin, these scars, are a body of work. A body written with my stories. Skin that has been seen as synonymous with slut, with shame. My body has been reduced to the act of sex. I have been sorry for my body that wounds, bleeds, scars. For a body that works. I have apologized. When I open myself up, it is so easy to collapse again.

I was born unable to breathe on my own. On the surgery table, my body unlocked, spread out—I trusted that doctors were working to better me. Every cut was precise, thoughtful. My body wasn’t mine, but it would be. Every incision made me stronger. I swallow pills every night to keep the work in place.

Now, men in suits are pressing knives to my seams, making decisions about my body. They want me to pay for my scars. They want me to pay for being a woman. I am told my body is a body of burden. I am a pre-existing condition—because I have survived a heart defect and girlhood. This working body, my body, remains threatened. I still owe a debt for this existence.

I have worked to regain ownership—only to have men pulling strings, trying to unravel me. I hear, over and over, that this world doesn’t belong to me, my body doesn’t belong to me. My health hinges on an unstable power. One thing is certain: my body is not an apology.
I am no longer easily opened. My scars are watered down, salt edges dissolved pink. They stretch in a soft glitter galaxy, a map across ribs and sternum. A reminder of chlorine. But my skin is permeable. Water seeps through my ribs. I wring my heart and let out my lungs. Aspiration: the act of inhaling fluid, pool water, sinking me to white concrete. The act of removing fluid, siphoning until clear. To draw breath, a salmon swimming up a river wrist, a pinkened pulse. To hope, a muscle furled, unfurled.


Hannah Rose Neuhauser lives in Louisville, KY where the words of young writers keep her heart glittering. Her work has appeared in Cactus Heart, apt, Maudlin House, Luna Luna, and The Collagist. She tweets mostly emojis @velvetraccoon.








Featured Image: from Pixabay






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