Tuesday, 18 April 2006

Remembering and forgetting

Wednesday 18 April 2007

When I learnt at the time of my consultation that I was going to have a general anaesthetic, I wasn’t afraid of the risks that it implied. I didn’t think of it for a second.

In fact it intrigued me, this general anaesthetic. I asked myself how it worked, if you dreamt, if you remembered anything or if it went by like a click of your fingers: you didn’t remember falling asleep and, ping, someone waking you in another room. Having an anaesthetic, to me, is something mysterious, remarkable and interesting. I was eager to have the experience.

Thanks to my reading on the internet and Fafa’s comments, I finally have an idea of what it is to have an anaesthetic. Roughly, it’s going to be like when you turn off a switch. At one moment I will be in my room and the next minute after I will open my eyes in the recovery room. I am not going to notice anything about the operation, as a matter of fact.

Well, this theory makes me think and worries me a bit. The thought of having no recollection of the operation makes me less keen to experience the effects of a general anaesthetic.

I’ve always known that I had been circumcised. As far back as I can remember , I have always known that I had been mutilated. I have even always known that it was my clitoris which was cut, even at the time when I didn’t know what it was for.

Nevertheless, I don’t remember the circumcision itself. I don’t remember the place, the people who were there, the pain, or what happened afterwards. All that remains with me is the conviction of having been mutilated.

When, during therapy, I tried to recall that moment, I failed. The most that came to mind were some fragmentary images which I couldn’t work out if they were real or invented by my mind or even taken from a film which I had seen a very long time ago. I never succeeded in remembering.

For a time, even after I had started my therapy, I had a tendency to think that, since I didn’t remember, it didn’t have that much impact on me. If it had had such huge consequences for me, that would have marked my consciousness, it would have haunted me, it was obvious.

At the same time, not only did I have great trouble in linking my problems to this event, but what’s more, it didn’t seem to me to be “legitimate” to do so, because I couldn’t remember my circumcision. I spent months and years looking elsewhere for the causes of my difficulties.

When I finally understood that the origin of a number my anxieties was my circumcision, my inability to remember that time drove me to despair. I was convinced that to recover, to move on finally, it was essential that I remembered. Except it didn’t happen. And I wanted to so much. I read on the internet the accounts of women remembering that horrible moment when at the time they were only three or four years old, and I didn’t understand. I said to myself that I had a problem, something in my head wasn’t working as it should. Why me, why couldn’t I remember my circumcision?

My therapist explained to me that in these very traumatic situations, when you can’t bear what is happening, you often protect yourself by fainting. Like a fuse which breaks when there is a surge of power. And that this was doubtless what had happened when I was mutilated. I had no doubt protected myself like that: by losing consciousness.

I don’t know why, but when I think about this likely fainting, I have the impression that really I was dead when I was being mutilated then my heart started beating again and my consciousness returned because I didn’t want to die. Whatever was done to me, I wanted to survive. That’s how I explain to myself what happened. And it makes me want to cry each time I think about it …

My therapist said it wasn’t necessary for me to remember, that it wouldn’t hinder psychological rebuilding. I couldn’t see how that was possible. So she reminded me of the extreme panic which came over me when sometimes a figure of authority asked me something unexpected, that I couldn’t control, or I didn’t know how to do (that especially happened at work) or even if I had to do something that seemed to me to be risky or of great consequence. In these cases I examine my feelings, I realise that I am literally afraid of dying. My therapist explained to me that this panic is the recollection of what happened that day, the emotion I felt. Like an echo of the past. She explained that in these moments, I had access to my circumcision, to my emotions of the time, and I will be able to free myself of them by working on these moments of crisis.

That doesn’t stop me from wanting to know precisely what happened. I don’t know why, but I have the feeling that taking that time for myself will give me a little dignity. If I knew the detail of what happened, I would no longer feel I had been a damaged object. It wouldn’t only be my body and my unconscious which would carry the mark of this event. In bringing it to my consciousness, I would have the feeling of having been an entirely separate individual that day.

So, knowing that I won’t be remembering any more of my operation than of my circumcision bothers me. Just like my mutilation, my consciousness won’t be paying attention to my reconstruction. But this time I will be careful to memorise in detail everything that happens before and after the operation itself.

That way, I hope, I will keep in my mind the importance of what happens on 16 May next and I will be able to keep myself going to continue on my path.

[original in French]

Next post


  1. My experience has nothing to do with yours, and that’s exactly why I am telling you. So that you’ll have a totally different point of view, not on the circumcision but solely on the anaesthetic. I am really afraid of hospitals. Just the visit to the anaesthetist has me sweating, with my heart beating, beating … I’ve had an anaesthetic (general) twice. Both times I needed a sedative to “make me sleep” before the anaesthetic. Of course they had to wake me to be checked when I was given the injection just to be sure I fell asleep properly obviously. And both times, when I woke up, I was in total panic, especially the first time, when I didn’t know that the tube to help my breathing could irritate my throat and I would more or less lose my voice for the first two or three hours. I panicked, really, believing that I could no longer speak (and when you know how talkative I am, you can imagine what a disaster that would be for me;), you only have to see the length of my comments ). Once in my room, I panicked again over being in the hospital, and I could think of only one thing, leaving.

    That may hardly seem reassuring, but my aim isn’t to scare you, on the contrary, because you have told that your visits have gone well for you. What I want to say is that the anaesthetic can be in the end a relief. In the same way that sleeping stopped me from panicking, in the same way that you could faint from your circumcision, your body protects you from what can scare you by sleeping by taking you from these elements of fear.

    I read (in an interview with Dr Foldès) that if the operation is done under general anaesthetic, it’s purely so that the memory of the circumcision won’t be revived and create a state of panic. Imagine if you didn’t have the anaesthetic, it’s the opposite of what you think may happen: instead of saying to yourself “I’m being rebuilt, that is going to be better”, you’ll be terrified by reliving the memories that you have been trying to revive without it happening (with your therapist for example). I think you’ll get through the rest of the operation much less well, and especially the convalescence.

    In the same way that something changed in my body during my two anaesthetics, something is going to change in yours. When you wake up, the pain will make you think about it perhaps. But the sedatives, the surroundings, will stop you being aware of it really. Consciousness will return little by little when you succeed in living with what has been added (like I have learnt to get used to lacking something). It’s not necessary for it to be too brutal. And these are things that your body is hiding from you for your own good, and it’s absolutely not necessary to drive them out (as your therapist told you about the memories that you want to revive).

    This comment is very long, and perhaps a bit muddled, but you must take the important parts from it, for your operation it’s not what happens during the hour when you are asleep, but only the difference you find in what you feel. As you say you want to, I encourage you to try to memorise all the details, before and after, but not just immediately after, the days and the weeks to follow. To mark the difference between the woman you are and the woman you become. But don’t focus on the hour of consciousness that is stolen from you, I don’t think that is important, it’s only a passage ….

  2. Hello Papillon, I found your blog by chance, while I was just looking for information about reconstruction of the clitoris. Like you I was circumcised and apparently, unlike my sisters, I was most affected by this “drama”. I want to thank you for, through your messages, sharing your fears, your doubts, your questions, your desire to have full sexuality and above all for having the courage to take the first step. In many respects I am finding myself, and the fact that at the moment that I decide (finally) to carry out the act, I happen upon your accounts, that according to me, is a good omen. Thank you again for all the technical information that you have relayed (about Dr Foldès, the cost of the operation …), you can’t imagine how precious this information is, how it brings hope! I don’t know if these few words will allay your fears for your coming operation, in any case I give you my support, encourage you in my thoughts and thank you wholeheartedly.

  3. Hello papillon

    I have two great memories of general anaesthetic, or rather I have none and fortunately so ;o)))
    On the other hand I have some bad memories of a local anaesthetic because things started to go wrong when, overcome by panic, I started to have a spasm and could no longer breathe …

    What you are undertaking relies on confidence, which you attribute to Dr Foldès in the first place. He operates under general anaesthetic, it’s his medical decision. You know, general anaesthetic isn’t stipulated if it’s not necessary.

    Everything will be fine.

    In general, you are given a pre-medication which leaves you pleasantly groggy. At the time of the anaesthetic itself, you will be asked to count from 10 to 1: it seemed to me that I couldn’t even manage to say 9, I was already asleep. You don’t dream under anaesthetic.

    At one time, I fainted often, effectively to get me out of insupportable situations. I can tell you that an anaesthetic is more pleasant, seeing that you are in the hands of a professional who is watching over what is happening ;o)

    As for the memories, frankly, what is the need to remember the cut of the lancet?. I often think of a surgeon who saved my life, and I can assure you that I don’t care that I didn’t feel the blades or heard the team passing the instruments. Before having read your post, I had never thought of telling my account of this stage.

    An operation isn’t confined to the operating theatre, it’s something much larger which stretches from the decision to the physical healing and the mental reconstruction. The patient plays a role, the doctors too, each in their place and each at their time.

    You are nervous without a doubt. And you would like to control what happens? Or perhaps you fantasise that one won’t erase the effects of the other unless the conditions are comparable? You have the right to be operated on in the comfort of a modern clinic, by a caring and well equipped team, I assure you.

  4. No Lili, it’s really not a need to control which exercises me. From the surgical point of view, and even medical, I have blind faith in Dr Foldès and his team. What bothers me is from the point of view of “whizz”!!! There you are, you have hardly blinked and it’s already done, you are rebuilt, you haven’t noticed anything. I don’t know, the fact that it’s like magic, well that stresses me a bit, because makes the operation seem trivial to me. And in effect, my circumcision has seemed trivial to me for a long time because there was this “abracadabra! See, it’s done” which minimised the thing. Anyway, I say to myself on the one hand, whizz or not, I will know, at least intellectually that this operation isn’t trivial, and on the other hand, there is, as you say, all the rest, from the decision to the healing,

    All the rest, which distinguishes this operation from my circumcision for which there was no “before” (or at least for me who didn’t suspect anything) and where the “after” was only suffering, taboo, and silence …

  5. Papillon, perhaps what is bothering you about the anaesthetic is the idea of being dispossessed of your body, but you know, when you were circumcised, even if you don’t remember (and perhaps it’s for the better) you must have suffered enormously. And if you don’t remember, it’s surely that your brain has protected you from unbearable memories.

    It’s when you can no longer carry on that you lose consciousness, you forget. The reconstruction, if you don’t have an anaesthetic, will also be intolerable, that is to say in the sense of physical pain. It seems to me that they will anaesthetise you for your own good. Perhaps you are afraid of leaving the helm by being anaesthetised.

    These are just my ideas. In any case, what brings you well-being can’t be bad ;)

    I was anaesthetised for other reasons, and it wasn’t like, bingo, and you are in a different room and you remember nothing. You wake up slowly, you are wakened, and little by little you take up the reins of authority ;)

  6. In reading you comment Claude, I realise that, in effect, I had envisaged a sort of anaesthetic switch, I didn’t the gradual falling asleep and wakening, a progress which for me is a good thing because it allows me to remember that moment (I’ve always had little confidence in my memory, I always have to store lots of details to be sure of retaining a trace of one event).

    And then, it’s true, it came to me after reading Lili’s comment much more clearly now that I’ve read it, I believe I have, behind this fear of not being touched by the operation itself, the idea that the physical reconstruction will only work if it is the identical “reverse” of the circumcision, the sum of the two cancelling each other out, and my feeling liberated. I realise also that one of the values that has been taught to me, it’s that to reach heaven, you must first suffer a lot. So heaven of the first order and without suffering, that’s tempting but I still have old but not terrible reactions which I must, I will get rid of.

  7. As far as I am concerned, the falling asleep was sudden, the waking was gradual and difficult. I had the feeling of struggling to wake up, but really a testing struggle against my body. I didn’t want to go back to sleep because I wanted to see what had been done, if someone had done anything to me, to see with my own eyes.

    Believe me, you won’t forget the operation, ever, because you will know there is something more to you. Even when I’m walking along the road, I feel my clitoris and I know there was an operation. I think the general anaesthetic is preferable. With a local you could have a shock, saying to yourself for an hour, “but what are they doing to me?” and especially you could experience pain from the operation itself, the surgical act. You’re not going to “live” it but some hours later when you see Dr Foldès coming into your room and explaining to you what happened, then you will know that there really was something, certainly something you missed but it existed all the same, and that’s the main thing.

  8. I’ve also come from Hélène’s site .. and you have touched me so much that I can’t escape reassuring you.

    I’ve often been anaesthetised, and I can tell you that the technique has evolved enormously over the last 20 years. Today the falling asleep is “pleasant”, and similarly the waking, which in effect is very much like a normal wakening, with kindly people looking after you, cosy in your cocoon. No more nausea, no more pain … that’s from the technical side.

    Now, from a psychological point of view, it seems that suffering will give you the impression of meriting this reconstruction (“to get into heaven you must first suffer a lot”). Yes, and 16 May is not the time to suffer. All your suffering, it’s in the moment that you see that after 31 years you deserve your heaven! All that remains is a passage, and I think you are sufficiently prepared for it to succeed….

    I wish you lots of courage and will be thinking of you very much on 16 May.

  9. Yes, I’m back because I have just read fafa’s comment which says “with a local anaesthetic you could have a shock, saying to yourself for hours ‘what are they doing to me?’” She is a hundred times right.

    In fact, when I had an operation I had a vertebral anaesthetic, it’s a type of epidural but much stronger. I had terrible memories of it because I had the impression that I couldn’t breathe. And then during the operation there was almost no noise, I had the feeling that it was lasting hours, I couldn’t see anything of course, I heard things vaguely but didn’t feel anything.

    It was a TVT, which consists of putting a sort of support under the bladder, so the area of operation totally hid the lower part of my body. Nothing to see, nothing to hear and being conscious, I found that very difficult. Then I had a moment of absent-mindedness and finding myself in another room I asked when I was having the operation, and they told me it was finished…

    In any case, make a list of questions to ask the anaesthetist and don’t hesitate to ask them, even if they seem stupid. The anaesthetist told me it was a type of epidural and I didn’t think to ask what the difference was. It should have been up to him to explain to me, but psychology isn’t within the scope of all doctors. And then, they aren’t inside our heads and there are people who prefer to have all the details and others who prefer not to know.

    Right, I’ll stop rambling. Have a good weekend, and don’t forget to vote!

  10. You’re right, all three of you. Fafa and Claude, when you say being conscious but not seeing what’s being done to me would be distressing and Steph_Hassan, when you tell me that I must stop suffering as an obligatory passage to achieve my reconstruction.

    It really is necessary that I abandon this idea of valuing events byt pain (the more you suffer, the more important the event). Right, I’ll work on that.

    And then Fafa, that made me dream when you say that you can feel your clitoris even when walking. I don’t know why but I believe that it reassures me to feel it, like that, inadvertently.

    Claude, a list of questions for the anaesthetist is an excellent idea I think. I’m going to prepare one …

  11. I'm a little late to this but felt I should write....
    I have always been intrigued with what I can recall from my childhood. To be honest, I have remembered a lot of things from the time I was rushed to the hospital at 18 months to have my stomach pumped to how the furniture in our apartment was arranged at the age of 3. But there is more missing than there is present. My question to you Papillion, do other parts of your missing memory haunt you as much as the circumcision? Is it possible for you to look at that particular memory the same way you'd look at perhaps the last day of summer when you were 6. You know it happened but you just don't particularly recall the specifics.
    The other thing to consider is that you can't remember what you were unconscious for. Have you ever talked in your sleep or sleep walked?
    Just a few thoughts from someone so far removed from your experience I hesitated to respond to your posting. I do hope things go well for you nextmonth....

  12. I’ve had several operations, some with general anaesthetic for an operation on facial bones. Seeing who is operating on you, you will have a good anaesthetic, with good conditions for waking up. With a light general anaesthetic (without need of a respirator) I have dreamed (a nightmare of daily life: the kids don’t want to do their homework .. you can imagine the sort!) but with a major anaesthetic (and respiratory assistance) there are no dreams or nightmares. Just a moment when time is suspended. But you know you compensate for this, you think about it so much beforehand! ;o) Fine, I haven’t had any problem with irritation of the throat from a tube or anything, no after-effects, a pleasant wakening. I have brittle teeth, I let them know, otherwise it’s enough to answer the questions from the anaesthetist and all will be well! It’s perfectly normal that you have some worries. The sedative that they give you the night before will help you relax your body completely, to calm down, that’s why they suggest it, it’s better simply to accept it. And since you generally don’t sleep well the night before, more reason to take it. Good luck to you and be strong too!

  13. By Sahra

    Hi,I would really like to find out about Dr Pierre Foldes's work.

    Here are some questions I would like to know:

    Is the practice only done in France, what about England? or other European countries?

    Do you have to be 18 to have the operation?, what about if you are 16? or 17?

    Do you have to pay? if so, how much?

    If you know all or any of the answers please write back.


  14. Hi every one, i would like to find out information about Dr Pierre Foldes,

    Can someone tell me, is the operation only done in france? what about England?

    Do you have to be 18 years old?

    Do you have to pay, if so, how much?


  15. Hi Sahra/Fozia

    Here is a post which will give you a few contacts in England. They may be able to tell you more details or where to find out.

    Dr Foldes hospital and contact details are here but no email address as far as I can find.

    If you'd like to email Papillon herself, her email address is papillonblog {at} gmail.com, just replace the {at} by the @ sign. She is French but she speaks reasonable English. Or I could get in touch with her for you (or with anyone else/hospital in France if you like).

    I would guess you do have to be 18 for the operation but I'm really not sure. One of the contacts above may be able to give you more details, also whether you can have the NHS pay for it. I think they only do repair and not actual reconstruction in this country, but again I may be wrong.

    If you do find out more, it would be great if you could post back here so that more people can find out.

  16. hi
    just wnat to thank every1 for the information vervy much appreciated!!
    i thouhgt maybe i could share something also as i too have been a victim. well at least i think i have. This is what is so frustrating i have just turned 18 therefore have had no sexual activity.when one day a family member joked and said i had been circumsied i freaked out and asked on a serious note whether she was telling the truth. She then attempted to change the subject and claimed she dnt no and she was just joking. But ever since then i have come to realise it may be true. why would you joke about something so random and serious??? I then asked friends questions in attempts to understand where and what the clit was as i have never really known about what the female gentalia includes. whe friends claimed that they sometimes arouse themselves from showering i became more convinced i had actually been circumsied. im left confused and feel to ashamed/dirty to sit and observe(look in a mirror or feel) what exactly has been done to me. However i am slowly coming to turns with it and information on reconstruction is more of a relife than u can imagin.

  17. Hi there. I don't know if you are anywhere near London? There are some good clinics there. See the post FGM contacts though some of the numbers may be out of date, but I think it would be a start, and they may be able to help you. But please, don't feel ashamed or dirty.


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