A few years ago, I packed nine months of pads into a suitcase when I temporarily moved to India, where my brand-new husband had been awarded a Fulbright teaching scholarship. I'd developed urinary incontinence in the fall of 2014, after an emergency appendectomy that summer.
I had no idea if I could buy incontinence pads in a tiny town in a developing country. I certainly couldn't take the chance to see if I'd find them there. With no other option, I carefully lined each pad, individually, in the bottom of my very large suitcase and shuddered at the thought of Customs officers opening it, displaying all those squares wrapped in pink.
My husband was not aware of the incontinence—at least I didn't think he was. It had started before we got engaged and was such a non-romantic subject that I'd never mentioned it. We'd only been together for two years and lacked the intimacy that comes with a long-term marriage. How could I even bring it up? Would he suddenly find me unattractive? We had a fiery sex life, and I feared the knowledge of my condition would turn him off.
I found it easy enough to hide the pads in the bathroom, yet I still lived in fear that he would find out. Some days when I came home from work, he'd take me by the hand, pull me to the sofa, and begin pulling off my pants. I couldn't let him pull down my leopard-print panties to find a thick pad between my legs. I'd laugh and tell him I wanted to clean up first while he tugged harder and harder, almost exposing my secret and shame.
Urinary incontinence is the most common type of incontinence among women. It occurs when the muscles of the pelvic floor, which support the bladder, become weakened. When we jump, cough, laugh or do heavy lifting, there's increased pressure on the bladder, and our pelvic floor muscles are unable to tighten enough to keep the urine in. Sometimes, after ingesting liquids, urine can leak just by the action of our standing up. In this case, when the bladder is full, leakage can occur even though the bladder muscles aren't contracting, and we don't feel the urge to urinate.
My partner and I were an active couple. But when we made plans for a weeklong wilderness trip, I was ambivalent. I knew I'd have to bury my pads in the dirt. Would I bring enough? What if an animal dug one up, and we found it outside the tent one morning? The image horrified me, but I wasn't going to let it keep me from beach camping and gazing at the nighttime sky. I thought about telling my husband as we planned the trip, but my shame was too great, and so was my fear that he'd find me repulsive.Now I realize that I didn't have enough faith in myself as a woman, a person who deserved to be loved whether or not I suffered from incontinence.
I'm single now. My new husband turned out to be too good to be true. Deep down, I must have known it, thus my reluctance to divulge the truth. It's been four years since he left me, and I've become a much stronger woman since I entered my 60s. It's amazing what happens with age and the added wisdom we gain.
I have no interest in dating, but if I met someone now, I'd handle things differently. I wouldn't announce my incontinence on the first date, but I'd make sure early on that any potential partner knew the whole me.
When my city started shutting down due to COVID-19 and there wasn't a single package of pads in my Kroger, I panicked. This wasn't something I could do without. Thankfully, it didn't take long to find the essential pads at a local Walmart. When it was my turn to pay, I placed the two bulky packages with their bright pink lettering on the counter, without hesitation.
I was embracing my age and my body. I felt no shame. I didn't worry that the cashier or the man behind me knew I had incontinence. After the cashier scanned my pads, she looked at me. "Anything else for you today, ma'am?"
I looked her straight in the eye and said, "No, that's all for today." She might as well have been scanning peaches.
As I left the store, I thought for a moment about how much energy I expended a few years back, trying to hide a medical condition that can come with age. I thought about the times I'd visited a girlfriend out of state and wrapped my pads in toilet paper in the dead of night, digging down into the bottom of her kitchen trash to hide them.
I love and accept all of my body. My urinary incontinence is just a part of me, like having brown eyes. I'm glad I've learned a physical change doesn't mean I'm less lovable. It just means I have to pack something extra when I'm on the road.
Kimi Hardesty earned an MFA in creative writing in 2018 after 35 years of pediatric nursing. She lives in Lexington, KY, where she enjoys leading an adventurous life filled with creativity, photography, travel, and working on her small urban farm. Her work has appeared in The Pitkin Review, Farmer-ish, ritualwell and Speak.