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LE Magazine June 2003

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A Piece of My Mind
An Essay on Desire

Howard L. Harrod, PhD Nashville, Tennessee
Reprinted from the Journal of the American
Medical Association (JAMA), Feb 19, 2003.

What I had not yet realized was the deeper significance of testosterone deprivation. It was clear that this manipulation of my body had probably postponed my death, and for that I was grateful. While I did not fully grasp what it would mean to live in a male body without potency, I had not begun to contemplate the meaning of continuing to live without the experience of desire. Desires are always directed toward a subject or an object, and erotic desires are no different. But when desire is radically extinguished, then the way it had been shaped as well as the objects and subjects of its focus still remained as memories. Without the urgency of desire, these memories stood out in ways that were both painful and instructive.

Male socialization had taught me to imagine the female body in a certain manner, to focus my erotic attention on particular body parts, to objectify and depersonalize these body parts, and to understand sexual pleasure as focused almost entirely on orgasm. These structures of the embodied imagination had shaped my experience of desire. The practices, language, and example of other males in my environment powerfully enforced them. I had been so deeply formed by that world that there was virtually no transcendence of it in my experience. Again, I was plunged into despair and, finally, into hatred of the structure of desire that was still alive in my memory and projected in my imagination.

I still struggle with these issues, but at least some feelings of acceptance and consent to my condition are beginning to be stronger than the more negative and destructive responses. At the same time, I am increasingly aware of several things that I consider invaluable. I have learned, first, that women are embodied in much more complicated ways than I had ever imagined. Second, relationships between men and women are complicated—inevitably so—by Eros. But for me, there is a sense of transcendence and peace in being able to experience persons as the complex beings they are without being so completely captured by the undercurrent of desire. Third, there is richness and creative playfulness in human relationships that is distorted by patterns of male socialization. Fourth, the terrain of manhood is much richer and fuller of possibilities than I had ever imagined.

I have survived and, in many ways, flourished for almost 10 years. Six of these years have been characterized by excellent quality of life on many levels. But there have been other losses and some deepened suffering connected with aggressive treatment. In the fall of 2000, for example, when I was again on leave in Montana, I experienced kidney failure as a consequence of lymph node swelling that blocked my ureters. I now have two nephrostomy tubes that require care but that are partially internal so that I urinate “normally.” It became clear, however, that if my quality of life were to be sustained I would have to undergo further treatment.

After consultation with my oncologist, I endured 6 months of chemotherapy with Taxol, which gave me about 4 additional months of satisfactory quality of life. Then in the spring of 2002, I was diagnosed with cancer progression in my right femur and some involvement in my left hip. I underwent surgery and a pin was placed from the top of my femur to my knee. My left hip was radiated at the same time. My recovery was successful, and I went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane and then to full mobility.

With the blessings of my surgeon and my oncologist, my wife and I left in July 2002 for another research trip to Montana. But after less than 2 weeks I lost bladder control as well as my ability to walk. An MRI revealed serious spinal cord compression, and we were immediately flown back to Nashville where I endured another surgery to decompress the spinal cord. This surgery was apparently successful and I am now proceeding from the wheelchair to the walker; my hope is for full mobility.

These surgeries were defined as “palliative,” but the last one had real authority. The pain was significant, and recovery has been slower than I would like. My condition is different now, and the sense of loss has a different quality and weight. I clearly anticipate the loss of my world. But I am not simply contemplating this possibility; it is a powerful sensibility that arises within me daily. Nurtured by a supportive network of friends, family, and groups like Gilda’s Club and Alive Hospice in Nashville, I feel a strange peace descend on me. My life seems to have come full circle as meaning folds back upon itself and deepens in a manner that makes more and more sense.

Certainly my experience will not characterize all who read this description. In part, the quality of my experience is dependent on having had sufficient time to assimilate the meaning of what has happened to me. First I lost desire. Now I am gradually losing my body, and I will soon lose my life, my wife, my family, my friends, and the whole beautiful world. I hope that other readers in my situation will have sufficient time to integrate their experiences as I have, and I hope these reflections are helpful for their respective journeys.

Editor’s Note: Professor Harrod died February 3, 2003.

To read a retrospective analysis of Dr. Harrod’s journey with prostate cancer log on to www.lefprostate.org. This analysis has been written by Stephen B. Strum. M.D., a medical oncology specialist in prostate cancer. His goal in writing this is to familiarize the reader with important biologic concepts relating to the diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of this disease. Dr. Strum believes it is crucial to familiarize Foundation members with prostate cancer about more comprehensive treatment choices. This detailed review is by no means a criticism of Dr. Harrod or his physicians.

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