A Swelling Problem

pilonidal cyst a different type of carbuncle
When the Six Flags day arrived, I knew it would be a mistake to go.
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“It’s unbearable,” I whimpered. “I need to sit.”

I took seven painstaking steps to the nearby bench, shifting my weight from right to left and back again with each step, wincing all the while. Once I reached it, my right hand grabbed for the back, easing the weight of my body onto the seat. I placed my right hip down, and turned straight. I yelped, feeling the intense pressure between the cheeks.

Annoyed, Jessie crossed her arms in front of her chest and rolled her eyes. “What's the matter with you?”

“I don’t know,” I pushed through gritted teeth, furrowing my eyebrows.

“Well, are you gonna go on anything today? We still have two hours left.”

Glassy-eyed, I looked past Jessie’s head into the distance.

It was mid-May, just three weeks before graduation. Jessie and I, and the rest of our 12th grade physics class, were dispersed on the grounds of Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, but I had no laughter or adventure to spare. I’d spent the first two hours waddling like an overdue pregnant woman.

One week prior, I felt a small bump at the base of my tailbone, half the size of a dime. With my back facing my door-length mirror, hanging over my bedroom closet, I cocked my head around to see the situation. The bump was inflamed and sensitive when pushed, but the area felt fine otherwise. I finished getting dressed and drove to school and didn’t pay it any mind, even though it seemed to get more tender the following two days.

Midweek, I sat in Mrs. Kramer’s fourth period class, shifting my position every few minutes. I reclined for mere minutes before shifting again to be upright. The bump hurt like someone kneading their knuckles into me. I struggled to listen and concentrate.

Mrs. Kramer stopped lecturing. Irritated, she asked, “What’s going on over there?”

Bewildered, I hoped she’d read my embarrassment. She waited for my answer.

“Sorry...uh… My, uh, leg’s just bothering me,” I lied.

I forced myself to sit still for the rest of class, angled on my left hip so that my butt was not in direct contact with my seat. But I could feel the lump throbbing.

During my lunch period, I went to the single bathroom near the nurse’s suite. I locked the door and dropped my uniform skirt and tights to my ankles. I turned my back to the small mirror perched above the sink, nervously anticipating what I’d see. Slowly, to prevent scraping the top of the lump, I pulled my underwear down to the middle of my butt and looked. It had tripled in size since the previous day and resembled a sunburnt toe. The area surrounding the lump was pink. As I swiped the top with my forefinger, my cheeks clenched. I felt the pus underneath. In the past, I’d had painful pimples on my face and back, but none that extreme or in that location.

That night in bed, I moved from my left side to right side to belly, and back again, repeating the process for hours. I could not find a comfortable position, and I refused to sleep on my back, for fear of aggravating the lump. Even with avoiding direct pressure, the pain intensified.

Around 4:00 a.m., I left my attic bedroom and walked down the flight of stairs to the bathroom on the second floor. I grabbed a fresh washcloth and soaked it with the hottest water my hands could stand. I wrung it out so it wouldn’t drip, wadded it up, and shoved it in between my cheeks, pulling my underwear up high to hold it in place. The heat scorched the lump, and the pain carried on. At a loss, I returned to bed.

The next couple days got worse. Every move, every bend, was intense, yet I resisted telling my mother about it, as she disregarded “trivial” ailments, often calling me a hypochondriac.

When the Six Flags day arrived, I knew it would be a mistake to go. My pain had become intolerable, the mass had grown to a small apricot, and I had new symptoms: tingly skin, headache, and alternating chills and hot flashes. But my parents had paid for my ticket.

The bus hit every bump and pothole on the road. The driver slammed on the brakes. Vibrations shot through my legs and up to the spot, each time I stepped. Sitting hurt, reclining hurt, standing hurt. My misery interrupted any chance of fun.

That night, I caved.

“Mom, I have a — swelling — problem. On my butt. Uh, between my cheeks,” I stumbled.


Listless, I said, “Well, it’s big and excruciating, and I had a horrible time at Six Flags today because I couldn’t walk or ride on anything.”

“Ok. Show me.”

“No way! It’s on my butt!”

“How am I supposed to help you if you won’t show me?”

I went belly-down on the carpet in front of her. I reached my hand back and slid the waistband of my shorts, making sure my fingers didn’t graze it. The raging boil was out.

“CHRISTINE!!!” she shrieked. “That looks horrendous. And infected! Why didn’t you say something sooner?” she yelled. “We’re going to the doctor tomorrow morning and getting that thing looked at!”

The next morning, my doctor instructed me to open the back of my gown.

“That’s a big one, and it is definitely infected,” she stated. “You have a pilonidal cyst, and it needs to be drained immediately. We could’ve controlled this early on with a simple antibiotic cream.”

My mom huffed and pursed her lips. I dropped my head.

Dr. Liz left the examination room to call the hospital’s outpatient wing. She returned soon after and gave us the instructions on what to do next.

“Just to let you know,” she told me, “You’re literally moments away from this cyst bursting. Why did you go to an amusement park when you felt the way you did?”My eyes begged her to retract her question. She sighed. “Well, I guess the important thing is that you’re here today, but let’s just say you’re fortunate it didn’t burst while you were there.”

Before leaving, Dr. Liz told us that she was surprised I’d gotten a pilonidal cyst at all because I didn’t meet any of the risk factors, like being male, being over 30, being inactive, or other reasons. Nonetheless, I had one.

The next part, about getting the cyst drained and packed, is a story of its own, one I’m not ready to revisit yet.

While I do not want to relive the experience with a pilonidal cyst, I learned to listen to my body, acknowledging when something isn’t right and not wishing it away. I also learned how important preventative care is, as is seeking out proper help or treatment — before the problem escalates.

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