Flash back: I’m sitting on the toilet, my abdomen in full spasm as my body trembles and convulses. I alternate between dry heaving over the plastic bucket between my knees and begging whatever higher power there may be to please, please, please, not let this turn into an Elvis Presley scenario. It would seem that I had just completed a fun-filled night of reckless binge drinking; but it is worse, so much worse. It is day 1 of my period and I am birthing quarter-sized clots of blood and tissue into the porcelain throne below. (By my calculations I’m due like 1,000 push presents by now).
I can now say that my menses used to be so intense that I opted to wear a monster-thick pad with not one, but TWO pairs of undies to ensure no embarrassing leaks at school or work—a chastity belt of sorts, if you will. While still in my teens, I was prescribed prescription painkillers--(because apparently in the medical community, painful cramping during a woman’s period is thought to be a “normal and healthy” part of life). Sorry people, but we’ve been lied to. Like a lot. Seriously, I’m talking like a lot, a lot.
When I knew my period was coming, I used to sleep with a bottle of painkillers and crackers next to my bed (because trust me, you don’t want to take any painkillers on an empty stomach unless you like vomiting. Which is fine, we all have our kinks). I used to cramp for days leading up to my period, requiring the use of a heating pad; I used to be terrified that I would get my period while traveling or staying at someone else’s house; I used to white knuckle the sink in front of me while I tried to muscle out excruciatingly painful BMs the first couple days of my cycle. Get this: I even used to go to the doctor or the ER with sharp, shooting, stabbing abdominal pain that would occur at random, but then fail to show up in blood work, CAT scans, or sonograms as “real” threats. This has happened to me so many times over the years, I’ve lost count. But I know now that none of these behaviors are actually normal. All too common? YUP. But that doesn’t mean they are a “healthy and normal” part of life. PSA: IT SHOULD NOT HURT TO POOP WHEN YOU HAVE YOUR PERIOD!
As it turns out I have endometriosis, but it wasn’t until I was 27 (15 years after my first period) and had spent 3 hours on an operating table that I found this out.
You see, my fellow menstruating powerhouses, we have to become our own health advocates. We need to fight for one another, but also (and before all else) we need to fight for ourselves. For years I was told that everything I was feeling was “normal” or worse--that it was all in my head. If every woman donated a dime for each time she was fed this line, we could end world poverty, amirite?
In my time dealing with endometriosis, I’ve been labeled as sensitive, crazy, and a hypochondriac. In college I was told it must be an STD (until my lab tests proved otherwise). I was subjected to doctor after doctor handing me prescription meds or birth control pills and rolling their eyes at my “antics”.
I’ve also been a participant in many painfully invasive and sometimes humiliating exams--my favorite incident involved a transducer wand (FYI not all sonograms are performed on the outside…), a heaping glob of lube and a wonky table stirrup. Even more embarrassing was a particularly low moment where I sat begging a new doctor to help me and crying in her office as she told me birth control was my only option.
Endometriosis is excruciatingly isolating. No one believes the distress you are in when you physically appear to be fine. But not only does it cause painful cycles it also wreaks havoc on the hormones, resulting in frequent nausea, migraines, trouble sleeping, extreme fatigue and severe PMS.
There were literally times I thought I was going completely insane. But in the end I believed myself, even if no one else did. Thankfully I did eventually find a wonderful doctor and surgeon (miracle workers, really) who discovered that I was riddled with Stage IV endo--meaning that I had scar tissue growing not only on my reproductive system but also my bladder, intestines, and bowels (oh, hey there painful poops).
Since undergoing surgery in 2013 my life has improved drastically. I know now what a healthy cycle truly feels like and the stress around my periods has diminished greatly. Endometriosis, for me, has been a great lesson in learning to stand-up for myself and my health. It has also given me whole new level of empathy for the struggles of others. The road to where I am now was long and hard, but--unlike, say, the Iraq War?--it was a battle well worth the fight.