A guest post by @LizzieBennett_ for endometriosis awareness month.
Life Lesson by Don Raye
The fierce wind rages
And I see how trees survive
They have learned to bend
I’m 13 and I’m being prescribed the pill for irregular, painful bleeding. Apparently my cycle just needs to settle down.
I’m 14 and I’m being rushed into hospital to have my appendix removed. Only when it comes out it looks like it isn’t the culprit after all.
I’m 15 and I’m put on the contraceptive injection because I’m still bleeding for two weeks at a time and being physically sick from the pain.
I’m 17 and I’m asleep on my mum’s bathroom floor for the second night in a row, because the cold floor is the only thing that will ease the pain in my lower back and I may as well be somewhere that I can vomit.
I’m 18 and I finally see a consultant. I’m too young to have endometriosis she assures me, but after pressure from my mum she agrees to do the operation to rule it out so that we can focus on the other ‘much more likely’ causes. She gives me surgery for a bet.
I’m 18 and she pulls back the curtain after my surgery to inform me without kindness that they did find endometriosis on the back of my womb. It is now removed and she’ll see me for a follow up. She never did and I did not receive the slightest advice on how to manage an incurable chronic condition. Everything I ever learnt is from charity websites and women’s magazines. I have never underestimated Marie Claire.
I’m 20 and I’m back to bleeding for weeks at a time. I’m informed that further surgery should be a last resort and I need to find hormonal alternatives. They give me the implant.
I’m 22 and the implant has to be swapped because it’s not longer effective. Surgery is not an option.
I’m 24 and the implant has to be swapped because it’s not longer effective. Surgery is not an option.
I’m 27 and I bleed for eight weeks over Christmas and New Year. I’m extremely bloated, and uncomfortable. I have a constant bearing down sensation in my back and cramps in my legs. I often cannot get out of foetal position because of the pain. I’m exhausted and I find it difficult to open my eyes in the morning; I worry that I am becoming depressed. My anxiety is through the roof, but who can blame me when my whole body feels like it’s against me?
I’m 27 and I’m seeing a private consultant. I’ve been unable to move from my bed and have been experiencing labour pains when I bleed. The pain is now also present when I don’t bleed. I’m asked to rate the quality of my life. I circle ‘0’.
I’m 27 and the consultant shows me pictures of my womb. She’s removed endometriosis covering the left side of my womb and the pouch of Douglas. My womb collapses when it is touched, the muscles have deteriorated. She suspects adenomyosis. As my mum is crying next to me all I can think is ‘Thank God someone believes me, thank god it’s not all in my head’.
I’m 28. It’s the day before my best friend’s wedding and I can’t stand up straight because of the pain. I’m so tired from not sleeping that my vision has started to blur. I manage the pain with tramadol, codeine, and jäger bombs, but I know I was close to not being able to be there. I consider how much more I am willing to miss for this disease.
I’m 28 and I’ve decided to have a hysterectomy. I’m on a drug that has shut down my pituitary gland. I am so sick I honestly feel like I am dying. Someone asks me what I do all day now that I can’t work and I’ve had to take a leave of absence from my PhD. I survive, I tell them, every ounce of my energy from the second I wake up to the second I go to sleep goes into surviving. I google my first consultant for my PALS report and it transpires she is writing a book on cultivating ‘compassion’ in the NHS. Yep. Compassion.
I’m 28 and I’m doing the compulsory pregnancy test before my hysterectomy. The fact that I haven’t had sex with anyone for two years apparently doesn’t mean I can skip it. I’m at peace with having family in whatever way it comes, but I can’t help but remember the daydream I’ve said since I was a teenager of waiting for my partner to come home and greeting him with the test in my hand and hugging each other with mad joy. Tears fall silently down my face in the starkly lit toilet, whilst I pee on a stick. No hope of a positive test. No partner.
One of things that I did not expect after my operation were the irrational feelings occasioned by the trauma of my muscles inside. I had read that sometimes your other organs go into shock at the removal of the womb, but I hadn’t been prepared for my body literally feeling like I had given birth. In semi-lucid moments in those first couple of weeks I would wake up reaching my arms out and wanting my baby. It was, even for someone not naturally broody, pretty horrific.
For the next few months after the operation I would quite often have to leave nights out, or lunch dates, early to cry. I wondered if this was a delayed grief, but in retrospect I think it was a combination of extreme tiredness and sheer, abject relief. Relief that I had made it through those long months, relief to be past the fear of the operating room, and relief to finally have my body back on my side after 15 years.
Probably one of the hardest things about my illness as young women has been painful sex, and bleeding during or after it. On top of which, the irregularity of my periods has always meant that I could come on at any time. So on a date when the glasses are being cleared from the table, and they’ve inched their chair over, and I’m laughing and playing with my hair, and they say do you fancy coming back to mine for a drink? My first thought has never been ‘get in’, or ‘I thought you’d never ask’, but ‘have I got sanitary stuff with me?’ Or ‘what if I bleed in the middle or it, or in the night if I stay?’ And if this doesn’t put me off entirely, it means that I look like I got incontinence issues, because I constantly go to the loo to check that I haven’t started gushing blood at various stages of what should be that amazing/awkward/disappointing first hook up.
No one wants Jaws the movie on their first date.
Then, let’s say it goes all right, and you find someone brilliant and understanding. Those things don’t just go away. It’s never going to be fun for someone to feel like they are hurting you when you are being intimate. Sex becomes bound up with worry. I have found that this means that I hold something of myself back during the moment. People sense when they are not getting all of you, and it has implications.
I am now one of the lucky ones. However, there are still consequences for the rest of my life. All of the literature for post-hysterectomy sex is geared towards intercourse with your ‘loving husband’. I’m 28. It could very likely be an intoxicated encounter with a tinder date. Even once I’m passed the initial terror of being naked with someone again, at what date do I casually slip in that I can’t have children the conventional way? Admittedly I was ambivalent beforehand, but ambivalence is a topic that can wait. None of this means that it was the wrong decision; I feel extraordinarily well and happy and optimistic about the future. However, the right decisions are still hard decisions.
So, why am I writing this? Because one of the most important things anyone can do to raise awareness is to tell their story, and for others to share the stories that women tell. It legitimates the experience of women with endometriosis. It sends a message to young girls to trust their bodies. And, hopefully, it may give them the strength to persist with getting a diagnosis when they are told that it’s just ‘normal period pains’.
I can assure you – nothing about my young life with this disease was normal.
As well as difficulties I have faced, I have been lucky enough to also receive fantastic care and wonderful acts of kindness. From the nurse who took my blood and told me we have to make decisions that are right for us at the time, to the porter who held my hand as he wheeled the trolley in to the operating theatre, and the physiotherapist who spent an hour with me before my operation and made everything about those bruising, brutal first two weeks of recovery a bit more bearable.
I have seen great changes in the last ten years in the way that endometriosis is spoken about and treated, and I look forward to the seeing what is achieved next ten years. However, I am aware that for some women it is already too late. These women have met the loss of hopes, dreams, jobs, and relationships with bravery and grace. This piece is written for them.
For further information or for anyone who would like to support or donate to a charity during endometriosis awareness month:
Elizabeth Bennett is a folk singing, footpath walking, gin drinking PhD student. Having been diagnosed with endometriosis at 18 after 5 years of G.P. appointments, she took the decision to have her uterus, cervix, and fallopian tubes removed at 28, in order to regain her health and restore a sense of self. With her brilliant friends and family she had a stitch and bitch hysterectomy party ‘Boom Shake the Womb’. She has not met Mr Darcy yet, but she has a sneaking suspicion he may arrive in the form of a Sussex Spaniel.
You can tweet Elizabeth at @LizzieBennett_
Have a story to share? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org