In My Head

In the manner of Ivy, Aunt B, and Kat. I’m about to talk about my period. It’s not for the faint of heart. In other words, men, read no further.

I don’t remember my mom specifically telling me about periods, but hers had taken her by surprise at a young age, so I knew what was going on when my first one hit at nine. I was a scrawny kid, so they didn’t even out until later, but the pain started when I was twelve. I have no doubt that I may have serious liver damage from what I would take to try to function. My mom wouldn’t let me stay home, so I took Midol, tylenol, aspirin, motrin, in whatever amounts it took to take the edge off the pain. I spent large amounts of time bleeding, puking, and having diarrhea in the school’s bathroom. This was at the beginning of the zero tolerance nonsense, so I was an honor student risking expulsion to function.

I became sexually active at fifteen. That is another story, for another time. I did get on birth control, but it did nothing to help. I tried explaining to the doctor, a woman, how badly I hurt each month. I tried to explain that I was physically unable to function. I got the patronizing smile, an anecdote about how red heads have bad periods and it’s just part of the package. I was told to try to exercise through the pain. I guess the whole part about being incapacitated escaped her.

Thankfully, at the moment I have not had my period in a few months. I breastfeed and take the pill; the combination has produced amenorrhea. For this, I am thankful.

My period typically starts after a couple days of irrational anger and annoyance. I get very clumsy; I’m also very tall so my clumsiness seems magnified, I feel like an adolescent giraffe. I typically have a migraine a day or two before its onset. When my period is about to begin I become hypersensitive. Everything is TOO: too loud, too prickly, too scratchy, too sparkly, too bright. It all grates on my nerves. It’s like having the flu, when even blankets hurt.

Day one of my period usually starts obscenely early after a night of tossing and turning. I’ll have finally hit that deep, predawn sleep when the floodgates open. If I wear a pad to bed, it seems to guarantee I will drag out the PMS another day. If I am lucky, my eyes will pop open in that three second window between the gush and the sploosh. If not, I get to start my day with crisis laundry management. I have probably between twenty and thirty minutes before the intense pain starts. The pain I am referring to is different from the everday pain of endometriosis that I am accustomed to. Having experienced natural birth, I can say that my periods left labor (with the exception of transition) far behind. In labor there is an amazing phenomenon where you fall inward and there is this center, this place where everything is quiet and there is this well of strength and peace that I have felt at no other time in my life.

With my period it is blinding, wracking pain with no relief. It is raw nerves, shooting pain, bright blood, and a sense of panic and helplessness. The pain begins around my navel, doubles me over and radiates into my hips, buttocks, thighs, groin, knees, and ankles. If you’ve ever sprained your ankle, the dull pain that follows is how all of my lower extremeties feel. If by some cruel joke I have to walk around, it feels as though my uterus is falling out. It is a disgusting, heavy, unnatural feeling. This pain is accompanied with diarrhea; not diarrhea a little Pepto Bismol will solve. It is diarrhea of a highly aggravated nature. It is the kind where you beg to be put out of your misery, but pray for the strength to clean up a little first so no one finds you in that position. It is diarrhea so intense it forces you to vomit.

If I am lucky the vomiting and diarrhea will stop and I can hide in the tub. Water as hot as I can stand is one of the only things that helps relieve the pain.

The pain lasts for up to four days, gradually lessening to tolerable around day three. The bleeding slowly tapers to a trickle and can linger for up to two weeks.

My periods were an addiction waiting to happen. Over the years, I took anything I could get my hands on. Only through some miracle did I never know anyone who was into hard drugs. There were times where I was prescribed oxycontin and it wasn’t that effective, for me. Marijuana and alcohol helped distance myself from the pain. I still felt it, but at least it wasn’t so personal. How I escaped addiction, I’ll never know.

I went to many doctors, in search of relief. I heard variations of “it’s in your head, some women just have it harder than others.” I was young, so I think most assumed I was feeding a habit. I just wanted to function on those days. I couldn’t afford to miss work, but I could barely drag myself there and standing was intolerable. I’d be hunched over in pain, leaning on counters, crossing my legs trying for counterpressure. In college, I dreaded labs. There were no stools in the lab rooms, sitting on the counters was forbidden and I almost always had a male partner, who would never understand, not that I attempted to explain why I was so fucking miserable.

A particularly scarring experience (ha!) was when I tried Depo-provera. I didn’t know why I was in pain and thought no periods would mean no pain. The depo added weight gain, general bitchiness, and hair loss to my list of problems. One day I ended up in the ER, two weeks after a shot. I was in terrible pain, I thought it may have been appendicitis, the doctors insisted I had an ectopic pregnancy, despite two negative pregnancy tests (at their offices). The final doctor I saw that day as I was shuffled around decided my ovary was making follicles and I needed a second shot. The hormonal rollercoaster caused by that poison is something neither Tim nor I will ever forget. To make matters worse, I had an abnormal pap-smear that day and ended up going through another procedure with the same doctor in my ignorance. This doctor is partially responsible for the pre-term labor (23 weeks gestation) I dealt with when I was finally able to become pregnant.

One day, I had it. It was like something in me snapped. It wasn’t natural to hurt like that, something was wrong and I knew it. I made an appointment at the clinic near my school. I researched my symptoms and found they matched that of endometriosis. I wrote down every symptom I had, by then the pain was not limited to my period, it had slowly crept into more and more of my life. The idea of sex was abhorrent to me, it was so painful. I can’t thank my husband enough for his understanding during that time.

I went armed to the gills with information. I was ready for a fight. I wasn’t going to leave until the doctor understood I was miserable and I was tired of being miserable. I don’t know how or why, but luck was on my side. After a brief, but painful exam (not his fault). He looked at me and said, “I think you have endometriosis, we should schedule laproscopy as soon as possible.” I burst into tears. I’m not a crier and certainly not in front of strangers, but I bawled. I sobbed like a baby. I didn’t have to fight. My doctor was ex-military; a fact that surprised me, as most of the doctors that I had seen were military and terrible. We talked about pain management and life’s priorities. I left with vicodin, Vioxx, and hope. The day after finals, I was on an operating table. He confirmed I had Stage III endometriosis, he ablated everything he found. He also perfomed a Doyle procedure where he cut and cauterized the main nerve to my uterus. This helped immensly with the primary pain from cramping.

I wish I could say I have been pain free since. I haven’t. By the time I saw the doctor we’d stopped birth control for about a year. We were hoping to become pregnant, all of the problems I’d had made me doubt my fertility. My doctor painted a very realistic picture, if I wanted children they should be a priority and a healthy lifestyle should be my top priority. He advised me to stop burning the candle at both ends (I had been working full time as well as attempting a double major). Tim and I joined the gym and focused on each other. I put school on hiatus and began to enjoy my job. Six months later, I went for an infertility work up and discovered I was pregnant with Sir Thousand Hands.

We live as healthfully as possible. I’ve had a second surgery and there are probably more in my future. We eat high fiber, minimally processed diets. I exercise often and hope. I hope that maybe I’ve done enough. I hope the researchers at Vanderbilt University discover a simple cause or cure. I hope that no one I am close to feels what I have felt. I also listen. I listen for someone to casually mention symptoms. Women with endometriosis share a bond in pain; there is often a similar path of being ignored or belittled, of suffering in silence. I won’t be silent about it. Pain is not normal.


#1 Rachel on 04.06.06 at 11:12 pm

So sorry it took them so long to come up with the proper diagnosis. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s entirely uncommon. Thank you for sharing your story.

#2 Kat Coble on 04.07.06 at 4:02 pm

Thank you so much for sharing your story. You also more accurately captured the feelings of that murdering, destructive pain in words.

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