Listen to your body.
Today's newsletter is written by Shameless listener and writer Ailsa Traves...
I got my first period during a school swimming lesson.
Great timing, right?
At first my periods weren’t too bad; inconvenient, but not debilitating. Over the next few years, though, there was a shift in what I experienced. I found myself missing school every month, and then later university and work. No matter how hard I tried to grin and bear it, I was missing out on life.
When I get my period, I can’t function for the first two days at all. Most of my time is spent desperately shifting under the covers trying to find that nonexistent comfortable position, and crying on the phone to my mum. I’ve vomited, I’ve spent countless days curled up in bed, and I’ve fainted more times than I can remember (recently on a rush-hour tram).
The guilt of being unwell has been nurtured by my experiences with the medical industry, despite what I’m certain were good intentions. The idea of the hysterical woman has long been a looming spectre over women’s healthcare, and it’s one I’ve felt personally. Nearly every doctor has said my pain was probably related to anxiety in some way. Over the years, I’ve had varying diagnoses of “bad period pain” and “nothing to worry about”. “We’ll run some more tests and keep an eye on it,” became a refrain I dreaded. There’s been heat packs, painkillers, stronger painkillers, ultrasounds and internal examinations. None of these made any difference.
As I writhed in pain, it was the frustration that added another dimension of torment.
The worst part was that I started to believe the doctors’ shrugs. Even when I was lying in bed with daggers in my stomach and chills on my skin, I wondered if I was just making it all up. If I’m just weak – after all, half the population gets a period, right? Why can’t I just suck it up like everyone else?
Studies confirm how common this is. Women are frequently not believed about their pain by the medical system, with physical symptoms dismissed and attributed to psychological factors alone. Women listen to this, too, and are less likely to go back to doctors because they assume they’re just imagining it. This unconscious bias means women have to fight to be heard and to hear themselves; particularly women of colour, trans women and gender diverse people, fat women, and women who aren’t wealthy, among other factors.
With the help of Doctor Google and a few friends, I came across the term ‘endometriosis’. Endometriosis is a condition where the uterine lining grows in places outside the uterus, causing a variety of symptoms including pain and fatigue. I started talking to my doctors about it, and kept talking about it for the next two years.
This June, I underwent surgery - a laparoscopy and hysteroscopy to finally diagnose the cause of my pain. My first memory of waking up post-surgery was asking the nurse if they’d found anything; when she said they’d found endometriosis, I cried tears of relief.
It took me eight years to get a diagnosis for my pain.
Despite the bittersweet diagnosis - not knowing how it will progress or impact my fertility - it’s been empowering. Being able to tell my employer that I have a chronic illness and so need flexibility with my work, rather than having to have an awkward conversation about my symptoms every month, has been immensely freeing. I can finally move forward accounting for and working with my condition without the guilt of casting myself as the fabled hysterical woman.
If you have period symptoms, or any other pains, that stop you from living the way you want, go see a doctor. Go see a second doctor. Don’t stop advocating for yourself, even though you shouldn’t have to. Trust yourself. Trust what your body is telling you.
And keep talking about it until somebody listens.
For more from Ailsa Traves, follow her on Instagram.