I always just thought I had a bad back.
And a sensitive gut.
And that I just had to diet and exercise harder (or buy bigger pants).
These are the kinds of things you tell yourself to make chronic pain feel normal for an otherwise healthy 20- to 30-year-old female. Because at some point, it’s felt like my body stopped working the way it used to. Like the wheels fell off and I couldn’t figure out why, regardless of how determined I was to find a cause.
I found myself pushing through daily life with brute force but often having to pop painkillers like Sweet Tarts. A normal workday started requiring 10+ hours of sleep to recover. My social calendar disintegrated as I canceled plans and retreated to the comforts of my bed and trusty heat pack. Periodically, I’d have to pack my wardrobe into storage and go buy bigger, stretchier, tummy-friendly clothing. I literally own the same Gap jeans in four sizes.
But what I never imagined was that these were symptoms (and not necessarily isolated causes) of bigger machinations going on inside my body. It wasn’t that I simply had a bad back or bad gut; there was actually something bigger at play.
I had no idea – and neither did the many doctors I crossed paths with. At least, not until a fateful ultrasound scan showed something undeniable.
Accepting Chronic Pain as the Norm…
I spent the better part of a decade managing often crippling lower back and abdominal pain. I threw everything and the kitchen sink at trying to remedy the seemingly random flare-ups of excruciating pain. (I eventually learned that pain doesn’t have to be cyclical (tied to your menstrual cycle) to be gynecological in nature. Through these years, I saw gastroenterologists (four of them), an allergist, an endocrinologist, physiotherapists, massage therapists, nutritionists, chiropractors, a sports medicine doctor, an athletic therapist, a dermatologist, an osteopath, naturopaths, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, Reiki healers and energy workers, and, yes, even a psychic medium.
When you find yourself in a progressively worsening state of pain and discomfort, you get to a point where you’ll try just about anything to make it stop — even if it’s just temporary relief.
But after the fourth or fifth ER visit, I think I became mentally desensitized to this constant plight. I figured I had to tough it out and just deal, and I figured that I had to do it alone. Without physical evidence like a broken arm in a cast or limping on crutches, it became challenging to talk about my chronic pain with friends and loved ones who couldn’t “see” anything wrong with me.
By my late 20s, I hit a point of accepting limitations to my daily activities and changes to my body. I was a passenger on this ride and just did whatever I could to ameliorate the symptoms that came up. Fill the hot water bottle, take some over-the-counter pills, buy a bigger pair of pants, leave the party early to go to sleep — this became the horrific norm of a former social butterfly.
…Until It’s Unignorable Pain
In the fall of 2018, I was in the thralls of one of the “usual flare-ups” I had gotten so accustomed to. But after about a week, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get my gut pain to calm down. It felt like my intestines were ripping apart and like I was constipated up to my ears, which didn’t make sense because all I could tolerate eating was broth.
Convinced my intestines were failing, I drove myself to the emergency room yet again. I was scared that this was going to turn into another visit where I would be administered pain meds for acute treatment, discharged, and left to fear when the next tidal wave would hit.
Thankfully, the doctor who examined me thought “zebra” when he heard the hoofbeats I was describing. After attempting a pelvic exam where I nearly leapt off the table screaming in pain, the young but astute doctor sent me off to do an ultrasound. My technician took her time and captured an excessive amount of imaging, so I had a feeling something had caught her interest.
What Do You Mean My Guts are Fine?
Back in the curtained ER bay, the doctor broke the news. My gut actually looked great, but the grapefruit-sized tumour in my uterus wasn’t doing me any favours.
Excuse me, what?!
In that moment, I learned that the various aches, pains, and distresses I had begrudgingly accepted all these years had “not much” to do with my back or gut but rather were linked to my motherfucking lady parts.
I didn’t have kidney stones. It wasn’t celiac disease. I didn’t need spinal fusion surgery (yep, that was being explored as a possible treatment). It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t lose my muffin top. I wasn’t having a panic attack. And I was definitely not crying wolf.
So, I proceeded to take out practically every book on women’s health from the library and learned about some the friends I’d meet very shortly: fibroids, endometriosis, and adenomyosis.
As I started treatment, the party was only going to get wilder from here.