Lying on the black plastic bed in the nurse’s room, tears rolled down my cheeks as I listened to the chatter of my classmates as they traipsed past on their way to lessons.
The now-familiar stabbing pain shot around my pelvis, up my back and down my legs, leaving me unable to stand up or walk properly. I was 14 years old and once again, my period had left me crippled in agony.
I was 11 when I first got my period. It was the summer holidays before secondary school, and I was gloriously innocent and self-unaware. When a toilet trip delivered the news that would change my life forever, my mum shrieked joyfully and thrust a sanitary pad into my hands as if it was the best thing to ever happen to me. Oh, how wrong she was.
By the age of 14, my time of the month had become torture.
Yet, no-one else seemed to understand what I was going through. ‘Oh, you just have a heavy period,’ everyone said, including my GP, who was mortifyingly dismissive. So, that was that. The debilitating pain was just something I had to learn to live with.
I began to plan my life around my menstrual cycle, and became obsessed with tracking it. I knew the few days every month I’d feel well enough to exercise, go out or go on holiday and the 10-14 days of bleeding where I most certainly wouldn’t.
By my mid-20s, the undiagnosed endometriosis was taking more of a toll. I was constantly exhausted and clinically anaemic due to the amount of blood I was losing. I had permanent pain in my pelvis, problems with my bowel and struggled with my mental health.
I’d spend my days hiding the pain and fatigue at my then job as a Marketing Manager only to collapse into bed as soon as I got home.
Aged 26, I started to date my now-husband. A whirlwind romance, we were engaged nine months later and married when I was 28. He always jokes he likes a challenge, but it’s fair to say neither of us knew what lay ahead!
We both come from big families and knew we wanted multiple children. ‘I think three,’ I’d regularly say to him in that first honeymoon year when everything felt possible. But two years later, I still hadn’t conceived.
When, in 2013, I quit my corporate job to start the stationery business Martha Brook, we both thought that being in control of my time would help. But after four years of marriage and no positive pregnancy test, we began to wonder if something was wrong.
In 2015, aged 32, I was referred to a brilliant consultant. He performed an operation, which included a laparoscopy, where a camera and other surgical instruments were inserted through incisions in my abdomen, and a hysteroscopy, a similar procedure via the cervix and uterus.
He was at my bedside when I came around from the anaesthetic, explaining, ‘As I suspected, you have extensive endometriosis.’
He was the first doctor to have mentioned the condition to me – back then, eight years ago, awareness was even lower than it is now.
Endometriosis is where endometrial tissue – tissue similar to the lining of the uterus – grows outside the uterus. Apparently, I was riddled with it. Inflammatory endometrial tissue filled my abdomen, wrapped around my bowel, ovaries, fallopian tubes and cervix.
Despite removing as much scar tissue and adhesions as possible, he told us I’d never be able to have children naturally.
I was beyond devastated. A heavy grief lodged in my chest and seemed to squeeze tighter with every friend or family pregnancy announcement that came my way. I felt like a total failure for not being able to give my husband the one thing we both wanted more than anything and angry that it had taken so long to get diagnosed.
From that point, eight years ago, we embarked on a long emotional, physically and financially draining journey of fertility treatments.
Finally, in 2018, I was beyond lucky to conceive our miracle daughter Hermione through IVF. She is our whole world. Now five, a bundle of messy uncomplicated energy that fills our house with joy and laughter.
The same consultant that told me I might never have children was the one that put the embryo in, and every day when I hug her, I feel endlessly grateful to him and his team.
Since then, I’ve had six more rounds of IVF and four miscarriages. Eventually, last summer, I was referred to a recurrent miscarriage clinic and had another hysteroscopy, which uncovered more endometrial lesions and a large polyp.
I will be 40 next month and can’t bear much more treatment. The latest round of IVF is likely the last.
My period has dominated almost 30 years of my life but it didn’t need to be like this.
How I wish I could go back to teenage me and change the course of my adult life, push for an earlier referral and get treatment earlier. However, left untreated, the endometriosis has wreaked havoc on my fertility.
Of course, I can’t do that, so, instead, I’m sharing my story for every young girl who is in that place I was.
If you, your daughter, or someone you know experiences severe period pain, pain during sex, pain when pooing during your period or very heavy periods, I am here to tell you that it is not ‘normal’. Please do see a doctor and push to get referred.
Endometriosis is not a rare disease. It is as common in women as asthma or diabetes, affecting one in 10 assigned female at birth, but we still don’t talk about it enough.
We have a long way to go before endometriosis awareness is where it needs to be, but every story and every conversation can make a difference. Thank you for reading mine.
You can find Martha on Instagram at @martha_keith
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