As readers of this blog know, I’ve had some health problems this year. I think what I’ve shared here is that my sinus issues and allergies have worsened since the first of the year; I’ve had two sinus infections and two cases of bronchitis (which grew out of the sinus infections) since January.
All of that is true, but it’s not the whole story of why I have felt so awful. Now that I have some answers, I am going to share the rest of it. I am a little nervous about doing so publicly, under my own name, because it isn’t the type of thing people usually talk about publicly. However, the primary goal I’ve had since I started blogging over six years ago has been to illustrate all facets of life in the academy, to show how I attempt to balance the many identities I have with my academic work. My health obviously has a huge impact on my work.
This week, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. As a few of you know–and I may have written about this when I was still blogging pseudonymously–I have been having issues with my cycle for a long time. I would say I first became aware of these issues shortly after M was born. However, I attributed the problems to having just had a baby, no longer using the Pill, and growing older. I didn’t think there was necessarily anything “wrong” with me; I thought these were just manifestations of the changes in my life and body.
Over the years, the issues worsened, and the past year has been the worst of all. Once again, it was easy for me to attribute the symptoms to stress, my age, and other factors. Within the past six months, however, I began to realize that these issues were not within the range of normal experience and couldn’t be explained away by the circumstances of my life. My symptoms have precipitously increased since December, to the point that I have been totally incapacitated for two or three days each month. While I am grateful that the pain is limited to particular times of the month and isn’t with me all the time, as it is for some women with endo, I still can’t afford to be flat on my back a couple of days each month. It has a detrimental effect on my family and my career, especially when I have been struggling with other illnesses as well. More importantly, enduring those symptoms–especially experiencing that level of pain– is just no way to live.
After two particularly bad episodes in June, I went to see my family doctor (who also provides my gynecological care) this week; given my symptoms, I suspected I either had a fibroid or endo. He was worried when I ran down the list of my symptoms, and I could tell from his facial expression that he didn’t like what he found in his exam. He told me, “I’d put your pain tolerance up against anybody’s; it’s higher than pretty much any of my other patients. So if you are in this amount of pain, something is wrong.” He sent me for an ultrasound that same day and gave me a prescription for birth control pills (the first line of treatment for endo and fibroids, which were the two mostly likely causes of my problems, in his opinion) and Vicodin. He admonished me to use the prescription and to take two pills when I am having an episode. I am reluctant to use those painkillers and never take more than one.
I received the results on Friday, and the diagnosis is endo. The gold standard for diagnosing endo is a laparoscopy, but I really don’t want to go through surgery just to confirm what Dr. K and I already know. Of course, this procedure may still be in my future, if taking the Pill doesn’t help relieve my symptoms. I have to go back for a re-check in August, and I know we’ll be discussing these issues then.
So, this is part of what has been going on with me over the past several months; it is a big part of the reason why my blogging frequency has decreased. I pretty much lose a week each month to pain, fatigue, and the other symptoms. During those times, it takes all I have just to make it through my usual teaching and parenting workload; “frills” like blogging just don’t happen. Exercise is another thing that has really suffered due to all of this. I have re-gained some of the weight I have lost and am trying to not beat myself up about it too much. I know that I am doing the best I can right now.
I am hoping that going back on birth control will help alleviate my symptoms, though I am very nervous. I never had a weight problem until I went on the pill in college, so I am scared that I am going to gain even more weight. However, I will gladly be a little heavier if it means I can feel a lot healthier. I am hopeful that as my symptoms abate, exercise will become easier, which would obviously help with any potential weight gain.
I am optimistic that the Pill will help. I was on it throughout my twenties, and looking back, I suspect it helped keep these symptoms in check during that time. The other chronic condition I have is very prevalent among women with endo; in fact, some doctors seem to think many young women are misdiagnosed with IBS when, in fact, what they really have is endo. In my case, I began having symptoms a few months before I went on the Pill, and things improved after that. In my mid-late twenties, my symptoms again worsened, always in conjunction with my cycle, at which point I started using the Pill continuously. That basically eliminated the problems, so it makes me wonder if some of these issues were related to endo. On the other hand, I haven’t been on the Pill since I was 29, and my IBS has not worsened over the past nine years. Granted, during that time I had two pregnancies, which might have helped protect me from some of these symptoms.
But, to get back to the point: my prior experience leads me to think going back on birth control will help improve my health and my life. It’s not a cure, but it could be an effective treatment. I certainly hope so, because I can’t take much more of what I’ve experienced lately. The pain is comparable to anything I experienced in drug-free labor and is, in some ways, worse. At least when I was in labor, the pain wasn’t constant, and I knew I’d get to meet my baby at the end of it. With this, it’s constant; I never know when it will end, and I’m not getting a cute baby out of it.
The other symtpoms aren’t fun, either, and the whole thing is stressful. I worry a great deal about having a sudden onset of symptoms in public, or worse yet, while teaching. Last month, I had some symptoms develop suddenly while I was at the vet’s office with the dog; I nearly passed out from it all right there. I’ve had close calls in class before, but this most recent incident at the vet really scared me. I don’t know what I’d do if I had this type of episode in class. That was another reason why I finally realized this whole thing couldn’t be explained away as a normal part of a woman’s aging process.
I am still questioning my decision to put all this out there under my name. This is a subject that is highly personal for any woman, and my symptoms include things that are socially taboo to talk about. Of course, that is one reason why having a condition like endo can feel very isolating–the topic is something we are socialized to believe is “TMI,” not fit for polite conversation.
But I know there are many women, including academics, who have these issues; there are academics–male and female–living with chronic physical and mental health conditions that impact every aspect of their lives, including their careers. I wrote about this today because I felt like I had to give voice to that experience. While my diagnosis is new, the condition isn’t; I’ve been coping with it for many years. It might help someone else to know she’s not the only one. I would also like to hear from others who have similar health challenges. I would be greatly interested in any advice for dealing with a chronic health condition while managing one’s career.