It’s not ‘all in your head’. Your pain is real.

The most common and unfortunate story I hear from my fellow endo warriors it is that they were dismissed by doctors when expressing the excruciating pain they were in. They were told that it’s ‘all in their head’, or ‘it’s just part of being a woman’. 

While, I am very lucky to have not had this exact experience, I still have absorbed this messaging through our culture.

Women with endometriosis historically been told that we have this disease because we are too ‘career driven’ and ‘need to stay home and have babies’. Well, having had a baby myself and not being able to be career-driven, because my pain made that impossible, I can attest to the falseness and insult of this statement. Sure, pregnancy can reduce symptoms temporarily, but they almost always return with a vengeance afterward. And, what about the 30-50% percent of us who have infertility? To say this to someone with infertility is a slap in the face.  

A Reader’s Digest article I was just reading about dismissal of women’s pain mentioned a woman with vulvodynia (a pain condition of the vulva causing painful sex) was told ‘You must be having marital problems. Have a glass of wine before sex- it’ll be better’. It also mentioned that women with migraines were routinely perceived as ‘Type A upper-middle class women who just can’t relax.’ A woman with endo with recurring ruptured cysts (talk about severe pain!) was told ‘not to worry, it’s normal’. 

Dismissal can lead to normalising pathology.  Many of us are walking around with serious ailments, and are dismissed as ‘drug seeking’ or ‘crazy’ if we reach out for relief. And this is not just limited to women. I found an interesting study which showed that this is a routine perception of people who possess ‘feminine personality traits’ across genders.  

There clearly exists a bias perceiving ‘feminine’ with being weak, moody, hysterical, and over-dramatic- which is another word that too many endo sufferers hear.

Despite being feminine-appearing and emotionally sensitive, I consider myself to have a high tolerance for physical pain. Having endo got me used to a certain level of pain, so when I went through drug-free childbirth with back labor, to an 8 lbs 8oz baby, I found that to be less painful than many of my periods. 

When breastfeeding, I had a yeast infection in my milk ducts which created hot stabbing knife-like pains through my heart every time I breastfed. I bit my lip, in tears every time, worried my daughter would absorb my emotional pain through the milk. But, I continued to breastfeed instead of bottle feed because of the prevalent ‘breast is best’ messaging of the time. I was suffering in order to do the ‘right thing’ for my child, but I was depressed and in misery. After 2 months of failed topical treatments by an ill-informed and rude male doctor, I finally got proper medication from an empathetic female OBGYN and decided to incorporate some bottle feeding. Despite the judge-y guilt-trips of parenting culture at that time, I knew I had to bottle feed in order to preserve my sanity and for my daughter’s benefit. I didn’t want her to associate eating with guilt or misery. I wanted our feeding time to be a positive, bonding time. I finally listened to my instincts, and was glad I did. I had to push for medication, deal with a doctor’s dismissal, ineptitude and rudeness, I had to face my self-doubt and shut out the naysayers. But thankfully, in the end, I got what I needed. 

As for period pain- what is ‘normal’ anyway?

If over-the-counter pain meds and heating pads do little to quell your pain- or you faint, vomit or find yourself unable to get out of bed and do your normal routine, you may have an underlying pelvic health issue and should bring it to your doctor. Other symptoms to watch out for can be: Painful intercourse, painful bowel movements or urination, infertility or very heavy periods. But, even if you don’t have these symptoms and feel something is ‘off’, it may be worth visiting your doctor- or more than one, as many women have to do before getting a diagnosis.

What it feels like…

I often had to take Advil for days before my periods began and through them, in order to still be somewhat functional. Even then, it sometimes barely took the edge off, and just getting to the bathroom was hard.  I would either be bed-ridden, pass out, vomit or shake from head to toe for hours. That is definitely not normal. But, I ‘sucked it up’ and dealt with it, incapacitated for several days a month because in my mind, this suffering was just ‘part of being a woman’ and seeking stronger pain meds would either be futile or proof of my inherent weakness.

I didn’t take my own pain seriously because I was encouraged not to. There is a cultural bias that keeps us from believing women- in medical settings just as much as in court rooms. So much so that sometimes we believe that perhaps, it is all in our head. We lose trust in ourselves, and put the power in others’ hands. What a convenient way for patriarchy to stay strong.

Endo is not considered a fatal disease, as it cannot usually kill someone on its own- but the chronic pain can become so severe that suicide is far too often seen as the way out. I know what that dark space feels like. This alone is a crucial reason for prioritising early diagnosis and proper care. 

We should not be normalising a state of being that leads to suicide.

If I could share one piece of advice, it would be- trust yourself. You know your body best. Keep seeking help and answers. Don’t give up. If your periods are debilitating, heavy, so painful that you are vomiting, fainting, or not able to get out of bed, seek out help! Demand a referral to an OBGYN. You are not alone. There are options. Even if you are dismissed by doctors, don’t dismiss yourself. You are the expert on your pain. 

Ancestral trauma, gifts & wisdom: Healing our tree

My Memere passed away this past fall, just shy of her 99th birthday. She was my last living grandparent. Born in October 1919 in St.Leon, Manitoba, she gave birth to 6 children, one of which died as a baby. Her and my Pepere worked hard, making a life out of a stubborn plot of land through the harsh prairie winters. They hunted, fished, trapped and farmed more or less their whole lives, raised their kids, made the best life they could with what they had. They faced life’s challenges with a buoyant sense of humour, and devoted spiritual faith. They gave my mom life, and therefore made it possible for me to be here, and therefore my daughter, and so on.

When my grandma passed, I got a bunch of her old photographs, genealogical records, and some funny collages she put together. She was quite the scrap-booker. She was very thorough with recording every birth and important life details of her life, her ancestors and her descendants. On top of that, the church also has kept excellent records so I have a lot of info about my mother’s lineage. More on that later.

One of her writings I came upon made me think about a subject that is often on my mind, part of my own healing journey and the work I do. Intergenerational trauma, healing- and the sacred feminine.

I am not the best at french-english translation, but roughly, she speaks about how important recording our geneaology is. Because how else would we be able to know about our ancestors’ accomplishments, or their struggles? It also keeps us accountable. Once we have children, our name is remembered, and with that so are our faults and good qualities. Our actions have repercussions; You never know how your bad behaviours can manifest or what repercussions they may have; and equally, you never know just how far the good work you do will reach down the generations- all the work you did to make the leaves on the family tree beautiful to be enjoyed by those down the line.

You may have read the articles floating around about how on a biological level, we hold imprints of the memories of our grandmother simply from living in her womb. Our mother carried us as an egg in her ovaries while developing in grandma’s womb, and so, we were in grandma’s womb too. Our genes can mutate based on our foremothers’ experiences.

And so, we must ask ourselves, what are those imprints? What traumas and gifts are being passed down to us? And, are we making the family tree more beautiful and healthy with our actions in this life? Or are we weakening it?

The legacy of our ancestors includes traumas, but it also brings us gifts, and wisdom. We need to use the gifts we were passed down and the ones we cultivated ourselves, to heal ourselves and our line.

I have seen spiritual healers about my endometriosis and done my own spiritual investigations on it. For me, it’s a lot of past life imprinting and generational stuff passed down, rather than events from this life. There are studies that show that women with endometriosis often have a history of sexual abuse or assault.  One could argue that most women have this in their history- either their own or in their lineage, yet they don’t all have endo.  Endo also begins in utero, long before birth. There’s more to it than what happened to us in childhood. 

There are many health issues that are more likely to manifest when there is trauma history. As the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) test scores show, common illnesses we experience today are traced back to how many of these childhood traumas are in your background. My ACE score is fortunately, pretty low. But ACE tests don’t factor in past life stuff, nor intergenerational or collective wounds.

Most women struggle with their relationship with their femininity, or their reproductive organs in general, so perhaps not only personal trauma, but the collective feminine wound can manifest through illness in many of us.

To be clear: I don’t support the mindset of there being a spiritual cause of disease- because it does more damage than good to a lot of us- it negates the very structural, biological nature of the disease which is laid down in utero. We do not choose, or cause disease to happen. It happens to us, but our work is to heal it through whatever means we choose or have available.

Some schools of thought in our victim-blaming culture like to take these resonances between trauma and disease- which aren’t our fault, and assign them as emotional or spiritual causes which then puts shame and pressure on individual women to fix their ‘issues’ and ‘emotional problems’ because that’s the root of why they are sick. But blaming young women (endo shows up at puberty for many) for the personal traumas or collective wounds they may carry, or for simply having a physical disease does not help anything, in fact it does more harm. It gives the already patriarchal medical system an excuse to not take our disease seriously enough to invest in it, and feeds into the archaic yet common ‘female hysteria’ notions that I do not support in any way.

Trauma and illness are often connected, and I believe past lives and heritage can also be involved. But sometimes they aren’t and self-blame doesn’t do any good.  Personal responsibility for taking steps towards healing ourselves, and social & governmental responsibility for doing the research, funding, and giving us the supports and medicines required is key. We’re all in this together.

 Trauma and illness are things we must accept, and work through for those we leave the planet to after us- whether they are our blood descendants or the next generation. Because what we don’t heal, we pass down. And, if you believe in re-incarnation, you just might end up paying for your mistakes in your next life as your own great-granddaughter!

Healing ourselves heals those who came before and those who come after us.

Collectively, women are suffering. But they are also healing and shaking things up. Women are working together, now and through time, working on our own healing, and that of our foremothers.  We are collectively nourishing our trees by waking up to our own self-worth. We can’t spend our time blaming others, or blaming trauma as something outside ourselves. We need to take what we are given and work through it. We can only do our best with what we have at any given time. We need to be compassionate to ourselves, find the right supports and remember that our foremothers were resilient as f*ck and that’s why we are here!

I think about my great-grandmother- my memere’s mom- who had 16 children and several did not make it to adulthood. I think about the losses she felt and how that was imprinted on her womb, and on my memere’s, my mom’s, mine.

I think about her grandmother, who was of Ojibway-Scottish descent, born in Michigan, first married a Metis man and then a voyageur, and moved to LaFontaine on Georgian Bay, Ontario. She and her husband were part of a Metis settlement there. She later in old age picked up her life and moved to St.Leon Manitoba with one of her sons and died there in her 80s. She spoke french, english, cree and michif.  Her son continued to raise his children in Manitoba, a devout catholic, musician, a man with hope for the future.  I think about colonisation, and how it lives in my blood. Cultural and spiritual suppression and erasure, white-passing, internalised guilt and shame. My settler history- Scottish, English and French, their struggles, their ignorance, their racism (internalised and externalised), the things they did to survive. I have so many questions for them.

I think about the mothers fleeing war-torn countries while pregnant, and grandmothers who survived the Holocaust. Mothers who took their own lives, mothers and grandmothers’ silent struggles that we now can put a name to, and recognise.

I think about my Scottish great-grandma (pic below) on my dad’s side, born in Glengarry, ON. who died of Spanish flu at the age of 24, the very day her husband came back from the war, leaving their two young sons motherless. Her husband put his sons in an orphanage, because that’s what fathers did. He too, was raised in an orphanage with his brother because he lost his mother. Suspiciously, both his mother and his stepmother mysteriously disappeared. They have no death certificates. What kind of imprints did that leave on our tree?

Paternal great-grandparents Charles William Oakley and Sarah McGillivray

Nobody’s family tree is all light and love and thriving. We’ve all got some nasties eating away at the leaves, rotten roots, old, broken branches and maybe a parasite or two. Whatever tree we are part of, we can only do our best with the branches and roots we are given. How much energy we give is up to us. Some of us may feel the weight of a sick tree more than others. But we must remember that we are all connected- here and through time. And all our trees eventually connect, somewhere.

As for the Sacred Feminine, I feel that my body, my womb and my heart, holds grief that isn’t even mine. I feel the lost babies and supressed dreams of my foremothers- who were creative, wild, and spiritual, having to make the necessary sacrifices to survive in a patriarchal world and make it possible for me to be here. They obeyed their husbands, accepted their limitations, paid homage to God, the priest, the church, the establishment. They did what they had to do, and their faith got them through. They found things that brought them joy, levity, laughter and strength. I am grateful to their sacrifices which brought me life, and for their resourcefulness, independence, devotion and resilience too.

But my healing lies in reclaiming the wild, creative and spiritual lifeline that they left un-tended. Moving through the constricting pain, guilt, and shame that was passed down helped me very clearly know and appreciate my freedom, my sensuality and my shamanic, direct-to-source spiritual inclinations.  I am pruning the tree, to create pathways of freedom where there weren’t before. And I don’t do this alone. My whole generation does this with me.

 

There are roots I need to tend and cut, re-direct, water, and nourish. Over time, the tree may, hopefully change, so it’s healthier for my daughter, my nephews and all those of the generations to come.