How acupuncture helped my endometriosis, and helped me rediscover myself
The relationship I had with my body was deteriorating.
I had begun to resent it for the sharp, piercing sensation it allowed to course through my pelvis and abdomen. The pain, predominantly on my left side, would randomly burst inside me throughout the day — interrupting classes, making simple tasks such as cooking dinner nearly impossible.
I hated it for ruining my cardio workouts at the gym, distracting me in the middle of a lesson I was teaching about complex thesis statements. Night time was the worst. The pain would seep into my dreams and pull me from my slumber, leaving me writhing and often curled into a fetal position.
In spite of the waves of pain undulating from my lower side, often radiating to my lower back, I kept a smile plastered on my face and taught writing to my first-year college students. They had no idea.
I had sex even though it was often uncomfortable, even painful. I went out with my friends, drank wine on girls’ nights, cleaned the house, continued writing at my favorite coffee shops. Most of the time, I remained amiable and focused.
In the beginning, the relationship I had with my body was unchanged: I lived as if nothing about me was different even though nothing was the same.
Accepting that my body was rebelling against me, and that, maybe, I wasn’t the same woman I had always been, was challenging. I eventually confronted this fact as months passed and the chronic pain began to wear me down. I didn’t know how to navigate the day while the disease wreaked havoc on my organs. I had always been a woman who enjoyed sex, and I didn’t know how to embrace that part of me any longer.
Post-coital jabs of pain replaced cuddling. I needed space, space to contort into a position that would maybe alleviate the pangs throbbing in my abdomen.
The realization that my body was betraying me was almost as frustrating as the pain itself.
I felt like a failure to myself and to my supportive boyfriend. During this time, he was more loving and understanding towards my body than I was.
The shape of my days continued to shift, and my own body became unfamiliar. Gray half moons hung below my eyes. After seeing several doctors who misdiagnosed me and ER visits that resulted in more dead-ends and accumulating debt, I saw a gynecologist who performed a laparoscopy.
This surgical procedure left me with twin scars on my lower abdomen and, finally, a diagnosis: I was suffering from endometriosis.
I immediately began researching this disease. I learned that 1 out of 10 women of childbearing age have endometriosis. This disorder causes the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus to grow outside of it. It commonly involves the ovaries, bowel. or the tissue lining the pelvis. The displaced endometrial tissue acts just as normal tissue would – it thickens, breaks down, and bleeds with each menstrual cycle. However, because this displaced tissue has no way to exit your body, it becomes trapped. Surrounding tissue can become irritated, eventually developing scar tissue and adhesions — and resulting in severe pain.
Each case of endometriosis is different, just as every woman is different. In my case, scar tissue growing outside of the uterus splintered and threaded both of my ovaries and bowel. The left-side ovary was stuck to the pelvis from severe adhesions. During the laparoscopy, the doctor burned away the damage and returned the vital organs to their rightful place. And all was good again.
Except it wasn’t. At all. Within two weeks of the surgery, I was experiencing the same pain, in the same place, to the same degree of intensity. Why wasn’t I feeling any better? It was like wandering in a desert for two years and finally coming upon water only to learn it’s a mirage. I was devastated. The failed treatments were almost as exhausting and frustrating as the disease itself.
Western medicine has perpetuated the tradition of treating endometriosis with birth control pills and, when that fails, surgery. I had tried both. Both failed. The next form of treatment was Lupron injections. These injections put your body into menopause and shut down the ovaries all together. At 30, I was less than enthusiastic about this option. According to the brochure the gynecologist cheerfully handed me at the last visit, Lupron is only effective in 40 percent of cases. And the side effects sounded almost as awful as endometriosis pain: flu-like symptoms, hot flashes, hormonal mood swings, achy joints.
Once again, I was upset and in agony.
I didn’t know this endometrial body, this stranger. I was also upset with Western medicine and very resistant to trying Lupron injections. I felt as though not only had my own body let me down, but so, too, had science.
I struggled through almost daily pain, and I also had begun to feel that my sense of womanhood was threatened. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had a chronic disease that plagued my reproductive organs and which could potentially render me infertile (or at least make it difficulty to conceive, should I ever want to). On top of this fact, the doctor advised me to pursue a new course of treatment that would completely shut down my ovaries during the duration of the injections. The only possible solutions Western medicine offered me involved further destruction of my personal definition of womanhood.
I had already spent nearly two years following the classic Western path towards healing. I saw interminable doctors, followed their proscriptive orders, had the appropriate tests done, took the birth control pills and medications. I had the surgery, went to the hospital, tried the heating pads.
The only results I had at this point were thousands of dollars in debt, consistent pain, and an increasingly strained relationship with my body.
While I don’t remember the exact day I first experienced endometriosis pain, I do recall the day I decided I was done with Western medicine. A clear, cool day in the middle of March. My cheeks were still sticky with tears, remnant from yet another bout of pain. I was on the phone with my younger sister, a relatively new devotee of the holistic lifestyle. We were talking about Eastern medicine and the benefits of natural and homeopathic treatments. I wasn’t particularly convinced that pursuing a new medical road would be the solution I was looking for, but I didn’t have anything to lose.
While driving the two hours to the acupuncturist that my sister had seen, I felt skeptical but optimistic. Worst case scenario, nothing happened. My pain stayed exactly as it was. At best, my endometriosis would be cured.
I was hoping for at least some degree of relief — even if it was only minimal. As I sat in highway traffic, I imagined walking into a pristine white room, an oasis of Eastern medicine complete with ancient doctor-types watering thriving potted plants.
The reality was a bit different than I’d pictured. The acupuncturist was much younger — a very pretty, petite brunette probably in her thirties. Elizabeth was sweet from the moment I walked anxiously into her office. We sat in a cozy room with dim lighting and cushioned chairs. This setting contrasted the sterile, clinical environment of most Western doctors’ offices. I noticed that she was pregnant, probably around six or seven months. I was surrounded by the very emblem of female fecundity — and painfully reminded of my endometriosis and potential infertility. She offered me a cup of tea, which I declined. She smiled, and began taking my medical history.
Elizabeth also asked me questions about me, my job, my life. She felt different pulse positions in each wrist and explained how the strength of each corresponded to the health of a different organ. For example, she could discern information about my eating habits from the tempo of one pulse position.
After the initial assessment, she instructed me to get on the heated table replete with blankets and a pillow that more closely resembled a masseuse table than one you’d find in a doctor’s office. Elizabeth took out a very small, delicate-looking needle, which she proceeded to stick into my foot. The needle pricked for a quick second, and then I couldn’t feel it at all.
She put some more needles into my feet, legs, and arms. Interestingly, none were placed in the nexus of the pain — my abdominal area. Relaxing classical music played from an iPhone for the next twenty minutes. At some point during the session, I fell into a deep, painless sleep.
This first visit concluded with recommendations for treatment. Elizabeth wanted me to take Chinese herbs in pill-form twice daily, in addition to applying a castor pack (castor oil on a paper towel or cloth with a heating pad). She also suggested that I try avoiding gluten and dairy. As I scheduled the next appointment, Elizabeth said she would email me in a week or so to see how I was feeling.
The whole visit (including the herbs) cost well under a hundred dollars without insurance. I walked out of her office feeling something I hadn’t felt in a very long time: hopeful.
It has been five months since I first saw an acupuncturist, and I am better.
I’ve reduced (but not eliminated) my gluten and dairy consumption. I take the Chinese herbs twice daily, and I’ve replaced other beverages with hot water and hot green tea — with the occasional alcoholic libation, of course. I take milk thistle, a brownish, cloudy herbal liquid that detoxes the liver. I am not pain free. I still have some bad days, but they aren’t as frequent and aren’t quite as painful.
I am managing my endometriosis pain. I’m forging a new relationship with my body, establishing an entirely new intimacy with it.
As I explore Eastern medicine with Elizabeth as my guide, I am rediscovering myself, my female body. We are strangers in this new, unfamiliar post-endo world, and we need to learn each other again.
Rebecca Dimyan is a writer, food journalist, and adjunct professor. Her work has appeared in many print and online publications. She lives in Connecticut and recently finished writing her first novel. You can read more of her work at RebeccaDimyanWriter.com.