I started my period in 7th grade. I was the fourth in my friend group to start, and I felt ecstatic. For some reason, I believed that a bunch of blood shooting out of my vagina every month and having to wear pads and tampons gave me status. Middle schoolers are weird.
I don’t remember anything out of the ordinary about my period for the first two years. I do remember discovering a lump in my left breast that was only painful at random and inconsistent times, but I have no memories related to my actual menstrual cycle. I didn’t receive a clear diagnosis regarding the lump until 2017. At the time, I also had crystal clear skin.
Freshman year I sprained my ankle falling down an embankment with an infant in my arms to keep him from falling into the river. I passed out, woke up to a swollen, blue foot, and finished that babysitting job before going to the ER. I didn’t shed a single tear. My pain tolerance was high. My skin was still beautiful.
Sophomore year, things started to change. My periods began to hurt. Badly. Leading up to them, I would find myself extraordinarily exhausted, often sleeping sixteen hours straight. My fatigue was written off as just a ‘teenage phase’ – but it continued to happen until I was 23. My periods were accompanied by four hour spells of sweat, cramps, vomit, and diarrhea so debilitating, I had to remove all of my clothes and lie on the floor of whatever bathroom was nearest (at school, at work, at CVS), until the spells subsided. They grew worse each month, and I began to skip school and work when my period came.
From 2010 – 2017, I saw six doctors. I would desperately explain my symptoms: exhaustion, bathroom unpleasantries, unbelievable pain, immense amounts of blood, thick blood clots, depression on my period, quickly worsening cystic acne – but it always fell on deaf ears. Every doctor told me the same thing: “You’re a woman and you have a period. Stop being so dramatic about it.” First, I was full of rage. Then, I understood:
I’m a woman in America. My only option is to get over it.
Over Christmas 2016, I was flying London to Austin on a break from shooting the TV show WILL. I didn’t pack ibuprofen in my carry on, and, as flying sometimes throws off my cycle, I started my period on the plane. I spent nine solid hours in the first class bathroom, on the floor or on the toilet, vomiting up every pill the flight attendants offered, genuinely awe struck that such a pain could exist. Eventually, the crew allowed me to take morphine pills. It knocked me out, but I woke up to even worse agony. A kind stranger had to push me through customs on a wheelchair, all while I vomited into a paper bag and stopped at every bathroom. (Thank you again, Jose. And sorry for the smell.)
In the final months before I received a diagnosis and underwent surgery, I actually contemplated suicide. I’m ashamed to admit that, but it’s true. The pain was so unbelievable, I found myself saying prayers, casting off demons I believed were attached to my uterus. Or, I would make noises while crying out in pain that sounded like demons. The spells now lasted twelve hours instead of the original four. My roommates did everything they could to help me, which wasn’t much, and my dog clung to my side like she was afraid she would never see me again after those nights. I tried everything I could possibly think of: smoking copious amounts of weed, putting weed bullets into my vagina to soothe the muscles, drinking peppermint tea, praying for hours on end, taking baths, getting drunk, avoiding alcohol, having massages, taking 1,000 mg of ibuprofen and 600 mg of Tylenol at the same time… nothing helped anymore.
I wanted to die.
But I’m one of the lucky ones.
The positive shift to my story happened very fast. After sharing about one of my painful episodes, my friend Katherine and one of my female cousins shared with me their experiences with endometriosis, and both concluded that endometriosis was the disease that ailed me. Per Katherine’s recommendation, I immediately saw a specialist in LA. He diagnosed me on the spot, and together we agreed that minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery was the right way to go. We scheduled the surgery for July 10, 2017. He also informed me that the painful lump in my breast may be endometriosis as well, although we would never know for sure, and I would just have to live with it. I didn’t care. I was validated! By a doctor! By a male doctor at that! He didn’t judge me or condemn me. He didn’t undermine my experience or try to shame me for “complaining about a female problem”. After seven long years, a medical professional finally took me seriously. He silently nodded while I cried in his office, a simple, affirming act that felt like being cradled in his arms. I don’t know if I have ever felt more relieved, thankful and exposed. I wept tears of gratitude the entire drive home.
The surgery was short and successful – three small incisions in my belly button and above each hip. A small camera was inserted through the incisions, and cysts were discovered on both of my fallopian tubes, which were then removed by laser. After seven miserable years, the entire procedure took less than ninety minutes. As a result, I have two small scars and I celebrate them every time I look at my torso in the mirror. They represent the day I was given freedom and access to a pain free life. Thanks to the combination of the successful surgery and my decision to take birth control, I have not passed out, vomited, crapped my pants, bled through my jeans, slept through an alarm (in relation to my period), or contemplated suicide since July 10, 2017. I feel happier, healthier, less insane, and no longer afraid of being fired from jobs due to my debilitating condition. My skin is clearing up too! I still have endometriosis, and I will need to keep in tune with my body for the rest of my life and in communication with my doctor to assure it is not worsening, but I am no longer in pain, and I still have the possibility of pregnancy. Many women with endometriosis are not as lucky as me.
Photos: Luiz Lima
The surgery cost over $70,000. Why should a necessary, minimally invasive, ninety minute surgery cost so much money? Because, I am a woman in America. Fortunately, my phenomenal health insurance, provided to me by my actor’s union, covered $65,000, leaving me $5,000 to pay out of pocket. I understand my privilege, and it humbles me. It also fills me with deep insoluble rage, and a desire to act out of that rage to affect change. I believe that change is coming, albeit slowly. The #metoo movement and #TimesUp initiative are two important, powerful outcries demanding the respect and equality women all around the world are long overdue, and they are working. I believe women’s health care is at the crux of both of these movements, and should be a fundamental right equally accessible to all. American health care has never been up to par, but specifically American women’s healthcare has been an inexcusable embarrassment. Need I remind everyone that viagra is often covered by a standard work health insurance package, but birth control is not? As women’s voices are validated and we are given more power and equal pay, I believe our health care will be taken more seriously too. In the meantime, I believe our most powerful tool is our voices. As we’ve seen with the #metoo movement, in the day of social media, we are becoming harder and harder to silence. Tweet! March! Shout! Share over coffee with a friend. The simple act of using your voice may be the most powerful tool you have. For now, I hope me sharing my experience in this essay helps others.
Endometriosis is a disease that affects an estimated 11% of American women. It is, in short, when the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus, causing cysts and scarring, leading to extreme pain and excessive blood flow during menstruation as the body sheds the uterine lining from both the inside and the outside. If you or someone you know identifies with any of the symptoms I described, please consider finding a specialist in your area. Unfortunately, despite the commonality of the disease, it sometimes takes years to diagnose, due to a lack of awareness in the medical field, which is why a specialist is necessary. If untreated, endometriosis can cause not only severe pain and depression, but infertility and may eventually lead to other diseases. More symptoms include back pain, painful penetrative sexual intercourse, painful urination, and painful bowel movements.
If you are a woman with horrible periods – I SEE YOU. I validate your experience. You are not whiny or dramatic, you are a fierce mother effing GODDESS dealing with more than her body was designed for. I encourage you to speak out about your pain, share your experience with friends, and seek medical help.
Here are some links with helpful information:
I must acknowledge, I could not have walked through this journey alone. In my adolescence, my mom held me while I vomited and cried. In my early LA years, my roommates held me, provided me with massages and weed. In the weeks leading up to the surgery, and the recovery time, my amazing girlfriend patiently and lovingly tended to my every need. Thank you, Mom, Courtney, Sonya, (Liska) and Camille. THANK YOU, with everything I have, to Katherine and Cousin for speaking candidly with me about your experiences. You very well may have saved my life. Thank you, Dr. Siedhoff for providing me with exceptional quality care, and for speaking soothingly while I cried in your office. Thank you, SAG Producers Health plan for covering a majority of the surgery costs. Without my insurance, I could not have afforded the surgery at the time. Thank you. And thank you to the women I will never meet who posted all of their personal, most painful private moments on the Facebook support group “ENDometriosis.” You made me feel less insane and less alone.
Jasmin Savoy brown
Jasmin Savoy Brown stars in the new Shonda Rhimes ABC drama series, ‘For The People’. She is also known as ‘Evie’ on the HBO series “The Leftovers”.