By Laura McKnight
I started getting painful periods around age 13, not long after I first hit puberty. (Around 2002.) One particular day is etched in my mind as the first time I’d ever felt real pain. Like, want-to-throw-up-can-barely-walk-or-breathe pain.
I arrived at school feeling a bit average, spent the next 30 minutes in and out of the bathroom, and by the time the bell rang at 9am I was hunched over and sweating with the pain and nausea. My friends had to help me up the stairs to the classroom – where my teacher took one look at me and sent me straight back down to the school nurse. (Man, I regretted walking all the way up in the first place!)
I remember lying in the nurse’s office – a really lovely lady named Carol, who was still allowed to give hugs – feeling nauseated and loopy from the pain, and just praying that the ibuprofen and paracetamol would kick in soon. (It hardly touched the edges.)
It felt like someone had placed a burning hot, spiked bowling ball in my uterus and was trying to drag it down to the floor, taking all my other organs with it and leaving a gaping hole in its wake. Heavy, hot, sharp, and oh-so-exhausting! I was hurting so much I was desperate for anything to at least distract me, so started to visualise cool waves rolling over my body to take the pain away – anything to help even the tiniest bit! (Goodness how I wish I’d gone with that train of thought and looked more into natural remedies back then!)
From that day onwards, my periods became something to dread. Sometimes I could make it to school or work, sometimes I couldn’t. I started popping ibuprofen the minute I felt that telltale niggle and it would only just take the edge off.
Often I could be found curled over in the bathroom, or crouched down on the ground wherever the pain hit. (Once it brought me to my knees on the footpath in full view of everyone on the school bus, that was super fun…)
Then there were the colon spasms and rectal cramping. Holy moly, they are a special kind of hell! I could usually hide it pretty well until that point, but they would roll through like a wave of hellfire and skyrocket the pain.
As if the pain wasn’t enough, I also got lots of fun IBS/digestive symptoms and insane fatigue that turned simple tasks into mountains to climb; eating, showering, even just getting out of bed became a monumental effort sometimes.
However, I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. Usually it was only the first 3-4 days that were the worst, then the last couple of days would ease off a little bit. (By a little bit, I mean I could almost walk normally and getting out of bed to shower was manageable… just.)
Doctors and disappointment
For the next few years I saw doctor after doctor and always left feeling defeated and disappointed. Was I really doomed to just deal with these issues for the rest of my life?
Around age 16 (2004) when I was prescribed the pill and told to skip periods, I thought I’d found the answer to my prayers! No periods for months at a time? Umm, hell yes! The assurance of less pain? Where do I sign up? And it did help a little bit… my periods were still hell, but at least I only got them every 3-4 months (the longest my body would allow skipping).
I still got pain, bloating, and digestive issues the rest of the month, but I just dealt with them because they were my ‘normal’ and I honestly didn’t know how much better I could feel or that there were even any other options.
The word ‘endometriosis’ was finally thrown in a couple of times as I got older, but there was never any definitive diagnosis or further testing, let alone a solution. Just endless painkillers. And the pill. And more painkillers. And a different pill when the first one started causing issues. And different painkillers when the usual ones stopped working. (Did I mention painkillers? Or the pill?)
I was told the only way to diagnose endo was through a laparoscopy, but they wouldn’t consider than unless I had fertility issues down the track. I was also told the oh-so-fun tale that getting pregnant would ‘cure’ my endo and to stay on the pill until then. (Like conceiving is just that easy anyway!) And of course, take painkillers.
The turning point
My IBS symptoms and pain got worse and more frequent as I got older. Then around age 24 (2012), a series of stressful events and a round of super-strong antibiotics led to them going through the roof. Doctors told me it was probably ‘just’ IBS, and (again) to take painkillers. They did a halfhearted coeliac test, but it came back negative and that was the end of looking.
Never mind that I was terrified to be more than 15 minutes from a bathroom at any time, couldn’t stand being in the car or restricted in any way, started having panic attacks any time I felt the tiniest niggle, constantly felt so sick and bloated that I was scared to eat, and was in so much discomfort all the time that I couldn’t stand anyone touching me, especially near my belly.
I made my poor boyfriend (now hubby) sleep at least a foot away from me because even the movement of the bed or the smallest touch was uncomfortable. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I was constantly miserable. But it was “just” IBS.
The first step to healing
It was at this point that I decided enough was enough. I was so sick and tired of always being so sick and tired! So I began researching alternative remedies. There had to be something out there I could try!
My first step was cutting out dairy to see if it would make a difference (I was pretty sceptical at this point). But it definitely did – after 3 weeks I think I lost a dress size just from the reduction in bloating!
When I tried some milk after a month, not only did it give me crazy digestive issues but also other symptoms that I’d never connected. By tracking my symptoms I discovered that a few days after eating dairy (especially milk) I got congested, my ears felt like they were full of water, and I got a line of pimples along my right cheek.
This was when I first started to learn how much food affects us beyond our digestion. Side note: I do NOT recommend your first re-introduction of dairy being a hot chocolate when you’re travelling an hour back home with your boss… thank god we were on a train with toilets, and not in a car!
Food as medicine
After that, I was hooked on this whole food-as-medicine idea. I read everything I could find and began cutting out preservatives, adding in more veggies, and choosing organic, nutrient dense foods. I thought I’d always been eating healthy, but boy did I have a lot of learning to do!
This naturally led to a paleo-style diet (hello bonus weight loss) and the discovery of coconut oil, turmeric supplements, cramp bark, maca powder, and my favourite of all – magnesium supplements and topical spray. (You can check out some of my favourite products here.)
For a while I was super strict AIP and not long after that I had my very first painkiller-free period. I literally danced around the house on day one! (This might not seem like much to most people, but I was used to barely being able to sit up in bed, let alone dance!)
I’m not going to lie though, it was sometimes an overwhelming, bumpy, and frustrating road. There were tears, tantrums, and many moments when I thought it was all too hard and just wanted to give up. I’m so glad I stuck it out though, because it turns out it was well worth the effort.
Ditching the hormones
Coming off my birth control pill was the next step, but I quickly realised I needed more help for that part. I tried coming off it on my own a few times and holy-moly was that a slap in the face. (Actually, more like a truck to the body.) I packed my bags for hospital a few times because the pain was so bad I thought I’d ruptured something and that I was actually at risk of dying!
So I stepped up my diet and supplement game and started seeing a naturopath to help me fill in the gaps and ease my body’s transition off the hormones. I saw a few different naturopaths until I found the lovely lady I felt the best connection with, and I also did the same thing with GPs.
I learnt this lesson the hard way, but I can’t stress how important it is to find a wellness team that you trust and feel connected to. It’s ok to shop around until you find the team that’s right for you. (As hard as that is, I know!) Working with people who actually listen, understand, and make you feel supported really makes a world of difference!
Once I started regularly seeing my naturopath (I think it was 2015 by now), I got the tests and got onto the supplements my body needed most. To begin with, I think these included magnesium, a liver detox blend, a mineral essentials blend, probiotics, and a few others that swapped and changed depending on what my body needed at the time (I got a LOT of blood test that year).
This helped me get my pain back under control within a few months of completely stopping the pill. After more than 10 years of constant birth control it felt so good to get those hormones out of my system! It’s hard to explain, but it was like a veil was lifted and I started to feel more like my real self again. My emotions were stronger (which was good and bad sometimes), my energy levels were increasing, and my hubby’s favourite – my libido started to return.
GAPS & gut healing
My digestive issue were still bugging me though, and we decided to try a strict gut-healing protocol called GAPS starting in February 2016 (age 28).
My hubby was amazing enough to do it with me, and that really helped me stick to it. During those few months I came to really, really appreciate just how much our diet affects the entire mind and body, not just digestion.
My usually stressed hubby was like a whole new person, and I felt happy, focussed, and full of energy. I slept well, woke up easily (I am not a morning person), my anxiety was almost gone, and I was so focussed that I was getting so much more done at work and at home. Oh, and I lost almost 15 kilos, which was an added bonus!
It was mind blowing – or should I say, mind clearing.
Fertility and acupuncture
Throughout this journey we were also working on getting my cycles back on track and improving my fertility in preparation for starting a family down the track.
My poor body didn’t know how to handle ovulation on it’s own after so many years on birth control, and my cycles were all over the place, ranging from 40 – 72 days!
The first time I ovulated I actually thought that my appendix had ruptured. I had this intense pain radiating from my side all the way up my back and down my leg. I could only take shallow breaths and had to keep constant pressure on it to find any relief.
As so many of us do, I just stayed at work until it got too much to bear and I finally conceded I needed to see a doctor. After poking and prodding me for a while (ouch!), she came to the conclusion that it was possibly PCOS and/or a cyst, so she sent me for scans to see what was going on.
The results showed that I had just ovulated but I also had way too many follicles, so PCOS was likely. Not really what I wanted to hear, but at least my organs were all intact! Plus I’d always suspected I had PCOS so I wasn’t really surprised.
During that scan I also learnt that I had a odd shaped uterus that could cause additional fertility issues, which was a bit of a shock. (It was later confirmed as heart shaped).
So now I had endo, IBS, PCOS, and an odd uterus. My confidence took a bit of a hit that day and I came home and just cried. But knowing all the natural options available helped me feel much more positive and equipped to overcome these newest hurdles.
This was the point where my naturopath suggested adding acupuncture to the mix. I was sceptical about how much it would actually help and thought at most it would just be good for calming the mind.
I had this idea that acupuncture was like a relaxing massage where you lie on your belly and get lots of tiny needles in your back while listening to soothing music. However once again I found that I had so much to learn!
I was right that it was calming for the mind, but it helped so much more than I expected. Within a few months I was ovulating and my cycles were becoming consistently regular.
Three months later I had a follow up scan and there was a normal number of follicles, and no more signs of PCOS! The doctor was amazed and told me to keep doing what I was doing because it was obviously working!
I started to crave my acupuncture and really noticed if it was longer than usual between sessions. For me it’s like an outlet for negative energy and stress.
The surgical step
In 2017 (age 29) after a lot of deliberation, I decided to go ahead with the laparoscopy that my specialist was suggesting. (Although it ended up being two, one in August and one in November).
I put this off for years because my pain was under control to the point I didn’t even carry around painkillers anymore. (In the past, I would constantly carry around paracetamol, ibuprofen, DeGas, Mintec, and strong mints.) But it seemed like the logical next step in my quest to improve fertility.
The hospital assumed my endo wouldn’t be that bad because my symptoms weren’t that bad anymore – despite me telling them my history – and they assigned me a general surgeon.
Well the surgeon opened me up and realised there was way more in there than she had the experience to deal with (classed as moderate to severe), so they just took a biopsy and scheduled me in for the ‘real’ surgery a few months later.
They kept me overnight as I discovered I didn’t react well to Endone and wasn’t coming out of the anaesthetic very quickly, but I did everything I could think of to help my body and I otherwise bounced back pretty quickly.
As usual, I read everything I could find on what to expect and how to prepare and recover, and that definitely set me up for a smoother road to recovery.
I was working from home within a week, and back in the office after 10 days. I was lucky enough to have a supportive boss who insisted I start back with half days, which made a world of difference. Rest is so important!
The ‘real’ laparoscopy
The second laparoscopy was a whole lot different.
The new, more experienced, surgeon asked why they didn’t just assign her to begin with considering my history (cue clenched fists and deep breathing), so my advice is to always do your research and find the most specialised surgeon you can for the first go! Ideally an excision specialist.
I think I got a little bit cocky after the first one and didn’t prepare anywhere near as much this time around. I also didn’t take into account that my body was still recovering from the first surgery, and that putting it through a much bigger procedure and another round of medical intervention might make it harder to recover as well. Especially when it was used to gentle, natural remedies!
I was in surgery for a few hours while they removed as much endo as they could. It was on my Pouch of Douglas, throughout my pelvis, adhering my left ovary, and some on my right-side stomach wall. I believe there was also a little on my bowel and bladder, but they didn’t remove this as it wouldn’t directly help fertility.
I came out of the anaesthetic groggy and in a lot of pain. Then I was given Endone despite my records and an allergy-band saying I couldn’t have it, and was later diagnosed as being severely dehydrated, so it wasn’t a great start.
I was in hospital for two nights as I couldn’t eat, drink, walk or pass urine (they had to insert a catheter, but it provided a lot of relief so don’t be scared if you need one).
I experienced a vicious cycle where any time I tried to sit up, drink, eat, or move where my heart would race (the machines I was hooked to went nuts), then a wave of heat and nausea would roll across my body, then I’d be sick which would skyrocket the pain rate (throwing up after abdominal surgery is NOT fun), which would spike my heart rate and start the cycle again.
We realised this was happening every time they gave me certain medications, so they had to trial some different ones.
My drainage bag was also way too far inside me and was scratching the tender surgery sites internally every time I moved. When they took it out it was in almost 30cm!
At one point I was hooked up to the drainage bag in my left side, IV drip in my left hand, catheter down below with the tube going over to the right, and the ECG pads stuck to my chest with the wires over to the right.
I couldn’t move without something pulling on me, the medications were barely touching the pain, I was weak and exhausted from not being able to sleep, eat, or drink, and I was utterly miserable.
Once I finally got home on the morning of day 3, my own shower and bed felt like heaven!
It took much longer to recover the second time. I was also much weaker, wasn’t making the best food choices or eating enough at all, and wasn’t in the best emotional state.
But I kept taking it one day, minute, or second at a time. I tried to be kind to myself, especially when the depression and frustration took over and it all felt like it would never get better. I finally started to bounce back after a few weeks.
I’m still not sure if I regret having the surgeries, so please think long and hard and do your research if you’re considering it! It took me a long time to get back to the low pain level I had pre-surgery, and the medication caused some issues, however I must say it did feel good to get confirmation that I really did have endo, and it wasn’t just in my head!
There’s so much I wish I’d done with the second surgery that I think would have helped though, so I’ve created an ultimate laparoscopy checklist for anyone else who needs it!
Then to now
I’ve been mostly consistent with my clean diet since I first started, as well as using magnesium spray twice daily, taking my supplements, and trying my best to incorporate regular exercise, fresh air, sunshine, and rest.
And month after month my symptoms decreased, my pain decreased, and my mental health improved. (Apart from the surgery months.)
It’s now been nearly 4 years on this healing journey and while there have been ups and downs, I can’t actually believe how much better I feel!
I no longer fear food, being away from a bathroom, travelling, or being touched. And my period no longer takes me out of action for days. I still don’t look forward to it (does anyone?) and if I’ve been stressed or not looking after myself I do still get some pain or discomfort, but now my “worst case” is having to take one lot of paracetamol to completely stop the discomfort. And it actually stops it. All of it. But that’s rare now, usually some cramp bark drops and magnesium spray are all I need. (Lately I’ve been trying Clary Calm and Copaiba oil and they also seem to be helpful.)
These days I have such a better understanding of my body, what it’s trying to tell me, and how to nourish it. Almost all my pain and symptoms are either gone or manageable. I’ve tried a whole lot and discovered so much along the way but I continue to learn and be inspired every day – it’s pretty amazing how many options are out there!
So that’s it, that’s my story so far!
I’ll continue to try new things and learn everything I can about using food and natural remedies to reduce inflammation and ease discomfort in both the mind and body, and I’ll share it all here in the hopes of helping others on a similar journey.
I really hope you find something that helps ease your symptoms too!