When Kate asked me to write this blog post, I had to figure out where this story began. You could say it began with a diagnosis, but it actually goes far further back than that. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) at 22, twelve years after my first period, and endometriosis a year later. My name’s Rom, and this is my journey to a healthier life, so far.
Wind the clock back 15 years. In front of you, you’d have a far too tall for her age, developing far too quickly, highly self-conscious 10 year old. What could make life even more perfect, other than the far too early arrival of her first period? There I was at the baby age of ten, navigating the world of womanhood I’d been shoved into well before I was ready. I’m a big believer in not telling little girls that they’re a woman just because they got their period. It steals childhood, and childhood is short enough. I found myself trying to relate to the other little girls around me, some who wouldn’t get their period for another half decade. The thing that was so hard about this was the shame. I kept the arrival of my ‘womanhood’ a secret, embarrassed to be experiencing such a change so early, that no one else was. However, secrets don’t stay secret long with kids, and one person became an entire grade. It took me years to be able to talk about my period comfortably; the thoughtless word of fellow fifth graders left a pretty deep scar in my psyche.
After my first period, I didn’t have another one for almost a year. My mum took me to a doctor who described it along the lines of a freak accident, “maybe the body thinks it’s ready but really isn’t?” That was the sage advice we received. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve learned the beauty of a second opinion and find myself thinking so often, if only we had of done just that. Maybe the 15 years of pain and struggle could have been halved, quartered even? It takes on average over 11 years for women to get a diagnosis of PCOS and Endometriosis in Australia - and I can safely say, that it’s not an easy ride.
Throughout my teens, my cycle never regulated. I saw doctor after doctor, who told me that the cycle just needs time to get into a rhythm. I was getting a period every two months, then not for five months, then I’d get it for four weeks, then it would arrive again six months later. There was no pattern or way to plan my life. This, mixed with the heavy hormonal changes of puberty, was an absolute nightmare. As I went into puberty, I began to struggle with my weight. I’d been bullied for being a bigger kid, but as my body changed into woman from girl, I didn’t have the typical physique of a young girl. I had developed breasts from a young age, and what my grandmother affectionately referred to as ‘childbearing hips’. To give you perspective – I got my first bra when I was nine. I was well and truly an early bloomer.
So high school was hell. All of those factors combined to brew a perfect storm, and my weight and body image issues continued; as did issues with my mood, severe anxiety and poor lifestyle choices. By the time I graduated, I’d been given six different contraceptive pills to try and regulate my period – none of them worked.
After high school, I stopped taking the pill. I think I ended up averaging maybe two periods a year and didn’t see the use of taking a pill that was adding more hormones into my body that weren’t working. I felt shame over my body, seemingly ballooning out of my control, which I remedied with poor, but comforting diet choices, drinking and very little exercise. I found myself slowly becoming a more stagnant version of myself, and I had entirely disconnected from my feminine side, and my body itself.
I followed the same routine for a few years, hating it, but feeling like a slave to it. I would think ‘this is just how I am, my body isn’t built right’. I felt like more of a failure the older I got, starting to realize that my dream of being a mother one day might actually not be as achievable as I’d always thought. After breaking down to my mum in tears one day when I was 21, she took me to a new doctor. This appointment changed the trajectory of my life forever.
I’ve thought long and hard about how real I want to get with you in this blog post, and how much of my life I want to share. So I’m going to share something with you that I’ve never shared publically before, and I hope you can meet it without judgment, but with empathy and compassion – we sure as hell all need a little compassion.
Let me set the scene for you. I’m a young, single, 21 year old girl. Life is casual. One thing that always was a struggle with my period is I never knew if it was going to arrive or not. Constantly late or not arriving periods is tough once you become sexually active. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve spent on pregnancy tests, only to get my period a few weeks later.
Where was I? I was 21 and sitting in yet another doctor’s office. Before I could say a word, she looked at my exceedingly hairy arms and said, “Do you have PCOS?” I’d never even heard of it. She told me it’s when you don’t ovulate properly, as your body doesn’t form enough estrogen, and over produced testosterone. It makes you have more hair growth than normal, makes your weight fluctuate, and effects your acne. Those are the three main symptoms, and I ticked every box. Two weeks later, I found myself sitting in a very lovely OBGYN clinic waiting for my first internal ultrasound.
Let’s pause here briefly and go back to what I was saying about frivolous spending on pregnancy tests. The day before my ultrasound, I took a pregnancy test because my period was once again ‘late’ (though to what schedule it was keeping, I had no idea). Once again, I had a nice little negative symbol reflected up at me.
So, you can imagine my horror, when the doctor told me I had a four-week gestational sack. I was pregnant. If you know me, you would know silence isn’t my strong suit – I quite literally always have something to say. The drive home from that ultrasound was the most silent of my life, and for the first time in my life, I was speechless.
I faced a lot of emotions at that time. Did I want to have this child, which I was so not ready for, and couldn’t support? Was this my only chance at being a mother? Could I do this on my own? I was also dealing with my new confirmed diagnosis of PCOS – having over 35 cysts decorating my ovaries.
The pregnancy was terminated, and what followed was months of emotional healing. Lots of dark days and nights, I think the almost two years that followed this event was my long night of the soul. The thought in the back of my head wouldn’t leave – what if that was my only chance? It still keeps me up sometimes, but I’ve done a lot of work to heal those scars.
Around the age of 23, I had my first ovarian cyst burst. I can’t describe the pain, but I can tell you it was the worst I’ve ever experienced. I found myself in an emergency room with yet another doctor making me feel like all hope was lost. I was told to go home, and “let the fluid absorb back into my body.” So I did – and 12 hours later, a second cyst burst. This resulted in me going to a new hospital, where I was admitted to see a gynaecologist. In the morning, the gynaecologist on call came to my room, and the conversation that followed still plays on a loop in my head. An older man, late fifties maybe, stood at the opposite side of the room and without even touching me, simply told me “you’re not actually in pain, you’re probably just ovulating and trying to get drugs. We’re going to stop your pain meds and send you home”. I cried my eyes out to a nurse and begged for a second opinion (hindsight is a hell of a thing), so she got me a new female doctor. That doctor took me into surgery that afternoon, and found two more cysts about to burst, and endometriosis growing.
After the surgery, I was living in a pain management world. I would have constant attacks of spasms so sharp sometimes I couldn’t breathe, and felt I was going to pass out. I’d adopted a vegan diet, so my body wouldn’t take in any hormones it didn’t’ have to and couldn’t process, and was now on medication to help my insulin resistance. My weight had stabilized, but I felt more unhappy, and in more pain than ever.
After almost a year of this, it was actually Kate who referred me to my acupuncturist – something I’ll be forever in her debt for. I remember sitting with Em (my acupuncturist) for the first time, telling her of my daily pain and struggle to feel connected to my body, and so begun the past 12 months. I experienced something I didn’t think possible until that day – a health care practitioner listening to me, and telling me they would help me figure it out. I’d been on a pill since the pregnancy termination, and we made the decision for me to stop taking it, so we could start to regulate my actual hormones, without synthetic ones masking my symptoms. Getting off the pill was not easy, and it took a few months for me to feel human again. After experiencing the horror of detoxing those hormones from my body, I vetoed any and all hormone-based contraceptives.
I made the decision to start eating meat again, and slowly but surely, my pain went away, and my cycle started to regulate. Regular acupuncture helped me, and I started a supplement/hormone balancing vitamin regime. I started to exercise slowly and cut back on poor diet and lifestyle choices. My body had started to repair itself.
Around this time, I realized just how sick of my own shit I’d become. Since the termination, I’d struggled with my own sense of self, my relationship to my body, my self-esteem, shame – everything. Whilst my body was improving, I realized I couldn’t fully heal without going into my mind. I was in the lowest place of my mind, and joy was rare, and ever so fleeting when it happened. So I found myself sitting in my first therapist appointment.
That was in June last year. I’ve spent the better part of the last year in deep, intensive healing mode. I found myself at rock bottom, and something had to change. Repairing the bridge between my mind, body and soul in therapy allowed me to come home to myself, and working with acupuncture finally allowed me to start to feel like I had a grasp on my body. I saw it began to change, feel lighter, and recently when I saw Em nearly 10 months after my session – she reminded me of the crippling, chronic pain I lived in less than a year ago. The shift, that had felt so gradual as I was chipping away at it, now presented a chasm between who I am today, and who I was a year ago.
As time goes on, my obsession with bettering myself continues. But for the first time, it’s a healthy one. My fortnightly therapy session is one of the most important things in my life, and my time outside of therapy is spent improving myself. I’ve started to do shadow work on repairing the trauma bonds my inner child struggles with, and have plunged head first into repairing my gut health (90% of your serotonin is made in your gut!). I rarely drink anymore, and don’t feel like I’ve had a successful day unless I move my body in some way (if you told anyone in my life that a year ago, they’d laugh). When I first met my therapist, she told me “we need to do the work, but we don’t go in and pull the darkness out at once. We just begin exposing it to the light again”. And that’s the best way to describe the way I’ve changed my life – I’ve exposed it to the light again.
Here’s the point of all of this. It’s been a HARD journey. A year ago, I didn’t think it was possible to feel this way. I never thought I would have a vested interest in my own wellness, as I’d always been nothing more than a bystander. The journey to self-improvement never ends, but I’ve learned that the hardest thing is just starting. Booking the therapist appointment isn’t hard, but forcing yourself to get out of the car and walk in and talk,is. Eating healthy isn’t hard, but overhauling everything you’ve ever known about food, is. Someone once said the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If I can get through this, then anyone can. I’m writing this from a place in my life I never thought was possible, and only ever dreamed of.
I think it’s important at this point to mention, I couldn’t have done this alone. It takes a village, and the support from my amazing partner, friends and loved ones saw me get through the hardest days, and find a reason to laugh when the pain was unbearable. For their never-ending patience, love and hours spent at my hospital bed (my best friend even brought me my favourite takeout after the surgery), I will be eternally grateful. I learned to lean on the people who love me, and got through it with them helping me along.
Here’s what I learned along the way: no one is coming to save you. You can have all the good advice in the world, but you have to make a choice that you want better for yourself, and you’ve got to actively choose that every day. You have to treat yourself like you’re someone you’re responsible for taking care of (thanks Jordan Peterson for that life changing gem). You can read all of the books, listen to all of the podcasts and download all of the apps, but they will never make the change for you. It’s you who has to do the work. It’s you who has to decide that you not only want, but also DESERVE better for yourself. And then go out and start finding it, creating it, shaping it. You have to tailor make your life.
In your soul, you know when it’s time to go (a Taylor Swift Lyric that resonates very deeply with me). For me, that decision was the hardest of my life, but it turns out what’s on the other side is so much better than I could have dreamed. It’s worth it to get here. I’ve still got a lifetime of work ahead of me, but whilst once I was scared to confront it and buried myself, now I want to greet the world with open arms. I can’t wait to see myself at thirty, at fifty, as a wise old woman with a long braid and an atlas of stories. I want grandkids running around at my feet, and a life so rich and sweet, you could make molasses from it. It’s two weeks shy of my 25th birthday, and I’m here and alive and healthy and happy. I want all of the growth, the good things, the bad things, the lessons, the love, the laughter, the adventure and the experience. I want everything this ride has to offer – and I want that for you too.