“I didn’t know what it was like to live pain-free until after…surgery. I was so much more productive. I was so much more calm. I could think clearly. And it made me mad because I realized that this treatment I got at 36 should have happened in my early 20s. As women, you just want to have an equal opportunity at achievement that your male counterparts do, but if you’re saddled with such a severe…issue, you’re starting from way back behind the starting line.” —Padma Lakshmi
When I read these words from author, actress, and television host Padma Lakshmi in a recent Parade magazine supplement that came in my newspaper (yeah, the ones constructed out of newsprint), I nearly stopped breathing. I had heard Lakshmi’s name, but I am not a foodie and I knew nothing about her. I’ve never seen her shows. I was not aware of the essay she wrote for the New York Times in 2018 speaking out about her own sexual assault after Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, or that she is the American Civil Liberties Union ambassador for immigration and women's rights. I did not know she was once married to author Salman Rushdie.
But here was a celebrity with a huge following voicing publicly one of my most deeply buried secrets.
If she said it out loud, I decided, I can too.
No one but my husband knows how I suffered for decades from undiagnosed endometriosis, and he only had a vague notion of how it affected my ability to function normally. I never missed a day of work or school because of it, although I did leave each early once, 25 years apart, when I nearly passed out from the pain. I barely remember a classmate leading me to my high school’s office so someone could call my mother after I had nearly slid out of my chair during advanced math class, half unconscious. That day my doctor gave me a shot in the hip of some sort of potent pain reliever. No one had any idea what to do with me.
In my 40s, I discovered that my body would go into “labor” 14 minutes into an intense run, such as when I was racing. It was like clockwork. Evidently, I finally surmised from my own research, the adrenaline rush kicked in a whole series of hormonal reactions. I usually made it to the finish line, where I would crawl into the bushes somewhere and crumble into a fetal position until the pain subsided. Then I would be fine.
Like Lakshmi, I consulted doctors annually about my troubles. I was soothed and patronized. My mother had been prescribed Diethylstilbestrol (DES) when she was pregnant with me, a nonsteroidal estrogen given to women in that era who had trouble carrying pregnancies to term. In 1971, the FDA withdrew approval of DES as a treatment for pregnant women. The medical community calls me a “DES daughter.” I have known since puberty that I was at high risk for gynecological cancers and related issues.
Endometriosis is common. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, it affects an estimated two to ten percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 40. It causes immense suffering and infertility. Yet rarely do people talk about it. To address its near invisibility, Lakshmi co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to promote early diagnosis and intervention and to better inform the medical community and the public about the disease.
Lakshmi was 36 when she first found relief. I was 49. When the pain started persisting for up to 25 days a month, my doctor finally recommended exploratory surgery. I gladly assented. Evidently there are no adequate imaging tests to identify the scar tissue that twists and binds the abdominal organs when the endometrial tissue begins to grow outside the uterus. After the surgery, the doctor found my husband in the waiting room and showed him pictures she had taken of my bladder and bowel and ureters and appendix and fallopian tubes all bound together in a sticky mess. He promptly passed out. I found him lying on a gurney next to me when I awoke from the anesthesia, being pampered by the nurses who were offering him cookies and orange juice.
I had major surgery a month later. The relief was nearly immediate. Within a few months I left behind a part-time job that was all I could manage at the time and accepted a big new job that I knew would challenge me. I was up for it. Like Lakshmi, I felt calmer, more capable, better able to handle whatever life threw at me. My career took a distinctive turn that eventually led to Murky Press. I can’t imagine any of that happening without that surgery.
Like Lakshmi, I have frequently, quietly, reflected on why I couldn’t get help earlier. I have dealt with the anger. But, as Thanksgiving once again approaches, I am thankful that my health dramatically improved 12 years ago. The absence of pain allows us to forget, but reading her story reminded me of how different my daily existence is now than it was for nearly 35 years of my life.
So this week, with Lakshmi’s prompting, I am celebrating good health. I am celebrating a decade of embracing bold actions. I am celebrating the kinder, gentler attitude my good health has permitted me. And as the niggling aches and pains of old age fail to completely quash my good spirits, I am celebrating more good years to come.