Awkward Adventures In Dating With Endometrosis
When I was 20, I went to my gynecologist complaining about, what I thought, were ovulation pains. On the 22nd day of every cycle, I’d get a sharp ache on my left side. This pain would then blossom into nerve pain that radiated from my lower back to my left foot. I couldn’t eat. Sometimes I couldn’t walk. If I consumed anything other than chamomile tea, I’d vomit. There was vertigo. There was constipation. Sometimes I’d sit against the bathtub and cry until I fell asleep.
“Have you heard of dysmenorrhea?” My doctor asked while my legs were in stirrups.
“Yep,” I said as I stared at the kitten poster taped to the ceiling. “Doesn’t it mean period pain?”
“Very good,” she said, pulling the speculum out of my vagina. “Lots of women have really bad cramps.”
It would be seven years before a (much better) doctor would mention endometriosis – a chronic pain condition where endometrial tissue grows outside of the uterus. Seven years of thinking I simply had bad cramps. To be clear, there are over 200,000 new cases of endometriosis a year, and it is one of the leading causes of gynecological surgery for Black women. There is no cure. There is no discernable reason (though there are theories), but there is a name for my agony, and that provides its own comfort.
This, however, isn’t about endometriosis; it’s about how hard it is to date when you have it.
Though it may seem like sharing details about your menstrual cycle with guys you date should be easy, I’ve had several experiences that indicate otherwise. I once mentioned that I’d need to tell my male personal trainer about my endometriosis, and my former boyfriend said, “He’ll probably just tell you to take some vitamin C and get over it.”
“You know that’s not how it works, right?” I said, inching toward him with menace in my eyes.
“No, no, of course, I do.” He backed away, sensing this wasn’t how he wanted to die. “I honestly don’t know how you do it every month.”
While I’m able to educate and advocate for myself now, I found it difficult to explain what was going on with my body when I was told I had “bad cramps.” This isn’t unusual — it takes the average woman five to seven years to receive a diagnosis, and this delay makes it hard for sufferers to contextualize their experience.
One night, the pain hit me while I was at the apartment of a guy I’d been seeing. He did everything right. He found a heating pad in the closet and gave it to me. He sat with me and tried to rub my stomach.
“Is that helping?” he offered softly.
“No, but thanks,” I said as I tried to smile, though I didn’t want to be touched.
Finally, I’d fallen asleep (after throwing up) only to wake an hour later. First, I was struck by the quiet. The documentary he’d been watching was over. Then, though I was clutching my stomach and kicking my feet to alleviate the pain, I realized he was next to me. His breathing was heavy and labored. Is he okay? I thought to myself. I placed my hand on my stomach and tried to lie still. That’s when I realized the bed was shaking.
“What the f–k are you doing?” I hissed, but I could already see that this guy, the one who seemed to understand how hard (no pun intended) this was for me, had the audacity to jerk off while I lay there in pain.
“Sorry,” he said without stopping. “I…thought…you…were…sleep.”
I was tired and angry. My body pulsated from discomfort, but, for some reason, I was the one who felt ashamed. I pulled myself out of the bed and stormed into the bathroom while he finished. Did I have the right to be upset? I didn’t know. I was in his house, and he’d been so kind. But would he have done this had he perceived my illness as more serious? Would he have “rubbed one out” in the bathroom while I slept, if I suffered from migraines instead? Would I be taken more seriously if my “bad cramps” had a name?
I don’t know, but I closed myself off to him after, and the relationship ended soon after.
The reality is that we need to speak more candidly about women’s health, and having an actual diagnosis helps me communicate with potential partners better. Even if I don’t always use the term endometriosis on dates, knowing that I’m part of a community of other sufferers makes me feel more empowered. Sometimes I warn men that I have “bad cramps,” other times I share that I have “chronic pain.” More often than not, they assure me it’s not an issue, and when the cramps arise, many offer to come over, and they don’t masturbate next to my dejected body.
Ultimately, I don’t need the guys I date to pity me when I’m in pain. They just need to understand that to date me is to make room for this facet of my reality. When I meet the man of my dreams, we’ll have to figure out whether or not I have infertility issues (many endometriosis sufferers have difficulty conceiving), but every time I am able to share my diagnosis casually, it gives me confidence to have deeper conversations with the right man when he comes along.
So many women who suffer from endometriosis, PCOS, fibroids and other related illnesses have healthy and loving relationships, so I know that awkward moments and stories are simply part of the journey. In the meantime, I nurture myself, knowing that my health is my own responsibility.