Abby Norman’s doctors weren’t listening.
She experienced excruciating abdominal pain during a routine shower while she was attending Sarah Lawrence College. The pain never went away. Norman dropped out of school. Her body withered and her hair turned gray. But Norman’s providers insisted that she was imagining things.
So she began her own investigation. She scoured medical literature for answers. Why was she in so much pain?
She details her findings in her new book, “Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain.” Norman discovered she had endometriosis, a painful disorder in which the uterine lining grows outside the uterus.
Although endometriosis is thought to affect more than 11 percent of American women between ages 15 and 44, it’s underdiagnosed and often not understood. Awareness is also lacking in the public sphere.
“Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi has spoken publicly about dealing with endometriosis, revealing that she wasn’t diagnosed until she was 36. Lena Dunham has also detailed her struggle with the disorder. In an essay for Lenny Letter, she described experiencing stomachaches when she got her period as a teenager:
“During the worst of it, my father brought me to the ER, where they prodded my appendix and suggested it might be food poisoning and that we should go home and wait it out,” Dunham wrote. She wasn’t diagnosed until her mid-20s, and earlier this year, at 31, Dunham got a hysterectomy to end the pain.
Norman, Lakshmi and Dunham have all dealt with doctors who underestimated their pain. So have numerous other women.
Women report more chronic pain than men. When women report acute pain, they are more likely to be prescribed sedatives than pain medications. Some doctors also fail to explore the full range of possibilities when it comes to making a diagnosis.
Even when they do receive diagnoses, women report being dismissed as overly emotional when they insist on appropriate treatment.
Norman, now a science writer, articulates her own struggles with clarity and calmness in “Ask Me About My Uterus.” She weaves in historical context about endometriosis, treatment and perception of women in medicine, from the myth of “hysteria” to cultural perceptions about women’s pain tolerance and propensity for “female troubles.”
The author hopes that the information she found on her journey will help destroy misconceptions and pave the road for change. Norman is still seeking relief for herself, as well as other women who are struggling with pain.
“I was talking to someone recently, and they said that my story doesn’t have a happy ending because I don’t get better,” Norman told Bitch Media. “Actually, I didn’t. I got sicker, and I’m still getting sicker, and there’s something dissatisfying about that. We want there to be these tidy endings, but that isn’t the reality of living with a chronic illness.”