I was diagnosed with endometriosis when I had my first laparoscopy at 14. I’m very lucky. I got my period when I was 12, and from the start I was in such pain that I regularly missed school. Thankfully, my mother also had endometriosis and knew (although hoped she was not right) that I probably had it too. Thanks to her insistence on getting me early referrals to her own OB/GYN, I was largely spared the years of being turned away by doctor after doctor who couldn’t or wouldn’t take my pain seriously as I searched for a name for what was wrong with me.
Although my experience is not typical for people with endometriosis, I still identified with Abby Norman’s book Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain from the minute I finished reading the subtitle. When I discovered she was writing about her experiences with endometriosis, or endo, I knew I had to read it. Norman not only relates her personal experiences with endo and her quest for adequate healthcare, but also historicizes women’s frustration with the healthcare system.
Norman begins her story with the moment she first experienced the pain that would change her life. Like me, she can clearly pinpoint the moment, and she describes the pain in words that come as close as I have seen to articulating what endo pain is like: “A stabbing pain in my middle, as though I were on the receiving end of an unseen assailant’s invisible knife […] It felt like it was everywhere and nowhere all at once. It was almost as though something had snapped deep inside me.”1
As her story unfolds, through futile interactions with doctors to quasi-successful surgeries, through all the accommodations she was forced to make to lead a different life then she would have without the disease, I often found myself tearing up as I recognized the difficult choices she faced. While on a smaller scale than Norman, endo has also forced me to make complicated choices.
While Norman’s personal story of endo is compelling, the book also shines when she dives into the reasons why it is so difficult for people to take women’s pain seriously, especially pain emanating from the reproductive system. Readers get a crash course in the history of women’s relationship to professional medicine from Freud’s problematic case studies, which doctors used to explain away women’s pain as psychiatric rather than physical, to the very modern tendency for healthcare workers to minimize or belittle women’s pain, to the challenges of rating one’s pain on a scale of 1-10.
As Norman recounts, this problem is only exacerbated when talking about endo. Originally, endo was viewed as a disease that only affected upper-class white women who delayed having children. This myth led to the pervasive idea that getting pregnant can cure endo, or in Norman’s words: “basically, that they [women] should just stop whining and have babies if they wanted be cured.”2
Although endo is an incredibly painful chronic ailment, it receives the most attention when interpreted as a fertility problem. The clearest illustration of this disconnect is when Norman talks about the reactions she got from others when she talked about her endo. When she discussed her endometriosis with people who knew someone who had endo, they often stated that the person they knew with the condition were “fine.”3 However, she writes,
No other quote in the book resonated with me as much as this. It perfectly captures the struggle of trying to make others understand what living with endo is really like.
As a fellow endo sufferer, I was drawn most to the parts of this book where Norman focuses on the condition, but it is just as effective as a memoir of living with chronic pain of any type. If you have endo, Ask Me About My Uterus will help you feel seen. If you know someone with endo (and you probably do), Norman will help you understand what exactly endo is, and what it’s like to live with the condition. And if you have ever not been taken seriously by a doctor as you try to describe your pain, you’ll understand the hundreds of years of history and medical practice that made that situation, sadly, commonplace.
- Abby Norman, Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain (New York: Nation Books, 2018), 2-3. Return to text.
- Norman, 188. Return to text.
- Norman, 205. Return to text.