Uniting the Pain of Endometriosis to the Cross of Christ
Letter from Catherine Sullivan
I hesitated to write this letter for a long time because I see my life as “normal.” No, not normal. Privileged would be a better word, if I’m being honest. For most of my life, suffering has been an abstract and unfamiliar concept. I usually associate the word with traumatic experiences like war, abuse, or assault. Often it makes me think of the distress that comes with being diagnosed with a terminal illness, experiencing homelessness, or being discriminated against. Growing up in a safe neighborhood surrounded by a supportive family, I never imagined that God would call me to know suffering in a physical and intimate way.
In my early twenties, I started experiencing regular abdominal pain. At first, I thought it was just bad menstrual cramps. As I moved through graduate school, the pain worsened; I chalked it up to stress. But when I started to learn NFP in preparation for marriage, I realized that perhaps this “normal” pain wasn’t quite so ordinary after all.
In fact, charting helped me to notice that the pain came at the same point in my cycle each month. It resided in the same place in my body, too: close to my left ovary. As each month passed, the pain became more and more severe. But thankfully, it would come and go in waves: two to three minutes of pain followed by a few hours of relief. Although I could anticipate that the pain would last for several days at the end of my cycle, its exact timing was still unpredictable. Sometimes, I would be in the middle of teaching and suddenly need to find a way to subtly sit down -- I didn’t want my students to be alarmed and think that something was wrong with their teacher. Because nothing was wrong. I was totally normal. Right?
The more I learned about my cycle through NFP, the more I realized that wasn’t true. Although my cycles had always been the average length, my chart looked anything but ordinary. Thankfully, several of my close girlfriends were also learning NFP at the time, and I found great solace in their companionship and sisterhood. However, as I realized that my chart looked different--and that something might be wrong--I began to feel isolated and alone. Instead of turning to God in this time of distress, I listened to the the enemy, who lied and told me that I couldn’t bring this problem to Jesus in prayer. “Sure, He is the Word of God,” he said, “but He became incarnate in a male body. How could he understand your pain?”
After many months of struggling through confusing observations and several nights of tears, my husband finally convinced me to see the NaPro doctor in our area. A few appointments and some blood work later, my doctor diagnosed me with low progesterone and endometriosis. Thankfully, my progesterone levels were easily fixed with an oral supplement. The endometriosis, however, is more mysterious.
Endometriosis is a medical condition in which the cells that line a woman’s uterus find their way into other parts of her body. Although a remarkable number of women suffer from it, not much is known about it and not much can be done to relieve the intense pain it causes. In fact, I still haven’t been officially diagnosed with it. The only way to diagnose and treat endometriosis is through surgery.
I went home frustrated and disappointed. It was nice to have a word for what I experienced--and to learn that is is surprisingly common--but I was also angry that my only options were to take ibuprofen or schedule surgery. After weighing the risks and benefits of surgery, I decided it wasn’t for me, at least not yet. Many women experience temporary relief from surgery, but the cells that cause the pain often grow back over time. There is no permanent fix.
I decided that I would do my best to manage my pain on my own through ibuprofen and changes in diet and exercise. Although my husband and close family and friends were always supportive and kind, my feelings of isolation grew as I realized that no one fully understood what I was experiencing. This wasn’t your average stomachache. Moreover, despite my doctor’s reassurance that my diagnosis was common, I felt like I couldn’t talk about my condition outside of my inner circle; it was just too taboo. While drinking more water and consuming less sugar helped a bit, sometimes life would get in the way and I would forget to stay on top of the medication. When the pain snuck up on me, I would literally grit my teeth and clench my fists. “If I can just make it through the next few minutes,” I would mutter to myself under my breath.
I realize now that at this point in my journey, I was consistently making a common mistake: I thought that I could handle this situation by myself. Even though my Catholic faith was--and still is--incredibly important to me, I didn’t see my endometriosis as a cross or a gift or an opportunity to lean on God’s grace; it was just an annoying thing that my body did sometimes. In fact, as the months wore on, my approach to the pain led me to hate my body. How could this part of me--that so many people characterize as the defining feature of womanhood--turn on me in this way? I was slowly but surely growing more disconnected from my support network, my body, and the God who had blessed me with both. At no point did I think about “offering up” the pain. Instead, it became a monthly pity party that I threw for myself.
In addition to the physical pain that came from endometriosis, I spent many long months worrying that I wouldn’t be able to conceive a child because many women who have endometriosis also struggle with infertility. Yet, God is generous and merciful and in the summer of 2016, I found myself crying tears of joy over a positive pregnancy test.
I experienced nearly two full years of relief from endometriosis while I was pregnant and breastfeeding our daughter. Yet, once I weaned her and my cycle returned, so did my pain. Once again it started slowly, but increased in its severity over time. In fact, in some ways, it has gotten worse -- now the pain stretches across my abdomen instead of being localized on my left side. But somehow, it has also gotten better.
You see, motherhood has opened my eyes to the idea of redemptive suffering. After 22 hours of labor and countless sleepless nights, I’m starting to see that pain can be productive. If we unite our sufferings to the cross of Jesus Christ, it can have a purpose. While I don’t believe God wants us to suffer or makes us suffer, I now know that God is with us when we suffer and can use our pain to make something beautiful--like a sweet toddler who loves to read and draw and play outside. I began to ask myself, what if my endometriosis could be used in a similar way?
Recently, I have started to use my monthly pain as an opportunity for prayer. I still try to keep up with a healthy diet, exercise, and medication, but sometimes life gets in the way and I forget to take my ibuprofen. Now, instead of gritting my teeth and clenching my fists, I think of someone else I know who is suffering. As long as the pain lasts, I imagine that person and remind myself of all the reasons why I love him or her. These lists distract me from my own pain and help me to pray from the depths of my heart, “Let me suffer in their place.”
I am fully aware that my suffering is small in comparison to the great crosses that many other women bear. Yet, I am grateful for my endometriosis because it has drawn me closer to the most important cross of all, the cross of Jesus Christ. In the past, I thought suffering was something to be avoided at all costs. Now I know that when suffering comes, I can offer it as a gift to God on behalf of my brothers and sisters in Christ. While it might not take the pain away, I trust that God uses my humble gift to add seeds of grace and light and peace to a world that desperately needs it.
We all suffer in some way, whether it is physically, emotionally, or a combination of both. Sister, I want you to know that God can make your pain beautiful if you let Him. As you unite your suffering--big or small--to the cross of Christ, I will be standing with you.
About the Writer: Catherine Sullivan
Catherine Sullivan serves her family as a stay-at-home mom and teaches religion and literature part-time at an all-girls Catholic high school. She holds degrees in theology from the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University Maryland, where she studied the female Doctors of the Church. An outgoing introvert with a heart for Catholic feminism, Catherine lives near Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and daughter.