Lena Dunham is a powerful personality. She is a well-known writer, actor, producer, and director. She is the creator of Girls, an Emmy Award-nominated HBO show, and she is — at times — a questionable and controversial feminist. (I think the term “foot-in-mouth” has been applied to her rhetoric more times than I can count.)
But whether you like Dunham or not, one thing is undeniably true: She is staunch advocate for women’s health. And her latest post on Lenny Letter proves just that, as Dunham tackled a common but often misunderstood women’s health issue with poignancy, honesty, candor, and transparency.
The essay, entitled “The Sickest Girl,” chronicles Dunham’s struggle with endometriosis — a disorder which causes the tissue that normally lines the inside the uterus — the endometrium — to grow outside of the uterus (on the ovaries, the pelvis, and/or the fallopian tubes).
According to the Mayo Clinic, the “displaced endometrial tissue continues to act as it normally would — it thickens, breaks down and bleeds with each menstrual cycle. [But] because this displaced tissue has no way to exit your body, it becomes trapped … [causing] scar tissue … adhesions … [and] pain.” Severe pain. And this pain is something Dunham experienced from an early age:
“From the first time I got my period, it didn’t feel right. The stomachaches began quickly and were more severe than the mild-irritant cramps seemed to be for the blonde women in pink-hued Midol commercials … 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. My mother placed a pillow under my lower back, and I moaned in the guest room, where no one could hear me, my legs spread like a woman in labor.”
But Dunham, like many women, didn’t know what was wrong with her. Instead, she hoped things would get better as she aged. She hoped the issue would resolve but it didn’t — not in college, not after college, and not when Dunham began working on Girls. In fact, just after Dunham wrote the show’s pilot episode, another painful flare-up landed Dunham in the hospital.
“[When my dad asked if I was okay] tears came unbidden as I gripped my pelvis and muttered, ‘something’s really wrong inside me’…I was taken to the ER, where they put a morphine drip in my arm.”
But Dunham did not receive a diagnosis that day or for many more days.
“I tried to talk, to explain what I had been feeling and ways I had felt it before, but they whispered over me, consulting an empty chart. They diagnosed me with colitis and sent me home.”
It wasn’t until the first season of Girls wrapped that Dunham finally had a diagnosis: endometriosis. Unfortunately, said diagnosis did little to ease Dunham’s pain. She got relief but also underwent “years of complex surgeries” and countless unsuccessful attempts to manage her symptoms using “pelvic floor therapy, massage therapy, pain therapy, colour therapy [and] acupuncture.”
And so, in a final effort to control her life and her symptoms, Dunham made a decision many of us cannot imagine making — especially at 31. She decided to have a total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus and cervix) in an attempt to rid herself of this debilitating disease.
In a recent article for Vogue, Dunham admitted her decision was a tough one for her to make, as she would like children, but after more than a decade of with endometriosis, enough was enough. Besides, Dunham adds, while she “felt choiceless before” she now has more choices than ever.
“Soon I’ll start exploring whether my ovaries, which remain someplace inside me in that vast cavern of organs and scar tissue, have eggs. Adoption is a thrilling truth I’ll pursue with all my might.”
And wherever Dunham journey takes her, we wish her nothing but the best.