Called “Weak,” She Was Really a Powerhouse

Holly Sanneman was told since age 9 that she couldn’t handle pain, but the birth of her first child revealed the truth.

Since I started having periods, the pain was terrible. None of the usual remedies helped. Doctors told me, “Some girls don’t handle periods well” and “You have a low pain threshold.” They said my periods would get better after I had a baby.

Things did change with the birth of my first child, but not in the way doctors predicted.

During my first pregnancy at age 21, I was nervous about childbirth. I’d been told since childhood that I was a weak person. With my “low pain threshold,” how would I cope with labor pains? The night I went into labor, the pain was terrible, but not unlike what I had become accustomed to. I waited as the contractions grew more frequent, and then called to tell the doula I was ready to go to the hospital. She said, “Oh sweetie, I can tell you’re not in labor. You wouldn’t be able to talk so calmly! You have a long way to go.”

In the end, there was a mad dash to hospital to deliver my baby, who was already crowning. There was no pain medicine. That’s when it clicked for me: labor pain had felt no worse than menstrual pain. The pain I’d been enduring every month was as severe as childbirth. I’d been told I was handling my periods badly, when in fact, I’d always handled them with remarkable strength.

After years spent viewing myself as weak, I suddenly learned that I was a powerhouse.

 After that realization, I used my newfound resolve to get the right diagnosis. After my doctor hesitatingly diagnosed me with endometriosis at age 26, she’d tell me at every visit, “We have to do surgery to tell for sure, and we don’t want to do that.” Finally, I said, “Yes, ‘we’ do!” With a laparoscopic view, she was able to give me the concrete diagnosis I wanted, but the ablation she performed did not diminish my pain.

As I continued to expand my family with two more children, each birth brought a deeper understanding of my own body and a greater feeling of empowerment. Finally, at age 28, I found a highly skilled endometriosis specialist who performed laser excision surgery, which helped me so much. Now I have “normal” periods, with cramps solved by a few ibuprofen.

Doctors are human, and in a profession that demands they have all the answers, they often hesitate to admit when they don’t have the knowledge or experience to help. Sometimes, they may not realize that the answers they give patients or the solutions they offer may be causing patients duress as the patient feels torn between the words of someone they respect and their own reality. Today I feel sad and frustrated that health care professionals continue to sow self-doubt in many women with endometriosis, which is why I speak out. I had always deferred to doctors, saying, “This is how I’m feeling, but you’re the professional, so you know better.” Never again. And I hope other women speak up, too. We can’t defer to others – we need to believe ourselves first and not stop searching until we feel normal.

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