Lena Dunham, writer, producer and star of the hit HBO series Girls, was recently freed of the excruciating chronic pain that came as a result of her endometriosis. But as it turns out, a different sort of ache remains.
Dunham has battled endometriosis since her first period. Endometriosis, simply stated, is a condition in which the tissue that typically lines the inside of the uterus ends up developing outside of the uterus, often on a woman’s fallopian tubes, ovaries, bowels, bladder or anywhere else in the pelvic region. And because this tissue builds up outside of the uterus, it doesn’t have anywhere to exit the body when it is ready to shed each month. This results in internal bleeding, the development of scar tissue and severe chronic pain.
Last weekend, after an unusually painful morning, Dunham underwent her fifth surgery in the past year — one that would change her life. When she awoke, her doctors told her that for the time being, her endometriosis was all gone. She would be, for the first time in years, healthy.
Through powerful essays, Dunham has taken her followers along for her endless medical and spiritual journeys. New doctors and obscure treatments, bedridden workdays and compromised relationships. Endometriosis had taken hold of her life in more places than just her medical records. And now, the disease that has impacted her life since her very first period had completely vanished. Wouldn’t this cause a world of relief? A rush of juvenile freedom?
For Dunham and many other sufferers of chronic pain, that’s surprisingly not the case. In her most recent Lenny Letter, she writes, “What we don’t always talk about is the way that pain — emotional and physical — can become our companion. Our constant, unyielding, toxic pal, a place to put all our ‘if onlys’ and ‘just imagines.’”
This is an interesting, brutally honest approach to this change in her life. Just as the disease affected a great portion of her personal and professional daily life, the loss of the diagnosis would surely cause some disorientation and call for some mental restructuring. Even for those of us who do not suffer the diagnosis of endometriosis, our own relationships with pain deserve some examining. Why do we keep pain? Are we using pain to attempt to prove our “toughness”? Are we hiding behind pain to keep from dealing with bigger demons?
Our strength and resilience as women should not be gauged by how much pain we can endure while still maintaining productivity and a forced smile on our faces. Withstanding chronic pain doesn’t make you a hero, it just means that you’re stuck dealing with chronic pain as the world continues to spin. It’s important to listen to the messages the body is sending.
And once we address the physical relationship we have with pain, the emotional attachment must follow.
As Dunham bravely points out, it’s time to start thinking about what actually limits our lives and what we like to say limits our life. Think about our brain’s internal tape recording of excuses and “if onlys” that we subconsciously employ each day to justify our failures, weaknesses or procrastinations. We need to separate ourselves from the automatic comforts and easily understood alibis that emotional and physical pain sneakily provide. The underlying issues and fears need to be addressed head on.
Being more honest with ourselves — even in our darkest, most agonizing states — will free us in a way that no diagnosis (or lack thereof) could and finally allow us to stand on our own.