Grammy nominee RuthAnne on how the chronic pain of endometriosis took her to a dark place
Dubliner RuthAnne is one of the foremost musical talents to come out of Ireland in recent years. An acclaimed songwriter, who was recently nominated for a Grammy, she also released her debut album, Matters of the Heart, this year. But while 2019 has been one of her most successful years career-wise, behind the scenes the 31-year-old was battling a debilitating condition. Here, she shares the physical and mental toll that living in chronic pain had on her before she was diagnosed with endometriosis – and she offers hope to other young women suffering from this often-overlooked condition.
"At the peak of the pain each month, I would get so low that my mind would go to very dark places, where I felt a burden to everyone, like I was worthless, like I needed to just not exist..."
This year you will have seen me doing a lot of touring, travelling, writing sessions, writing camps, photoshoots, shows, plus I released my debut album. What you didn’t see were the health issues I suffered.
For three weeks out of every month, I had debilitating pain, chronic fatigue and severe bloating that made me look six months' pregnant every day. It was all because of a disease called endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a condition that sees cells that normally grow within the uterus growing elsewhere in the body, such as on the ovaries or bowels. It affects one in 10 women in Ireland, and can result in chronic pain as well as being one of the main causes of infertility. In rare, extreme cases, the disease can damage your organs to the point of needing them removed.
Since last October, I woke up nearly every day in pain, ranging from a stabbing, sharp pain in my lower back to a constant hard punch in my lower stomach and womb. When I walked, it would feel as though someone had wrapped barbed wire around my groin, pelvis and upper leg on my right side, and it was ripping my insides apart. For most of this year, walking upstairs was overwhelming for me because of the pain.
For most of my shows and writing sessions, I was heavily medicated with painkillers that would just barely get me through. The exhaustion was so cloudy and hazy – most days I would just give all the energy I could to my job, then need to go straight to bed when I got home. After a show, it would take days to recover and get my energy back. Sometimes, I had to cancel writing sessions because I couldn’t even get out of bed.
Hanging out with friends, parties, dancing... all things I LOVE became too exhausting. I was painfully bloated for photoshoots and public appearances.
Working out became impossible too: I would try take beginner's Pilates classes with 60-year-old women and limp out of the class, needing to rest in bed all day to recover. Once, I collapsed at the gym and my trainer sent me to the hospital.
The weirdest thing was that, in each month, I had about seven days of no pains at all. In those weeks, everything felt normal again, the haze of exhaustion was gone and I could walk with no pain. Those days I thought I was cured – but, like clockwork, the pains would come back worse than the month before.
As the months went on, I became more and more depressed mentally. At the peak of the pain each month, I would get so low that my mind would go to very dark places where I felt a burden to everyone, like I was worthless, like I needed to just not exist...
Endometriosis is also known to cause anxiety and depression, bundled with the frustration and stress of constant pain. I just really wanted them to stop.
Of course, in front of everyone I would pretend to be fine and I would fulfil my work commitments and do my best to do everything I could. Behind closed doors, however, my partner Ollie saw the worst of it. Our every conversation became about my pains: "Can we Uber, I can’t walk today?" "Can we just pop in for an hour, I need to go to bed and rest?" "Will there be somewhere I can sit?" "I can’t go out tonight I’m in too much pain?"
Our entire social life centred around my pain, and the simplest of tasks became like mountains. Ollie went above and beyond to help me – he truly is an amazing man for the way he cared for me this year.
After a full year of seeing doctors, and having MRIs, ultrasounds, blood tests, X-rays that were all clear, I thought I was going mad. Then, finally, I was diagnosed with endometriosis.
Two weeks ago, I underwent a three-hour surgery and my amazing doctor found and cut the endo lesions that were stuck all over my organs. The endometriosis was mostly all over my bowels, so much so that if I’d left it any longer untreated there was a chance that I could have lost my bowel.
It takes seven years on average for women to be diagnosed with endometriosis. Many women are led to believe that they are "being dramatic", that it’s just period cramps, that it’s IBS, that they're too lazy to workout, that they're just over-stressed... That it’s anything but a chronic incurable disease that can threaten the likelihood of having children.
We need to educate everyone about this disease more, so that women can be treated earlier and faster. We need to stop being told that periods are meant to be painful. The first sign of endometriosis is severely painful/heavy periods, if you have to cancel work or medicate yourself heavily for the pains you might have it too.
To all the endo warriors out there: I am one of you now and I will shout very loudly to help find more answers, more cures and better diagnoses.
If you’re having any of the symptoms I mentioned, please listen to your body and go straight to your doctor. If you know anyone who is suffering with this disease, please don’t be dismissive. Show empathy, understanding, compassion and kindness, because you never know the pain that someone is living through every day – and that goes for all diseases.
I feel very lucky and blessed to have had amazing support from my loved ones. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I will be back stronger in 2020.
For more information, visit the Endometriosis Association of Ireland's website.