My endometriosis dictated my career choices — here is how I now manage it

endometriosis awareness
How I manage my endometriosis Bogdan Kurylo - Getty Images

This piece was originally published on Red Online in 2021. Anya Meyerowitz is a freelance journalist and editor, with a PR coaching and consultancy business.

I started writing this article at 2am. Alone, in the dark, on my sofa.

No, I hadn't been binge-watching Ru Paul's Drag Race (again), I had been woken by the sudden — and sharp — beginning of endometriosis.

So, as I so often do, I slipped out of bed to writhe around in pain, a hot water bottle pressed to my stomach, running through the list of things I would now have to cancel for the coming day (even though we now all work from home). And, I'm not alone.

This month marks Endometriosis Awareness Month. It takes place across the globe during March (and often beyond) with a mission to raise awareness of a disease which affects an estimated 176 million women worldwide.

What is endometriosis?

It is an often painful disorder in which tissue similar to the tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus — the endometrium — grows outside your uterus. Every month it breaks down, just as it would in your womb, but without anywhere to go so it gets trapped and causes cysts.

Endometriosis can affect women of any age. It's a long-term condition that can have a significant impact on the life of sufferers and cause painful, isolating and distressing side-effects, such as infertility, bloating and nausea.

The side effect that isn't often discussed though is this: how it impacts on our work and careers.

When I graduated from university, fresh-faced and ready to take on the world, I lasted in my first full-time job for under a year.

Called into the office to face the business director, the manager and a representative from HR, I was told that they were going to have to start marking down my sick days. They explained that they'd have to then review my sick days every six months and would be "forced" to alert future employers to my ''excessive time off".

At university, taking the time off I needed to rest and deal with the crippling pain of my endometriosis wasn't a problem. I'd miss a few lectures (though I studied English Literature and so they were few and far between anyway), cancel a night out and stay in bed watching Harry Potter films, but when it came to work it was a different story.

endometriosis awareness
Israel Sebastian - Getty Images

I'd asked to work from home, but my company were sceptical at the time. So I was forced to take several days off around my period, and the onset of my endometriosis, each month. Not only was I anxious about calling in sick, I struggled to explain exactly what it was that I was experiencing.

"Oh, so it's just bad period pains?" was the most common response I got from bemused colleagues.

Even my female team members didn't really understand — in fact they would almost scoff more than the men. Having experienced period pain themselves it felt as though they was an attitude of 'you're being pathetic about it'.

Having to tell my male manager about what endometriosis was felt awkward and uncomfortable. He didn't want to hear it anymore than I (23 at the time) wanted to tell him something that felt so personal.

I began to feel ostracised by the senior management team who treated me as though I was skiving, paranoid that meetings I wasn't invited to were about me and lost the eager drive that I'd bounded out of university with only months earlier.

I handed in my resignation. I didn't know what was next, but I'd saved enough to cover me through a dry spell and moved back in with my parents.

The "decision" to go freelance was less a decision (happy though I am about it) and more an accidental life choice.

Feeling depressed and worthless, I couldn't think of a career that would ever allow me to take the time off I would need, so in the meantime I started writing for various health blogs.

Slowly, I realised I was starting to make a bit of money, and within the year I was a fully-fledged freelance journalist (whatever that means). Though I often worked evenings and weekends, it also meant that all the angst around taking time off due to endometriosis no longer existed.

endometriosis awareness
Tim Robberts - Getty Images

Yes, I lost money when I had to take time off and yes, it meant that I didn't take a holiday for three years, but it felt a small price to pay to regain my self-worth. Along with some sense of control around the chronic pain illness that had been the subtext of every career choice up until then.

It's now six years on and I split my time between shift work and other freelance writing projects.

Luckily, my editors are understanding as to my condition. But I still have to carefully coordinate my to-do list around the times in the month I know I'll be struggling, which can be hard to do when you effectively have six or seven bosses at any one time.

However, I no longer feel the guilt I once felt around my work. I no longer believe that my endometriosis would be the unavoidable speed bump in the road for my career. Yes, I am lucky that I'm in an industry where working from home on a laptop is the norm, and I know for some people it isn't a choice, but I have learnt several things about managing endometriosis and a career that can be applied to almost everyone.

3 ways to manage endometriosis and your career

1. Change your terminology

Linking it to your period can lead people to misunderstand what it is you are experiencing, as well as increasing possible awkwardness around the conversation.

I now refer to it as a chronic pain illness and find that people take me, and it, much more seriously. They offer their sympathies and ask how I cope instead of raising an eyebrow or looking uncomfortable.

2. Bring a rechargeable hot water bottle to work (once we return to the office)

Using a hot water bottle is a particularly effective way of relieving some pain around your abdominal area when at work.

I invested in one that was small enough for me to keep on my lap without being obvious, plus plugs into a power source to recharge again within 10 minutes.

It means I'm not fiddling around with it at the sink or having to wait for the kettle to boil, I simply reach down, plug it in and keep myself warm.

3. Stagger challenging tasks

Take note of your energy levels and any regular symptom changes throughout the day, then plan your challenging tasks around them.

For example, if you notice that the first two hours of the day you have the most energy and you start developing worsening pain around lunchtime, try to tackle your more challenging tasks in the morning. Then save the easier ones for later in the day when you may be struggling (or are more likely to be struggling).

Not everyone’s endometriosis symptoms will be predictable, however, you can still tackle harder tasks when you’re feeling better than usual and complete simpler tasks when you are struggling.

If I know there is something I have to tackle – or that has an imminent deadline – I set myself up as comfortably as I can and then make sure I rest as much as I can around doing it.

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