For many people, getting an endometriosis diagnosis and living with the condition can be life-altering. Endometriosis is when tissue grows outside of your uterus (instead of lining the inside), which can lead to cysts, painful periods, infertility, pain during sex, and more.
Perhaps even scarier, people who have this condition have considered dying by suicide because of a lack of support. Being an ally and reliable friend is more vital than you may realize.
In honor of March being Endometriosis Awareness Month, we talked to a psychologist and an OBGYN about how you can support a friend with this disorder.
In a time when so many people (especially women) face medical gaslighting, “what women need most is validation,” said Dr. Sharon Malone, an OBGYN and the medical director of Alloy. “Just because a blood test or an ultrasound doesn’t confirm a diagnosis, that does not mean that her suffering is not real and treatable… You should tell a friend to listen to her body… Don’t let doctors minimize [their] discomfort.”
Learn about the condition’s symptoms
Knowing the symptoms of a disorder is different from knowing what it’s actually like to live with it every day. Educating yourself can give you a whole new level of empathy and help you support your friend more knowledgeably.
“Endometriosis can impact on a number of areas of life, making it challenging for some to live with,” said Dr. Sarah Woods, a clinical psychologist who works in health psychology. She explained that the symptoms are not only physically painful — and sometimes requiring surgery — but they can cause emotional distress, too. “Pain can be unpredictable, and sometimes the person feels they have less control of their day,” she said.
“Ask your friend about their symptoms and how they affect them,” Woods continued. “But if they do not want to talk about it, try looking it up on a reputable website to understand more about the symptoms.”
Educate yourself on the real-life issues your friend may have faced
Besides learning about what day-to-day life with endometriosis looks like, read about the other issues surrounding it, too. “Endometriosis is often misdiagnosed as inflammatory bowel disease, interstitial cystitis, or dysmenorrhea,” Malone shared. “Most women suffer for years before an accurate diagnosis is made.”
Unfortunately, it gets worse. “Untreated endometriosis can lead to more severe symptoms and ultimately to infertility,” Malone said. “The key is timely diagnosis and treatment before permanent damage and scarring is done to pelvic organs, necessitating more extensive surgery.”
While scaring your friend with this info probably isn’t the best idea, being aware and sensitive to these horrible predicaments is a meaningful way to support them. As you may have noticed in your own life, not having to re-explain your trauma or troubles to a friend because they already know it feels incredibly relieving.
Don’t assume — check on them
It’s easy to think we know how someone might be feeling, or to try to “get ahead” of someone’s emotions to show we understand and support them. However, Woods encouraged you to not make any assumptions.
“Remember, symptoms and emotions will vary, so do not assume you know how your friend is feeling,” she said. “Ask how they are… If they do not want to talk, respect that, but it will help to know they can talk if they need to.”
Encourage getting another doctor’s take
If your friend doesn’t feel satisfied with what the doctor told them, remind them that seeing another doctor is totally valid. “If you are not being managed or being taken seriously, seek a second opinion,” Malone urged. “Again, I want to emphasize that chronic pain is not normal.”
Offer specific and general types of help
When you’re experiencing something tough, trying to figure out what you need (and can get from someone else) can be overwhelming. As a friend, you can lessen that by offering to support them in specific ways. Maybe that’s driving them to the doctor’s office, picking up something at the pharmacy, or just relaxing with them. Woods affirmed they may need practical help sometimes.
At the same time, your friend will probably appreciate knowing you’re there for them in general, too. Let them know you’re there if they need anything and are happy to help how you can, when you can.
Look for signs of depression and anxiety
According to a study, 29 percent of women with endometriosis showed moderate-to-severe anxiety symptoms, and 14.5 percent showed signs of depression. Keeping an eye out for some of those especially serious symptoms — such as not wanting to live anymore, not being able to handle their thoughts and emotions, self-harm, and more — and knowing how to respond is crucial.
If and when you see those signs, gently and compassionately bring them up with your friend. See if they’d be open to therapy, a support group, or even a Facebook page where people with endometriosis can connect with and support each other. Remind them you love them and want to support them — always.
If your friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts, neither of you is alone. You can find resources and helplines with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center, all of which have North Carolina chapters and/or support people.
Ashley Broadwater is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied Public Relations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She’s passionate about mental health, body positivity, relationships, Halloween, and Dad jokes.