Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
The subject of today’s What She Said is a 23-year-old woman who had an ovarian drilling surgery. She talks about PCOS and how it affected her mental and physical health, how unhelpful the doctor who diagnosed her was, and needing an ovarian drilling.
Tell me something about your childhood.
Okay, let’s talk about my first period.
I got my first period on the Sunday after my 13th birthday. We were in church, and after service, I went to the bathroom and there was blood. My mum had already given me a comprehensive rundown of periods, so I felt zero panic. I just whispered it to her. We left the church and she gave me a pack of pads when we got home. That was that!
Sounds very stressless.
It was, but unfortunately, that didn’t last for long.
When I was 14, I started gaining a lot of weight. I also got really bad cramps whenever I got my period, but I just chalked it up to puberty. I noticed how terribly people treated me once I gained weight. And this went on till I went to the USA for university in 2015.
I don’t know if it was the stress of change or a new diet that triggered it, but my first semester in school, my period came and just didn’t stop.
I tried to ride through it because I’m very stubborn when it comes to pain, but after the 20th day, I went to the campus health centre and got put on the birth control pill. My period stopped then.
At the same time, I gained a lot of weight.
Did you go to the hospital again?
Yes, before I came back to Nigeria for the summer, I went to the health centre one more time. The nurse said that based on what had been going on, I might have something called PCOS and should go to the ob/gyn when I go home.
I googled it, and honestly, it read so fatalistic that I cried for days at the possibility of having it.
That must have been so traumatic for you. Did you still see the oby/gyn?
I laid down for an ultrasound, and he pointed at my ovaries on the screen and said, in the most condescending tone, “See that? You have what we in the field call polycystic ovaries.”
It was one of the worst doctor visits I’ve ever had, and considering all the things PCOS does to a body, it was completely unhelpful and almost harmful honestly, but that was my diagnosis.
It must have hurt for someone to have dismissed you like that. What did you do next? Lose weight?
It was such a jarring experience. Since all he said was that I’d be fine if I lost weight, I tried to focus on that. I went on all sorts of diets, did so much fasting and got plied with so many “fat-burning” vitamins and supplements.
None of it worked. I kept gaining weight. My periods were longer and more painful. I was exhausted all the time, my neck got darker and darker, and I constantly had acne. My mental health was in the bottom of the gutter. Overall, I was not doing great.
I’m so sorry you had to keep dealing with all of that.
It’s fine now but not so much then. Since I was fat, acne-ridden with dark patches of skin and constantly tired, people who didn’t know I had PCOS simply assumed I was a lazy slob who overeats. They would offer me all kinds of unsolicited advice. It’s honestly rough to feel like you live in a body that’s constantly hurting and betraying you, and then people add to it by playing doctor with you in a rude, overfamiliar way.
When I went back to school, I had to deal with my studies, my part-time job and extracurricular responsibilities. I didn’t have any energy to devote to taking care of myself. This went on for about three years.
In my final year of school, I decided to visit the campus dietitian a few times, but I found it so hard to take on her suggestions. I was already averaging one meal a day, barely sleeping and the gym was so far on the other end of campus that getting there felt like a full workout of its own. I simply couldn’t handle the effort it would take. It was truly a gift from God that I graduated with the grades I had.
Did graduation change anything? Give you more time to focus on your health?
After graduation, I went online and bought a book about PCOS that I had seen in the dietitian’s office. I started some proper research into PCOS by reading and trying to create a routine for myself. At the time, I had a visa for a year of post-college work (OPT), so I was living in the DC area in the US and working full time. It was fully up to me to make sure I was feeding myself well and getting some daily exercise.
For a while, I seemed to be getting a solid grasp of how to handle things, focusing more on feeling healthy rather than losing weight. But as life and work got busier, I started to slip on focusing on my health.
Despite all I tried to do, I was completely exhausted at the end of each day even though I was at my desk for most of it. My mental health had not improved at all. I didn’t have the physical or mental energy to juggle life, and I kept seeing the lack of progress as me being a complete failure, so my well being took a backseat to all the other stuff going on with my life like my job and visa issues.
COVID-19 hit, and the US was enforcing a lockdown, so I started working from home in March 2020. I tried to rest a lot, but even when I slept for hours, I never felt rested.
Also, at this point, my period hadn’t shown up since January. Still, I made the effort to start eating better and taking a walk every day, and for a while, I was actually feeling pretty good! Then the worst happened, LOL.
My job decided not to sponsor a work visa, so my last day would be in July and I had to be back in Nigeria before the end of September. I was gearing up for that emotional rollercoaster when, on June 16th, 2020, my period finally showed up for the first time since January.
I was excited about it and took it as a sign that all the work I was doing was causing changes. Then a week passed and it was still there. Two weeks, three weeks, a month. My period was still going.
July passed and I was looking for COVID exit flights home, but my period was still there. August came and went, September came and was almost over, it was still there. What I and my body went through at that time was unbelievable to me. I was heavily iron deficient, and my iron supplements weren’t really helping considering how much I was bleeding. I spent most of my days in my bed because I had no energy to do a single thing but take a shower and then lie down.
My then roommate had to make my food sometimes because I couldn’t walk down the stairs to cook. I ended up ordering more food than usual so I wouldn’t have to go buy groceries and then cook.
Every other day, because even in my suffering, internalised fatphobia was still hooking me by the throat, I would get up and try to exercise. Every time, without fail, I would barely make it back to my room and sip some water before passing out. Unsurprisingly, I was in the worst depression of my life.
I once saw someone tweet “Is there anything that PCOS cannot do or cause?” And the answer is truly no. In those days, I gave up on trying to fix my PCOS. I told myself that if it killed me, it killed me.
You and your body went through so much. Please tell me it ended eventually.
I decided to just focus on getting home and thinking about further steps when I got there. Hearing what I was going through was very hard on my parents, and they were desperate to get me back in their care. I flew back to Abuja at the end of September.
When I got back, my parents had some good news. They told me that while visiting some family in Ilorin, they were referred to a hospital where the head ob/gyn had a lot of experience and kept up on new research about reproductive health issues, especially PCOS. So, we travelled to Ilorin and met with the doctor. It was the kindest I’d ever been treated by a healthcare professional.
He was very patient with me, listened to my experiences and explained in-depth what was actually going on with my body. I nearly cried at the amount of kindness and clarity I was getting.
I’m so glad. I hope this kindness came with help. Lots of it.
It really did. He ran some tests, did an ultrasound and actually explained what it was showing about my ovaries. When we discussed my weight gain, he was upset with me about how many uninformed decisions I had had to make trying to lose weight, because the doctor who diagnosed me should’ve told me differently.
Through him, I learned that intense cardio is actually bad for people with PCOS because the increased cortisol it causes can trigger weight gain for us, and that weight training, yoga and low impact workouts like walking or a casual bike ride was healthier. Diet-wise, I also learned that PCOS causes chronic inflammation, so more whole grains instead of refined carbs, and a more anti-inflammatory diet would help. Reducing stress is also key because stress worsens PCOS a lot.
What happened after the tests?
After all the tests, he candidly told me that the way my PCOS had progressed, he’d have to suggest a last resort: an ovarian drilling surgery.
How did the idea of surgery make you feel?
I was terrified at the idea, but he calmed me down and explained what it was. it would be done with a camera (laparoscopically), so it was minimally invasive.
They would make two small incisions, go in with a camera and drain a lot of the cysts on my ovaries. It would take at best three hours, and after maybe two weeks of recovery, I would be fully healed.
After talking with my parents, we agreed on it being the best course of action, and since it was way more affordable there than it would be in Abuja, we stayed in Ilorin. We scheduled a surgery for the next Sunday morning.
How did you feel before the surgery?
The day before surgery which was Saturday, October 17th, made it exactly 123 straight days of being on my period. At that point, anything that would bring me lasting relief was very welcome.
I felt a little jittery before the surgery, but overall, I was quite calm. I checked in the night before and had to beg my dad to go sleep in an empty hospital room, otherwise, he would’ve watched me all night. He knows I don’t like to break down in front of people, but he didn’t want to leave me alone. At the end of the day, I was okay.
Knowing I made it out of that honestly helps when people make rude comments about my body. It’s always in my mind that my body and I have survived more than some people will ever deal with.
How are you now post-surgery?
I’m a lot better! My periods aren’t 100% regular yet because it’ll take a little time for my hormones to recalibrate, but they are shorter than they have been in at least six years.
I feel healthier. I’m taking vitamins and supplements recommended for people with PCOS, and I try to walk with my dog or do some yoga to decompress from the day as soon as I get home from the office.
I have days where I mess up and eat something I know will make me feel like garbage, but keep pushing instead of beating myself up. I’ve lost a bit of weight as well, but I’m working on focusing on how I feel rather than how I look. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
My mental health is also improving. I make a lot of noise about being tired of living at home and wanting to move away, but I really need the care and love I’m getting. Life feels like it makes sense again.