I was a teenager when I first heard my male pastor preach about the woman “subject to bleeding,” as she is often called by various Bible translations. Her story wasn’t new to me, but I still remember my face growing hot and how I shifted nervously on the pew when my pastor announced that this woman had her period—he euphemistically called it her “womanly issues.” It was a sudden revelation to me to realize this story I had heard several times before was speaking about the unmentionable Aunt Flo. A person, in the Bible of all places, was “on the rag,” and I felt extremely awkward about that. Probably because my pastor was uncomfortable talking about it. Probably because my culture had conditioned me not to talk to men about my own “womanly issues.” Besides, what teenage girl is not embarrassed when her male pastor talks about periods from the pulpit?
What It Means to Have Endometriosis
From the age of twelve, I have had intense pain with my periods. This pain is once a month, for at least a week, every month. I can still remember the feeling of the floor in my high school as I laid there curled in the fetal position. And I can still remember the feeling of believing this was normal, that somehow I had a lower tolerance for this normal pain that every woman on the earth knows.
I was finally diagnosed with endometriosis at twenty-two. I am only one of many women—one in ten, actually—who are plagued by this incurable disease. In brief, endometriosis is a disease where the cells that line the uterine wall grow outside of the uterus and attach themselves to anything they can find. In response to hormonal shifts, these abnormal growths cause a great deal of pain and scarring within the abdominal cavity. There are varying degrees of the disease. Some women never know they have it, most women experience painful periods, others feel pain with sex, and others face infertility. Pain with bowel movements or urination, bloating, fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, and migraines are among the many other symptoms Endo Warriors (the name many suffers have given themselves) experience. A common misperception is that these symptoms happen only at “that time of the month,” but most of us experience degrees of these symptoms throughout our entire menstrual cycle.
One of the hardest parts about suffering from endometriosis is its invisibility. Like many chronic illnesses, it’s invisible; most of the time you wouldn’t guess that I am sick. Only a few symptoms are visible: My chronic acne means that strangers recommend face washes and that Mary Kay specialists give me tips for facial care. All the folks at the gym are probably wondering why I still haven’t managed to lose those extra ten to twelve pounds despite seeing me there three days a week. And I cannot participate in normal social activities, like sharing a beer at the pub with friends, because alcohol makes me sick—but not because I’m pregnant—a painful reminder of my potential infertility. Although I am regularly asked about my side effects and symptoms which impact my daily life, no one would look at me and truly see my daily battle.
Living with an invisible chronic illness is isolating. Friends and family grow equally weary with your pain, and without visible symptoms it is hard to understand. Long days binging Netflix mean missing out on life outside my living room. When even our doctors tell us our symptoms are normal, women with endometriosis stop talking. And our pain becomes ever more invisible.
As girls we’re told that it is normal to have painful periods. We’ve been told this by our mothers, our girlfriends, and our health teachers, but most influentially by our gynecologists, who are sometimes male and have never had a period. Many women with endometriosis are not diagnosed or treated for their symptoms for ten to fifteen years because everyone, including their physicians, tells them they need to “suck it up” or accept the pain and move on. My doctor began treating me with birth control—a common treatment for endometriosis—when I was sixteen because he suspected, without telling me, that I was sick. It wasn’t until I was twenty-two that he performed a diagnostic laparoscopy to confirm the disease and began rigorous hormone therapy to treat it. For the last ten years I have jumped from medication to medication, doctor to doctor, different diet regimens, homeopathic solutions—you name it. There is no cure.
For most of my life I have been socially conditioned to hide my pain, and so I am only beginning to learn how to talk about my disease. Our culture is also slowly shifting in the way we discuss “womanly issues.” Having a conversation about the status of our uteruses behind the safety of a screen through social media is certainly a lot easier than seeing the man we work for shift uncomfortably in his chair as we explain why we will have regular days of low performance or missing work. And I can’t tell you how excited I was the first time a pharmaceutical commercial for my disease was on public television!
Finding a Companion in the Bleeding Woman
In my loneliness, I have found a friend in the woman plagued with bleeding, who is found in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 9:18–22; Mark 5:21–34; Luke 8:40–48). When I pray, I can imagine how she was feeling and what she was thinking.
She stands at the edge of the crowd and hesitates. The warmth of the sun travels into her bones, and yet she shivers, a familiar chill which comes from deep within her belly where her bloated pain meets the core of her being. Mindlessly massaging the small of her back, she remembers the faces and words of those who have attempted to help her. Ointments, tinctures, teas, herbs, oils. Prayers, blessings, sacrifices, offerings. Her family’s resources were spent, and so was her hope.
The murmurs of the crowd are interrupted by a man shouting for fear of his daughter’s life. She has seen him before. Yes, he was there that day when she stood at the foot of the temple steps, not daring to enter due to her impurity. It was the day when the priest told her this was her plight as a woman. He told her that her womb, like all wombs, is forever cursed by God for the sin of their mother Eve. He told her this was normal. He told her she was fine.
She had fled the temple crying that day. A day, like today, when she ignored the purity laws, the God-ordained laws, which for twelve long years had declared her indefinitely unclean. The blood never ended. Her body could never touch the cleansing pools. She could never be restored to community.
Shifting her feet slowly, she assures herself that her rags are securely positioned, feeling the familiar warm stickiness already begin to reach her thighs. Steeling herself against the hot tears behind her eyes, she cracks open the place deep inside her where she finds the tiniest seed of hope and presses into the crowd.
She reaches out.
Eyes see eyes.
She meets his knowing gaze, which sees deep into her soul and loves her just the same.
And she is healed.
Jesus Sees Her
In Mark’s and Luke’s versions of the story of the bleeding woman, Jesus spends a few moments wondering who touched him and where his power has gone. But in Matthew, “Jesus turned and saw her,” immediately (9:22, NIV). As much as she tried to conceal herself, to be obedient to her culture’s expectations for those with “womanly issues,” to sink into the invisibility of her plight, Jesus sees her.
Even more powerfully, in Mark’s and Luke’s telling, that even after she has touched his robe and has been healed, Jesus stops because he wants to know her. He wants to know the woman who has desperately reached out from the fringes of society to touch the fringes of his robe. And, in that moment, she is crushed by the weight of her fear of rebuke, crushed by her years of shame and invisibility, drawn to her knees by the gaze of her healer.
The purity laws, which the woman was subject to for so long, were created for the sake of preserving the holiness of Yahweh. Those who are impure cannot mix with the Pure One, and so there are rules and regulations so that those tainted by uncleanness might be in right relationship with the One who is holy.
Yet here is Jesus, the Holy One, looking with love and compassion upon the unclean one. His touch is gentle, and her healing is deep. When he heals her and sees her, Jesus demonstrates the depth of his love for those the world does not see and those the world dares not touch. Her bleeding is stopped by the One whose blood will heal all of humanity. And he calls her Daughter.
As I sit on the couch, holding my heating pad and chatting with the bleeding woman, I find myself comforted. The teenage girl inside of me, who felt so uncomfortable by the idea of a period being spoken of in church, has found a true friend in this unnamed biblical character. Although, like her, I will require a miracle to be cured, I have found deep healing in the hope which comes from a Savior who sees women like me.