In her own words, Dr Kelly Naff tells her traumatic story:
Walking up the stairs of a beachside restaurant where I was enjoying dinner with my friends, I suddenly felt that familiar gush of blood. Rushing to the toilet I saw the blood had leaked through my sanitary towel and soiled my trousers, I had to go home.
Again, shame and disappointment washed over me. I was in my 20s and should have been worrying about love and relationships, but not for the first time I was thinking about suicide, I was so desperate.
As a teenager I’d suffered painful, heavy periods, but over the years they’d got to the point where I’d bleed for weeks at a time. Some months I’d only have one week of respite before it started again, and any kind strenuous activity would set it off.
The pain was excruciating, and because the bleeding was making me anaemic, I felt constantly light-headed and dizzy and I’d often be on the verge of passing out. By the time I was 26 I was told I had ovarian cysts, uterine fibroids and polyps and had four different operations to remove them, but none of them worked.
I had to use a box of super-sized tampons every day, coupled with extra-thick sanitary towels, but I’d still have accidents. In addition, I was experiencing such deep physical pain I was convinced it would eventually kill me.
Other than recommending the contraceptive pill, my doctors couldn’t find a way to help me. Ironically, at the time I was studying for my doctorate in psychology and teaching the psychology of human sexuality, but as far as my own life was concerned, sex couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Sex had always been something I enjoyed, but it had become so painful that what should have been a pleasurable experience had turned into something traumatic. Relationships weren’t even a consideration.
Then, when I was 30, a man called Jim contacted me on Facebook. He was a friend of a friend, and explained she’d told him about my situation and he wanted to offer me Reiki to see if it could help.
I didn’t know much about Reiki at the time, but it’s an alternative form of medicine using hands-on healing, so I was astonished when it actually gave me some relief from the pain.
Jim was so kind and understanding and there was a mutual attraction, so after a few years of friendship it turned into a relationship.
Jim was so open-minded and patient that he changed the way I felt about myself and enabled me to have a normal sex life again. Knowing he saw beyond my damaged body changed everything for me.
However, I was still suffering from heavy bleeding and one day, when I was 31, the bleeding started and didn’t stop. It lasted for weeks, leaving me constantly sapped of energy and on the brink of collapse.
It was so painful I started having panic attacks and became convinced I was going to die. I remember telling Jim to look after my cats, because I couldn’t see how I could get through this alive.
It got so bad that I was taking painkillers like they were sweets and Jim insisted on taking me to the hospital.
The doctors took blood tests and when the results came through they looked at me as though I were a ghost. They couldn’t believe I’d walked through the door on my own two feet. I was told I was dangerously anaemic and would need a blood transfusion in the next 30 minutes or I’d die.
‘I can’t believe you’re alive,’ the doctor told me, in shock. ‘You could have had a stroke at any time.’ I was taken straight into intensive care and spent the next three days there, fighting for my life. I was even read my last rites as the doctors weren’t sure I’d pull through.
It took a month for my haemoglobin levels to stabilise, and once they did I needed surgery to remove two fibroids that had been found on my uterus. The doctors were confident it would be routine surgery, but deep down I sensed something more serious was wrong.
‘You have my consent to perform a hysterectomy,’ I told the surgeon before I was anaesthetised. She insisted I wouldn’t need one, but when I woke up eight hours later I was told I’d been right.
The surgeon had found more than 2,000 tumours in my uterus, which had swollen to the size of a seven-month pregnancy. I’d needed a full hysterectomy – they removed my womb to save my life. Although I’d been expecting it I still went into deep shock, mentally and physically.
Losing my uterus put me into the perimenopause and my hormones were all over the place. I was sad to think I’d never have the choice about whether to have children, but getting my life back was more important.
The next four months passed by in a blur, as I tried to process what had happened and how close I’d come to death. I also put on 2 stone and struggled to accept my new shape. I felt my body had let me down again.
Slowly, though, my hormones started to balance out, and after around six months I began to see this was an opportunity for a new life, free from bleeding and pain. I had the chance to start afresh, although I realised before I could do that I had to learn to love and accept myself.
Jim and I moved to the USA, and as well as working as a psychologist, I started a podcast called Lucid Planet Radio, aimed at helping people to become the best version of themselves.
I covered numerous topics with several special guests, but time and time again elements of my own story would crop up.
At first I didn’t even want to think about what had happened to me. I’d spent 15 years living with the pain and the bleeding and I was desperate to put it behind me. I even felt as though on some level it had been my punishment for embracing sexuality in my late teens.
Back then when I’d told friends I enjoyed sex I was treated with disgust. I’d told some friends I’d enjoyed giving a boy oral sex and it circulated around the school until I became known as one of the school ‘sluts’.
So, psychologically, I felt my health problems were a sign I didn’t deserve to enjoy sex. Slowly, with Jim’s help, I realised that wasn’t true and worked through my issues. I learnt to be what I describe as sex positive, which meant embracing my own sexuality.
Then two years ago I started to write a book about sex positivity, both from my own experience and from a scientific point of view. I realised we all have our own sexual demons, whether that’s abuse, toxic relationships, negative role models, or anything else, and we need to overcome them to accept ourselves.
For me, sex positivity means having a healthy relationship with your sexuality, whether that’s enjoying swinging from the chandeliers, or preferring a book and a cup of tea.
It’s also about accepting other people’s choices and I hope reading about that helps everyone to be more tolerant of themselves and of others.
Jim and I are writing our own rules too and enjoy a non-monogamous relationship. We’re very selective about our sexual partners, but we feel that while we love one another, we don’t want to place any restrictions on our relationship. That’s what feels natural to us.
Sharing my story has made me feel I can finally breathe. In the past I couldn’t have spoken about what happened without breaking down, but now I’m happy to talk openly, especially if it helps another woman in a similar situation realise she’s not alone. It’s taken a long time, but I’m proud of what I’ve been through and proud I survived.
Facts about uterine fibroids
Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous growths that develop in or around the uterus. They are made up of fibrous tissue, and vary in mass between the size of a pea and the size of a melon.
In two-thirds of cases they don’t cause any symptoms, but some women experience heavy or painful periods, abdominal or lower back pain, constipation, a need to urinate more often, and painful or uncomfortable sex.
One in three women will develop fibroids in their lifetime, most often aged between 30 and 50. Most fibroids don’t need treatment, and over time many will shrink and disappear of their own accord.
– Sex Positive: Redefining Our Attitudes To Love & Sex by Dr Kelly Naff (Watkins, £11.99) is out now