I was 9 years old when I had my first menstrual cycle. Nine! I was a little girl in the third grade that had made the proverbial leap from adolescence to “womanhood” just like that.

I remember sitting in class with a fanny pack around my waist that contained sanitary napkins, oral contraceptives, and pain medication in it. I had horrible cramps, back and leg pain.

These symptoms were my norm, so I just dealt with them as they came.

I remember thinking that the fanny pack would distract my classmates from the hourly trips to the bathroom just to make sure I didn’t have an “accident” on myself.

Or at least that’s what I had to keep telling myself as years went on, until I found someone that was able to make sense of it all — I had endometriosis.

In December 2010, I was officially diagnosed with endometriosis, an autoimmune disease that causes the endometrial tissue to grow outside of the uterus when it’s supposed to line the inside of it.

These tissues, if not properly monitored and treated, can spread to many other parts of your body causing extreme pain in those areas.

I lived with endo (endometriosis) for 16 years before I was properly diagnosed!

I decided that month to undergo surgery to correct the issue in my body. A little over a year later, I went back for a 7-hour ‘excision surgery.’

My second surgery was necessary because I found out that not only did I have scar tissue, but my endo had spread to my bowels.

I spent a lot of time trying to understand what I had done wrong, and experienced severe depression. How had this happened? I had had two major surgeries in the span of two years.

Most of my friends didn’t understand when I said I couldn’t hang out as often. A few even stopped talking to me. It was a very low place in my life.

But then, I reached a point where I was tired of feeling sorry for myself. I realized I was focusing on the wrong things. I realized I could either continue to feel sorry for myself or find meaning in my condition.

It’s not normal to have crippling leg pain and flare ups. I should know. I, like many women, had suffered in silence — but it was time to speak up.

I started doing research. I just knew for sure that I couldn’t be the only woman dealing with this.

I was not only right, but I was able to find a community of women that were open and honest about how they too were dealing with endo. There are other people just like me that experience the same condition I do daily.

It’s estimated that 1 out 10 women (usually between ages 15 and 49) are diagnosed with endometriosis — and although I am one, I realized that I was not alone.

Having a condition like endo can make you feel as if you’re isolated from others. But to know that you’re not and can communicate all the emotional and physical pain that comes with endo makes a world of difference.

There are a few lessons endometriosis has taught me that I’d love to share:

You are a woman first

Endo doesn’t define you. It is a part of your journey that makes you who you are.

Don’t stop living!

During my depression, I isolated myself. But that was the wrong move. There are people willing and able to understand and not judge you for something you have no control over.

You are strong

You are a warrior. I know at times you may not feel your best every day. Definitely fight back by maintaining a healthy lifestyle — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

You are not alone

There are thousands of women who are going through exactly what you’re feeling. Don’t be afraid to reach out and seek support. Sometimes we just need to talk to someone who understands us.

Embrace your journey

It is your story and you can help so many around you who may be suffering in silence.

As I reflect on my life with endometriosis, I can say I am truly grateful. Endo has pushed me to become the best version of me.

Of course, endo is still painful — but I decided that it won’t define me, and it shouldn’t define you either.

I’ve turned my pain into passion and my passion into purpose by continuing to educate others that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And the light leads to a purposeful life.

April Christina is a beauty and wellness blogger who resides in New York City. After being diagnosed with endometriosis in 2010, she decided to turn her pain into passion and found her purpose by educating people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Her goal as a blogger and endometriosis advocate is to show people that they’re not alone in their struggles. She continues to inspire people on her website and Instagram.