One of the most frustrating aspects of suffering from endometriosis – when tissue from inside the womb grows outside of it – is its invisibility.
There’s nothing visual that indicates you’re suffering from a debilitating disease, there’s nothing on the surface that would suggest you’re struggling with infertility, there’s nothing others can see that shows why some days you can't move because of the chronic pain.
But Ellie Kammer, an artist from Adelaide, is doing her part to illustrate the experience and raise awareness about the disease that affects one in 10 Aussie women. In her confronting yet breathtaking series of paintings, every brush stroke comes from an intimate relationship with endometriosis.
The 26-year-old told Women’s Health that she started experiencing pelvic pain, dysuria and pain during sex when she was 18. When her symptoms started to escalate, she became aware that it was something more serious than what a number of doctors had indicated.
She was finally diagnosed with endometriosis via laparoscopy in 2015, and is still suffering from complications associated with the disease.
“Physically and mentally I’ve been through a lot since being diagnosed,” Ellie told Women’s Health. “I recovered pretty poorly from my first surgery, I spent weeks in bed in agony and I was quite immobile. It took about six months after the operation to get my energy back to normal levels, I was constantly having to take naps and I found it so difficult to concentrate.”
But it wasn’t just the physical aspect of the disease that took it’s toll.
“I really struggled with the news of being tied to a chronic pain condition for the rest of my life. It took me a very long time to move on from grieving the loss of the healthy life I assumed I would have, and accepting my new, very considered and careful lifestyle.”
“I felt isolated and frustrated by the lack of reliable or consistent information to grab onto regarding endometriosis,” she says. “I’m that kind of obnoxiously calculated and logistical minded person and so having no clue what was going on inside my body and what was causing my symptoms was driving me insane and caused me to spiral into a pit of depression.”
“Eventually I found a reliable organisation (Endometriosis Australia) that provides hard facts and education based group discussions, so that was an important discovery for me and the more educated I became the better I learned to cope and adjust. It was the lack of reliable information and the difficulty I had maintaining my personal relationships because I couldn’t properly communicate the pain and sorrow inside me that inspired me to create the endometriosis themed paintings.”
Her oil paintings depict women in ordinary poses covered in blood and scars, a confronting visual representation of the hidden suffering that comes with endometriosis.
“The first painting took the longest. I started painting almost as soon as I was able to walk after the first surgery but I had a long way to go in recovering and so the painting took a few months,” Ellie says. “As I got healthier and was able to work longer hours and concentrate properly, the paintings started taking shape in just a few weeks.”
And the reaction to her work has been phenomenal.
“I think that a lot of women with endo or any invisible condition find solace in the works because they’re unapologetic. We’re so conditioned to think that we have to keep quiet about our bodies or that it's something that we should be ashamed of discussing, particularly if it has anything to do with menstruation and I think the confronting nature of my work awakens that inner strength in women and inspires them to own their issues and become comfortable being open about them. Of course the paintings aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that doesn’t bother me, I’m just putting what I’ve got out there and I’m comfortable with that.”
Ellie says that sharing her experience so publicly came naturally, but she says she sometimes feels anxious about what kind of responses she’ll receive.
“But I always choose to share no matter how I’m feeling about it. I know that sharing and educating is for the greater good and I think the community (generally) appreciates my transparency.”
One of the most significant response has come from Lena Dunham, actress, writer, producer, director and advocate for endometriosis awareness. Lena recently shared Ellie’s portrait of her with her 3.2 million followers.
“I asked Lena if she would allow me to create a portrait of her and she very politely responded and told me she’d be honoured. We agreed on an image and style and what the portrait would represent and when the portrait was finished, to my delight, she shared it on her Instagram account with a very sweet message.”
“It’s my intention to host an online auction of the painting in November and donate 100% of the profits to Endometriosis Australia.”
Ellie’s next project will aim to explore the impact having a chronic illness can have on personal relationships, which you can pledge to support here.