Self-Taught: Alivia McKenzie
You have all heard the classic female tale. Whether bleeding through your khaki uniform pants and your mom telling you, “You’re a woman now,” losing your virginity in the back of an old pick-up truck at summer camp, or becoming a mother after a seamless pregnancy and having your perfectly round-headed and healthy baby placed on your ready-to-breastfeed chest, you know these movie quality stories to be wildly uncommon. You instead, as resilient you are, guide yourself through the untold truth of femininity.
You throw away 100 tampons before knowing how to use one. You lose your virginity on a messy, confusing, and imperfect night and you experience birth in a deeply personal and courageous way that likely completely deviated from your best-laid birth plan. Yet, you, as a powerful and resourceful force of nature, figure it out. You talk to your friends, converse with the Google Search Bar, and overcome the unknown.
Welcome to Self-Taught, Blood + Milk’s newest column where we discuss how women teach themselves
about their bodies—because we’ve all been failed by school courses, perplexed by movie scenes, and embarrassed by conversations with parents and peers.
For far too long, flawed systems and unrealistic media have depicted the female body—the female experience—as too skinny, too fat, too messy or neat, disgusting or pristine, but rarely the truth that lies between every extreme. In Self-Taught, we’ll share stories of how women uncovered flaws in systems, products, and lore, and taught themselves that there is a better way—and they deserve better.
You might know her as a beautiful influencer with a perfectly aesthetically pleasing Instagram, or you might know her as a voice that is powerfully transparent about her experience with endometriosis, adenomyosis, and miscarriages. Either way, Alivia McKenzie captured the Blood + Milk team’s attention with her grace and outspoken personality, both on and off Instagram.
It seems like in the media, menstruation is depicted as a very streamlined and similar experience for everyone. As a woman with endometriosis, can you talk to me about your period and the unexpected symptoms that come when the two are paired together?
I think something interesting about periods and endometriosis is that I had no idea that what I was going through was unexpected or uncommon. Up until I was about 20 I assumed that all girls threw up from period pain. I imagined it was normal to pass out during menstruation, that back and leg spasms were typical, that cramps prevented everyone from sleeping, and that bleeding, at times, can feel uncontrollable. I’ve learned over the years that all of those components of my period were red flags for either endometriosis or adenomyosis.
Did you ever receive education regarding your period—who from? Did that education include the possibility of any of your conditions?
Yes, I did! I felt—and continue to feel—very fortunate to have the mother that I do. She is a school administrator so by the time I got my period, my mother had coached hundreds of uterus owners about how to navigate their menstrual cycle. She was so calm and educational with me, always answering my questions. Sadly, as many other endo sufferers can relate to, endometriosis was never even a word I heard until five years after I got my first period.
You have both endometriosis and adenomyosis. How old were you when you discovered you had both of these conditions? Was there anything your body did unexpectedly that you had to learn how to overcome on your own?
I found out about the adenomyosis after a bunch of testing and an MRI of my pelvis when I was 19. Although a definitive diagnosis can’t be given without a hysterectomy, I carry symptoms and physical markers of adenomyosis. The endometriosis diagnosis came shortly after my 20th birthday via my first laparoscopy surgery. I would say living with daily chronic pain has been the biggest hurdle to overcome, and I’m still doing so. I think it will be a process to learn how to manage the emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual effects that endo and adeno cause.
While endometriosis and adenomyosis can both be physically painful, have you had any mental implications from living with the two? What have you learned best helps you overcome these barriers?
Absolutely. The link between chronic pain and mental illness is so strong. As someone who was dealing with mental health issues before my physical symptoms came about, I have found it to be paramount to focus on my mental health throughout times of pain. Therapy, meditation, activity, and connecting with my online community have all been pillars for my well being. Having an angel of a husband helps, as does having a handful of extremely supportive females.
Up until I was about 20 I assumed that all girls threw up from period pain.
In saying that, I’ve found that the life changes that have made the biggest difference for my mental well being have been cutting caffeine and going off of birth control. I had a Mirena IUD for four years, and while it was lovely to not bleed, I began experiencing a myriad of new symptoms after getting my IUD. My anxiety became unbearable. I tried multiple medications to control it, with no relief. I had multiple ovarian cysts rupture. I also experienced some of the worst insomnia during those years. I had my IUD removed in the fall, and a few months later my mind quieted. I think birth control is an empowering option for uterus owners and an important one for us to make individually. For me, not having synthetic hormones in my body has saved me. I still deal with mental illness every day, but the intensity of it is far more manageable without the IUD. At the end of the day, everybody is different, and birth control isn’t a one size fits all solution. I always recommend people to do their research, ask questions, and stay educated on their options.
You have posted a lot on your Instagram about your experience with endometriosis, adenomyosis, and eventually your oophorectomy. Were you always that open with speaking about your condition? What helped you to get to a place where you felt comfortable enough to talk?
When I was diagnosed with these conditions, I found it mind-boggling that I had never heard of them. As I was researching these illnesses, any information I could find online at the time revolved around uterus owning people who had given birth, or who were well into their forties. The resources at the time were next to none for young people like myself, so I decided to talk about it. The more I talked, the more messages I received, and four or so years into this, I’ve exchanged stories with hundreds of people just like me.
Right now I’m in the middle of my second early miscarriage and it’s hard to not feel mad at my body for placing such obstacles in my path, but I’m trying to be kinder to myself.
Honestly, I never felt as though I couldn’t talk about such issues, which I recognize is part of my privilege. It’s a balance between being transparent and not emotionally unloading on the people who choose to follow me on social media. This isn’t their burden to bear. I think there is a fine line between being open and being overbearing, so I try to share without going too far into detail or, on the flip side, glamorizing my illness.
What is one thing you wish your younger self knew about your body?
That my body is resilient as all hell. I have a great capacity to handle pain and cope with it—but that in itself hasn’t come without its hardships. I’m currently in a transitional phase where I am trying to unlearn the habit of placing blame on my body. There have been so many moments throughout this chapter of my life where I’ve felt frustration and unhappiness towards my physical facility. Right now I’m in the middle of my second early miscarriage and it’s hard to not feel mad at my body for placing such obstacles in my path, but I’m trying to be kinder to myself. Trying to deal with pain with more compassion. I’ve learned to ask myself, ‘would I speak to my best friend this way?’ If the answer is no, I realign.