Make up artist Rebecca Bryson: 'I have battled with endometriosis since my teens... now my fiancé and I have been told IVF is our only chance of having a baby'
Belfast make-up artist and Curvy Bridal boutique owner Rebecca Bryson, who has had excruciatingly painful periods since she was 10, tells Lee Henry how the condition means that she has only an 8% likelihood of having children, even with the help of IVF treatment.
As one of Northern Ireland’s most in-demand hair and make-up artists, 31-year-old Rebecca Bryson has worked with countless models, brides and private clients celebrating big events.
She always has a smile on her face and a spring in her step, and her upbeat personality and positive attitude have not gone unnoticed.
If you look at her Facebook business page, the testimonials from clients are uniformly positive, praising her creative talents as well as her willingness to have fun, even in the most emotional or strained of circumstances.
The hundreds of customers and colleagues that Rebecca has worked with over the years will no doubt be surprised to learn that she lives her life in almost perpetual pain, having suffered from the female reproductive condition endometriosis since she was young.
As a result of the debilitating ailment, Rebecca and her finance Colum Coyle who are due to wed next year, are faced with the heart-breaking idea that they may never be parents and have been forced to re-evaluate their options.
Despite the devastating news and the often crippling condition, Rebecca is determined to pursue a successful career and has just recently returned from Paris Fashion Week, where she rubbed shoulders with everyone from Rihanna to Kendall Jenner.
She explains that having endometriosis, which affects one in 10 UK women, is “pretty grim”.
“It’s classed as a chronic pain illness and I can certainly vouch for that,” she says.
“It causes tissue like the endometrium to grow outside of the uterus and attach to things like your spine, bladder, intestines and kidneys, and basically strangles them.
“It also causes infertility and a lot of women as young as 30 have to have full hysterectomies to get rid of it.
“Chronic pain is the main symptom alongside very heavy periods and fatigue.
“It also plays havoc with my hormones, which causes migraines, anxiety and drops in my mood, and it can be a cause of irritable bowel syndrome. It also makes it incredibly difficult for me to lose weight and very easy for me to gain weight.
“The pain is hard to describe, but it can be relentless no matter what you do.
“Sometimes the pain meds work, sometimes they don’t. During ovulation and menstruation even walking can be painful, and it can cause pain after and during intercourse as well as bleeding. Like I said, it’s grim.”
While most patients are diagnosed with endometriosis in their 30s or 40s, Rebecca — who was born in Northern Ireland but raised in Auckland, New Zealand — was diagnosed aged just 12, two years after she had her first period.
“Ten is a very young age to get your period. At that point I didn’t even really know what a period was,” she recalls.
“I remember trying to hide it, thinking I was just sick, until my mum sat me down and explained it all to me.
“From day one, my periods were painful and heavy. It got to the point where I would pass out because the pain was so severe, and my parents would often have to rush me to hospital.
“I saw several specialists. I was sent for several tests. I count myself lucky I was diagnosed so young.”
Her parents, Lynn and Glenn, and brother Grant were “great helps” during Rebecca’s adolescent struggles with endometriosis. Her mother suffered from fibroids and underwent a hysterectomy, while her father and brother assisted in any way that they could.
“I remember a friend being so shocked that I would ask my brother to buy me tampons and painkillers,” she says.
“His response was always to recall seeing me as an 11-year-old, rocking on my bed and crying out in pain. He never minded doing it, bless him.”
Despite her early diagnosis, the condition continued to have an impact on Rebecca’s day-to-day life. Until she turned 13, she would regularly miss at least two days of school every month when the pain was most acute.
“It was really difficult trying to balance pain and education, but thankfully my schools were great and I kept up with my work, but it meant that I missed out on normal life every month.”
Endometriosis requires sufferers to undergo laparoscopic laser surgery every five years, according to Rebecca, and she entered hospital for her first surgery aged 20.
“That is something I will have to have repeatedly until menopause, although some women do find that the condition goes away after they have children, but no one is really sure why.”
She studied at the Samala Robinson Academy in Auckland, graduating in fashion make-up and design. She subsequently established herself as a freelancer Down Under, working on various television productions with MTV Australia and Juice TV, and developing a pool of regular customers.
After her grandmother passed away, however, the family decided to move back home to Northern Ireland. Rebecca quickly fell in love with the province, which is similar in many ways to the country she had left behind.
However, she soon found out that the health service infrastructure surrounding endometriosis was lacking in comparison to New Zealand.
“New Zealand is a lot more advanced than Northern Ireland when it comes to female health,” she says. “Northern Ireland currently doesn’t have an endometriosis specialist. There are gynaecologists who are educated on the condition, but unfortunately we are all vying for time with specialists that fly in regularly from other parts of the UK. This means that appointments are years apart.
“Sufferers therefore rely on our GPs, many of whom aren’t trained properly to help. It’s very frustrating and most women don’t have the money to pay for private care.”
Regardless, she got on with her life and became engaged to 26-year-old graphic designer Colum Coyle, from Lisburn, earlier this year. The pair are set to get married next year and Rebecca is currently busy organising their big day. From the off, she was honest about her chances of giving birth.
“I was really straight up from the start. I was so young when I learned that my fertility would be affected that it didn’t really register, to be honest. I thought I had my whole life ahead of me, and plenty of time to try for kids. But over 30, my chances of conceiving will drop to as low as 8% with assistance, and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger.
“I got together with Colum when I was 27 and I knew if he wanted to have children that it would be extremely difficult, but he has always been amazing about it. Colum would like to have kids, we both would, but he also says that a life with me is what’s really important.
“If we decide that we want to have kids one day and haven’t been able to do so naturally, we can look at adoption. We have decided that we will have one go at IVF and if it doesn’t work, then we will let it go and move on.”
These days, Rebecca goes through highs and lows. As well as the chronic pain to contend with, she is also constantly aware of her mental health.
She believes that the psychological effects of endometriosis are often overlooked by GPs and members of the public, many of whom remain largely ignorant of the disease.
“It has an impact on your relationship with your partner,” she adds.
“Sometimes I have ‘why me?’ days, when the pain just won’t stop, and Colum is running around getting me heat pads and trying to massage some of the pain away while I’m writhing in pain and in tears. I know how incredibly hard it is for him to see me in pain and to be put in a caretaker position.
“Unlike most people, though, I can’t call in sick on someone’s wedding day or when a fashion shoot has been arranged. I have to pull it together and get on with it and help create the bride’s perfect day, or the client’s perfect campaign.”
Rebecca is adamant that she continues to love her work and is “passionate” about working with new people and experiencing new things.
Recently, her talents were acknowledged by internationally-respected make-up artist Pat McGrath, who invited her to join his team during Paris Fashion Week.
She says: “It was a hard run-up to it. I just had my period, had a major drop in mood and severe anxiety the week before I left, but it truly was one of the best experiences of my life.
“It’s not every day Rihanna strolls into the green room in her PJs to say hello, or that you get to share sandwiches with Kendall Jenner.
“I never dreamed that I’d be adding designers like Louis Vuitton, Valentino, Miu Miu to my CV. I even managed to get a smile from Anna Wintour.”
In the years ahead, she will continue to live with endometriosis, though she looks forward to the onset of the menopause, which usually signals the end of the condition. For now, however, her most pressing concerns are her impending nuptials.
Rebecca adds: “Honestly, I cannot wait to see Colum at the top of the aisle. He will no doubt be crying his eyes out. I hope he likes my dress. I just can’t wait to be his wife and grow old with him.
“We have experienced so much together in the last four years, and sometimes those things have been incredibly hard.
“However, knowing you have someone that has your back, you just can’t beat that.”