Mae Whitman Talks About Years of Pain that Led to Endometriosis Diagnosis: 'I Thought I Was Dying'

"It's been a really long journey, but I just hate the fact that there are people out there that are struggling with this, and feel alone, and feel like there's no one else," Mae Whitman tells PEOPLE

Mae Whitman is hoping to help others by sharing her journey with endometriosis.

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Good Girls actress, 31, opens up about her years of excruciating pain that led to a life-changing diagnosis, endometriosis — the reproductive condition in which uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus, causing cramping and chronic pain.

"I remember there was a scene in One Fine Day where there was a lot of running across New York and I got really sick to the point where I couldn't do it," recalls Whitman, who starred alongside George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1996 romantic drama. "I couldn't keep moving. I remember that kind of marked the beginning of a journey of a lifetime of stomach aches for me, and a lifetime of problems for me."

As she grew older, Whitman — who is currently gearing up for the fourth season of NBC's Good Girls — says she "tried everything" in order to get answers, but was unable to find a solution.

mae whitman
Jamie Mccarthy/Getty

"I tried birth control and all the things that they said and my cramps were not normal," says Whitman. "I went to so many doctors over the years. And I would just say, 'What is it?' First they would say period pain is normal. And I was like, 'Okay, I'm barfing into the toilet seven times every single time.' And then they would say, 'Well, you should go on birth control because it could be this weird thing called endometriosis, that we don't really know a lot about and the only thing you can do to fix it, is this really complicated surgery, and even then you usually have to come in like 10 times to get that to work.' And I was like, 'But what is it?' "

"I remember I kept going, and I just would leave these appointments just crying hysterically in my car, because I felt so gaslit," she adds. "I didn't understand what it was."

"I had a particularly bad time where I ended up having to go to the emergency room," Whitman recalls. "I thought I was dying, and I have a really, really high tolerance for pain. I couldn't do a job on The Handmaid's Tale because I was so sick. I had to give up a guest role, which I really wanted to do. I'd be laying half in and out of the shower, and an hour late for my call time, and barfing. And finally, I had to go to the hospital."

Whitman, who said she was "at the edge of my rope" after falling so ill, says she reached out to good friend Lena Dunham — who was experiencing similar symptoms at the time.

"I still didn't know what it was or how to treat it, so finally, I reached out to Lena Dunham, because I knew that she'd had issues with this as well," she adds. "And she recommended me to Dr. Iris Orbuch and I remember the first thing they do, is they hand you a big book of all of these testimonials and letters that these people wrote. And I just immediately burst into tears, just reading the letters, because it was the first time I'd ever felt like someone said, 'This is what I have. This is what it is, is what it feels like, and there is a way out.'"

After getting the answers she'd been longing for, Whitman says she was able to find a manage her symptoms.

For more on Mae Whitman's struggle with endometriosis, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

mae whitman
Mae Whitman. Maarten de Boer/Getty

"The issue is, it's a disease with no cure," she says. "You just have to keep treating it, and managing it. The best way is a holistic approach. And the only real way to take care of it, is to have laparoscopic excision surgery snd that marked the journey of a serious amount of dieting, yoga, meditation, nervous system recovery, adrenals, all of that."

"The day that I got the surgery was the best day of my life," she says. "I'm so much better now, I'm a different person. It's a long journey to recovery. There's still elements of it, and I'll have it forever. It's kind of like my shadow, but now it's like my friendly shadow. It's been a really long journey, but I just hate the fact that there are people out there that are struggling with this, and feel alone, and feel like there's no one else."

By speaking about her experience, Whitman hopes to help others dealing with endometriosis.

"It's the most important thing in my life right now to try and get the word out there," says Whitman. "Because knowing the mental battles that I've been through with it, that I still go through with it without having a support system, it's so difficult. If we can just encourage anyone to feel less alone, to know that there is hope, that there's ways to manage and beat this disease, and live with it in a way that won't totally ruin your life, it's really like you're taking your life back. I hope that we can spread this awareness with the correct facts, not the myths about it, not the lies, not the misinformation, and start to really help people be able to treat this."

Good Girls premieres March 7 on NBC.

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