Aunt Flo. Red tide. Crimson wave. That time of the month. Having the painters in. Shark week. On the rag. Lady time.
A study by Clue (a period tracker app) found that, around the world, there are over 5000 slang words and phrases for periods. We all know about it but not necessarily all the other stuff that comes with having a uterus or an xx chromosome. It affects 50% of the population and more if you think about those who do not fall into the female/male binary…. but we don’t talk about much of it. Sanitary products are advertised with blue liquid, women are seen as happy and free, despite their uterus literally shedding itself and coming out of their vaginas and women are told to keep fresh and clean. Basically, no one can know you’re bleeding and no one can know that you are uncomfortable.
But what happens when your period surpasses uncomfortable? What happens when your menstrual cycle leaves you in crippling pain or crippling depression? Well, for a lot of women I know and from personal experience, you suffer through as well as you can. I’ve spent the majority of my life thinking that this was “just part of being a woman”, to “woman up”, take the pain and definitely do not miss work/school/events because period pain, is not a good enough excuse. But what if your period pain is crawling down your hips, to thighs and making your legs feel numb and shaky? What if PMS is causing you so much anxiety that you can’t leave the house? That’s just a part of being a normal woman, right?
Well, in part, yes, periods aren’t pain free or complication free but the women who do have crazy light flows and no pain or mood swings, they are in the minority. For the majority, it can affect us in small ways or larger ways that consume our lives. For some this can be general PMS (premenstrual Syndrome) which most women will present with before their period, to varying degrees, but for others they can be dealing with conditions like PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), endometriosis, dysmenorrhea (severe cramps), menorrhagia (heavy periods) and PMDD (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder). Not to mention other conditions that present in similar ways. Problems with your period could be a sign post to one of these conditions but we don’t talk about it enough and not enough people are aware of them.
I was about 15 when, someone I knew, was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), it was the first and only condition I’d heard of at the time. I didn’t hear about any other conditions until I was 23. Now, I lived in a primarily female household where the topic of menstruation was not taboo and my mum had been through two complicated childbirths and early menopause. I was aware of the trials and tribulations of being a woman but it was in the context of pregnancy and childbirth. I don’t think this was an issue with my household but with the culture and society I have grown up in. Period pain was just seen as an excuse to get out of P.E, boys made jokes about girls being cranky cause they were on their periods and despite the caricature of mood swings so often portrayed, periods were seen as nothing to complain about. Sex education at my school didn’t cover much more than periods, puberty and childbirth but no one mentioned later stages in hormonal changes like peri-menopause or menopause or complications that can arise. Most of the things I have learned about women’s bodies, have been through stories of women I know, going through hell, before finally being told what is actually going on with their bodies. And a lot of the time, we’ve had to educate ourselves.
After 9 years of complaining about my periods, I went on the contraceptive pill to regulate my cycle and flow. The first one I was prescribed, put me into a depressive state that had me crying for hours, daily, with no explanation. I cycled through about 4 different pills over 2 years, before settling on ‘going natural’ due to extra complications from migraines (I totally won the genetic lottery). It was when I came off the pill that things started to deteriorate, I was deep in a masters degree, going through an intense break up and living independently without much of a support system. I blamed the break up for my decline in health and I vowed to get better and stronger. So I soldiered on, I changed medication, I went to therapy and I had wonderful new friends in Surrey and London. I did all the things I’ve been told to do to cope with having depression but I couldn’t keep things together, my mood changed like the weather, as did my outlook on life, my impulses were becoming uncontrollable and I could snap in an instant.
I ended up confiding in a friend and I was convinced it was because I was getting life wrong. But she mentioned the condition PMDD and that maybe I should start tracking my mood swings. This was the first I had heard of it and I shrugged it off and started tracking my periods anyway, thinking at least if I know what’s coming, I can deal with it! I started tracking my moods, my pain, my sleep, my appetite, everything I could think of that was being affected and as months went on, I noticed a clear pattern. However, as someone who has already been diagnosed with a mental health condition, I put most of it down to my hormones exasperating the condition. But as the months went on, my mood got increasingly worse and so did my health. I was terrified I was having a mental breakdown, I was refusing help, trying to soldier on despite everything and as I used more and more energy to simply exist, I got more exhausted. My appetite diminished to almost nothing, the barrage of intrusive thoughts and anxiety literally warped my reality, I found myself self-medicating to a point of dependency, I was fighting the impulse to self harm and suicidal thoughts for at least two weeks every month and lastly, I stopped being me. It feels as if I’m looking down on myself, watching my life burn and I can’t do anything about it. It’s exhausting both mentally and physically.
This has been my life for the past two years and in retrospect is something I’ve been dealing with since puberty. I’d always had ‘a reason’ to blame my low moods, my anger and my issues but when things felt ‘sorted’ the coping mechanisms from years of therapy and medication were doing nothing. I went to my GP and, thankfully, I was listened to. She decided to put me on the pill again, which after a trial of less than two months and two pills with severe side effects, we gave up. My mum, being a researcher at heart, found a female hormone clinic and suggested I get referred (massive points to my mum for being awesome). I was looking at a 6 month wait on the NHS and private wasn’t an option, I was lucky and a cancellation meant that I got seen just after 3 months. I had my assessment and it was confirmed that I fit the bill for PMDD and a treatment plan was formed.
I’m not writing this fixed or healthy, I’m writing this having had to rip my entire life apart so I can get healthy. I’m waiting for my treatment to start and even that isn’t a surefire fix, this is something I will have to manage for the rest of my life and it puts a lot of fear in me for my future and how my hormones will affect it.
So why am I telling you all way too much about my life and my periods? Because I’m not the only one, I know many women in my life that suffer from endometriosis, PCOS, periods so heavy they wipe out their iron count and women who are peri-menopausal and menopausal. I also know lots of women who have tried all the various hormonal contraception’s and have either settled with the ‘least worst option’ or nothing at all because it affected them so much. We are all strong women and we all suffer through but it shouldn’t have to be like this. There needs to be more information and we need to talk about just how tough it can be, because it affects us and those around us.
So, my plea is talk about it, reduce stigma, get informed and stop making periods a joke. No, I’m not just ‘moody/grumpy/emo’ because of my period, don’t trivialise women’s pain or mood because it can be life altering. I didn’t chose to be out of control but I’m choosing to regain control. If your periods are controlling your life and effecting you in a negative way, go to your GP and get help and men if you know people who have periods, give them a break.