Last month Jezebel posted a feature called ‘The Most Horrifying Period Stories You’ve Ever Heard’.
I don’t believe there a reader among you that hasn’t clicked on that link. Even the squeamish ones. Even the boys. Especially the boys. Yes, you’re wincing, but it’s still totally irresistible. Go on, have a look. But remember to come back here afterwards.
See? There are some GREAT stories. Some funny, some sad, some far-fetched: all totally cringe-worthy. And all out in the open: ordinary women talking online about something that for three to six days per month is as much a part of their day-to-day existence as eating breakfast or getting dressed, yet which they probably never devoted so much time to as when they wrote their responses for Jezebel.
The response that really stood out for me was from a woman who had experienced very heavy periods for most of her adult life but had never mentioned it to anyone, because it hadn’t occurred to her that it might be unusual. It wasn’t until watching a talk show that she realised that the unusually heavy flow and pain she was experiencing every month might be an indication that something was actually, medically wrong.
Obviously, having heavy periods is not always an indication of something sinister. Many women experience menorrhagia (unusually heavy periods) or dysmenorrhea (unusually painful periods) without necessarily having anything ‘wrong’ with them. It’s not particularly nice, or fair: it’s just the way their bodies are.
But I think it very likely that there are quite a few women out there who, like Jezebel’s correspondent, are struggling though really quite horrendous menses under the impression that it’s par for the course, when in fact it ain’t necessarily so. It seems incredible, but there are women who manage to live in the Information Age without having a proper understanding of how their bodies work. I know, because until quite recently I was one of them. If I’m totally honest, I still am.
No-one asked me, but my period drama started when I was 11. I couldn’t have been more horrified when I discovered one breaktime that I had somehow pooed myself without noticing. I can’t remember what I did about it: all I know is that I was sufficiently embarrassed not to tell anyone, not even my mum, what had happened.
Since I had privately made up my mind that I would probably be one of the tiny minority of girls our teacher had mentioned who didn’t start their periods or grow breasts until the advanced age of 18, the soon indisputable fact that I had ‘started’ came as a bit of a shock. Pads and a whole new set of black pants were purchased. Systems were go.
15 years on, my memory of events is a little hazy, but I do know that the one or two of us who ‘started’ that year enjoyed near-celebrity status in the playground. For a while, I was inundated with questions which I found myself almost totally unable to answer. I remember breezily offering some very exaggerated accounts of monthly sufferings, mostly based on the accounts of middle-aged women in That’s Life! magazine, but this was largely to disguise the fact that my journey into womanhood seemed to have ground to a halt.
Yep: after the first couple of months, my age 9-11 pants had displayed no discernible signs of further uterine action. The pads sat unused in the bathroom cupboard. Other girls in my class began swapping stories about gushing pints of red, liquid blood. I began to think maybe I really had pooed myself. And one day, I found out that some of the other girls were telling everyone that I’d made up my own menarche in order to win popularity.
This was horrific. I was now juggling the shame of the occasional poo-blood, the worry that it seemed to have gone away, and an urgent need to be recognised as a bona fide menstruator. It was an unbelievably stressful situation for an 11-year-old and is almost certainly at the root of my inability to do long division.
Nurse Wragg’s informational booklets advised that it was perfectly normal for young girls to experience very irregular periods at first, but this just wasn’t good enough. I wanted more than anything to start bleeding again, and, after nearly a year and some extremely convoluted bluffing with STs, I finally I got my wish. Things eventually got going again when was 13. By 14 I’d fallen into a 29-day cycle, and by 15 I was rendered pale and sweaty with pain for a few days every calendar month. And that’s how it was for years.
I’d get the heads up that the bad stuff was on its way from a period of light bleeding or ‘spotting’ that could last anything up to a week. Then the period proper would begin: a sudden wave of nausea followed by all the blood draining from my face, presumably directly to my uterus. Then came pain: nagging, insistent, deep: a very visceral reminder that the pain of menstruation is caused by the same uterine contractions that women experience in delivering a child. It would start in the small of my back and send icy fingers up to twinge the nerves in my shoulders, before reaching around pervily to encircle my bowels in a cold embrace. The first two days of my period would be spent going to the toilet every two hours and, at weekends when I wanted to go out, contemplating exactly how many tampons it is actually possible to fit in one vagina. (Probably best not to try this one, ladies, but if you do, it’s vitally important to keep a tally.) It was miserable.
Unlike the woman from Jezebel, I think I’ve always had the knowledge and the confidence to know that you should run any troubling symptoms past a doctor, if only to set your mind at ease. But what I didn’t realise until fairly recently is that said doctor should at least occasionally be able to actually DO something about them. For me, it took 14 years, countless GP appointments, endless swabs and scans and more internal examinations than can be counted on the KY-coated fingers of both hands, but last year I was finally referred to a gynaecologist and diagnosed with luteal phase dysfunction*.
Still wincing? That’s really not necessary. My LPD is the result of hormonal irregularities that cause my womb lining to start shedding at times it shouldn’t. For me, this means I bleed lightly for the week before my menstrual cycle starts. It may also mean I have problems conceiving**. And although there’s no cure as such for LPD, my gynaecologist suggested a number of ways of controlling the symptoms, which I adopted eagerly. At last: an end to my menstrual woes.
Obviously it doesn’t always work. This is mostly because I’m extremely bad at remembering to go to the doctor to get new prescriptions, yet unusually adept at losing prescriptions once I’ve been given them. So, once every now and again, my uterus totally takes over my life. This is particularly shit when it happens on a weekday, because it makes it pretty hard to think about anything else. Like getting out of bed. Or standing up. Or sitting down. Or leaving the house to go to work.
If you’re a professional lady, it can be hard to explain the inconvenience away. More so if you work exclusively with men. I work for a small business, and in addition to my roles of Stalkmaster General, Fire Marshal and Social Secretary, I hold the additional title of Principal Woman***. YOU try telling your boss that you can’t come into work because you’re on the rag.
“Morning. I’m afraid I can’t come in today. No, nothing serious. Unless you count my uterus trying to climb out of my vagina to throttle me as I sleep SERIOUS. Ha ha ha ha!”
“Hello. I’m really sorry, but I don’t think I can risk coming in. The flow’s particularly heavy today and I think that, on balance, this conversation is less humiliating than having to sit on a bin bag to protect the new chairs.”
“Would it be alright if I worked from home today? And have we got any projects that I could do from the bath? It’s just I’m planning to spend the day in there, chewing on a doorstop.”
I don’t have much experience to go on, but I suspect it might be easier to explain the reasons behind a really off day to a female colleague. I imagine there’s a kind of cameraderie, fellowship, a faint nobility in gossiping with one’s sisters about one’s uterine hardships. In fact, if my own circle of acquaintance are anything to go by, they might come right back at you with some magnificently gory anecdote concerning their own gynaecological functions.
But in mixed company, periods are still a no-go zone. Even grown-up, feminist men are wont to shift uncomfortably when the subject comes up. It’s just one more ‘problem’ that women aren’t really supposed to experience, let alone talk about: spots, leg hair, unequal breast size, pubic hair, sweating, toe hair…
So that’s why I salute Jezebel and its readers for bringing the whole thing into the public domain. And, in recognition of the sterling work put in every month by 18,000,000**** hard-working UK uteruses, I hereby declare that the second Tuesday of each month shall henceforth be known as Ooze Day.
Wincing again? Well, fuck off.
* Luteal phase dysfunction is also known as luteal phase defect. Whichever name you choose, you’d better be damn clear that the medical profession regards sufferers’ luteal phase as unacceptably sub-optimal.
** I’ve put a little footnote here because I’m aware that, as a woman approaching my late twenties, the possibility of my being unable to bear live young is an Issue. If anyone can tell me why, please email.
*** By the way, male colleague, despite the ostensible kickassery of this post, I never want to discuss this with you. Ever. You just pretend you didn’t read it this week, and we’ll all go on as normal.
**** Figure may not be totally empirically scientifically accurate.