Out of the Red Tent ~ thoughts on womanly things
(This is primarily a post for women but men are more than welcome to read too.)
Two of the defining moments in a woman’s life are when she starts her periods and when she stops them, though the latter is seldom a single moment. In fact, it’s usually a protracted, messy, annoying and ill-defined time that women have grown to dread.
I had trouble more or less right from the first ever period, which arrived without preamble when I was barely ten. I’d learned about the existence of such things that very day; sex ed in the seventies consisted primarily of being shown a TV show called Living and Growing. We’d watched the episode about periods that morning and I’d given it very little thought as I thought I was still too young. I also harboured a belief that there was some mistake and I’d magically turn out to be male. So the arrival of The Visitor that day was a nasty shock on every level. The first year of periods was an awakening that was beyond my years to cope with. Mood swings, greasy skin, managing sanitary towels while still at primary school were the least of it: the pain was dreadful and I got little sympathy at home or at school. It was thought I was making a fuss about very little. More running around was the answer, you see, plenty of fresh air and exercise and don’t dwell on it. Every woman gets them, every woman puts up with it, stop complaining.
Medical help was rubbish at the time (and still is) and consists of the most basic of advice that we all figured out for ourselves, or being put on the Pill. My teens consisted of a roller coaster of weepy moods, acne, pain and anxiety and depression. If you grew up in those days, you’ll also know that sanitary products were much less reliable and pleasant to use; you might even have used those sanitary towels with loops you hooked onto an elastic belt that was far from comfortable or discreet. The stick on ones came in but weren’t that sticky and to get the kind of protection from leakage on heavy days, you’d often use two. It was like shoving a double duvet in your knickers. The shame of P.E when you had your period was doubled when the athletics season came around and the “cake frill” P.E skirt was discarded for bare legs and navy blue knickers. No wonder the day I ran away was the day I had double PE after my other bug bear, double domestic science (cookery).
The mood swings became so bad that the doctor prescribed tranquillisers when I was 13. Some Valium blend, they knocked me out so badly I stopped taking them. By university the pre-menstrual syndrome was so bad I know it was one factor that led to a suicide attempt; I started my period lying in an emergency ward, having overdosed.
After my daughter was born, I expected respite. Breastfeeding usually suppresses menstruation but despite my baby being a voracious feeder, within four weeks of birth, my periods were back, arriving like an unwelcome guest every single month. And the pain slowly got worse and worse. By thirty, I was in agony every month. The diagnosis was endometriosis, a condition where shreds of womb lining set up shop elsewhere in the body and every month, they too bleed and cause massive internal inflammation within the areas they inhabit. Mine caused appendicitis, and a further look-see with a tiny camera showed what my consultant described as “not THE worst case I’ve seen but up there in the top ten.” My abdominal cavity was a horrible mess, looking like several unshelled Daleks had been beamed inside, squidged up and blended with ovaries and other organs, and compounded by adhesions sticking things together. I collected fibroids and ovarian cysts too (I had a delightfully named chocolate cyst that had to be drained; left to burst, it can cause intense pain, life threatening shock
and septicaemia). The endometriosis was pretty much untreatable. The surgeon took one look and put his laser away; it was too extensive to touch. I was offered a hysterectomy, which was pointless as the endo was OUTSIDE the womb, and removal of ovaries to stop the hormones also removes your natural protection against several cancers and osteoporosis. I took the option to tough it out and wait for the onset of menopause; I had the best I could get as far as pain relief was concerned. What I didn’t realise was that I’d also managed to grow a sub-mucosal fibroid; that’s to say a fibroid that doesn’t grown on a stalk but grows in the womb lining. Every month I bled what felt like gallons of blood and every month I more or less passed out with pain. It turns out my poor body recognised the fibroid as a foreign body and was trying to expel it by going into labour. Yes. Bodies do that. It’s a way of trying to make sure that a miscarried foetus is removed from the body before it kills the mother.
It took two operations to get that fibroid. The first op had to be stopped because I started bleeding uncontrollably and the hospital didn’t have a cauteriser to hand big enough. Post operative infection led to my worst ever Christmas and I spent New Year on an IV drip. The second op, done six months later, also managed to remove more than 60% of the womb lining, a kind of default ablation I was very angry about. While I had no plans to have more children, I did have hopes that I might have a few years of NORMAL periods. I wasn’t terribly sure of what that might mean but I think I meant the kind that women advertising tampons have. Ones where you do cartwheels and go surfing and dance till dawn on the beach. Seriously, I wanted to experience the menstrual cycle as a spiritual experience, spending time being quiet and inwardly focused on the concept of my body’s natural cycles.
It didn’t happen. The continued existence of the endometriosis meant that while I had light periods because I had virtually no uterine lining, I still had pain. To make things worse, hot flushes had also turned up. Initially they were a sensation of just being a bit too warm a few times day, they became increasingly intense and frequent. If you want to imagine was a full-blown hot flush feels like, imagine walking your naked body through a ring of fire while your skin is dowsed in alcohol; the heat rises from your knees (or lower sometimes) and takes from between three and thirty seconds to reach the crown of your head, by which time you are sweating profusely and in a very unbecoming way. For me a flush is preceded with a feeling of lurching nausea and dread, like I would the last second before a roller coaster plunges down a vertical drop. By the time the heat stops, you are wet with sweat and then usually go icy cold. I’ve had my teeth chattering with cold before now. Now if this happened once a day, that would be bad enough. At its worst for me, it had occurred up to 20 times per hour. Yes, I said per hour. It’s impossible to sleep and almost impossible to do anything at all. When it was that bad I showered about 6 times per day just to remain even half way fit for company.
Take HRT I hear you scream. Well, duh. I did consider HRT but the remaining endometriosis would have been triggered into new furies by it, and HRT holds significant health risks of its own. More than that, HRT uses the most horrific practices to obtain the hormones from pregnant mares’ urine and I cannot in all conscience justify that suffering to alleviate my own. I have tried a number of herbs, changes in diet, exercise, supplements, natural progesterone and meditation. Very little of it has worked for me but the combo that I am currently taking is: 5htp, sage tablets and wild yam cream. That’s got the flushes down to a range I can about live with (that’s to say, between 2 and 4 an hour on a bad day and every few hours on a good one).
I haven’t had a period now for almost a year. It would surprise you to hear that I miss them, but I do. I miss the sense of cleansing that came after I began to bleed, the sense of relief that “oh that’s why I was feeling so unsettled” and the sense that I was connected to all other women. I don’t miss having to travel with enough sanitary products for a whole girls’ school, or the pain and fear that I’d pass out while at work. I still wish I’d had a few ordinary periods that I could have spent in a kind of metaphysical Red Tent, connecting to the spirituality of being a woman. I’m hoping that the sheer misery of the menopausal symptoms will continue to abate and that at some point I will be able to declare myself a new crone and that perhaps the journey I’ve had through the harsher side of being a woman might be of some value to some one. I know full well that mine has been a pretty extreme set of experiences, perhaps not the very worst a woman may go through, but it’s way beyond what most experience and for that I am glad. No woman should have to go through hell just because she was born with one set of chromosomes and not the other. But too many do. It’s time it changed.