This post was inspired by a comment made by Kai on the post “Please God Let me be Fertile” written by Dede. Thanks to both Dede and Kai for sharing their personal stories.
While reading the comments from Dede’s post, I read a statement written by Kai she wrote “…I started my periods when I was 9…” and my reaction was immediate and visceral as I mouthed the words Oh my God! This reaction was not an expression of shock at the fact that Kai shared her experience or that she began menstruating at the age of nine; I have read articles which state that a girl can commence menstruation at the age of nine and I knew a girl at the primary school I attended who was rumoured to have started her menses at the age of nine (I never knew her well enough to ask).
My visceral reaction was commiseration with a double shot of empathy. After over a decade of war (yes war) with my menses that have ran the gamut of (military) strategies which I can only describe as guerrilla warfare because whenever I believe I have my menstrual cycle and menses figured out, my brain and body change the stratagem, leaving me perplexed and ‘at zero’ in our troubled and protracted relationship. My clichéd ‘oh my God’ expression was a manifestation of my distress at knowing that someone began her battles at the tender age of nine. I reminisced; at age nine, I was footloose and carefree, climbing trees, running across our front lawn and around our backyard, chasing my brothers around the house, always in shorts looking for my next big adventure – I was bursting with energy and my fancy free days continued until I was thirteen years old.
I recall the date on which my ‘periods’ started; it was a number of days shy of Christmas. I also remember the exact colour and fabric of my panties that day – they were my favourite and I considered them ruined. There was no pomp and ceremony following my coming of age. I did not undergo the obligatory traditions that accompany a girl’s coming of age within my ethnic group – my parents forfeited these traditions on my behalf.
I did not get a break from cooking duties the week my periods commenced. I still performed my chores which included setting the table for dinner and washing dishes. I was not sequestered in my room, not denied contact with my beloved brothers nor denied access to the television and radio that I loved for the places I could visit without leaving our house. I was not confined to a particular set of clothes, my maternal aunts did not gather to teach me the secrets of (male) sexual pleasure. No – to my thirteen year old mind it was quite an ordinary event and in retrospect, I realise that at that age I could not have comprehended the transformation my menstrual cycle heralded.
On that day, I stirred my mother who had fallen asleep while watching the news and I informed her that my ‘periods’ had started and so began my once upon a time. That day, I also began utilising sanitary towels a.k.a pads and there began a six year resentful bond with them.
Begrudgingly, I accepted my menses as a fact of life and sourly indulged my menstrual cycle, accepting it as a force majeure over which I had no control. The first four years were the best, the most peaceful – the full scale war had not been declared. It was easy to be apathetic towards my menses during those four years for one main reason – I was dysmenorrhea free. But what is a war story without a prelude? Let me start with my menstrual pet peeves – the monthly process of shedding my endometrial lining and the tools of that trade and of course the duration of the ‘process’.
I detest sanitary towels – I always have. I was a child who loved to run around like a lion cub in the savannah, climb mango trees with my brothers sometimes pretending to tour the galaxy as captains on the ‘Enterprise’ (Star Trek) or climbing simply for the pure pleasure of eating fleshy ripe mangoes straight from the branch; I was also the obnoxious little girl who liked to sit ‘at ease’ (I was almost always in shorts) because my brothers did so and because it made my grandmother glower in controlled rage at my impetuous actions – riling my grandmother was always fun. Sanitary towels robbed me of these simple pleasures of life.
Personally, I found sanitary towels were (and still are) awkward, ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Every time I walked a short distance I would yank up my shorts, adjusting them using the waistline to ensure the sanitary towel was still in place. Wearing a sanitary towel also meant constant visits to the toilet to check for leaks – failure to utilise toilet space resulted in my becoming a contortionist as I twisted my head and the top half of my body backwards while attempting to wind the back spot of my shorts, trousers, skirt or dress into my line of vision. Sometimes the clothes would be such a good fit (thanks Mom!) – they would not give way, which would cause me to twist my body further to better assess for damage – often, this was painful. Yoga has nothing on those twists and bends I did. Yoga? Pfft! I’ve been doing yoga since the age of thirteen.
While attending (my menses), every time I sat down, the occupants of that room had to all clear out before I permitted myself to stand or they had to be occupied enough to enable me dash to the toilet failing which I had to conduct a quick spot check (leaving me feeling whiplashed). I ruined a number of my favourite clothes during my days of sanitary towel use. Eventually, I became familiar with sanitary towels and all that money spent on R&D somewhere in the world resulted in improved sanitary towel designs and I learned to tolerate them.
The process of shedding my endometrial lining has always been mildly uncomfortable for me and not always because of pain. I do not know if I can ever aptly describe the sensation of blood dripping through the cervix, down through my vagina and out of my vaginal opening. I’ll describe it perhaps crudely but in the words of my thirteen year old self “sticky, wet and warm”. I do not take the time to evaluate the manner, method and route of my blood during my menses but sometimes, when it is a large coagulation of blood, I feel it trickling down – sticky, wet and warm.
I have always loved reading, questioning, analysing, evaluating and discovering life and all things attendant through words, through books – I enjoy learning about the what, when, where, and how. Conversely, in this defining area of my life, I stubbornly refused to understand the functions of my hormones, my cerebrum and my reproductive organs. In rebellious protest and with the folly of misguided youth, I refused to research the science of menstruation.
I was a functional illiterate when it came to my menstrual cycle. I moved from one menstrual cycle to another armed only with the superficial knowledge gleaned from my science classes in primary school and biology classes in secondary school. Somehow I survived on this knowledge for years, graduating university but never fully understanding the mechanics of my menses – I reasoned that my body (and nature) had forced this upon me and illiteracy (on all things menses) was my ultimate act of rebellion! This modus operandi had served me well in other areas of my life – once during a school holiday I had a discussion with my mom during which she informed me that part of her reason for sending me to boarding school for my secondary education was to ensure that I would learn to be responsible which included washing my own clothes and mastering the art of folding them and stowing them properly in the wardrobe. Thereafter, every holiday until I graduated secondary school, I devised various schemes that enabled me to place my clothes in the general wash (with mom and dad’s clothes) laundered by the house help, after which I would brazenly stuff them chaotically into the wardrobe in protest of everything that my mom’s decision and my secondary school represented and that I in surly teenage fashion resented – authority.
One day during my final year in secondary school, I tried to insert a tampon – I failed. I walked into the toilet stall and twenty, maybe thirty minutes later; frustrated and tearful I walked out sans tampon – it was not in my hand and definitely not in my vagina. While my vagina was slightly sore from the attempt – it was my ego that was most battered. I was angry at my failure not only because I was keen on going swimming that day (periods be damned!) but tampons represented freedom – a freedom I had seen other girls achieve – they walked with a taunting spring in their step and they ran carefree during sports events – to fail at inserting a tampon was my body again conspiring against me.
Two years later at university – tired of sanitary towels, I bought two packets of tampons without purchasing sanitary towels thereby eliminating the fail-safe. I walked into the toilet stall and did not walk out until I had inserted the tampon (even if it meant breaking my virginity in the process) – failure was not an option. Operation ‘seal the vulv(a)’ was successful and I was thrilled! Today, whenever I wear tampons during my menses there is a spring in my step (and a knowing smile) that I had denied myself for six years. Occasionally, when I wear a tampon, I slip on my sexy panties, wear my outfit, step into a pair of high heels and walk like Alek Wek models for a living – I’ve earned that stride, I deserve it.
After four years of (mostly) peaceful co-existence with my periods, the sanitary towel battles quickly spiralled into an outright war. The reason my first four years were peaceful was because I rarely experienced dysmenorrhea or painful periods (so called). I recall experiencing dysmenorrhea only once in those four years and even then, the pain was short lived (about an hour) and dissipated without medicinal aid. When I hit my twenties the dysmenorrhea commenced and progressively worsened until it plateaued. It hurts and I am in pain; usually I want nothing more than to crawl into my bed, curl into foetal position and stay there until my periods are over. The pain with or without medication usually lasts two days. In those 48 hours, I can be unconstructive – lethargic, hypersomniac and sometimes nauseous. I have friends who swear by herbal tea, hot water bottles and exercise. Personally, I’ve never been fond of tea, I toss and turn too much for hot water bottles to be useful and I am too sluggish to run – I take long walks instead which does not relieve my endometrium but clears my head.
For the dysmenorrhea, I tried Paracetamol, Aspirin and Ibuprofen to no avail. One day as I narrated my discomfort to a male friend, who is also a doctor and he recommended Mefenamic acid. I tried it and I was in love – with the painkiller. I would pop one capsule and obtain instant relief, not only on day one but the entire duration of my period. Mefenamic acid was my go to drug. Because I refused to keep track of my menstrual cycle (feel free to gasp), I consistently failed to anticipate my period pains and I would be writhing in pain before I realised I was ‘due for a leak’ and immediately I would swallow the magic capsule – hey presto! Now it hurts, now it doesn’t.
The draw back with Mefenamic acid for me was that it prolonged my already protracted ‘leaking’ days. Five days would drag into seven. I considered those extra days of prolonged periods stolen because it meant two more days of havoc. Eventually my resentment of the protracted bleeding (and potential dependency issues) superseded my thrill at this wonder drug and I reverted to milder forms of medication. I miss Mefenamic acid (I always will) but I have learned to cope.
My period lasts five days – I am told I am luckier than others. I’ve heard stories of women who bleed for fourteen days straight! During a ‘good’ month my bleeding stops after four days – the best times are when I bleed for three days – awesome(!), it’s only happened a handful of times and nature always finds a way to make up the deficit which means instead of a 24 day cycle my next bleeding session (a.k.a period) comes sooner.
A few years ago I was unfortunate enough to bleed fourteen days after my previous period – I was distraught and only my mom’s soothing tones calmed me down. I was not ill but it was a nerve-wracking time in my life, I had just written the first phase of an important set of professional exams – the build up to the exams had been fraught with anxiety, my mom was terminally ill and I was stressed.
Dysmenorrhea disrupts my life – it does not help that for over a decade I rarely tracked my menses and failed to anticipate my period. While I always stockpile tampons (and sometimes sanitary towels) the painful periods, hormonal changes and physical exhibitions of my menses regularly throw me for a loop.
My menses employ guerrilla tactics – the hormonal changes wreak various types of havoc on me. Sore and tender breasts, increase in body temperature, mood swings, nausea (sometimes), bloated feet, distended stomach, fatigue, lower back pain, acne break outs, vaginal discharge, and (oh!) the dysmenorrhea.
I am irritable; a prank that would have me guffawing in delight a week before would leave me snapping irascibly seven days later. I would be exhausted despite a light workload at the office, my body would be ‘hot to the touch’ that is, if I would let anyone touch. The smell or taste of certain foods would leave me retching. Oh and the acne(!) can be depressing. While fatigue, swollen feet, aches and sore breasts can be masked behind a (tight) smile, those protruding small or conspicuous zits are difficult to conceal on date night, at the company party or job interview. That spot next to your eyebrow that was smooth yesterday suddenly has a visible bump the size of Mount Kilimanjaro and your thirty minute preening session becomes an hour long.
I finally began to identify the signs signalling the onset of my periods (to beat your opponent you have to know their modus operandi) e.g. sore breasts, fatigue and acne break outs. I would note them and develop strategies to combat them the following month but at the next period, the signals would be different, with me (again) writhing in pain while my tummy throbbed to some rhythm only my cerebrum knew the beat to. In conversations with friends, they would share (or brag) about how they knew their periods were ‘due’ because they would experience mood swings, fatigue, puffiness and acne etc. and these symptoms (for lack of a better term) were consistently the same prior or during each period – obviously my cerebral cortex enjoys playing tricks on me.
After 15 years of menstruating and experiencing close to 180 ‘periods’, I decided it was time to better understand the science of my menses and develop a tracking system for them . I have learned to accept the hormonal and body changes (especially the fun aspects) – for instance at certain times during my cycle I am so horny – watching the man I adore pinch and pucker his lips while deep in thought or strategizing for work (or play), makes me want to climb over the table and shag him right there! While my breasts are sore, they also appear a little fuller (as a 32A that means a lot!).
My philosophy is ‘choose your adversary well for they can teach you a lot’ – to borrow from the Americans: ‘I’ve been schooled’. I’ve come to appreciate the experience gained in logistics, planning and coordination over the last decade and a half. Before I leave my house, I have to know my itinerary and locations for the duration of my absence from my house and bathroom. This enables me to figure out the cleanest toilet stalls in the area or building that I will utilise to check and eventually change my tampon. If I have meetings scheduled away from the office, I have to develop a time sensitive schedule that allows me to leave before my tampon leaks – if I anticipate a long meeting I have to back up the tampon with panty liners or a sanitary towel. Additionally, whenever I enter the building I have to know its layout which requires a stake out of the toilet.
I have learned the art of time keeping and significance of preparedness. Wearing tampons comes with a time limit – exceed it at your own peril. I’ve tested a few tampon brands over the years and learned that quality and architectural design are important – especially if you fail to meet that time limit. I have had tampons leak three hours after insertion – despite a claim on the tampon box stating the tampon can be worn for up to eight hours – and yes I was wearing the right tampon for my flow. I have also learned that the four hour minimum rule is just a guideline; you can make the rules up as you go – during the last day of my menses keeping the tampon inside for four hours means a dry and uncomfortable vagina. Preparedness? I carry an extra set of tampons and underwear and I am always willing to share – the tampons that is!
Logistics, planning, coordination, time-keeping and preparedness – such a pity I cannot include them on my curriculum vitae.
I’m not certain about what motivated my change in attitude towards my menses. As a teenager I seriously contemplated various ways to stifle my menses – anything to be rid of the menses I viewed as the bane of my existence. And now; maybe I am tired of fighting the force of nature that is my menses, maybe I grew weary of the war I had declared on my body which was essentially a declaration of war on myself. Perhaps with age I have developed some wisdom that allows me to understand that menses are part of my womanhood; in defining womanhood for myself there are some aspects that I can develop through my actions e.g. hard work, determination and sheer will power BUT there are also some aspects of womanhood that are gifts of nature – sometimes we do not like the gift we are presented but that does not make it irrelevant and worthless. Womanhood can be a combination of one’s actions as well as gifts and as with life, there are some gifts one cannot pick and choose or return to sender.
That being written, I can profess that some months are good and some months are bad – sometimes I’m still fighting (old habits die hard!). So next time you see a woman with a sexy gait and confident smile – that could be me accepting my womanhood and all its attendant consequences.
Fellow adventurers what are your experiences? Ladies? Gents (feel free to share the male perspective as lovers, brothers, husbands and friends of women)?