My vagina (AND uterus AND ovaries–just everything in that general region) and I have a complicated relationship. Scratch that. I am confident in saying that she is my arch nemesis. Ever since I have had a period, it has really just ruined my life. And I’m not talking about just one week per month of moodiness and discomfort. I am talking about a large-scale disruption of my happiness and mental wellbeing.
Why don’t we take it back to the start–her start–my first period. Let me start off by saying that it was an absolute disaster. Picture this: I am an awkward, perpetually moist middle schooler at church camp, uncomfortable with her body and questioning her religious beliefs. I’m on a campout in the middle of the woods (with teenage boys AND it was the only night we camped out, mind you) when I wake up feeling like I’ve peed my pants. I think to myself: I’m twelve years old! Surely I didn’t just pee my pants. (Foreshadowing an extremely embarrassing EIGHTH GRADE pants-peeing fiasco) It’s still dark out, and I lie awake until it’s time to return to the cabins. When I get back, I beeline to the bathroom. And, my friends, what I was confronted with was a veritable murder scene. To make a long story short, I had to tell my camp counselor, who told my pastor, with whom I was forced to have a long conversation about “becoming a woman.”
It was awful. But it’s funny now, so I guess it’s okay. Unfortunately, my periods didn’t really get better from there. For many years, I didn’t realize that my experience was atypical. I thought that every menstruating person was going through what I was: extreme full-body cramping to the point where it would make me throw up, feeling like their blood was burning inside their veins, bleeding through jumbo tampons and maxi pads every thirty minutes, having several periods per month or one period lasting more than a week, et cetera. I did my best to “suck it up.” If so much of the population was going through this, it wasn’t right for me to complain, despite the fact that my mother had to have a hysterectomy due to similar issues.
Eventually, it came to the point where I was just crying through my entire period. I remember one day I came across a statistic that said that an average menstruation cycle only discharges 6-8 tablespoons of blood on average. This was the moment that I realized that I was not “average.”
After this clicked with me, my mom took me to the gynecologist for the first time. I had already tried birth control for acne. It didn’t help. All it did was regulate my periods so that I knew exactly when they were going to start. This was almost worse. I lived waiting in dread for my next period to start. Upon my first visit to the gynecologist, they ran standard bloodwork, prescribed me a birth control, and sent me on my way. I was devastated. I decided to try taking birth control again, but the same scenario prevailed. I felt defeated, and resolved to “toughing it out” once again.
It wasn’t until several years later, this past summer, when I decided to go to the gynecologist again. I had become desperate. My period was ruining my quality of life. In the waiting room, I began to cry uncontrollably, which ended up lasting the entire appointment. I felt like no one could help me. At this appointment, they decided to test me for PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, through a more reliable, yet admittedly more invasive test. (Picture a giant wand. You can figure out where it went.) Turns out, yes, I did have PCOS, and it was likely causing a lot of the problems that I was experiencing. When the OB/GYN told me this, I was elated. They finally knew what was wrong with me! I begged her to help me lighten my periods or have them stop altogether. She explained that I had a lot of options that had the potential to do so. But her suggested treatment? The exact same birth control.
However, over those several years, I had grown immensely, especially in learning how to speak up for myself. While I had been suffering in solitude, I had taken it upon myself to research options to possibly alleviate my period symptoms. I considered the IUD or the implant, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to “try my luck” with such long-term devices. Eventually, I came across research article after research article about daily dosages of hormones without a period-inducing sugar pill week. Essentially, this birth control routine was designed to prevent the menstruation cycle. And the research overwhelmingly indicated that there were no long-term adverse effects.
Going back to my visit to the gyno, after her swift diagnosis and prescription, she began to move towards the door. But before she could leave, I essentially word-vomited out all of the information that I had researched. Her response? “Oh yeah, that’s totally doable.” She scribbled down a prescription, explained how I would take the pills, and we were on our way. I left the office in a confused emotional state. I was so happy that I finally had a diagnosis and a promising treatment plan. But I was also angry and confused. Why did I have to do all of the research? Why wasn’t this communicated as an option? How many other severely menstruating people are out there suffering, thinking they are seeking help and exploring all their options by going to the gynecologist, when they aren’t provided with all of the information? I hope that this experience left an impact on my gynecologist, whether it be through my tears or my preparedness.
Ever since I’ve followed this treatment plan, it has been a night-and-day difference. My quality of life and overall well-being have grown exponentially (my discharge of blood shrinking exponentially). I’m no longer anemic. My anxiety and depression are improved (although still present). I am no longer in constant pain. More than anything, I am able to live an incredibly fuller life: one not revolving around my period. This experience, more than anything, has taught me the importance of self-education. While doctors are highly knowledgeable and an incredible resource, they are still human. You can’t rely on them to have all of the answers or to be able to convey all of the answers to you in the short window you have with them. Before you go to the doctor, it is important to have a grasp on your situation and the options that are out there, especially regarding menstruation, and especially if your cycle disrupts your life significantly.