I first remember getting my period, aged 14, as I approached the front steps of my parent’s house, feeling this liquid slipping out in the weirdest manner. After astonishing yet thrilling confirmation in the bathroom, I lined my underwear with toilet paper and contemplated the brownish blood that I had found there. Finally, menstruation had arrived. I remember feeling ‘ready’, and ‘able’, but for what, I wasn’t exactly sure. I started to notice that during these times almost anything made me cry. Very quickly, I was doubled up in pain at school in the nurse’s bed or unable to leave the house on a sunny weekend. I was bloated all the time and my attention span was minimal. During these days, a hot water bottle became a best friend and a necessity. I couldn’t really go to parties like this, and wearing heels (which was the other big new thing in my life) made me feel like a giraffe with swollen ankles. Instead, all I wanted to do was to eat popcorn and cheese, preferably together and preferably in bed.
I would feel the pains coming like a hidden dragon, clawing up the back of my body and munching on my spine and organs, sending hot and cold shivers down my legs and feet. It was gradual, growing and persistent. At these times, I was glued to the toilet, and at one point switched medications so much that I didn’t know what was a side effect and what was the actual, horrible pain. My mind, which was normally lucid and agitated, slowly eroded into imbecility each month with the constant, pulsating waves of discomfort. I would fall silent and retreat into whatever warm bed I could find, and lie there, humiliated each time, half fainted and surrounded by frustrated family members.
Slowly, I realised how dependent I became on other people during these times. I had hoped that this ‘moon cycle’ deal would‘ve brought me added female strength and mystical qualities, but instead it was proving to be un-empowering and much more cumbersome than I had expected. Most girls I knew were coping just fine, their monthly distress cured by an early night and some light medication. I envied them as they continued playing tennis, going to the beach and walking around with their functioning bodies. By comparison I felt weak and not cut out for adult existence, envying my brother and the boys in my life who could still run around with un-womanly freedom.
Thanks to my parent’s exasperated efforts, I started taking different medications, going to homeopaths, osteopaths, doctors of different kinds and even therapy to try and understand what was wrong with my lower regions. I was often misdiagnosed or diagnosed with endometriosis, but there was never enough consistent proof to be certain and never a reachable cure. Often (male) doctors would tell me that these pains would surely be solved at my first pregnancy, at which point my 17 year old, school attending self would stare blankly into the void until the idiocy of their statement could ring loud and clear. I didn’t like the subtle nodding towards the idea that by denying my ‘role’ in society as child-bearer I was implicitly making myself sick. There had to be something out there (or in there) that would help me, other than having babies.
At the end of two years filled with worsening problems, on the advice of all my doctors, I started taking the contraceptive pill. This, as they had suggested, magically stopped the monthly pain of my troublesome periods, as if it was all a bad dream being whisked away. A ‘new me’ had emerged. Reliable, relatively stable, good to travel with, more independent and datable! My breasts were somewhat fuller, my skin homogenous…and I went on like this, constantly modified, subtly numbed, for a while. Black streaks dotted my pads each month, like the faint discharge of a badly oiled motorcycle rather than the usual redness of human blood. My periods became non-existent and unimportant. My life ticking by in timely consumptions of the daily dose of hormones, constantly appeased through the end of school and onto higher education. Like they say, out of sight, out of mind.
Yet something bothered me; a gut feeling, literally, a feeling of staleness in my gut. I remembered those horrible pains from my teens and the way the doctors had told me ‘it was part of life, part of being a woman’ making me feel like I was being attention seeking, causing trouble for mentioning pain at all. But slowly, something grew inside me, a desire to understand what that monster was that slept, sedated somewhere between my stomach and my uterus. I dreamt one day that I needed to wake it up, confront it and make it my friend, or I would never really know myself, of what I was made of.
When I was well into University, I decided my period and I had unresolved business and I summoned it back. I stopped taking hormonal contraception, to the heed of all, and immediately, I felt energised. The first time I got my period post-pill, I woke up alone, late for a class, and realized I had bled all over my clean sheets. It looked like I had killed a small calf in my bed, and I was jolted back into the gruesome and beautiful reality of menstruation. A piercing pain rocked me from the inside out but at least I had felt it, I could feel something.
Taking away the pill was like taking off the lid of a well that had been shut for a long time. As I stared into the long opening, all these feelings began to rise to the surface. The deep fluidity and the self-regulation that periods can bring came out first, and then, close behind, the horrible and confusing tail of the dragon. Pain and headaches, wobbly knees and total exhaustion – but this time I was ready. It took me a few years, but I was determined to look the beast in the eye and to engage it in (friendly) conversation.
Through a combination of herbal and ayurvedic medicines, witch-doctor curing rituals, visits to nutritionists, chiropractors, acupuncture points, meditation, yoga, special diets and a thorough investigation into family history and genetics, I tried to dissect all the different shades of pain within the agglomerated punch that hit me each month. I found out I had excess fluid in my body due to a strangely developed nervous system hampered at birth. I found out I had a perennially inflamed intestine which worsened during periods. I found out that women in my family also suffered from this yet never talked about it. I found out which particular foods to eat or avoid and the exercises that are effective for my conditions. Most importantly, I found out that the overwhelming ‘pain’ for lack of a better word to describe it was in fact a combination of several factors which, when all acting at once, made me go KAPUT. I am proud to say I am in my late twenties and welcome my period like an old and intense friend, who arrives to re-start me, to flush out whatever is clinging on and needs to be resolved, to re-charge me energetically for the following month. Now, with a hard-earned concoction of herbal remedies and a strict list of things to do before, during and after, (such as bathing my feet in hot water for 30min whilst administrating a damp hot water bottle on my abdomen) I manage to tackle the issues individually and dissolve them before they stack up and knock me out.
During this time I feel the most vulnerable, the most sensitive and also the most ferocious. I have found that one day before my period begins, my mind is clear and far-reaching. I have the organisational energy of all the women in my family put together, and on this day, I can move mountains. The next day, by comparison, I can’t think more than one hour ahead, and even looking at a computer screen is hard work! So, when I can, I take rest and when I have to, I defend my transitional self with sharp teeth and no mercy from others who don’t understand. I give myself the time and safety for transformation to occur, and I can honestly say I don’t need help to survive, although I appreciate it immensely when it is given. I have had to accept that in the end, I do have certain limitations. When it’s all over, I feel like a woman who has come out of the wilderness of the woods, wiser and sharper for having travelled through the thick of it, each particular pain telling me something different. A testament to my own strength. As I discover and understand myself in deeper, calmer ways, I can also relax and be myself in these turbulent times, with added freedom of spirit. If I had to say anything to other women who suffer from period pains, in whatever form they may come, I would say: be inquisitive, be investigative, try and learn as much as you can about your body and what it needs for proper functioning, even if it is not immediately encouraged. The path can be tortuous but it doesn’t have to be, and each step is more empowering than the next. You have my best wishes for the year ahead, and I hope it brings you strength and ease in the face of difficulties.
Written by Giulia Mangoni
Illustration by Bethany Burgoyne