What characterised the greatest day of the year for you last year and why? For me 2014 was without a doubt the hardest year of my life so far (due to the ongoing see-saw of struggling with, and ultimately surrendering to, and learning to live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, for now anyway) but I can say without a doubt that the BEST day for me was Friday 24th October, and on that day I was- kiss the postman, dance along the street, life is a musical- happy…. Why?
Because I GOT MY PERIOD!!!
Yep, that’s right- I was completely over the moon because I was bleeding from my vagina, hurrah!
You think I’m crazy to say that? Hear me out- this was big news as I hadn’t menstruated for over a year and a half (no, I was not pregnant; it would have had to have been a case of immaculate conception for that to be the case, CFS puts quite the dampener on your love life). No, I was having such a dry spell (in more ways than one it appears) as my hormones were all out of whack due to my illness- Adrenal Fatigue and HPA Axis-Dysregulation are in fact caused by discombobulated hormones (that statement is a massive over-generalisation of course, but now is not the place to go into the details.) Now don’t get me wrong: I was really tired- even more so than normal for someone with a fatigue-based illness- (the dancing down the street is just a metaphor). I felt fat and unattractive (so would not have been in the mood to seduce the postman); I was anxious and teary (so not about to belt out a show-stopping musical number) and had swollen and tender boobs, a knotted stomach and a sore back. Oh yeah, and I had a completely insatiable hunger (despite eating ALL the food), a knife-edge irritability and a desire to do nothing but hide under the covers, cuddle a hot water bottle and watch (and weep at) crappy chick flicks. But yes, despite all that, this was definitely the best day of the year. If my life was indeed a musical then the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ would have blasted from the bathroom, booming out in surround sound for miles around as I screamed ‘Mum, I’ve got my PEEEEERRRRRIIIIOOOOOD!!!!!!’
You must think I sound mad to be overjoyed at the arrival of what most women consider to be their most decidedly unwelcome monthly visitor? But I’ll tell you why: this was the single most important sign that my body was healing I had received since getting ill, I had been waiting SO LONG for this, and I cried floods and floods of tears of joy (and hormones!) and dusted off my beloved Mooncup (and sterilised it, obvs.)
And now the way I approach my periods has changed forever… each month I am delighted by its arrival and I welcome my period like a long lost friend.
Now, my fully embracing the arrival of my period in this way is a far cry from how we tend to approach our periods, right? Bliss? Really?! In fact, isn’t it the opposite of how we customarily greet this pain-in-the-arse pal who comes to visit once a month? The bane of our lives… The unwelcome frenemy we wish would never visit at all, as they make you feel really uncomfortable and mess everything up, but no matter what you do you just can’t shake them off. ‘The Curse’… Who came up with that name? It’s really horrible. But that’s exactly how we tend to think of it. And why shouldn’t we of course: we feel rotten in the few days running up to it, our energy levels dip, at points we verge between suicidal and homicidal (those who cross our paths better watch out!), we want to eat everything in the fridge and cupboards- yes, including that mouldy cheese (just scrape those bits off); yes, even that crazy concoction of porridge with raisins, hot chocolate powder, honey and desiccated coconut mixed in for dessert as it’s the closest to chocolate we have in the house and we need something sweet and stodgy.
And there are so many things we can’t do with the usual gusto we have the rest of the month: swimming for example (who remembers the excruciatingly embarrassing blue plastic ‘shower cap shoes’ you had to wear while sitting on the side of the swimming pool at school when you couldn’t take part as you had you were surfing the crimson wave?) ’Dear Mrs P.E. teacher, please excuse Emma from gym today, she has her period, Mrs Forbes’. (FYI- that is one of my all-time favourite chick-flick quotes, when Alicia Silverstone, in overprivileged 90s romcom Clueless, has her teacher wrapped around her little finger and when he tries to reprimand her for being late or something and she says ‘Mr Hall, I was surfing the crimson wave, I had to hall ass to the ladies,’ end of discussion.) What else- running (staying in bed is so much more tempting than putting on those running shoes at that time of the month), yoga (especially not inversions such as shoulder stands as yoga urban legend has it that it will make the blood travel back upwards, eek!), have sex (tends to be the furthest thing from your mind, but for when you do want to N.B. the good guys honestly do not care either way, there is no stigma, and they are not even slightly grossed out. And mentioning periods will not render them completely mute, maybe they might even bring you chocolate and rub your belly and curl up and watch films with you…. ah, lovely, progressive, feminist men… perhaps not the guilty-pleasure chick flicks though).
And of course it is nigh on impossible to stick to the healthy eating plan (see aforementioned crazy sweet stodge concoctions). Now it goes without saying that we still can do all of these things in exactly the same manner we would the rest of the month if we want to, but I feel we have to be careful we are not forcing ourselves, and ignoring the signals being sent by our bodies. I feel we need to be mindful of the 80s/90s macho-feminism portrayed in sanitary towel adverts that is still prevalent in our society today which shout: ‘just because I’m a woman on her period doesn’t mean I can’t run the race, swim the channel, own that board meeting, climb the hill, skydive off the bridge and do everything and anything men do and all things in between while on my period’…. Of course, you absolutely can, if you feel like it. But be honest if you don’t actually feel like doing that stuff at this time of the month. It’s not anti-feminist to surrender to the low energy, and admit to being a woman, who bleeds. In fact, in my opinion it’s much more of a feminist statement to really listen to the body… be slow, lie around, do little, rest, sleeeeeeep (there is a biological need for more sleep from day 25 of your cycle onwards- that’s 5 days before your period) rub your own belly, or get someone else to do it. Sucking it up, powering through, getting on with it, ‘coping’ and putting up with, and forcing yourself to do things that don’t make you feel good (even if they do the rest of the month) is not a feminist act. Radical self-acceptance and compassion, unconditional self-love, self-nourishment, self-nurture, supportive self-talk and awareness IS. And it’s not just for CFS sufferers that everything is exhausting both emotionally and physically at this time of the month, right? So we have to be even more patient and gentle with ourselves than ever around this time. Sometimes in the run up to and during our period all we want to do is batten down the hatches and hole up in the house, speak to no one and ride out the storm, and of course, that’s fine too- provided you have a sizable chocolate supply… absolutely essential. Whatever you do, go with the energies, and be honest with yourself about it.
FYI- Natural PMS Relievers that will really help: B vitamin complex- Solgar to a great one; Calcium, Magnesium and Zinc- again Solgar’s is excellent; Evening Primrose Oil (a liquid form is much more effective than capsules); Iron supplement (try a good quality liquid form from a health shop such as Iron Vital F, or Floravital, much better than the awful black pills from the chemist or prescribed by the GP). Good sources of dietary iron can be found in red meat, eggs and leafy greens (N.B. don’t eat spinach with eggs or red meat, it will actually prevent you from absorbing the iron); Omega 3 Fatty Acids (from oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and eggs, or Flaxseed and Hemp Oil if vegan); good quality carbohydrates such as sweet potato, plantain or squash; good quality raw chocolate/raw cacao. Since I started taking care of myself in terms of my diet and supplemental needs my PMS has reduced significantly, sometimes I get absolutely no PMS whatsoever and I go to the bathroom and I’m like ‘Oh, would you look at that, I’ve got my period! Ho-hum, smile.’ Honestly! And even if I do get PMS one thing I definitely don’t get anymore is lots of cramping during it.
The Contraceptive Pill
But back to how we have been conditioned to treat our periods… As we tend to abhor them so much you’d think the idea of not having them for a couple of years would be the BEST THING EVER! But it’s not, it really isn’t. For the first six months or so, sure, it’s liberating, but after that you just start to worry, and wait, and worry, and wait, and worry… what the hell is going on in there? (Could I actually be the next Mary?!) The regularity of our periods are a sign that everything is working exactly as it should, they are a barometer of our health. And how are we supposed to get an accurate reading of the barometer when our bodies are not functioning on their own natural level whatsoever: e.g. we are artificially controlling our hormones by taking the contraceptive pill, or patch, or injection? On these medications we can’t even begin to read the barometer, we have no idea what is going on in there; if we were a map even a compass wouldn’t be able to help us out, as we are completely off grid. It’s dangerous. When my periods disappeared completely for a year a half it was after I’d stopped taking the contraceptive pill, having had taken it for probably… 6 years non-stop at least, probably longer on and off. During that time I had a ‘regular monthly period’, or so I thought, but it wasn’t that at all, it was purely chemical- a withdrawal bleed from the artificially induced state of quasi-pregnancy that the artificial hormones create. I knew this intellectually but I’d never actually stopped to think about what it meant for my body; which I now realise had no idea of its own rhythm; it was all being created for it, and I, unbeknownst to me, for a number of years, had been getting really sick. If I had had the natural health barometer of my menstrual cycle to guide me would I have perhaps taken notice of my Chronic Fatigue earlier, before it was too late? I think so. This was just one of the ways I tried to control my body from without rather than listening to what was within. I went on the pill for a myriad of reasons. Although I am grateful for my periods now, from their onset until my early twenties they were a nightmare. They were so debilitatingly painful and heavy I’d have to have at least one day off school/uni/work a month and would have to take to my bed, dose up on high strength pain killers and even then I’d still be writhing around in pain, yelping like a wounded animal. I went to the GP for 10 years and tried numerous medications before I was finally referred to a gynecologist who suspected Endometriosis, which was confirmed when she operated, and after that I was put on strong injections which made me go through a chemical version of the Menopause at the age of 20! (I was in fact being injected with the same medication my late Grandfather was being administered at the time for his Prostate Cancer) can you believe it? At least I know what to expect when I reach Menopause later in life- I had the hot flashes, night sweats, dryness, everything! And to help prevent the endometriosis from returning I was put on the pill straight away. Now, I know I’m not the only one who felt miserable on the pill, not myself at all, as if I was walking around in a haze, often with no sex drive, and was at points verging on, ok, was, totally depressed. Why is it rammed down our throats by the medical establishment as a one-size-fits-all contraceptive and cure from our teens when it is anything but that I have no idea. You have acne- take the pill, you’re sexually active- take the pill, your cycle is erratic- take the pill. Did you know that on average these days 1/3 of women stop taking the pill because it’s making them depressed? Did you know that you have a doubled risk of breast or ovarian cancer and ditto developing brittle bones if you have taken the pill from under the age of 20? Also, your levels of ‘globulin’ which binds testosterone and affects the libido are four times lower FOREVER if you have taken the pill? And that’s not to mention the weight gain, heightened risk of infertility, risk of deep vein thrombosis, high blood pressure… the list goes on and on. For me personally, I know that the overgrowth of Candida in my gut which has proved to be a major player in my chronic illness was caused by two factors- overuse of antibiotics to clear my skin, and yep, you guessed it, taking the contraceptive pill. Taking this for years completely decimated all the good gut bacteria in my body and made me REALLY sick and it is proving to be a long, complex and exhausting process to undo all this damage and rebuild my gut. The pill can also be a major player in other gut oriented illnesses such as Hashimotos, Auto-Immune disease, Crohns and Fibromyalgia, as well as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Why do we start to take the pill? Of course our reasons are completely understandable- We think it will help get our crazy ‘neurotic woman’ hormones under control, that it will regulate our wayward cycle; that it will help to clear our skin, or help Endometriosis/PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) for example, it could be ALL of the above. The biggest reason we take it of course is to avoid pregnancy: who of us hasn’t had those scares where something just doesn’t feel right but it’s too early to take a test and you google ‘very early pregnancy symptoms’….. ‘EXTREMELY early pregnancy symptoms’….‘EARLIEST POSSIBLE PREGNANCY SYMPTOMS’ – and isn’t it absolutely infuriating that the symptoms of early pregnancy are more or less exactly the same as PMT?! I know we’ve all cried tears of joy and sang the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ when we’ve got our period in this instance. Yes, it’s easier to be on the pill, be injected, have an implant put in, slap on a patch- as then you have peace of mind that you won’t get pregnant. But is it worth it for all the potential damage this might be doing to your body? (I haven’t mentioned the Coil or IUD devices at all, but these are not an option in my opinion too, due to potentially harmful leaching of toxic material entering the body, and issues with damage caused by keeping them in longterm and/or removing them). Can we get old school instead- chart our cycles and get intimate with ourselves from the inside out by taking our temperature daily (this is called the Sympto-Thermal Method) and monitoring our cervical mucous so that we know when we are ovulating (approx. days 12-16 of our cycle) and so know to reinforce the troops (or alternatively of course during ovulation go for it if we are at the stage of our lives where pregnancy is actually the goal as opposed to the thing we wish to avoid like the plague?!) [see links at the end of the article- you need to do LOTS of your own research on these]; and to ‘reinforce the troops’ can we re-ignite our resistant relationship to condoms? Can we take our bodies into our own hands and learn to really listen to them, and embrace our natural cycles instead of handing them over to a synthetic intruder who disrupts our body’s inbuilt methods of self-care and regulation?
My First Period
And of course it’s not just how we medicate our menstrual cycles. Getting your first period is the single biggest initiation in womanhood there is; it is sacred, and as such should be honoured by the family and society alike. In native and tribal societies a girl’s first period, known as ‘menarche’ has been celebrated for thousands of years with rituals including song, dance, feasting, ritualistic bathing and care-taking, and retreats to women’s lodges. These are just examples of some of the sacred activities used to mark this rite of passage into womanhood.
Was yours at all sacred? Mine certainly wasn’t.
I remember the day that I got my first period: November 30th 1998, I was 10 years old, it was just a few weeks until my 11th birthday. I remember the date vividly as it was the night of our primary school’s ‘St Andrew’s Night Ceilidh’ where I was probably singing (both solo and in groups and as a class), playing violin, playing recorder, reciting poetry and God knows what else; I was ‘Miss Extra-Curricular’, even at that young age. Anyway, just before we were about to leave the house I went to the toilet and was aghast at the stains I found in my underwear, and I yelled from the same bathroom to my same mother, who quickly handed me a sanitary towel, told me I’d gotten my period, that it was completely normal, but that life doesn’t stop: ‘Now hurry up and let’s go, you’ve got a performance to do.’ So I put it to the back of my mind, sucked it up and got on with it, and labelled it from the off as little more than an inconvenience as I waddled about all evening wondering if there was an unsightly bulge visible through my tartan skirt. This was just one of the ways in which I unquestionably accepted patterns of conditioning and ‘coped’ instead of really listening to my body, my emotional responses, myself. (If I’ve learned anything from my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome it’s that disease ‘dis-ease’ starts in the mind and if it is ignored enough eventually it will manifest in the body. Could my Endometriosis have been a result of this early repression of my womanhood? I would have to say that it is distinctly possible that it was.)
I told no one I’d started my periods.
No way was I going to admit to my circle of friends that I had started my periods at 10… none of them were anywhere near close to starting (the average age girls start menstruating is 12.8 years these days, compared with 14.5 years at the beginning of the 20th century, we’re starting younger and younger) . Over the next year or so I did my very best to keep it a secret. When we went to my Dad’s house for the weekend I would stash my used sanitary towels in my rucksack and take them home again with me to my Mum’s to bin, God forbid he and his partner see them in the bin, or I would do a disguise job by wrapping them in LOADS of toilet roll before hiding them at the bottom of the bin. This really makes me giggle now, knowing how much my Dad is such a stickler for waste; as am I these days. But ultimately it upsets me that I was so ashamed of my periods that I felt I needed to be so secretive about it.
A couple of stand out early period memories are when my friends and I had a sleep over and were watching ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (teenage blood-bath horror with a fisherman with a hook for a hand starring one of my top girl crushes- Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In keeping with the blood-bath theme I had a REALLY heavy period and had absent-mindedly forgotten to flush the toilet (I was probably frightened of being alone in the bathroom lest a man with a hook for a hand come in decorate the bathroom red with more than just my period blood. These days I know I can’t watch anything that contains senseless violence, and have absolutely no desire to, I find it completely traumatic, not to mention that watching violence serves to condition us to believe that the world is a scary place with evil people… which is absolutely is not). So the scandal of the night, in all the blood and gore, became a detective game as to who had left all the disgusting blood in the toilet, it was SO MUCH BLOOD to a bunch of 11 year old girls. I flat out denied that it was me, and I blamed it on someone else… I was completely drowning in guilt. In the end I think I might have admitted to the girl I’d blamed that it had been me, but that I’d had a nosebleed and didn’t want to tell anyone.
Why was I so ashamed of my period?!
A few months after that I was shopping with a friend (the sleepover host) and was trying on a dress in the changing rooms when I realised that my period had arrived unannounced, and it was in full flow. This time there was no covering it up, I needed a sanitary towel, stat. So I had no choice but to tell my friend (who was a bit of a gossip, as every adolescent girl is of course, and I knew it would be spread like wildfire to boys and girls alike at school the next week…as it was.) So I feigned shock and told her that I’d just gotten my very first period and off we went to buy sanitary towels, brought up the chemist counter with beetroot faces. The funniest thing about this story is that I still have this dress, and it still fits me! I bought it when I was 11 years old (I developed early if you hadn’t already picked up on that), it is affectionately known by everyone who has seen the dress and heard this story as ‘the period dress’; and no, it is not red.
Periods are Sacred!
To get a bit hippy-dippy on you for a moment… Thankfully increasing numbers of women who were deprived of their own sacred initiation into womanhood are beginning to reclaim the connection to their own cycle, by re-enacting ‘menarche’ rituals for themselves in any way that might feel right for them, or even in group ceremonies, and understand the importance of welcoming new generations of girls into their own womanhood in a way that celebrates and honours their femininity and cycle, and that does not attach shame or guilt to it. I did my own personal ritual when my periods returned, and it was beautiful, but what I did is a cherished secret between me and my menses. There is a growing movement of ‘Red Tents’ (based on the Old Testament where women would go to a ‘red tent’ to rest during menstruation) and ‘Moon Lodges’ (the Native American equivalent) where groups of women meet, usually around the time of the New Moon, to simply rest, eat, relax and BE with one another in designated spaces that honour our natural cycles. And of course, the menstrual cycle is closely aligned with the waxing and waning of the moon, it’s often referred to as a woman’s ‘Moon time’ and traditionally women would menstruate around the new moon which is characterised by darkness, retreating inwards and reflection- this is known as the White Moon Cycle. Of course as we live in a world where we are so out of touch with nature where our lives are filled with stress, artificial lighting and technological interference so many women are completely out of sync with their natural cycles. As such there is also the Red Moon Cycle (where women menstruate at the full moon- and if you’re at all like me the full moon makes you go a bit mental- ask any Policeman, A&E Nurse or Teacher- we’re all affected, that’s where the word ‘lunatic’ comes from! The full moon is an excellent time for creativity- work late, get manically stuck into a creative project, harness the energy!) Lastly. there is the Wise Woman Cycle (where you have a few months on the Red Moon then a few months on the White Moon and it keeps going like that, just to keep you on your toes! I think I might be a Wise Woman.) Of course if you are medicating with the pill, patch or injection your body doesn’t have the chance to sync itself to the moon’s cycle at all- is it any wonder we feel completely out of sorts when on the pill when we are completely cut off from our natural state? Also, it’s not just ourselves as individuals syncing to mother nature- I’m sure we’ve all experienced ‘syncing’ our periods with women we’re living with or spend lots of time with? That’s why the ‘Red Tents,’ because everyone was in sync- It’s fascinating! Ok… enough hippy-dippy for now.
As I was recounting my earliest period memories there, as with most girls, my first form of sanitary protection was of course the sanitary towel; I shudder to even think of them. Oh the many pitfalls of the sanitary towel- the ghastly smell, the expense, the panty-bulge, the embarrassingly LOUD noise they would make when you opened a new one in a toilet stall so you would cough as you ripped along the seams so that the girl in the next cubicle wouldn’t hear! And I know that I can’t have been the only one with a flow heavy enough that I often had to wear the ‘night-time’ pads during the day, or if I’d run out of those I’d often overlap two regular ‘with wings’ so as to make it through the school day; I must have had a noticeable waddle. Ah, periods were so much more inconvenient in the days of the sanitary towel! Then after a year or two your courage builds and you finally, gravitate to tampons. Big step! Now you can go swimming (no more shower-cap shoes!), no more nappy-like bulges and no more unwanted toilet cubicle concerts. But these are far from ideal. Again, the expense, the fact that they are flushed off into the sea to damage marine life, and not to mention the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome that comes with wearing them. And of course you can’t frolic naked in public (should the urge take you) as you have what one of my ex-boyfriends affectionately referred to as ‘a tail in’ (I say this as I was once able to frolic naked on a hillside with a group of women whilst on my period as I was wearing my Mooncup). No, tampons are perhaps more convenient but they are just as expensive and environmentally unfriendly as towels, and come with an added health risk. And also, as well as a tail, your boyfriend might accidentally mistake them for a SWEETIE they are so small and inciting in their inconspicuous bejewelled wrapping, remember that advert?!
Enter the Mooncup.
I honestly think this should be ranked up there are one of the most important inventions of ALL time. If I was a poet I would definitely write a poem called ‘Ode to the Mooncup’, it has changed my menstruating life. The Mooncup is a silicone menstrual cup that is completely safe (absolutely no risk of TSS or anything like that), it is environmentally friendly (you empty its contents down the toilet, wash it in the sink and put it back in again, so no harming the fishes and dolphins!) and not to mention it saves you LOADS of money as it is longterm re-usable so you never have to buy sanitary towels or tampons again, hurrah! It is quite literally a Godsend. As with anything new, it takes a wee while to get the hang of, you need to work on your ‘folding and inserting’ technique, and to start with you might want to use a little lubrication to help with this. But once you work out how to insert it properly it ‘pops’ open and it collects the blood, no leaks! And no discomfort. It is the best thing ever. You do need to get pretty intimate with yourself, and your blood, as you will be cleaning it out multiple times over the course of your period, but I find that this feels natural and liberating, and as Germaine Greer famously says in The Female Eunuch ‘if you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go, baby.’
I think I’ll leave it there and suggest we take Germaine’s words in relation to the whole topic of periods. Let’s talk about them more, let’s get intimate with them and get to know our own cycles inside out, and let’s share our experiences with one another- I hope to attend a Red Tent or a Moon Lodge one day in the not too distant future, or maybe even help to set one up myself with some other willing women. I hope some of this has helped give you some insight into your own cycle, and an appreciation of just how much it does for you and how we really need to honour it, and ourselves. And when my period comes along next I may curl up under a blanket and weep over a trashy rom-com, but I’ll do so happily, filled with gratitude that my body is working the way it’s supposed to, and inside I’ll be dancing!Further Reading
‘Moon Time: Harness the Ever-Changing Energy of you Menstrual Cycle ‘ by Lucy H. Pearce
‘The Wise Wound‘ by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove
‘The Pill: Are You Sure It’s For You?‘ by Jane Bennett and Alexandra Pope
‘Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control‘ by Holly Griggs Spall
‘Taking Charge of Your Fertility‘ by Toni Weschler
‘5 Reasons I’ll Never Take Another Birth Control Pill‘ on Mind Body Green
Basic Introduction to the Cervical Mucous Method by Mayo Clinic
Basic Introduction to the Sympto-Thermal Method by Mayo Clinic