I can’t say that I have ever found my periods anything less than inconvenient. I wasn’t early to start and so was quite excited when at 13, my first one eventually came. It was heavy and lasted for 9 days and I realised then that my mum had been right when she had said that I should just enjoy not having started. “They don’t call it the curse for nothing,” she said as I asked for another pack of sanitary towels because it still hadn’t stopped. I knew from the other girls that mine was going on longer than most, but I also knew that everyone was different and so I accepted the way that I was. I experienced my first migraine at age 11, so some time before, and at that point I had not connected the two. It was much later that I recognised the hormonal link and realised that some of the debilitating headaches I suffered were actually menstrual migraines.
Content Warning: This post contains experiences with pain, blood and humiliation, but not of the erotic kind.
My periods continued to be long and heavy, causing me even then to plan around them. When it got to the point that they came for two weeks every three weeks I was a bit fed up with my lot. It sort of came to a head one night when, two days into my period, I woke in the night to find that I had leaked through my night-clothes and underwear and onto the bed sheets. I went to the bathroom to sort myself out and was pretty panicked when I discovered a large clot. I know now that this can be something that happens but I was only about 14 and it was pretty scary. I woke my mum and was not reassured by the way she looked. She tried to make me feel better but she put the pad, complete with clot, into a sandwich bag. I got myself cleaned up and went back to bed but I heard her tell my dad that something was wrong and that a clot the size of the palm of your hand wasn’t a normal.
She called the Doctor the next day and me, mum and the clot went for our appointment. The Doctor explained that I might be anaemic which would mean that my body was producing too much blood in order to try to get the haemoglobin it needed in order to work properly. I don’t think mum was convinced but she agreed the iron might be a good thing as I did look pale. There wasn’t really much of a positive in terms of a change to the length and heaviness of my period, but my poo turned black so I didn’t really like the taking tablets. I was monitored for about a year, dutifully keeping a record of times and dates and then referred to the gynaecology department. The long waiting time for my appointment was disappointing considering the result: A pretty humiliating and slightly disturbing experience for me and the recommendation that I go on the pill from them.
I don’t know if I had some sort of weird resistance to the pill but the first one meant I didn’t stop bleeding at all. I went back to the doctor, and after two cycles they stopped the pill and gave me something else. I was told to take a break and then try a different one. I think I lasted about three months on the third one before my dad said that I was moody and irrational and he wouldn’t continue to teach me to drive until ‘the stuff was out of my system’. I passed my driving test and went back to the doctor who concluded that I should prepare myself for the fact that I was likely to have heavy periods for the entirety of my menstrual career. I laughed internally at the expression and noted his caveat that there was a small possibility that things could reset themselves after childbirth. Drastic measures I thought.
My mum was never one to really make a fuss about health concerns and I suppose I learnt from her that it was best just to get on with it. Which is what I did. Planning my wardrobe options around my cycle is something I have plenty of experience of and something I long since realised was part of my life. Being aware that my sanitary protection has let me down once again, despite doubling up and frequent changes is nothing new to me. Embarrassing moments when I am unable to hide the fact that I have bled out all over my clothes are ones that I just have to deal with. And the lack of control over a flow which, without warning, can propel a clot from my body which lands with a soft thud, creating a spatter pattern worthy of a murder scene, is just part and parcel of my cycle.
On top of the embarrassment and inconvenience of my period, there is also the build up to deal with. I know that some women can feel bloated prior to a period, but I swear sometimes I must look at least 5 months pregnant. My belly swells, my boobs swell, and my weight can fluctuate by half a stone in a before and after comparison. None of this does much to make me feel attractive but I have just grown used to it. I remember saying to HL one time that at least all these physical symptoms meant that I wasn’t affected by the emotional stuff and he raised an eyebrow and proceeded to say, “What? You mean your psycho-bitch week?” I asked sheepishly if I was really that bad and he said, “Well lets just say that I plan for it and try to make allowances for you.”
So all of this is workable, but the one thing that has really floored me is the migraines. I know that migraine affects each person slightly differently and it can be difficult to tell what is a headache and what is more. Not all of my migraines are the same. They all share the same crushing pain which feels like someone is stabbing me, usually through the eye, but the centre can also be focussed from other parts of my head. I will often get an aura (visual disturbance) which means that parts of my vision are lost. This makes functioning really challenging and dangerous at points. The migraine can also affect my speech and I suffer a loss in my ability to select words and articulate. My thinking is clouded and there is constant nausea which arises from the level of pain. The length of the migraine will vary and there will often be a feeling of reduced ability the day after it.
Now I can’t attribute all migraines to my hormones (some are stress induced) but there will be one each month which arrives like clockwork. This has worsened significantly as I approach the menopause and although not considered peri-menopausal yet (my periods rage on with alarming regularity and fervour) I have noticed night sweats and other hormonal changes which would indicate that I am drawing closer. There have been other hormonal patterns over the years and there was a definite increase in the number of migraines I had during pregnancy. The menstrual migraines debilitate me. They will come at the onset of my period and will last 3-5 days with no let-up. Nothing has been able to touch them and it was only when I went to the doctor as I felt that I couldn’t work through it that I realised there were things I could take that might help.
Prior to this I had tried taking regular pain medication but that seemed to do nothing. I had read up and researched the sort of foods that could prevent a hormone crash or a hormone surge and had created some weird recipes to try to eat my way out of it. I cut out sugar and caffeine and alcohol. I set a regular bed time and made sure that I went to sleep at the same time each night, but right on cue, I would approach the day of my period and the migraine would come. I even tried asking HL to hurt me with impact play in the hope for an hour’s relief from the crushing pain. I think it was the fact that I went to bed with it and woke up with it the next day for consecutive days that really ground me down. It drove me to feel despair and HL sent me to seek help. I asked for a blood test to determine my hormone level as I thought that there might be an imbalance causing it, but apparently this is not something they can do.
A trial and error approach with various drugs led me to Sumatriptan which takes the edge off and hides the migraine enough that I can function. I feel a bit spaced out and wouldn’t risk driving, but I can keep going and muddle through the day. I am aware that the migraine is bleeding on in the background but the stabbing pain is dulled to an ache; this means that I can stop clutching my head and digging my nails into my temples, and actually hold a conversation. Of all the ails which have blighted my menstrual career, the hormonal migraine is the one that has really pissed me off. It has not been something I can plan for or overlook or work around in the way that the other symptoms have, and that has annoyed me somehow. It confuses me why my body can’t do something natural without seeming to work against itself in a very uncoordinated approach.
I know that possibly my acceptance of these symptoms may be something I should have challenged over the years and I think I will take a different view with menopausal matters. My mum was of the opinion that she should work through it without medication and didn’t ask for treatment like her friends. There was too little known, she said, about the effect of the hormones and she could put up with the symptoms and let her body do the rest. Now she has osteoporosis, she regrets that decision so I think I will do as HL says and get “patched right up” if that is what is offered. I am hoping that the menstrual migraines pass, along with the other monthly misfortune but I have learnt from my earlier mistakes and won’t be wishing myself on to the next stage this time.
Menstruation Matters is a project by Sub Bee. Bee wanted to create a space which shows that menstruation matters as it is an important subject and shouldn’t be shied away from. Our experiences can help others so please click on the link above, read, and share your own experience.