Towards the end of last year, I finally got to see the GP about my periods. This is the story of what happened next. Might not be your thing, but it’s important to tell it.
I came off the pill in November 2016, and had a confusing wait until July 2017 for anything like a period to come back. At that stage, I only got to see a nurse. Things will settle, she told me. It was only when my body decided to combine long cycles with bouts of random mini-bleedings that I was allowed to meet a doctor – who, thankfully, listened. I had a blood test for hormone disorders (clear) and for thyroid problems (clear) – I was told I probably have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and to go on a low GI diet. The weird cycles continued, so I was referred to the attractively named Menstrual Disorder Clinic at my local hospital. I was lucky to get an appointment, as irregular periods are often not enough to merit further investigation. I had an internal ultrasound (or Dildo Cam as I’ve since heard it called). It was an awkward rather than painful procedure, but I left thinking it would confirm PCOS and I’d finally have The Answer. I got a call from my doctor that afternoon, saying they’d found a problem with my womb lining and I’d need to be referred on. I made the mistake of Googling, and cried. Exactly a month later, I had a hysteroscopy. In this procedure, they pump your uterus full with water to expand the area, insert a camera and whatever instruments they need, and act from there. In my case, they discovered a polyp (growth) which they cut away and removed, and took endometrial cells for a biopsy. I now wait for a letter to tell me whether or not the cells are cancerous. As I am under the age of 40, probability should be on my side… but cancer has stalked down the women of my family tree. What happens now? The postman will confirm.
Meanwhile, my period is once again well overdue.
So why am I telling you this? Nothing dramatic has happened, sometimes female cycles are weird and the world keeps spinning. I do not expect you to care. But if there’s one thing I have taken away from this, it’s that we really need to talk about periods. And about shame.
Imagine if I had been in and out of my GP and the hospital because of a recurring problem with my ankle. Everyone has ankles. They’re socially acceptable to chat about at brunch or on a Monday catchup with your employer. So, I would probably have told a lot more people. But periods are inherently more intimate – with associations of sex, blood and bodily fluid. Faced with a problem, I only felt comfortable talking about it with the people I trust with those topics: my best friend, my mum (selectively filtered through her to my dad and brother) and my partner Marcus (I’m also grateful for him talking to his mum). My closest women have their period difficulties (who doesn’t?) but inevitably, their struggles and mine aren’t going to be the same. This is where Dr Google comes in (and my new favourite torture, the community on the Glow app). But how can you orientate yourself in the wild terrain of thousands of women’s experiences? I just want a few more people to talk to, in person… and the talking has to start with me.
But then there’s the guilt. If it was a problem with my ankle, I would not feel so responsible (unless I’d deliberately done something stupid like trying to leapfrog over a bin). But a period is, quite literally, the stick that Nature gives a woman to beat herself with. You pound and pound until your womb lining falls out – another egg wasted, so Nature makes it hurt. If your period doesn’t arrive, you pound that stick against your head instead. Where is it? What choices must I (alone) have made this month to cause this? Possibilities include: “Have I over-exercised, or maybe under-exercised?” “Is it because I ate more chocolate than last month?” “Is it just stress – I don’t think I’m generally stressed, but now I’m a bit stressed about whether my period is so fragile it could be killed by under-the-radar-stress?” Or the most obvious: “Am I pregnant?” With all the emotional battering that goes with that most potent question.
We’re conditioned, then, to associate an absent period with personal culpability. So, is it any wonder then that my irregular periods are engulfed by a sense of shame and self-blame? It’s even in the name Menstrual Disorder Clinic – I have been pulled up for misbehaving and the punishment is a giant probe up the whatsit.
To talk about it, even with my closest circle of people, is to admit another way that I am failing. I earn a pitiful amount, I am very uncertain about my career goals, I love my partner but massively miss living in Scotland, working from home has made me much more anxious and agoraphobic, I have evidently taken a wrong turn in the years since graduation and I cannot see a way out of this deep inner sadness. When I meet friends and acquaintances, I cover this in a bland veneer of “I’m fine, just working, how about you?”. To admit that I can’t even manage to have a period – the very basic essence of being an adult woman – would rip the fragile coat I wear in public. You would see all the mess and self-hatred that’s underneath. In a recent catch up with my closest friends, we talked about their rewarding jobs and exciting travel plans. I could have contributed “I’m waiting to hear if I have endometrial cancer” and they would have been really brilliant about it, but inevitably they’d have had to get back to their own lives, and I would have been left as a puddle on the floor.
I hide in silence instead.
The hardest thing to deal with is the thought that my own choices have sickened me. If I had managed to find the job I loved by now, would my periods have ‘settled’? If I could fix the unreasonable sadness in my life, would my cycle be normal too? Has my brain managed to sicken my cells and turned them cancerous? If the results letter says yes, and they have to remove my womb, how will I cope with my guilt? If I get the all-clear, what else is causing this? Is my brain holding my body hostage and blocking its ability to function – what does that say about my life? Am I that anxious, that unhappy? Or does the problem go back further – is this all because I had M.E. through puberty? Or because my weight went down to skeletal when I was 12? If so, how will I tell my parents? How will I get up in the morning and look the people I love in the eye if I am infertile?
I’m very convinced that I have somehow injured my periods, so the responsibility to repair must also lie with me. My currently late period will turn up, if I can just clear the cache. But I don’t know how.
So that’s the negatives. Now let’s switch the light on. The good thing about anything medical is the people you love are (hopefully) there for you in their best, most idiosyncratic ways:
- My mum came down 400 miles for my hysteroscopy, even though it really wasn’t a big deal, because she didn’t want me to go alone. She turned the day into something nice – taking me for tea and cake afterwards, and wisely putting on Mamma Mia when we got back to my flat.
- My brother made sure my mum came down with Oreo eggs so that I could eat them during the proceedings (his experience of a hysteroscopy is limited). The chocolate melted during mum’s train journey and had to be surgically reformed in the fridge. But they were a thoughtful gesture, very tasty a few days later.
- My dad – sent my mum. Even though he was in a lot more pain at the time than I experienced. He was on heavy-duty painkillers and antibiotics for a tooth infection and swollen cheek. But he sent mum’s comforts to me.
- Marcus came home from work the evening before the hysteroscopy with a bottle of prosecco and a big bar of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, and has been there for me when I’ve cried at night over the past few weeks.
- Two of my mum’s friends, who I’ve known since childhood, sent good luck texts (my mum had already discussed the issue with them at length – she has no qualms about tapping her network of parents with early 90s children for similar experiences/advice).
- Marcus’ parents let me know they were hoping I was ok, without us having to talk about it.
I was reminded of the strong invisible net of people who care about me.
Another positive is that my local NHS support has been great. My GP has proved quick and efficient when they felt the problem had stepped up a gear. My hospital seems really good (despite the clinic’s insulting name). My specialist was kind, gentle and listened to me – both during the consultation and whilst operating. I had two lovely nurses – one whose mother grew up near where I did, and one who sounded exactly like Brenda Blethyn on Vera. I made them laugh during the procedure, got a guided tour of my womb, and learnt that this sort of operating is basically like playing on an Xbox. They made me feel safe and relaxed. Which meant I could stay calm and dignified, even when I nearly walked into the cleaning cupboard after the procedure was over (I tried to convince them this was due to my bad sense of direction and not because my legs were shaking from the anaesthetic and adrenaline concoction they’d injected into my cervix… not sure they believed me). It’s the people that make or break a medical experience. Mine were good people.
So, what’s the conclusion to this essay of self-exposure? On the one hand, all I can do is wait – for my letter, for my period, for an epiphany of what will sort my life out. My challenge, in the waiting, is to not let my brain drive me mad. Writing is a good distraction.
Hopefully, writing this experience down might even be useful. Every woman you know has/had/will have periods. The experience is a lot more talked about now in public and political spheres. But, generally, it is publicly referred to as one experience all women share. They have periods – men do not. When actually that term “periods” has to cover billions of women, each of whom have bodies made of unique DNA, and each of those bodies orchestrate a highly-individualised menstrual cycle, which may vary and fluctuate from month to month. How do you actually define that into something that fits all? You can’t. So why do I feel a failure and alone for not matching the norm, when I’m one of many?
By chance, I found that podcasts are great as a resource to feel reassured rather than overwhelmed. You may think of women talking to other women about periods, fertility, infertility and so on might be too moaning, or just plain ‘girly’ – not your fault, that’s just centuries of culturally ingrained sexism. But whatever issue you’re facing, whether it’s big or just seems big to you at the time, hearing people talk about similar issues to you in a relaxed and social way is massively comforting. I listen to a few of these podcasts to take the fear away from topics like Infertility, to listen to interesting people discuss their everyday lives, to feel less alone in having some sort of menstrual ‘disorder’, and to feel informed about options that may present themselves down the line. As humans, we’re designed to talk to each other. To help my own mental health, I really have to start to make fuller use of this outlet.
So here – this is what’s happening to me. I’m not fine. I’m panic eating whole grains and trying to find a non-aluminium natural deodorant that actually works (for a low GI and anti-cancer lifestyle). Mostly, I’m just trying to make it through the day.
P.s. in the absence of a photo of me (NHS lilac isn’t my colour) I give you a pineapple – swimming on. Partly because it’s cheery, and partly for this.