I was twelve, almost thirteen when I got my first period.
I was in my second year at senior school and had “the talk” the year before. All of us girls assembled in the hall to watch a film and listen to the nurse tell us about the birds and the bees.
The talk revealed nothing new. We were an open family when it came to all that stuff. Encouraged to talk about it. Tampax on show in the bathroom. Other sanitary protections are available. Even with two young boys in the house, it wasn’t hidden. It’s just how it was. And I am glad. It was the late 70s and still some homes kept a taboo on such subjects. At least I didn’t have to have to go through this first experience without some support.
I remember listening to ‘the talk’ and being told we may not even notice our first show. We would probably not even be monthly to begin with either. Phew, that was a relief. At least I would have time to come to terms with it and work out how to manage things at school.
And then it happened
If you are prone to fainting then maybe skim this next bit.
I remember it in vivid detail. I woke in the early hours and thought I had actually peed myself! A bathroom trip confirmed I hadn’t had an accident in the night — but blimey. Total carnage!
‘Hey, nursey, this is not how you said it would be, remember?’
I crept back to my room with some whispered words of advice from Mum. ‘Stick some loo paper between your legs and go back to bed’. Or at least that’s what it sounded like from a sleepy head under the bed covers. Really? As if that was going to do the trick. Have you any idea what’s going on down there. Wanna see. Nope? Okay, right, sorry, sleeping. Won’t disturb you.
I still got up for breakfast. I was always first down as I had to be first out, and we had our routine. Then, I was everyone else’s alarm call. Besides, you had to be pretty sick to stay off school. I don’t really know what I thought I would do other than somehow it would all be sorted and I would head to the bus stop as normal. It was my Dad, next down, who found me, sat in my soaked nightie eating my Ready Brek (you get the picture). He simply said ‘go back to bed. You can’t go anywhere like that’.
Oh, god, the shame.
Okay you can look again now
We are back on safe ground — more or less.
My Mum kept me off school for the rest of the week. The first job, take a trip to the chemist with her to choose my first pads. And I had a couple of days to understand what my routine might need to be, to fit into lessons and break time. But I do remember my Mum got ticking off from my Nana for keeping me off school. ‘She’s not ill you know’.
But even then, I knew my menstrual cycle was going to be a challenge. No gentle introduction for me. I was in at the deep end. I honestly wondered where it all came from! The only saving grace was I was regular. Every 31–33 days. Seven to eight days every month. Three to four day on. One day off. The first time that happened, I was almost weeping with joy. At least it was going to be short-lived each month. I could cope with four days. And then bingo, there I was, back on for another three days.
The added extras
As many a woman will testify, it’s not all about the stuff down below. In fact, if it was only that, I guess most of us would accept it in much the same as going to the toilet for a pee.
But when mother nature decided the women should carry the child, she somehow didn’t factor in the effect our ever-changing hormones would have on the rest of our body.
First came the cramps. The crippling dragging feeling which would almost bring me to my knees some days. Tampons made this hugely worse. The heavier the period, the higher the absorbency, the tougher the pain. But they were the protection of choice for anyone trying to act normal in a school where you simply wouldn’t want to stand out too much. Attracting attention to your delicate situation would be your worst nightmare. We didn’t own a hot water bottle as far as I remember. Not that that was going to help me get through a Tuesday of double maths!
And then came the realisation that periods don’t wait for the end of lesson bell.
I absolutely hated using the school toilets. Our school had designated loos for each year. In the first two years, even my third, I was actually scared to need a pee. Because the bullies hung out there. Even the girls from higher years would retreat to the lower form toilets, smoking away. Blocking the pan with “bog paper” to hide the fag ends. I would literally feel sick at the thought of going into a cubicle. I crouched in fear of someone kicking my door open. To be honest, very few doors properly locked. Have you tried to balance and watch for someone looking over? It’s bad enough when you are mid pee. You can only imagine the trauma of it being your time of the month too.
“And then came the realisation that periods don’t wait for the end of lesson bell.”
I often took risks to avoid having to go in my lunch break.
Why didn’t I tell anyone about those girls?
You might well ask.
And the answer is simple. Fear. Even bigger than the fear of lunchtime loo stops. The first thing my older friend told me, when I started that school, was keep your gob shut. Or your head will be flushed down the pan along with all those fag ends — if you are lucky. And if you get too much of a ‘tell teacher’, you won’t get far out the school gates before you get your head kicked in.
So I would pad myself up and hope for the best. Some days I swore you could hear me rustle as I walked. If I was quick I might get to nip into a loo on another floor between lessons. I would pray nobody would mess about in class and have us kept back after the bell. Timing was key and, yes, accidents happened.
“I still have nightmares about sitting in toilets with no door on.”
Once we reached 4th year things got better. The loos were cleaner as the older girls respected them. And those who didn’t, were back down in the 1st and 2nd year loos terrorising some other wee kids.
I swear, I still have nightmares about sitting in toilets with no door on. Please don’t laugh — that’s no word of a lie.
Then there were the headaches
Awful headaches which would last two to three days, as they casually batted away any painkiller attempts. I could set my clock and calendar by them. Not just before my monthlies either, but mid cycle too. If I got one at school, the nurse would give out a paracetamol (which always made me so queasy I wanted to vomit) then tell you to go and run around the playground.
Run around the playground? I was a teenager. We didn’t run around the playground. We hung around the school gates, trying to look cool, hoping to catch a glimpse of the 6th form heartthrob heading back in from his lunch.
I only once sent word back I was going home. I felt guilty all the way, like I was bunking off. I knew my reception at home wouldn’t be great either. It’s not an illness, remember. But I really was feeling sick as a dog.
And as for PMT. Pre-menstrual tension is probably the biggest understatement. The mood swings would start maybe three days before my period. Anger turning to weeping, turning to feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. Irrational fear of being unwanted, unloved. Brain fog and zoning out in lessons. Or was that just Physics lessons per se? My Dad and the boys were probably glad the only females were me and my Mum. Because when our cycles aligned you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
“The mood swings would start maybe three days before my period. Anger turning to weeping, turning to feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty.”
So that would be me — for the next 40 years of my period life. Roll on the menopause.
Suck it up, love
It’s funny now I look back. Though not so funny that I don’t feel my heart pumping when I relive some of the most horrible moments. And they were horrible. They are deep rooted now and the worst memories which can be triggered in an instant.
I like to think attitudes are changing. It is important that these things are talked about. I never even dreamt of asking for help with managing my period. ‘It runs in the family’. No pun intended. It’s how a lot of us were brought up. And so I just accepted that this was how life would be. I never really questioned it. I just wore extra towels and prayed. For eight days of every month. A quarter of my adolescent life and beyond.
Even when I finally went to the GP with the headaches, he never asked about my menstrual cycle. I was never offered any help for the cause. Mind you, my mother would have gone mental if he’d ‘put me on the pill’, the standard cure all for heavy periods. As it was, she wanted to see my collection from the chemist, just in case. It was Migraleve! Ultra-strong headache tablets. And yes, I did endure the public bag inspection while walking around the supermarket
It would take until I had left home and had my first smear test before the ‘period’ questions finally started to be asked by my GP. Soon I would discover a condition I had known nothing about, which would ensure the torment, finger-pointing and subsequent shame would continue well into my adult life.
©Marie T Smith (She Wordsmiths..)