Okay, people over 40 who menstruate: am I the only one who didn’t know how heavy your period can get at this age??
What in the fresh hell?
I’m 45 and this is wild. It’s like The Shining wild.
Like anemic wild. Like I-almost-had-to-have-a-transfusion wild.
I didn’t get my period until I was around 16. I got on the pill right away since I was sexually active, often with people who had penises. As many menstruators know, being on the pill often makes your period lighter or, like in my case, stops your period altogether.
So from my late teens until my mid-thirties, I didn’t worry about periods, cramps, menstrual products, or accidents. I was on the pill — yes, even when I got pregnant, but that’s a story for another time — so didn’t have much of a period to deal with. After I had my son, I was celibate for many years, but went back on the pill because of the benefits to my menstrual cycle.
At a certain point, the migraines I’d been having began to increase and I started experiencing aural migraines, which manifest as arcs of flashing lights in your eyes that disrupt your eyesight. I usually get the auras and then 20 minutes later get a full-blown migraine.
Well apparently, this can be a symptom of an impending blood clot or stroke. My doctor told me to go off the pill immediately and for good; any more estrogen was a no-no for me from now on.
This change was fine at first: one less expense, one less pill to take every day, one less visit to the pharmacy every month. Perhaps there’d be some weight or skin issues but they would resolve over time. I was resigned to getting a period again but never would have imagined how bad it would get.
My periods started again innocently enough but got heavier and worsened over time. It was like all the blood that my body hadn’t been shedding for 20 years finally all came flooding out of me.
And don’t even get me started on the cramps. Once a month, my uterus is the Devil’s playground and she is pissed.
At my worst point, I ended up in urgent care getting fluids and having tests because I was so dehydrated and sick. Turns out I was anemic almost to the point of needing a transfusion. A woman’s hemoglobin levels should be between 12 and 15.5; mine was barely a 7. The doctor told me at 6, they do a blood transfusion. I considered myself lucky when, after some hours, they sent me home.
So because of my anemia, I had a bunch of tests to rule out anything more serious like fibroids or cancer. They found nothing and advised me to see an actual gynecologist for some tests and more specific advice. Finding still nothing out of the ordinary, the gynecologist told me that many people who menstruate experience increasingly heavy and uncomfortable periods after they turn forty, before menopause. That it’s “normal.”
Say what, now?
I had no idea. I’m thought I was pretty educated about these issues but I was pretty shocked I had never heard this little nugget before. I thought as we aged, our periods would start getting lighter but that we’d trade them in for a decade of hot flashes and mood swings until we passed the bridge into postmenopausal bliss. Guess not. Thanks, Eve.
So after a moment of gratitude that there was nothing more serious going on, I realized I needed to control the bleeding if I didn’t want to go through life as the walking dead. The gynecologist gave me several options: IUD, patch, rod in the arm, endometrial ablation. I just had to avoid estrogen because of my earlier issues.
I have to admit that none of these options sounded “good.” I didn’t want to mess with my hormones anymore, at all. Being in a relationship where there’s no way I could get pregnant (because: no penises) makes birth control options even less enticing than they already are. And endometrial ablation sounded like a real last resort. I didn’t want to do any of it.
And so, I didn’t.
You might think that if my periods were really all that, I would do anything to alleviate the pain and inconvenience of it all. And perhaps you’d be right. I’ve never had anyone else’s period, so I can’t compare.
But for me, these periods are ridiculous. I have a long commute so when it’s at its worst, I need to work from home or stop halfway through my drive. Advil and heating pads are my only relief but don’t help with the nausea and headaches. And do you all suffer through a day or two of what I call “period poops”? You’d know if you did. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to just deal with these periods every month.
To keep the anemia at bay, I take daily doses of iron, vitamin D, and vitamin C. The sheer amount of ob tampons and heavy duty pads I go thru is bananas. And I’m someone who can afford them, what about those who can’t? I used to use a cup but have had too many accidents with the one I was using. I am thinking about trying another. (Hit me up with your fave!)
I share this story to raise awareness. Clearly, people of any age who menstruate can have heavy periods and this can happen for a multitude of reasons. But the normality of heavy periods over 40 was news to me and if I didn’t know the harrowing potential of periods for people my age, I’m sure there are others who don’t either.
So if you are one who is dealing with heavy periods and other symptoms, for the love of Pete, see a gynecologist. And if you are over 40, be aware that our options may be different. Or that you may feel differently now about the options compared to when you were younger. Get a full blood count and check for anemia. Try lots of different things until you find what works for you.
After all this, I still wonder: Is this really only news to me? Did you all know this would happen? Maybe I just missed this day of the growing up talk. Either way, I’m exhausted.
Karla J. Strand is a queer, feminist, anti-oppression accomplice, librarian, and historian. She loves to travel with her partner and their puppy’s name is Grace. Karla has a regular series on the Ms. Magazine website entitled “Feminist Know-It-All” and can be found on Twitter and Insta @karlajstrand.