A lot of people have period horror stories. White pants and an early visit from Aunt Flo. Terrible cramps the day of a job interview. Going home with a guy you really like only to remember at the last second that you have a tampon in. All of these things have happened to me. This was worse.
I was 17 and a senior in high school. It was the Day of Silence, and I was one of the cochairs of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. And since the club spent most meetings having unproductive arguments about what the word pansexual might mean, Day of Silence was our one opportunity to fight the good fight for equality. I was young and idealistic enough to think that the events planned were going to stop homophobia forever. It was kind of a big deal for me.
So of course I overslept and skipped breakfast.
No big deal, right? There was going to be food at school, the walk was less than a mile, and I grabbed an apple on the way out. Skipping breakfast isn’t a great idea, but it shouldn’t be a decision bad enough to trigger to a three-day hospital visit.
Unfortunately, I was on my period. I had been, in fact, for well over a week. Sadly, this was normal for me. My “time of the month” had always taken up a lot more of my month than I would have liked. It was always more than one week long, frequently more than two. And it was heavy. How heavy? You know those teeny little blood clots you sometimes get? They’re generally smaller than a kidney bean. Mine were the size of my fist.
So I wasn’t feeling great. I would find out later that I was severely anaemic. That means my blood was very low in iron (my levels were similar to those of a committed anorexic or a victim of famine). Iron helps your body do awesome stuff, like transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of you. When you don’t have enough iron, it feels a little like when you’re inhaling helium (without the funny voice effect). It feels like air, but it’s not what your body needs.
All I knew was that, after walking less than a block, I was dizzy, nauseated, and winded. I felt like I’d run a marathon. I wheezed along for another half a block, determined to soldier on and make it to school, but when I realized it was taking me ten minutes to get ten steps, I finally had to admit that something was horribly wrong.
I called my dad, and to his credit he immediately got in his car to get me. I’d been gone for 20 minutes, so he assumed that I’d gotten farther. He drove past me at first (it probably didn’t help that I was lying on the ground, not totally conscious). He turned back around and helped me get in the car, and drove me back home. I got out of the car on my own, but the minute I was out I started vomiting until I collapsed. If only that was as undignified as it got.
My parents conferred with one another and decided to take me to the doctor. Good call. I was clearly not well. However, the doctor I’d been going to for all my gyno needs was not averse to assigning nurse practitioners to her patients. I had not actually seen a doctor in over a year. I didn’t realize this distinction matters, and the nurse practitioner had assumed that I was just another whiny teenager complaining about her period.
So when I was brought in, pale, shaking, and bleeding profusely, she continued to deny that there was anything majorly wrong with me. Until she started checking my vital signs and I stopped being able to stand.
I don’t actually remember the transition from the doctor’s office to the hospital. I do remember the 10 attempts it took for a nurse to find my vein and give me an IV. That was unpleasant.
I also have an unfortunately vivid memory of removing my tampon in a room full of doctors, nurses, and my dad. It was leaking badly enough that I was sitting in a pool of my own blood (and that is as undignified as it got, thank God).
I was put on birth control (yeah, I have no idea why that option wasn’t on the table earlier), which was intended to stop or slow down my period. I got an ultrasound to check for internal injuries (Fun fact: I had none, just a tiny benign cyst that was completely unrelated and not bothering anyone). I had strangers pulling my parents aside so they could ask me if I was being regularly beaten (nope). And, because I was doing so well in the hematology department, I had blood drawn all day.
After no immediate red flags showed up on any tests, I ended up getting two units of blood (since at that point I looked like a vampire). When that didn’t cut it, I also got two units of iron (if you’ve never had iron inserted directly into your bloodstream, I don’t recommend it, it hurts like hell).
I stayed in the hospital for three days. I felt like crap, I got woken up at weird hours for tests that I kind of failed (there was an outdated bleeding time test using blotting paper and too much enthusiasm at five in the morning). Usually with medical horror stories like these, there’s a diagnosis at the end.
Sorry to disappoint.
A few weeks later, I had a follow-up appointment with one of the only hematologists in the area. I was in her waiting room for 45 minutes, in her exam room for another 30, and when she finally came to speak to me, she’d barely said hello before she left to take a phone call. Fifteen minutes later, she came back, told me I had celiac disease, and then left because she’d forgotten her chart. (For those who don’t know, celiac is characterized by an inability to process gluten, which can lead to serious digestive problems and cancer). It’s not the kind of news one generally takes well.
So half an hour later, when the doctor returned with her wayward chart, I wasn’t in a great mood. She was kind enough to tell me that her initial prognosis was completely wrong, and that she had no idea what was wrong with me. Her advice? Stay on birth control, and good luck.
I have since been to see better doctors. They’ve all had similar answers. Here’s what I think happened:
I’d applied to colleges, and hadn’t heard anything back.
I was the head of two clubs and had a full course load.
My parents were separating, a precursor to their divorce. ‘Twas ugly.
And I was only halfway recovered from the two years I’d spent at a really conservative private school. To say it didn’t agree with me is an understatement. The time I spent there contributed to depression severe enough I tried to kill myself.
I was really stressed, and while I thought I was handling it all really well, I think it’s not unreasonable to imagine I was overwhelmed and it was taking a toll on my body. I learned a very valuable lesson about taking care of oneself during difficult times (a lesson I’ve had the unfortunate privilege of relearning over and over again).
And failing that, I self-medicate with Guinness. It’s a good source of iron.
This piece originally appeared on xoJane.