On Being Sick On a Monthly Basis

Period pain doesn’t count as Real Pain™.

Diagram illustrating how the uterus lining builds up and breaks down during the menstrual cycle. The numbers in the diagram are the average only. Source: NIH.

When I was 12 or 13 years old, my mother bought me a book. It was called “From 12 to 16" and was written in the 60’s in Germany by Barbara Lüdecke. As any teenager will tell you (but some parents might disagree) it was very irrelevant to Israel of the early 2000’s. Unsurprisingly this book is still recommended to teenage girls by “educational figures”.

Israeli cover of “from 12 to 16”

People told me that it cannot be VERY irrelevant, but oh boy, it was. For the autistic, bisexual, genderqueer, immigrant from the USSR kid I was, the book was very confusing. It talked about things I never heard of before or were just not true. For example the fact that every girl has a role model, and should have one. Or like fashion choices no one ever made in Israel after living there more then 3 months. The only change “From 12 to 16” got to the “current” time and place was a paragraph about military service (as it was in the 70's). The book talked about hippies like they still were a thing. It called Lesbianism a perversion. It the only paragraph that acknowledged that one can be something else then straight. The book did had some good info about hobbies, and the role models were women like Marie Curie. Still, it did a lot of damage in at least one aspect in my life: the shit it taught me about my period. It said that getting my period doesn’t mean I will “be sick several days each month.”

Gynecologists, other resources and any person I knew said the same. Periods are not an illness. They are not good enough reason to take a day off, even if you say you can’t work safely. Unless one was losing their conciseness, there is no reason not to act normal. People talked about discomfort, and I thought that they meant the pain. After all, pain is very uncomfortable. And since my periods were very painful from the beginning, it seemed normal. No one ever told me what amount of pain is a problem. And having the body I have, with it’s atypical reaction to pain, I couldn’t know what was normal.

I was in extreme pain every time. I felt like I was expected to take a painkiller and continue as everything was normal. The painkillers helped a bit, but I couldn’t manage the normal part. My coordination was horrible, my concentration lacking and my though process blurry. But it was all a natural part of “being a woman”. I would add about 3 kg to my weight during periods in swelling. I would be too weak to do physical activities that were just 2 days ago. I would have constipation and diarrhea at the same time. I never told what amount of pain is healthy. At some point I understood that these symptoms are a problem, and tried to talk to gynecologists about them. Each one of them would shrug their solders and tell me to just take ibuprofen. But I already used ibuprofen 3 times a day to be somewhat functional. Several gynecologists suggested using oral contraception. But I actually used “the pill” for several years, and the pain was the same.

My periods were not horrible by the standards that I was raised by. I wasn’t fainting. I could get out of bed if I applied enough self hate (and fear of my family), and I didn’t threw up what I ate. No outer symptoms — no problem.

But at some point in my life I discovered that there are people who would hear about my pain and say that it shouldn’t be like that. One of them, to my amazement, was my current boss. Beforehand I had to suck it up. The fact that I couldn’t work safely during my periods was a character flaw and my own fault. I have my best performance at any given moment, including my period. The fact that I wanted to be able to work in a safe manner, and to be excellent and sharp every moment — was ignored. But my boss asked me why I didn’t tell her that I was at too much pain to work. I told her that it is a period pain, and it “doesn’t count”. She assured me that it is OK to skip a day if I can’t work, and sent me home.

Another person who took my pain seriously was my psychotherapist. When I told her about my period pains, and the fact that no one ever took them seriously, she seemed surprised. She asked me if my family ever told me that my pain was abnormal. They never did. My grandmother discouraged me from taking “too much” ibuprofen. I still took it because it was the treatment suggested by my nursing school textbooks. My mother tried to reassure me by telling me that the pain got easier after birth. Grandmother also told me about other people who suffered more then me at their periods. I was confused by these notions. They didn’t make me feel better or reassured. I only felt guilty for feeling bad for suffering from such mild symptoms as mine. The only one who tried to make me feel better was my partner. He knew what it was like being in pain with others not getting it. But he also couldn’t understand how horrible my periods were, although he saw my suffering. My psychologist was the first person who was surprised that family me didn’t try to get me medical help when I was a teenager. I guess that they also thought that severe pain is normal, because that was what they knew. Because in my case, no one else took their pain to be real problem.

I don’t want to finish this text on a negative note, but my story doesn’t have a happy ending. I found a medication works for me, although it has some unpleasant side effects. I take a vacation day or two every month. Unfortunately, my periods actually became more painful with time and age. I got a diagnosis of severe IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), which explained some of the symptoms I have during periods. My last period was one of the most painful I ever experienced. I guess it have to do with the fact that I was stressed because I had a plane flight. The airport was inaccessible hell with some horrible security theater. More then once I found a spot on the floor to lay on and sobbed out of pain.