How My Period Has Defined My Life
By Rebecca Swanson
I wear my favorite corduroy bell bottom pants with the red apples. My brother has tube top socks with red stripes. We are the same, except he is told to play with toy guns and I am told to play with dolls. No matter; we carefully tie both the doll and a GI Joe to our gender-neutral Fisher Price pontoon boat and shove it off the beach. I shoot at the floating boat with the cap gun, bang, bang, bang, while my brother lights fireworks and attaches them to the back of dead frogs.
Boys are sent to one room, girls to another. We watch a movie about periods. I don’t know what the boys watch. When we are sent back to class, we keep secrets from each other.
When I get home, I lock myself in the bathroom and pull my mother’s pink cardboard box out from the cabinet under the sink. I read the instructions from top to bottom, and try to imagine shoving anything into my vagina. I can’t. I open a wrapped tampon and study it. Tug the string. I wrap the whole thing in toilet paper and stuff it to the bottom of the garbage can. It will be two more years before I open this box again. I run out of the room and challenge my brother to a game of Monopoly; he soundly defeats me and then gloats until I punch him.
It’s dry by the time I notice it; a small stain of maroon in my underpants as I’m changing into my pajamas. I don’t tell anyone, and by the next day it’s gone. Every day for three months I check my underpants each time I pee. Finally, one day, there is more; this time, it hurts, just a little bit. I find pads in the cabinet, and stick one to my underpants. It feels like a baby’s diaper. I tell my mom, and she shows me the pink box of tampons. I don’t tell my brother.
It’s always lurking; for one-fourth of my days, it is there. I plan my white shorts, my bikinis, my dates, my life, around it. I slide tampons into my shirt sleeves between classes and hope they don’t fall out before I reach the bathroom. I hope I don’t leak. I tie sweatshirts around my waist on the heaviest day. On any given day, other girls are walking around the halls with sweatshirts around their waists, too.
I cry for days before I bleed, and when I don’t cry I feel rage. It’s messy. It smells. It cramps. For 4–6 days of every single month I am acutely aware of my femininity. But it doesn’t feel feminine to me.
I am a woman in age, now, not just in body. I am used to the blood. I can say the word period in public (mostly). I control my cycle; for the next 16 years I take pills. 16 years x 12 months x 28 days, give or take.
They lessen the pain. They give me a schedule; it is easier to plan my white shorts, my bikinis, my sex, my life. It loses importance; if my planned period overlaps with a trip to the beach, I take extra pills, and skip it altogether. Doctor approved.
With that, my periods become nearly irrelevant. They are a fact without an exclamation point. I budget for tampons, for pantyliners, for medium-flow pads, for overnight extra-long pads with wings. I put towels down before sex, blush a little with new boyfriends, and take Advil for cramps. I still cry before it comes, but I keep track of the last week of sugar pills and I anticipate it. I try my hardest to stay away from anyone I care about when I feel rage.
I meet the man who will become my husband, and the father of my children. I meet him, and just like that, my period means everything, and will continue to mean everything for the next decade of my life.
“I missed a couple of pills,” I breathe into his sweaty neck. We are two weeks into our relationship, and already talking marriage. His toothbrush already lives in my bathroom. His pants already spend most of the time on my bedroom floor.
“It’s okay,” I continue, pulling him onto the bed. “It was just two pills. Or maybe three.”
Fast forward. My next period isn’t just a nuisance. It isn’t just a blip. It isn’t nothing, it isn’t irrelevant. Instead, it’’s painful. Heavy. Unfamiliar. And, after nine days, I find out that it isn’t, in fact, a period at all. I learn this in the emergency room.
I will spend the next few hours calling my family, and telling them that I have gotten pregnant with my new boyfriend whom they know nothing about, and yes, of course I was still on the pill, and no, I am not having a baby because there is no baby, only an embryo that has grown inside my fallopian tube, which could have killed me but instead is trying to expel itself from my body with blood and cramps and clots of thick tissue.
It is a period that is not a period, not a nuisance, but instead an epic and dangerous event. My period will become a series of events, bolded and underlined. The next 10 years will be all about when and how my body bleeds out.
I will have surgery, emergency surgery, so this particular event doesn’t kill me.
I will spend months recovering from this event, crying, aching, and spending time with my new boyfriend and our new puppy, which we got to help me forget this event that was a period that wasn’t a period.
We will marry, the next year, and I will stop the pill for good. Now, when my period comes it is not a nuisance, it is death. The death of a dream, a dream that begins on the 14th day of every cycle and ends with blood.
My period was a nuisance, before. Then it was nothing. Now it is everything.
Ovulation kits, pregnancy tests, clomid. I will learn to feel my ovulation, to notice things like cervical mucus. I will learn things about my uterus, my ovaries, my fallopian tubes, things that I should have always known but don’t. Things that I didn’t care about, back when my period was simply annoying.
I will cry when the blood starts each month. I will cry with relief when finally, one month, the blood doesn’t come and instead the blue plus sign shows on the pregnancy test. Then I will cry again when I miscarry, early, and the blood is thick, and painful.
I will cry again when another blue plus sign shows up, and cry again when it is another bolded and underlined event stuck in my fallopian tube, another emergency surgery, this time on my 36th birthday.
I will take control again, with help from doctors and tens of thousands of dollars, and inject myself with hormones that are far worse than the tiny pills, hormones that will stop my periods altogether so that we can harvest eggs and plant a baby — a baby! — into my uterus, and it works, and for the next two years I will have no period at all.
Then I will wait impatiently for it to return, shaking with excitement when it does, because now I can take more shots and more pills to stop it, again, to have another baby — a baby! I love my period now. I am a woman, and feminine, and tough and brave, and my period is why I have babies, which is all I have ever wanted, but never knew how much I wanted until I thought I couldn’t have them.
The Final Stage
Two more years, pregnant and nursing, before my period will come back with a vengeance.
I’d forgotten how much it hurts; I have been pregnant or nursing or on the pill for more than half of my fertile life. My flow is heavier than it has ever been; I wear both tampons and super long maxis to the office during the day, and cross my fingers at night. I wash a lot of sheets. I no longer own white pants, anyways, because of small children with sticky hands.
The cramps. Oh, the cramps. I take both Advil and Tylenol, at the same time, and thank my body for giving me my children but for fuck’s sake, did you have to give me this crappy period back? Did you have to make it worse?
Didn’t I just have it? I swear, I just had it, like, a week ago.
I hate it.
Until the doctor tells me it is heavier and stronger because I am older. “It won’t be much longer!” she tells me with a smile. Because I will lose it, one day soon, my period.
My blood will be the bookend of my life; an alert to my final journey. I will get this alert because I am a woman, and because my period is all at once nothing — and everything.
Lead image: flickr/Shikeroku