Why, As A Black Woman, I Struggled To Manage My Period Pain

By Britt Julious

Unsplash/William Stitt
Pain was a part of me intrinsically, rooted in my familial genesis.

I am a keen listener. At 28, when my body tells me what is wrong, I listen, examine, and adjust if necessary. And at age 10, before I had the true inclination to trust my instincts, I listened to my body when my very first period arrived on Halloween morning.

I am not superstitious, but I took it as an omen that this new monthly thing would not get better, only continue to surprise me in new and weird ways. Like a ghost, my period would haunt me every month, and like a ghost, it would frighten me with the ways in which it would appear in my life. Later that afternoon, I celebrated my last Halloween as a child trick-or-treating at houses in the wealthier part of town with my then best friends Caitlin, Amanda, and Alda. I told them what happened, to which Caitlin exclaimed, “Not fair!” — as if a period were something to anticipate. I had spent the past year watching my older sister suffer through her period, curled in a ball on the couch in our basement, debilitated by cramps.

“Is this a good thing?” I asked. While Caitlin nodded her head, Amanda and Alda said nothing.

Like a ghost, my period would haunt me every month.

I hadn’t planned on trick-or-treating, but went last minute with my friends. My costume? My mother’s cap and gown from her Master’s degree graduation ceremony. I see it for the sign it is now — I had graduated from a previous life. Nothing would ever be the same.

Minus the first handful of months where I was more likely to spot than to bleed, my period became a debilitating ordeal. Cramps were a given. In the early years, they occurred during PMS, but ended once I began to bleed. In the early years, I could pop a Midol and be on my way. In the early years, I was able to control my pain. I began to follow the instructions of my mother and sister who also suffered through years (and in my mother’s case, decades) of cramps.

But like them, I was not able to maintain the low concentrated dosages of Midol. Eventually, just like the Halloween graduate of my first period, I moved on to more effective medicine. I first tried Tylenol, which, as my periods became more painful, proved no longer effective. I could stomach them for no more than an hour before regurgitating them along with nearly anything else in my stomach.

Long periods were my norm. Later that first year, my sixth grade class took our first of three health classes.

“A period lasts between three and seven days,” said Mr. Bertoletti, our health instructor. So why were mine more than 10 days? I asked my mother and she said, “Some women just have long periods.” That was a succinct enough explanation, and for the next four years, I accepted a week and a half of this monthly discharge and all of the increasing cramps that came with it.

It was not until my sophomore year in high school, when these 10-day periods became two-week periods and these PMS cramps became all-period cramps, that I felt compelled to find a solution. Other girls like myself — bright yet full of pain — shared cots in a windowless room in the back of our high school’s nurse’s office. Debilitating periods were so normal that the “sick room” (a place for male and female students with the flu or head colds or injuries to rest before going home) was instead a refuge for 14- and 15-year-old girls who couldn’t even sit up in class due to their period pain. I was one of them.

“You know, some girls just get on birth control,” a nurse told me, but when I brought it up to my mother, she dismissed it. If she could handle the cramps and my sister could handle the cramps, so could I.

This, I think, is the cycle of learned pain.

Rather than examine or try to eliminate the pain in our lives — whether mental, physical, and emotional — we may tolerate it as a normal facet of our everyday. We believe all pain is normal and all suffering is universal. We don’t expect to feel good and don’t expect others to feel good either.

Black families pass this pain down from generation to generation. I’m thinking about the mental anguish of my grandmother and how we’ve never been able to directly articulate her fears and sadness as anxiety and depression even though it is clear from an outside perspective. I’m thinking about how my mother described this anguish as something she always understood about her mother. “She’s always been like that,” my mother said. It was a matter of fact. But it also provided some clarity for my own life. Finally, I understood that feeling within me (the fear of others, the sadness in examining my life) did not exist within a vacuum.

It was a part of me intrinsically, rooted in my familial genesis.

My periods became so debilitating that I began missing school. The nurse would call my father who would pick me up, purchase a bottle of ginger ale, and let me toss and turn on my parents’ bed as the worst of my period manifested in my limbs. But a year into this routine, he had had enough.

“You can’t keep missing school like this,” he said. “You just gotta push through it.”

“I don’t have to do ANYTHING!” I screamed, and in reality, that was true. My mother and sister taught me that nothing was the norm — that my periods temporarily incapacitated me didn’t change the fact that there was nothing to do about them.

But the next day, I grew curious and began researching if there was some sort of solution. For as much as I didn’t like school, I also didn’t like the feeling of not knowing my body. I did not like being subjected to its whims. I did not like the messiness of my period, the ingrained dread I felt once it neared. I did not like what it did to me mentally, feeling as if I was instead a slave to my uterus and not a capable, functioning being able to do things in the world. I was a strong, physically fit athlete unable to overcome myself.

My next doctor visit, this time for antibiotics to fight the flu, became my first chance to speak frankly about my body.

“My periods . . . they hurt . . . a lot,” I told my doctor. And that first time, she dismissed me. But when I visited again a month later to get new asthma medicine, I said the same thing.

I didn’t like the feeling of not knowing my body. I did not like being subjected to its whims.

“I need you to help me do something about this,” I begged. It was one of the first times I asserted myself as a young adult and one of the first times I felt like the adults around me actually listened.

“OK,” she replied. “Tell me about what happens.” And so I listed off the pain, the length, but also the other things my friends and mother and sister could not explain. I mentioned the vomiting. I mentioned my 10 and 12 and 14 hours of sleep. I was weak. I came home from dance practice and could not move off the couch. I had exerted all of my energy for the day by 6 p.m.

Minutes later, she took my blood and a few days after that, I learned I was anemic. Every month, I shed my uterine lining and every month, my severe lack of iron dipped to frightening lows. It took 16 years, but I finally had a solution. I integrated iron supplements into my diet almost immediately, and although my periods have never been perfect, they finally became something I could manage.

On a broader scale, I think about the alcoholism that runs in my family, how it is not discussed but very much a part of our lineage. My parents are light drinkers, if they even drink at all. Most of the liquor in our home growing up was for guests and other family members. I never felt compelled to drink because they never treated alcohol as anything special. But internally, they made decisions to not fall into the traps of their family. Or perhaps, it simply skipped them.

When black families pass on the cycle of learned pain to new generations, they validate a code of stoicism. Rather than address our problems — whether physical or mental — we learn to live in pain, silent and complacent. Visible and vocal acknowledgement of pain is for other people. We are more than our pain, even if our pain cripples us. Life as a black American is traumatizing enough, and that trauma is ingrained in our bones being here now, knowing this country’s history. I believe we accept pain because for so long, that is all we have known.

When black families pass on the cycle of learned pain to new generations, they validate a code of stoicism.

As an adult, I try as much as possible to prioritize my health. In college, a coworker noticed my confessions of long nights spent crying and suggested I try therapy. It was the first time I acknowledged things like my perfectionism, my long-held body image issues from years of dance, my sexual assaults. Out of college, I acknowledge my illnesses, my asthma, my anemia, my monthly flow and work at being my best physical self, whatever that may look like.

If I don’t think of my life as an afterthought, I should not look at my body in the same. Growing up, we slipped in discussions of our health ailments as if they were as simple as a headache. To speak explicitly about our bodies was to acknowledge that there was something fallible about about our existence. As black people — as black women — we could not afford to let our vulnerabilities show, even if it was justified. But now, I don’t want that for myself. Now, my vulnerabilities inform who I am and more importantly, what I don’t want to be.

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