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Cramping My Style

April 20, 2015

Hot Water Bottle

For many women, the worst thing about their periods is the emotional turmoil: the weepiness, the depression, the psychotic rage. For me, this moodiness has thankfully waned with time, anti-anxiety meds and therapy. But one thing about my period has only got worse – the cramps.

Since my early teens, I’ve spent two days of every month alternately doubled over in pain and knocked out on ibuprofen. I’ve tried all the suggested remedies: naproxen, evening primrose oil, vitamin B, rosehip tea; cutting down on alcohol, caffeine and sugar. I eat well, drink lots of water and exercise regularly. My uterus doesn’t care.

I’ve had two ultrasounds to check for endometriosis, a common cause of severe period pain. This test involves a camera-wielding X-ray technician elbow-deep in your fanny, which they don’t warn you about beforehand and might be some people’s idea of a good time, but not mine. In any case, both tests came up clear.

I’ve gone on the pill with the intention of skipping my period altogether, but discovered the synthetic hormones drove me even more batshit than my natural ones, and not for just one week per month, but all the time.

Occasionally I’ve felt desperate enough to consider a hysterectomy, but this means bringing on early menopause and I’m not quite ready to face that. So apparently I’m stuck with another ten years of cramps. That’s bad enough, but the regular disruption to my life is even worse.

I can’t count the social occasions I’ve either skipped altogether or endured through a thick veil of pain, the holidays I’ve wasted curled up on rented beds, whimpering. And because I’ve always had casual jobs with no sick pay, my periods have cost me a fair whack of lost income.

All those times I’ve called in sick due to menstrual pain, I’ve been vague with my employer as to why – even when my boss is female. Maybe this is because I know that for many women, periods are at worst a source of mild discomfort, and these lucky ladies might not understand how debilitating severe cramps can be. I’m afraid of being judged for not coping. As for acknowledging this weakness to a male boss, forget it.

Yet I’m perfectly comfortable with specifics when calling in sick with any other ailment, even the gross ones. Admitting to gastro or food poisoning? No problem. Admitting to bleeding from the vagina, which everybody knows that all women under fifty do every month – no way. It’s too icky, too personal. Unprofessional.

Of course, not all women share these hang-ups. Perhaps it also has to do with my conservative upbringing. I was taught that ladies never mention their periods in ‘mixed company’ so, long after I should have known better, I continued to suffer in silence like some tight-girdled, 1950s prude. Once you’ve been indoctrinated, the shame runs deep.

Because I rarely talked about it, I used to believe the debilitating pain I suffered was unusual. But then one day a friend posted a meme on her Facebook page, a nineteenth-century battlefield with the caption, “Meanwhile, in my Motherfucking Uterus.” This struck such a chord amongst my female friends that we eventually started an online group, the Raging Pussies. Here, I learned that many of my friends are often as incapacitated by cramps as I am. We’d just never thought to mention it before.

It’s a relief to have a space where we can moan about periods to our hearts’ content. While many of us have sympathetic male partners, no one really understands a menstruating woman except another menstruating woman, preferably one clutching a hot water bottle to her abdomen while sobbing over an iPhone commercial.

This solidarity has made me braver in general. Recently I emailed my current boss to explain my regular pattern of absences, and her reply was completely understanding and supportive. It’s taken half a lifetime, but I’ve learned to take the necessary time out every month without regarding it as a personal failure. To own my inconvenient, bleeding body like a grown (groaning) woman.

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