Today I woke up at 5am crying. I’ve had about 15 hours sleep at most in the last three days, I’m hot, clammy and now I feel like someone is hacking apart my insides. Why is this? I got my bloody period again, that’s why.
When I started going out with the last boyfriend I went back on the pill, it’s a marvellous thing, not only would it help to prevent unwanted pregnancy, but it was one that I took everyday so it effectively stopped my periods and therefore stopped the period pain that went with it. About a year and a half ago I stopped taking the pill because I had stopped having a boyfriend, after he stopped having sex with me, and so didn’t really need it in terms of preventing pregnancy. I’d forgotten about the pain relief aspect. I actually went cold turkey, apparently that’s not the best way to do it but I did, and for about three weeks I was moody, snappish, irritable and horrible to be around. I suppose this was part of my hormones re-balancing, but it really sucked.
But let’s go back to the beginning. In the summer of 1996, when I was twelve, I went on a morris dancing holiday around the south of Ireland with my Mum and her team. On the Tuesday I woke up with terrible pain in my belly, went for my morning wee and was horrified to see blood when I wiped. It was truly traumatic. And the worst pain I could ever remember experiencing. I was surprised that it was happening, although Mum had told me about it a few years before, something along the lines of “One day there will be some blood between your legs and it might hurt a bit, but don’t worry it’s normal.” I didn’t tell her when it happened. I was in pain and a bit ashamed and scared and so I stuffed toilet roll into my pants and said I didn’t feel well so they went on a sightseeing day and left me in bed.
I don’t think I told anyone for about a year, if I bled in my pants I just shoved them in the bin and carried on with the toilet roll stuffing until I wasn’t as embarrassed to go and buy pads.
In our science lessons that year Mr Tanton had taught us about reproduction; I remember him excitedly bringing in his wife’s 20 week scan to show us the foetus. He talked about eggs and sperm, how the uterus wall thickens in anticipation of the fertilised egg embedding ready to grow. He talked about the relative sizes of the sperm cells and the eggs and said “Girls, if you look when you have your period, you might see the egg!” I’m not going to lie, I was vaguely horrified by this suggestion, but I do hear his words each time I get a period. And no, I do not, and have not ever looked out for an egg.
So for the first 4 years of my menstruation I had pretty bad cramps, then I went on the pill at 16, one where you took it 21 days and then a 7 day ‘rest’. The cramps were lessened but manageable. I don’t think I ever had to miss a day of school as a result, perhaps a swimming lesson because for the first few years I was a pad user before switching to tampons in my late teens. But other girls I knew were not so ‘lucky’. They would be in utter pain, barely able to get out of bed for a couple of days a month, let alone go into school.
I’m 34 now, so I’ve been taking the pill off and on for the last 18 years. Doctors have prescribed me different ones, partially to help with the cramping pain, and partially to try and reduce the hair growth on my chin and neck (more on that another day, no doubt). In general, as I said before, I’ve been on a pill that stops my periods completely which means no pain, hooray! But by stopping the pill, which I think as a 34 year old woman who would like to have children sometime soonish is an excellent plan, the pain is back and it’s now a right bastard.
My body is relatively clever. It lets me know when my period is on the way. I’m not so clever because I sometimes forget the signs, but these are the ones I’ve observed in the last 18 months:
- About 5 days before the period starts my body tells me something like this: “Look, this is your last chance to get this thing fertilised, that Viking is hot, get on it!” The example of this that I recall most clearly is when I was watching the Norwegian TV series ‘Borderliner’. I actually had to stop watching it after three episodes because I fancied the lead, Tobias Santlemann, so much that it was *physically painful* to continue watching. My ovaries just really wanted me to reproduce with a scandi-man that month. I mean, that’s fair, right?
- Three days before I am the most tired, down to my bones and my soul. If I sound over dramatic, that’s because that’s how exhausting it is. My entire body feels heavy and sluggish, I want to have a nap but I’m so tired that I can’t, which really sucks.
- For the two days before hand I have terrible night’s sleep; if I’m lucky, I might get about 5 hours each night, but mostly it’s about 2 or 3 hours. I’m constantly hot, can’t get comfortable and of course, feel dreadful in the morning.
And then, it happens. On the first day of my period the pain is horrendous. Today, I woke up after an almost glorious 6 hours of sleep, crying, woken by cramping. For those of you who have never experienced this, it’s a combination of feelings. There’s the constant dull ache across the bottom of my back that will last for at least 12 hours, the feeling of being constantly punched and squashed in my belly. It can be truly agonising. I took some pain killers this morning but they didn’t touch it. I sat in bed for about 3 hours before I could manage to walk downstairs for some breakfast. Around lunchtime, I was able to head upstairs to run an almost scalding bath, which really helped, but when it’s summer and so hot, not always the best option. I’ve been awake now for nearly 15 hours and for the majority of that time I’ve been curled up in the fetal position. As soon as I woke up I knew that I had to write off the things I’d planned for the day, which was fine as it’s my first of about 9 days without having to go to work. But it’s a nightmare if I need to do anything in particular. The pain is worst on the first day, with the period lasting about 3 or 4 days, but other people bleed for a week or more.
Why does the pain occur? Here’s the science bit from the NHS website:
Period pain occurs when the muscular wall of the womb tightens (contracts). Mild contractions continually pass through your womb, but they’re usually so mild that most women can’t feel them.
During your period, the wall of the womb starts to contract more vigorously to encourage the womb lining to shed away as part of your monthly period.
When the muscular wall of the womb contracts, it compresses the blood vessels lining your womb. This temporarily cuts off the blood supply – and hence oxygen supply – to your womb. Without oxygen, the tissues in your womb release chemicals that trigger pain.
While your body is releasing these pain-triggering chemicals, it’s also producing other chemicals called prostaglandins. These encourage the womb muscles to contract more, further increasing the level of pain.
It’s not known why some women experience more period pain than others. It may be that some women have a build-up of prostaglandins, which means they experience stronger contractions.
Why am I telling a bunch of strangers about my period experience then? Because periods are not something to be ashamed of, 51% of the worlds population have or will experience them in their lifetimes. Because more people in the UK are experiencing period poverty; unable to afford menstrual products to manage their periods in a way that is suitable for them. Girls are missing school, missing their education because they have a period, and that’s not on.
But the issue is becoming more mainstream and some fantastic projects are arising from it. This year, Labour MP Danielle Rowley talked about being on her period in Parliament and brought up the issue of period poverty.
Chella Quint, of Period Positive, has been researching, educating and campaigning for years for a more positive approach to periods. She even got her Girl Guiding period poverty badge from Girl Guides HQ recently. I think it’s excellent that the Guides are updating their badge stash to include education on periods and the issues that some can face around having them.
Bloody Good Period provides menstrual supplies to refugees, asylum seekers and anyone who can’t afford them. They’ve got a cracking line up for a fundraising comedy gig in October, perhaps you could go along or just donate to them. Food banks accept menstrual products as donations too, so perhaps you could help out that way.
So yeah, I bleed, it hurts, I can deal with it and I now talk openly about it, because frankly, why shouldn’t I?!