I’m not pregnant again. And I’m crook, endo and adeno are knocking me around. We’re still moving house, and Rose has hit major unexpected issues with her job, so we’ve spent the afternoon at Centrelink starting the process for unemployment support in case it doesn’t get sorted out. It’s been a really tough couple of days. If you don’t know what endo and adeno are, see Endometriosis & adenomyosis 1. Trying to get pregnant with these is rough, it’s an extra kick in the teeth each month on top of the sad news we’re not pregnant. Right now I’m pretty fed up.
My experience with these conditions has always been pretty horrific. My first period was at 13 and pretty normal. My second happened to fall in a week that I was away with my school for a major convention. I packed a collection of sanitary items and my two school uniforms, completely unprepared for the pain and haemorrhaging I was about to experience. All my pocket money was spent on buying extra pads from the toilet vending machine. I was drenching to capacity a super heavy size pad every hour. I have a vivid memory of sitting by my window on the fourth floor in the small hours of the night, sobbing, my mattress stacked against one wall to dry after I’d tried to sponge it clean, and the floor between the shower and my bedroom wiped down with wads of toilet paper. I felt in that moment that I was the loneliest person in the world.
My periods were always extremely heavy, particularly in the first few days. I struggled to cope. Embarrassing leaks, constantly going to the toilet, and stains on clothes, bedding, and mattresses were suddenly a constant part of my world. Teachers were often suspicious that I was merely trying to get out class and it wasn’t uncommon to have desperate requests to go to the toilet denied. I carried 15 or more pads with me at all times, just in case. Bullies thought it was amusing to steal these or scatter them around the classroom. In later years, homeless or living alone, they were needed in case I was too sick or broke to buy more in that first miserable week.
The pain was severe and nothing provided much relief. My journals from this time are full of distraught descriptions of feeling that my pelvic bones had been turned to hot lead that was burning in my flesh and running down into my thigh bones, that something was raking a sharp stick across the inside of my rib cage, of intense cramps and contractions that exhausted me. I would spend days huddled around hot water bottles, alone in bed, sobbing, or curled around my gut in the bath, or weeping in the toilets at school or work, learning to dissociate to carry on.
My periods also lasted for much longer than usual, around 14 days a month. Literally half my life was now spent bleeding. I experienced a level of body dysphoria usually described by trans teens enduring puberty as the gender they do not identify with. I felt deeply ashamed of my inability to handle menstruation, unable to connect with, care for, or enjoy my developing body.
The worst of all this was that it was happening in a context that normalised it all. I was seen as a bit of a drama queen. Doctors offered neither information nor sympathy. The chronic pain was made a joke of as a rite of passage I had to learn to cope with better. I was an embarrassment to others when I failed to manage discretely. A conservative school and home environment exposed me to constant shaming with inadequate provisions in the way of bins, extra sanitary supplies, or discrete options to clean accidents or hide stains. Menstruation was not to be mentioned as I had a younger brother who was being kept ‘innocent’. Basic supplies such as bins or pads were not kept in the toilet or bathroom at home, despite actually begging for them. As soon as I had a home of my own, I was proud to put both in the bathroom – a woman lives in this house and her needs are not something to be ashamed of!
Unlike other experiences of illness such as the flu, I was not offered much nursing care or emotional support when my pain was related to ‘private matters’. I have the distinct memory of weeping in the toilets at my part time job in child care at 17, dizzy, weak, and in awful pain, but gathering myself to limp back into work, bitterly confused that other girls didn’t seem to find this so hard. Constant invalidation and cultural embarrassment about gynaecological issues meant that endo and adeno isolated me. Deep loneliness, shame, and pain intertwined and each made the whole experience far worse, contributing to self hate, food & body issues, and chronic suicidal feelings.
Painful periods just don’t sound that bad, and that was a huge part of the problem. It wasn’t seen as serious, but this issue alone was enough to cause serious harm to me. At times when pain interrupted sleep and guilt and confusion about puberty and sexual development added to my distress, the beginnings of psychosis can be seen. Nightmares intruded into my blood drenched reality in profoundly disturbing ways. I dreamed of rape, miscarriage, and abortion, of having demons inside me, of clawing babies from my own womb. Waking soaked in blood and knotted with pain blurred nightmare and reality. My usual teariness began to deepen each month into suicidal blackness. I still struggle with profound lows which are partly hormonal and partly basically emotional flashbacks to these awful experiences. I began to believe awful reasons I was suffering, such as punishment for sins, my body hating me, me being evil. People around me treated me as if I was bipolar.
These are the kind of experiences that come to mind when people talk about how mental illnesses would be better treated of they were more visible.
Really?? Ever had facial scars and had to handle the stares before, or needed to use a wheelchair and watched people pull kids away from you as if you’re going to run them over, or, you know, discovered you have blood on the back of your pants and had to walk through the whole shopping centre to get back your your car? Oh, I see, you mean visible, but in a nice, non threatening way that didn’t make people stare, laugh, or treat you weirdly. Good luck with that.
These are horrible, miserable conditions, for many people they cost us deeply. We battle with chronic pain and anaemia, doctors who don’t get it, difficulty accessing treatments, troubles getting support from family and employers, difficulties with our sex life, and fertility challenges. It should be okay to talk about it, easier to get help, and less embarrassing to have to explain regular illness. I shouldn’t have to push back against everyone telling me I’m clearly doing too much when these things knock me out for a week – they’ve little to do with how hard I work or whether I’m taking good care of myself. They definitely shouldn’t be a secret shame that messes up our relationships, mental health, and our lives.