It’s ‘that time of the month’ for me, and I’ve been going through my regular bunch of issues. This is something I’m sure most women out there can relate to. Not only are periods physically uncomfortable, but they’re loaded down with a whole lot of social crap that just makes the whole process hell.
The experience of menstruation is something that can’t be pinned down. It’s common knowledge that every woman experiences menstruation differently. Some will get PMS, some snack down on piles of chocolate, some get all weepy, others get horny, and still others just want to curl up with a hot water bottle and a large box of naproxen. Menstruation is so loaded up with various stereotypes, you’d think we’d be more open-minded when it comes down to it in real life.
But for something so everyday and talked about, it’s surprising just how screwed up common understanding of what it actually means to experience menstruation is. In fact, I don’t think I’d be taking a risk to wager that menstruation is hands-down the most common ‘invisible condition’ out there.
Starting with the symptoms: they are different for everyone. This goes beyond stereotype. The same woman can experience a drastically fluctuating range of menstruation symptoms over the course of her life. The physical presentation of menstruation is often unpredictable and inexplicable. Health, diet, stress level, daily activity, environment, and a never-ending list of other factors can have surprising and crazy implications when it comes to menstruation. Most women couldn’t tell you which factor has caused which particular change in their experience, or why. Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed, yet suddenly a woman’s periods have become drastically different.
This has happened to me over the past year. When I first started having periods, I didn’t experience a lot of symptoms. I had no noticeable mood changes, cramps were at a minimum, and about twice a year I’d just get really tired and sleep a whole day away. That was it, really. Then suddenly, this past year. Excruciating cramps that don’t go away no matter how much I apply warmth and sleep (and medicine). And a whole range of other, more surprising symptoms too – monthly fatigue, migraines, neck and back pain, and so on. It’s hell, and since I’m fairly active and I’m eating healthier than ever, it’s possibly caused by stress, but how would I know? I’m pretty damn sure I’ve experienced stress before this year. Who hasn’t?
So yeah, that’s the physical shit. Unpredictable and not at all pleasant. But you know what? There’s a hell of a lot of crap every woman goes through because of menstruation that’s got nothing to go with the physical.
I’m pretty sure it would be safe to say that most women keep going with their daily lives despite unpleasant menstruation symptoms, most of the time. I mean really, who has time to take several days off every single month? Not to mention that in the average job, there just isn’t enough paid sick leave to take that time off and still make a living. This is what women do every single month of their lives, starting from first blood and continuing right until the end of menopause, whenever that is. This is where the real problems start.
You see, most women who are working through menstruation aren’t going to mention it. They just want to pretend it’s not happening, because frankly it’s easier to function when you’re not thinking about how much discomfort you’re in. Even the ones who will complain about it mostly just make the passing comment here and there, and otherwise seem completely fine. Women don’t spend too much time thinking about working through menstruation, because it’s just something women have to do. And men who know women who are working through menstruation spend even less time thinking about it, because either they don’t even notice, or in their minds, from what they can see, it just doesn’t seem so bad.
(Although what’s with men and the idea that menstruation is gross and icky and taboo?; although blood is fine, and vaginas are frankly AWESOME)
Anyway, take that whole ‘working through it’ scenario, and then throw in a woman who really feels like she just can’t get through the day while functioning even remotely normally. This woman feels like shit. She knows she’s not going to get anything useful done, and that the best thing she can do is rest. And she knows that in order to get the rest she so sorely needs, she’s going to have to tell someone that she’s not coping. With her period. That thing that comes once a month, that she’s been having for half her life or more.
A woman in this situation isn’t just going to pick up the phone and call in sick. Before she even gets near that phone – maybe even as she picks it up – there is a massive debate going on in her head over just how horrible she feels vs. a range of other issues. For an example, I provide a rough estimation of the debate going on in my own head when I was trying to call in sick yesterday. It went something like this.
1. I feel like crap. Ow.
2. I can’t prove that. It’s just a period. Every woman gets periods. What if they think I’m just being a wimp?
3. They tell me that some women just have bad periods. But why am I one of those women? >_<;
4. Do I call in sick too often? Am I risking my job over my periods?
5. Is someone gonna be all like “I work through my periods, she should just suck it up…”?
6. Or “She takes time off so easily…”?
7. Is it even really that bad? Am I just having some kind of nocebo effect on myself because I don’t want to go to work?
8. What if I do call and it gets better right after?
9. I don’t want them to think I’m letting the team down >_<;
10. Even though it’s totally going to be quiet today and they’ll manage just fine without me…
11. Just call. Pick up the goddamn phone and call.
12. Oh my god they said ok so quickly. They’re totally judging me >_<;
And of course, since stress can have a huge effect on menstruation symptoms, this whole debate is making the cramps damn near unbearable and I don’t know if I’m just having period pain because I’m getting so worked up over having period pain. Yes, catch 22.
Note, in particular, points 4 and 7.
Point four: I am worried about getting fired because of my periods. Being fired for having bad periods would essentially be the same as being fired for having a disability. I’m pretty damn sure it’s not legal. I’m also pretty damn sure that it happens. And I don’t want it to happen to me.
Point seven: The inexplicability of menstruation symptoms is such that I’m even doubting what I feel. I don’t know what’s causing the pain. It honestly could be all in my head. But when it comes down to it… even if it is a product of my own mind, there is absolutely nothing I can do about that. I’m still feeling the same pain no matter what’s causing it, and it sucks that the possibility that it might be all in my mind basically equates, in social terms, to it being no more valid than a figment of my imagination.
So yeah. In conclusion. Periods suck. That can’t be helped much, as far as the physical is concerned. But socially? There is no excuse for men judging women, and women judging other women, and women judging themselves, over something as basic and human and common as the menstruation cycle. Menstruation happens. It’s messy, and uncomfortable, and probably noone actually likes it. But as a society, we really, really need to just get over it.