When I was 10, we had two TV’s with cable – one in the living room and one in my parent’s room. Between my brother’s Super Nintendo and my sister’s Food Network, I rarely got to watch it in the living room, so I commandeered my parent’s TV. My parents had a giant bed with 47 pillows and tons of blankets, and I had privacy – I flipped between Wishbone and MTV while writing stories about unicorns whose parents were ax murderers and no one bothered me.
One day I was in there and I saw a note folded up on my mom’s night table. It had my sister’s handwriting on it. I picked it up and I read it because not only am I the the nosiest person in the world, but my sister and I have a startling lack of concern for one another’s privacy. The note said she got her period and she just wanted mom to know. Like, as a courtesy. No big deal. I folded up the note and put it back. I remember my first thought was LUCKY! Why didn’t she tell me??
I was insanely jealous. I didn’t want to be a kid. I wanted boobs and I wanted to wear make up and I wanted to shave my legs and I wanted to kiss guys and have relationship drama and I made no secret about it. I was 10, going on 25. My sister had this weird thing about “privacy” and “boundaries” and no need to “loudly broadcast everything that happens to her.” And here she was getting the boobs and her period and being told she had to shave her legs, when she couldn’t have cared less about any of it. I was in agony.
Nothing seemed more exciting to me than growing up. I dreamed about being an adult and having my own life. I lived for the annual JCPenney catalogue so I could circle everything I needed for my dream house. It took me a few devoted weeks but I would usually get through the entire thing, cover to cover – the whole thing covered in circled items, scribbles and notes about things for my future house, my future husband, my future children. I was incredibly superficial, greedy, vain, and most importantly – in complete denial that my life would ever be anything other than my perfectly curated, carefully circled, and selected vision. Getting my period meant that I would officially be on my way to being a grow up, on my way to this perfect life.
And then, my period – Age 13. It was a scene right out of Carrie – I woke up and my jammie bottoms and sheets were literally soaked in blood. I remember thinking FINALLY! as I felt sick enough to vomit. I ran to find my mom and I was really excited to tell her. HELLO, I AM AN ADULT NOW.
What followed was three weeks of menstrual tidal wave. Three weeks of carrying my lunch box purse full of maxi pads because I wasn’t allowed to wear tampons (“You’ll get toxic shock syndrome. You will die.” – my mom), and one mortifying moment when one of my classmates pointed at my purse and said loudly I KNOW WHAT’S IN THERE! as I asked for the bathroom pass because I had to change after every class. Three weeks of being teased by my brothers. Three weeks of cramps and moodiness and ruined clothes.
I didn’t have another period for three months. My mom thought this was normal, as everyone takes some time to regulate. What she didn’t think was normal was that when it came again, I was bleeding so much and so constantly that I was bleeding through my clothes. I thought the second one would be lighter, more what I was used to hearing about. Nope. It was extremely problematic because I was riding horses 5-6 days a week, and I was exhausted on top of being exhausted. And at a horse show where I was competing, I ruined two pairs of breeches. Or rather, my inescapable period ruined them. In public. In a sport where you spend 95% of the time bouncing around in a saddle with your ass in full view. So that was just a little (extremely) mortifying.
My mom booked a doctor’s appointment for me the next day to get on the pill.
Thank God my mom was sensible enough to realise that this was an issue that needed to be fixed. Most moms would balk at the idea of putting their 14 year old on the pill, and would just assume the problem would work itself out. Nice Lady Paediatrician heard my story, and didn’t skip a beat before handing me a script. “The hormones in this pill will even out your cycle, make it shorter and regular, and help alleviate any PMS symptoms. As a bonus it’ll help clear your skin, too.” FUCK YEAH. This sounded like a miracle drug. I was beyond excited.
We filled the prescription and I was so embarrassed. The packet was a 6″ long oblong of pills encased in a Pepto-Bismol pink sheath with pastel painted butterflies floating along the top. As if the label saying “oral contraceptive” wasn’t clue enough, the package just screamed OLD WOMAN’S MEDICINE. I thought it would be in a discreet compact case and I dialled the pills out, just like in the movies. But this looked horrible, and for the first time, I didn’t want to take it. The fine print instructions told me I would become riddled with tumors if I even thought about smoking while taking it. So yeah, fun. But adults willingly took medicine that increased their rates of getting tumors and I was an adult now, damnit. I knew the risks. I just didn’t care.
Both my mom and Nice Lady Paediatrician warned me about telling people I was on the pill. Lest people think I’m on it to have sex, thinking I’m a slut. I didn’t understand the worry. Most of my friends were kids who weren’t kids. At 14 some of my friends were having sex, and most of them were planning to. I wasn’t even close to having sex, but that didn’t stop me from obsessing over it. From my point of view, I was excited to tell my friends, because they’d think I was cool. Being judged as a slut because I was a young girl on birth control wasn’t even on my radar. These adults worried about stupid shit.
My doctor had warned me that the pills would make my body think I was pregnant so I wouldn’t ovulate, and that when I was taking my sugar pills, my body would suddenly realise I wasn’t pregnant and would then shed the egg. Which, now that I think about it is a pretty morbid way to explain to a teenager how birth control pills work. What she implied and what I totally didn’t catch at the time was that my body would think I was miscarrying. On the first day of my birth control period, I was writhing in agony on my bedroom floor for six hours, home sick from school, feeling like my uterus cramping so hard I thought it would burst, my head in a grip, barely able to breathe.
I vividly remember that morning – trying my hardest to get dressed for school, as my thoughts gradually grew from wow my stomach hurts. to if this is the runs then why isn’t it happening? to finally, This is the worst. This is absolutely the worst. This is the worst and I will die. I was lying on my floor in fetal position, begging for the end of it all as my mom jokingly told me that this what childbirth would feel like. Fuck growing up.
When I was 15, my Nice Lady Paediatrician left the hospital, and was replaced by Shitty Man Doctor. He was horrified that nice lady paediatrician let me on the pill without having a full exam – i.e. pap smear (which is, by the way, the worst exam name) first – standard protocol for anyone going on the pill. My mom explained that I was only 13 at the time, a virgin, and was going on the pill to correct my period – not to use as a contraceptive – so the doctor didn’t think an exam was necessary. “No No No, this has to happen today,” Shitty Man Doctor replied. “This will feel a little uncomfortable,” he said as he started – the standard opener for any doctor about to insert a speculum into your bits. But, I felt like I was being stabbed. He literally could not insert the speculum. But boy did he try. It was like time a nurse stuck me with a needle, but she couldn’t find the vein so she shoved the needle around inside me, hunting for the vein. Except this time it was a plastic shovel was trying to hunt around in my vagina.
After a “valiant” and extremely painful attempt, he ended the exam with “Well, I can’t do anything with her. Try again after she’s sexually active.” I was in tears, and I was beyond humiliated. The way he talked about me like I wasn’t in the room, the way he didn’t consider the physical and emotional discomfort I’d experience, and the lack of care made me feel like piece of shit – like somehow I had done something wrong. My mom seethed “THAT’S WHY WE DIDN’T WANT HER TO HAVE AN EXAM!” to the doctor in that scary mom tone, and I never saw him again.
At 17, I was assigned yet another paediatrician (yay revolving door military doctors) who once again was horrified that I hadn’t had a pap smear whilst on the pill. I explained the horrible attempt, that I was a virgin, that it wasn’t necessary. She said I would need to have one once I turned 18, and I was close enough to 18 so I might as well try it again. I told her that Shitty Man Doctor said to wait until I was sexually active. Once again, I got talked into it. While this doctor was kinder and more gentle, she still couldn’t perform the exam. She asked if I was able to pass tampons.
“Well, no, actually, I can’t.”
“You’re not sexually active – but have you been… penetrated by fingers or anything else?”
Yes, I do enjoy a good broom handle or 14″ road cone shoved inside me – typical teenage shit.
“Not really, it’s been painful so it never really happened.”
“And you menstruate.”
“Yes. But it also hurts.”
“Well, I think I know the reason why.”
A month later, I had surgery to remove my imperforate hymen. The surgeon I met with the week before my surgery – a Swedish super model in doctor’s coat – explained that most hymens are like tissue paper and tear quite easily – mine was like a text book – but I had micro-perforations that allowed me to have a period. She explained that I could wait and let the hymen tear and dissolve naturally, which would be very painful and over time could lead to blood retention, inflammation, disease, and continued, worsening cramps. Or, she could remove it surgically and I’d have easier periods, less chance of infection, and less painful sex (or so they theorised). So I chose surgery. No complications, and I was recovered after a week. For a few months I joked around that I lost my virginity to a hot blonde lady doctor.
But surgery wasn’t a magic solution. Nothing changed, and I was still having a rough time 2 weeks out of every month. I was full of Ibuprofen and mood swings. Ultrasounds and blood tests throughout my 20’s ruled out PCOS, and nearly every gynaecologist I saw chalked it up to PMDD, ovulation pain, and bad luck. Apart from the horrible first period, birth control helped – except for that one time in 2003 when I tried the patch and was nearly suicidal from the onslaught of hormones – but the pill and the surgery never corrected my cycle the way doctors hoped it would. While on the pill, I got a regular period. Off the pill, no period. Birth control helped made my periods lighter, but they also brought with them mood swings, UTIs, yeast infections, and assigned total responsibility for ensuring the childlessness of my relationships. Oh, and blood clots and cancer. Why does everything you do as an adult seem to come with a cancer warning?
The solution seemed obvious – if your period is that painful, don’t have a period. Take one of the pills that gives you a period once every 3 months (even if it makes you more depressed than you’d ever thought possible). But it wasn’t that easy. I didn’t want to not have a period. I just wanted to be functional. I wanted to know my body was working the way it was supposed to – 3-5 days of moodiness and 3-5 days of inconvenience, once a month. I wanted to know that if I ever wanted kids, it wouldn’t be an issue. The more adult I became, the less I wanted to be one.
In January 2014, I rolled over in my sleep and woke up with a stabbing pain in my lower abdomen, followed by deep cramps. I thought it was gas. The cramps subsided, and nothing else happened. I fell asleep, and when I woke up the cramps were back, and worse than ever. This lasted off and on for the next two weeks. I was used to deep, rolling cramps, but these felt worse – sharp and scarier.
My doctor ordered an ultrasound of my abdomen, which showed something suspect on my liver, and right kidney. A cat scan showed that it was just fatty deposits, but the sentence “There’s a few spots on the ultrasound that me and a few of the other doctors are concerned about” was enough to send me into a CANCERCANCERCANCERCANCER spiral. And it took me a few weeks to get over it. In the mean time, my periods got worse.
I was referred to a gynaecologist so specialised in pelvic disorders, who was the first to suggest I could have endometriosis. He explained that the tissue that normally grows inside the uterus grows outside, causing “craziness and hysteria” in my reproductive organs. The options were to continue managing the pain with NSAIDs, which I sometimes have shitty reactions to, taking the pill, or having laparoscopy surgery.
He explained that the laparoscopy would be like “clearing the weeds out of the ol’ garden” and that he didn’t recommend having it done until I was ready to start trying for kids. Followed by my first experience of the “And since you’re almost 30, and endometriosis can lead to infertility, it’s probably time to start considering if you really want children” lecture (fun). I was two months away from moving to Sydney, so surgery wasn’t an option. And I wasn’t even in the stratosphere of ready to consider if I really wanted children. So I left with one option: manage the pain and deal with it the best I can.
When I had been in Sydney for nearly a year, I decided to have the surgery. I was starting to miss work every month due to cramps, and I never felt like leaving the house because 9 times out of 10 I’d end up going home early. Feeling miserable with cramps and homesickness really put a shit cloud on the most exciting time in my life. And I saw my future was going to be me sitting in like a hermit taking pain killers and waiting to feel good enough to live. And we probably wouldn’t be able to have kids unless I made some changes. So I researched gynaecologists, found a stellar one, had another ultrasound and a diagnosis of likely stage III endometriosis. I booked my laparoscopy for January 2016 and I was looking forward to getting my shit under control.
And then I switched jobs. Then my job became so busy in the new year that I didn’t have time to breathe, nonetheless take two weeks off. So I re-booked for April. By then I was so bogged down in my nervous breakdown that I cancelled two days before the surgery because I had completely forgotten I had it booked and didn’t save up for it. Then I dropped my basket altogether and was a sad mess for months and months. By December, I had my act together again, and I decided it was time to make my health a priority and to start the process over again. Work vs. Health – adult problems. More bullshit adult problems.
I made an appointment with my doc in January, but had to reschedule because work ran late. Then I had to reschedule that appointment in February because of work – again. I finally made it to my appointment a few weeks ago, where we reviewed my options again and landed on surgery. But this time I had Medicare so I could have it done as a public patient – i.e. for free. Hooray socialised medicine!
Because I was having it done for free, that meant I was put on a waitlist. I was told I’d probably have to wait until June, possibly July or August. Which wasn’t the best news to hear, but when you’re getting free health care when you were prepared to pay ~$2k before, you can’t be shitty about wait lists. But good luck was finally on my side and I got an email almost a week later confirming my surgery date for May 25.
So, this is my second surgery trying to fix what’s wrong with me. My mom asked me if I’m nervous, but I’m not. At least not about the surgery itself. I’m more worried that they won’t find anything wrong with me, and I’ll be stuck like this until menopause. And maybe there’s a part of me that’s worried they’ll find out I’m riddled with tumors and gremlins. And maybe there’s a smaller part of me that’s worried I won’t ever be able to have kids biologically. Not that kids are in our immediate game plan, or even officially in any future game plan, but it’s nice to know that I’d have the option. Another bullshit adult problem.
I think back on 10 year old Audrey, reading that note and being so jealous of her sister growing up. I want to go back and tell her that she’ll be an adult for so long she’ll get sick of it. I want to tell her to enjoy this time when figuring out how to watch MTV without getting caught, when staying awake all night to make sure her doll didn’t come alive to killer her, when banging out stories on a typewriter fast enough were her the big problems in her life. A time when she only felt sadness in passing moments. Where she’s not judged for the choices she makes for her health. I want to tell her that being an adult – and being an adult woman – won’t look anything like the perfectly chosen life from her catalogues. I want to tell her, stop rushing.
Because getting your period sucks. And it’s just the beginning.