We have to start talking about periods to those who menstruate.
I mean serious talks, because my barely adequate how-to-use-a-sanitary-pad and nonexistent how-to-insert-a-tampon talks were not enough to prepare me for the four years of hell I endured, never knowing that I had other options or that what I was experiencing was a sign of a problem. We need to talk to folks who menstruate about what is normal for a period, what is abnormal for a period and what to watch out for as indicators of underlying problems.
I have dysmenorrhea, which is a condition that makes my menstrual cycles more painful than most other menstrual cycles due to severe menstrual cramps. Menstrual cramps are caused by a release of the hormone prostaglandin, which causes the uterus to contract to allow the shedding of the uterine lining. When the uterus contracts too strongly, it presses against nearby blood vessels, and pain is caused by the temporary loss of oxygen to the uterine muscles. For many, the pain presents itself as a mild discomfort, but those with dysmenorrhea produce more prostaglandin, which causes stronger contractions and thus more severe pain. While the causes of increased levels of prostaglandin are not known, all the symptoms are explained by the increased levels of prostaglandin.
In non-medical terms, this means that my period quite literally debilitates me. For three days, I am in bed, unable to move, vomiting from the sheer magnitude of the crippling pain I am in. Once, I even fell asleep in a bathtub after vomiting, unable to fight through the pain to get myself out. I cannot eat for three days, and the pain doesn’t allow me to sleep. These experiences don’t even happen in the comfort of my own home oftentimes. My high school French teacher walked in on me vomiting in a school bathroom one time, and I once had to be carried out of school for being unable to even walk. The pain also makes me sensitive to sounds. Loud noises and even my own voice make the pain seem worse.
I suffered through this for roughly three days every month for four years thinking that it was completely normal. My inadequate fifth grade sex talk never even mentioned any pain associated with menstruating, much less tell me that the debilitating pain was experiencing was abnormal. In my high school, periods were rarely ever talked about except for the occasional grumbling about bloating or moodiness, and I just assumed that my friends were better at hiding their symptoms or had a higher pain tolerance. There was nowhere to go for anything like this. My mother didn’t even think there was anything wrong with me. She just thought that I was over-exaggerating my pain because she had cramps, but she was still able to walk and live a relatively normal life. She thought I was putting on a show to avoid doing housework.
Cases like mine aren’t rare. It is estimated that anywhere between 20 to 90 percent (depending on the study and the sample size) of women have dysmenorrhea. At least one out of every five women, if not more, experiences severe pain associated with her menstrual cycle. The worst part is that dysmenorrhea is incredibly treatable and incredibly manageable with anti-inflammatory medications or hormonal birth control, but so many folks who menstruate don’t even know they have it. They think that their experiences are normal.
Today, I’m a happy and healthy college student, so thankful that I talked to my doctor about managing my dysmenorrhea. My menstrual cycle no longer ruins my life, and I experience a normal cycle, just mild discomfort, no crippling pain. But talking to my friends about their menstrual cycles makes me realize the those who menstruate don’t have valuable information about their bodies, and they don’t even know it.
This is why it’s so important to talk to young people about reproductive health, particularly about what is normal for a menstrual cycle and what is not. Mild discomfort is normal. Crippling pain is not. Vomiting is not. Sensitivity to sound is not. It’s also important to talk with people about what should normally be coming out of their bodies when they menstruate. While minor clotting is normal for a typical cycle, heavy or large clotting is not. These could be signs of more serious problems. These are things that were never covered in any reproductive health class and should be.
It is time we get over our fear or our disgust for bodies with uteruses or whatever is barring us from teaching people about their bodies and educate the next generation so that they may make informed decisions for themselves and so that the quality of their lives may be much improved. The next generation should not normalize their crippling pain, and should not miss out due to a condition that is treatable and manageable. The next generation should be empowered to take control of their bodies.