he day is 19th December of 2015, and I am visiting my best friend Clara in Spain. I don’t want to yell, but I need to, since she’s in the kitchen pouring us glasses of wine. ‘I need a tampon, Clara!’ She hears me crystal clear and comes running to the toilet door. ‘Really?! This is insane! I am so happy I could cry! Let me get you one!’
It is Thursday, it is her birthday. We haven’t seen each other in two years. It is a special, long-planned, awaited day. Yet this 19th December is not only special, but becomes one of the most significant days in my adult life: for the first time in two years, I got my period.
Right here and now, waiting for a tampon in my friend’s toilet, recovering the blood I had lost and deeply missed for two long years, my understanding of myself, as big as the word is, shifts forever.
A quick calculation gives me the answer: by the time my period returned, I had my period for almost exactly fifteen years. I remember that back then it was almost Christmas as well: coming back from school on my dad’s pickup I was sitting in the front, and I felt a hot liquid descending from my pants between my legs. I had a folder resting on my knees; I discreetly slid it between me and the seat. The traffic was eternal. Rush hour, lunch hour, and Christmas shopping at its peak: neither my father, nor my brother in the backseat, noticed my swift move.
From then on, as I grew up and as later on I moved onto adulthood and navigated an independent life, menstruation as a conversation was treasted either as a very serious process of life or as a pain in the ass. My conservative family leaned onto the first approach: pads were the only solution, since tampons could take your virginity away. Additionally, they should be bought with the most absolute discretion and modesty, even apologetically somehow. One also needed to be discreet while menstruating: no swimming, no wearing light colours.
(As a disclaimer, just in case it interests anyone, both my parents consider themselves open-minded and liberal. In hindsight, I’ve realised that patriarchy and its implicit shaming of the body is rooted deeper than what meets the eye: there are topics that no open mind can make less taboo.)
Later in life my friends, partners, and chosen family, leaned onto treating menstruation through the “pain in the ass” lens. The horrible cramps. The pimples. The eternal bleeding and the need to change tampons (I finally learned to use one) every fifty seconds. The bloating. The mood swings. The cravings. The breast pain. The debate on the menstrual cup.
Surrounded by either taboo or too much noise, my own relation with my period became blah. It came and it went for almost a week a month, and every time I swung between indifference or eye-rolling. Until the month it disappeared, with no sign or notice.
For the first time, I felt I had just lost a connection with my body, a bond of which I was not aware before, an attachment between my menstrual cycle and my whole self. As I went from doctor to doctor, I wasn’t only puzzled about my health (I was seemingly so fine otherwise), but I became profoundly sad, and the longing took another turn. It is as if I realised how deeply tied my menstrual cycle was to everything that now felt unstable: my sexuality, my potential reproduction, my physicality.
In the meanwhile, I saw the doctors take a third approach: blissful indifference. They’d tell me it’d be a weird cycle, they’d give me pills: my period would in fact come by taking them, only to disappear again. Two years of absolute agony, silence, and somehow shame.
Because if the doctors thought of it as irregular cycles, wasn’t I exaggerating a bit?
Finally, and once again, I am at the gynaecologist and I hear one of my most hated diagnoses: I must be really stressed, and therefore my period is late.
‘I am stressed, indeed’, I say. ‘I am stressed because I don’t know what is going on with my period, period!’
The doctor orders blood tests, and he calls a week later. ‘We need an MRI, but I think I know what it is. It’s called prolactinoma’. I educate myself immediately. A prolactinoma is a benign tumour located in the pituitary gland. Mine was 2 centimetres in diameter, which apparently made it big. It causes elevated levels of a hormone called prolactin, which, easily put, leads your body into thinking you are pregnant: many people produce milk from their breasts; my only symptom was a consistent lack of period for two years.
I started medication almost immediately, and a month later, in my best friend’s bathroom, my period returned.
When I tell this story, either to new people or to friends and family all over again, they tend to focus on the tumour. I get it, it is a scary word. It is a scary situation, actually, to have something so close to your brain, affecting the gland who manages your hormones, this is, your personality. I understand them, I do. They completely overlook the tremendous loss I experienced for two years. But there is more than that: because they associate ‘menstruation’ with ‘a burden that needs to be dealt with’, they overlook what for me is the main point of this story, the story of my menstruation disappearing without a trace, making me redefine my relation with my body.
I am a self-identified woman. I am also part of the spectrum of people who are ok with having a menstrual cycle. But so far, that has been all. I understood the process rationally, I suffered it every month in my body and my pocketbook (the pink tax is no joke), but what were the effects of being period-less for objectively quite long to the relation between myself and the physical body I inhabit?
The blood that flows monthly is painful, indeed, but to me, that blood belongs now to a bigger flow.
To recover my period meant to understand in a new light my sensuality and the malleability of my body throughout the 30 days of a cycle: my breasts fuller and emptier, my tummy rounder, the craving for warmth to soothe the processes inside. It meant the understanding of my vagina in itself: the wetness and discharges that come and go so differently depending on the week, the type of blood I produce depending on the day.
The different meanings.
It meant the understanding of a circle bigger than menstrual cramps and taxes: how my emotions, my sexual energy and appetite, my mood and creativity, are tightly knitted to the menstrual monthly apparatus that runs inside me. How in fact menstruation does not dominate me but partly dictates my physical capabilities and energies, my emotional responses. This had not come with the tightness of the period talk at home, of course. But later, as I encountered freer minds and younger generations, this was missing as well: the profound link between my period and my selfhood, the deep honouring and comprehension of it, the intimate reflections that need to take place. To me, that came with the loss.
The biggest turnaround, though, the most eye-opening interpretation of this journey, was the realization of how much I yearned for more transparent and loving conversations about our bodies and our processes, with my loved ones; now, five years later, I am pregnant for the first time, and I think about Clara’s joy when I yelled asking for a tampon.
Her joy signified a moment of complete sisterhood, a full understanding coming from a person close to me. Clara was joyful because she had grasped how “having a period” stretched way far from the ascribed meaning (“every month”, “unavoidable”, “pain in the ass”).
Instead, she saw how deeper its absence affected me. Why was she able to understand the deeper meaning of the relation between me and my period? Because I had no choice in those two years except venting out and exploring with her through conversation the loss I was experiencing. That is why I think about the need for a deep understanding between loved ones when we talk about the importance of our bodies and how we live with and through them. I think about the fact that her joy filled me with joy, with support, with an openness I hadn’t felt before: the freedom to discuss my blood, my fears, my body, my pains. I think as well of the human that grows inside me while I write, everyday. The person that perhaps will have a menstrual cycle. The conversations I want and need to have with them.
I think about the decade we just entered, and how this connection with Clara still happened to me, for the very first time, just shy five years ago. I think of what I have become: a lover of my menstrual cycle, the owner of my body, my desires, my moods, my discharges. I think about how I do not want to go through this path alone -the path of opening up my understanding of menstruation as a process that ties into everything I do. I think about how loving it would be to share, discuss, learn, understand myself and others, care for ourselves, through the openness that loving conversations and honest education offer us. This transparent learning process is happening right before our eyes, through wonderful movements developed in social media that open up a very needed perspective on bodies and menstruation: from feminist magazines, to first-person narratives to, for example, stories entirely dedicated to the vulva and our perception of it.
I think about the wish for these safe and supportive conversations to become the norm in every intimate relation, in every visit to the doctor, in every friendship, and in every word we journal to ourselves.