My parents paid me to read. But not with money.
Other parents bribed their children with cash, toys, and candy in exchange for a few paragraphs skimmed in a Highlights magazine. My mother, on the other hand, realized that far more precious to her children than sugar or coin was permission to stay up later than one's designated bed time. She had also made the shrewd observation that even more delicious than going to bed after the sun had set was being allowed to watch prime time television. Because of this, she used the show Roseanne as a ransom for my intellectual growth.
Our arrangement was simple: If I would read from 8:00 to 8:30 p.m. six nights of the week, I would be granted permission to watch Roseanne on Tuesday nights during this same time slot. From the outset, I never missed a single episode. Not only was I immediately a voracious reader once literacy set in, but my love for Darlene Conner was unmatched. Roseanne was my only chance to observe the confident, tomboy-cool of my idol. I talked like Darlene until my mother warned me of the consequences of my sarcasm. I tried to mimic Darlene’s athleticism, but I was too preternaturally small to play sports with boys who outweighed me by twenty pounds.
Given that the target audience for Roseanne was probably not eight-year-old girls, there were a lot of jokes made and topics discussed that went right over my oblivious head. I was such a space cadet, though, that I would seldom realize that someone had even cracked a dirty joke. It was a lot easier to notice when the Conner family experienced a dramatic turn of events, since it involved an interruption of the normal tone of the show. In one particularly memorable episode, Darlene was not acting like her typical, one-of-the-guys self. She was moody. Off. Frightened. As Roseanne pursued an explanation, Darlene burst out, “I got my period, all right?” I innocently looked up at my mother and asked, “What’s she talking about?”
I could almost see the gears turning in her head as she computed a cost/benefits analysis of giving me the Period Talk.
I could almost see the gears turning in her head as she computed a cost/benefits analysis of giving me the Period Talk. On one hand, it would be much easier to say, “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” and wait for a more appropriate time. On the other hand, she ran the risk of forgetting to tell me and being an accessory to a Carrie-like locker room trauma.
“When girls reach a certain age, they have what’s called a period.”
“They . . . bleed.”
“What?! From where?”
“Their . . . privates.”
“MOM. I don’t want that to happen.”
“It’s perfectly natural, honey. You can’t prevent it. It’s supposed to happen.”
“That’s gross. I’ll just sit on the toilet.”
“Well, have fun with that. I’m not bringing your food to the bathroom room for a week every month.”
“A week? Every month!? Forever?”
“Not forever. Just most of your adult life.”
I felt utterly betrayed by this knowledge. As I understood it, I had crossed a line. On one side, I had been happily ignorant, assuming that the rest of my life would be exactly as it had been up to that point. I was going to grow up and be a veterinarian and a writer. My parents would look exactly the same and have the same dog for the next seventy or so years. On the other side of the line, where I now stood, something awful was going to happen to me, and continue happening. And I was going to be powerless to stop it. In many ways, learning about my destiny to “become a woman” was a step out of childhood more than my actual first period.
Over the next several years, my friends and I rode the roller coaster of expectation. Menses was not to be feared, as we had originally thought. Instead, we began to internalize the euphemism “becoming a woman,” understanding that non-menstruating females were girls and those who did menstruate were women. To have a period was to be included in a club that contained older sisters, cousins, and high schoolers; there was no way to fake membership. The right to carry a little pouch of tampons in your backpack came with the right to brag about it. Basically every girl in my fifth grade class was anticipating a day when she could say, “Oh, it’s just my period,” as her body magically transformed in to Cindy Crawford’s before our eyes. Instead, girls who started their periods at school would be escorted to the nurse’s office, usually shedding tears of embarrassment. My eagerness, which had grown out of dread, slowly changed into bemused resignation and frustration.
Oh, come on already, I would think. I’m going to start during P.E. class. I just know it. I had no idea what to expect and was already struggling with the natural disgruntlement that comes with entering high school, so it seemed appropriate my first period would take place while I was trying to run a humiliating twelve-minute mile. Instead, it happened at a sandwich shop during my summer vacation. I sat down to eat and said to my mother, “I think somebody spilled something in this seat. What a slob.” When I checked my chair and saw no liquid, I simply went to the bathroom and came to the natural conclusion that I was finally under the curse of womanhood. In spite of my initial chagrin, I was relieved that it happened without incident. Similarly helpful was my mother’s decision not to make a big production out of it. She remembered all too well how embarrassing puberty can be. What she didn’t remember, having had a hysterectomy after I was born and thus having been period-free for over a decade, was that I probably could have used a warning about PMS.
“I'm dying. I’m dying! My appendix has burst. It’s ruptured and this is what death feels like. I can’t go to school with a ruptured appendix. Take me to the hospital.” I had almost convinced her of my impending doom until she thoughtfully stopped and asked, “When was your last period?”
“I dunno, like a month ago.”
“Those are just premenstrual cramps. Take some Tylenol and get on the bus.”
“Well, thanks for telling me it’s like Superman punching you in the uterus! Anything else you forgot to share?”
“Yes. Watch the attitude.”
Over the next three years, I evolved into a poster child for teenage angst.
Thus began my relationship with PMS, which has always been more knotty and melancholic than that with my period. Over the next three years, I evolved into a poster child for teenage angst. Not only did I listen to sad, angry music, but I would lay in bed and cry, thinking about a variety of ways to kill myself. When arguing with my family, I would feel a nearly physical escalation inside me as I would grow hysterical, crescendoing in screams and weeping. I lay on the floor sometimes, shrieking to my sister that I hated her. It came in waves. After several weeks of a somewhat normal temperament and behavior, I would suddenly be smothered by my emotions and shake from their impact.
College was supposed to be my chance to start over and leave behind my deranged adolescence. Convinced that it had all just been a phase, I embraced my fresh start and resolved to do a better job of holding myself together. The first time I felt that familiar passion and rage take over, my disappointment was palpable. Although I didn’t scream at anyone, the strange mixture of anguish and gloom that continued to visit was beginning to feel like a ghost that haunted me around a strict schedule. I wondered if I was mentally ill. One morning, on my way to the bathroom, I casually regarded the roof outside my window. I poked my head out and contemplated if it was high enough to kill me instantly if I jumped from it. Deciding that it wasn’t, I shuffled into a shower stall and noticed that I had started my period. A light bulb lit up over my head, and I perked up at the revelation. Wasn’t it interesting that these feelings hit me with an alarming regularity? Didn’t I have suicidal thoughts at the same time every month? Hadn’t the complete loss of control and will to live always been accompanied by premenstrual cramps? I chuckled. I wasn’t crazy. My uterus was. For the next several years, I closely monitored the warning signs. When I felt myself wanting to die or screech irrationally at someone, I would remind myself that it was just PMS and “not real.” I began to seclude myself as much as I could during these times.
I joked with my roommates every month about turning into a were-bitch, but I secretly began to appraise whether it was actually worth it to suffer so intensely until I hit menopause. I Googled the details on elective hysterectomies and, when I learned that no respectable doctor would perform such a major surgery just to end PMS, gave the idea of suicide serious thought. Every month brought on a hurricane of turmoil that was intensified when I compared my mental state to that of my girlfriends. They were catty and morose; I was still eying the roof outside the window.
During my senior year of college, I convinced my boyfriend to take me to the spring formal. We weren’t an incredibly sentimental couple, so it was somewhat out of character for us to attend such a romantic event together. Because I had enjoyed the previous years without a date, I assumed that having the love of my life by my side would make the evening a fairytale experience. I bought a new dress, recruited an amateur hair and makeup team, and braced myself for a night to remember. In all fairness, it did turn out to be unforgettable.
Even the ominous start of my period seemed minor compared to the magic of a school dance.
My favorite part about the spring formal was the first ten minutes. I was enchanted that a dingy gymnasium could be transformed into a wonderland, complete with thumping music and twinkle lights everywhere. Even the ominous start of my period seemed minor compared to the magic of a school dance. There was also a bit of a treasure-hunt element as I searched the dance floor and tables for people I recognized. The girls screamed and hugged as if we hadn’t seen each other two hours earlier, and our respective dates left to retrieve tepid Pepsi in plastic cups. I loved it. That is, until I noticed Maureen. Normally the sight of a sad-eyed, pretty girl at a table by herself would warm my heart and engender a desire to befriend an outcast, but Maureen was different. She and my boyfriend had recently returned from a week-long choir tour together and had been sharing inside jokes, private conversations, and the type of benign affection that always blooms when 20-somethings spend a week on a bus together. In the interest of full disclosure, he had confessed to me that he was fairly certain that she was interested in him. I knew that he didn’t reciprocate her feelings, but the mere existence of her attraction was enough to put me on edge.
“Hey, Maureen is here! Let’s go say hi.”
“We don’t have to if you don’t want to.” I suspected that he was rolling his eyes, but I couldn’t tell because we weren’t standing close enough to the twinkle lights for me to see.
“No, no, it’s fine. Go talk to Maureen. I’m sure she’s thrilled you’re here with your girlfriend.”
As a sign of compromise, he greeted her briefly, and then returned to my side. Things were tense, but for the most part a crisis had been averted. Then he asked me to dance.
“No. I don’t dance. You know I don’t dance.”
“But this is a dance. Dancing is what you do here.”
“No. I don’t dance.” I raised my voice. “You knew when you agreed to come that I don’t dance.”
“Linds, it’s fine. We don’t have to dance. I just . . .”
“You just what? Want me to humiliate myself? To get in front of all those people who have seen me at the formal for the past three years not dancing, and know that they’re waiting to judge me? You want me to do something you know I’m not comfortable with just because it’s something you enjoy?”
I felt drunk; I knew, logically, that what I was saying didn’t make sense and that my boyfriend’s only crime was asking me to dance.
By this point I had just given in to the hysteria. Maureen’s presence had already killed the “happily ever after” vibe, so I marked the evening as lost and decided to ride out an evening of “Crazy Lindsey.” I shouted and began crying, spinning a nonsensical yarn about my boyfriend wanting to “change me.” Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for how loud the music was that night, because it’s all that kept the crowd around us from noticing my explosion. Eventually a good friend grabbed my arm and dragged me into the bathroom, where I sat on the floor and wept. I felt drunk; I knew, logically, that what I was saying didn’t make sense and that my boyfriend’s only crime was asking me to dance. I didn’t actually think he wanted to change me—over the past year I had in fact grown to appreciate how easily he accepted me, especially in moments like this one. I even understood that Maureen hadn’t ever acted on her feelings, and that it’s not always possible to control who catches your eye. Yet even as I thought about the facts, I cried harder because I still felt like everyone was against me. It made no sense, and the chaos only worsened my misery. Somehow, though, as quickly as I had dissolved into tears, I stopped crying. I knew what I had to do. Inspired, I wiped the mascara off my cheeks and bolted out of the bathroom, making a beeline for my boyfriend.
“Go dance with Maureen.” This seemed like a really good idea. I fervently, with all of my heart, felt like this was the right thing to do. I nodded enthusiastically, my previous sorrow forgotten. Now I was ecstatically happy, ready to save the evening.
“What? No, I’m not going to dance with Maureen. Let’s just go home.”
“No, I was wrong. You want to dance, and she’s your friend. She’s lonely, and she loves you. Go dance with her. I can wait here and just not dance. Then everyone will be happy.” I wasn’t being sarcastic or defeatist. I was completely, unwaveringly convinced that this would fix everything and that we would all be in high spirits when the night was over. My boyfriend shook his head, took my hand, and walked me home. The night was already over.
Years later, after my boyfriend became my husband, we learned that the Night that Shall Not Be Mentioned was a trip to Disneyland compared to the type of She-Hulk transformation I experienced once we were living together.
I cried as he put his books in the car. I cried when he kissed me good-bye. I cried and stared despondently out the window as he drove away.
Because he was still a student while I was starting my first post-collegiate job, our schedules did not match up the way they had when we were both taking classes. I did not respond well to his absence. Perhaps the most pitiful meltdown took place the first morning he left for school while I stayed behind. Prior to that morning, we had spent two entire weeks together with no interruptions or breaks, celebrating a quiet “staycation” honeymoon. I cried as he put his books in the car. I cried when he kissed me good-bye. I cried and stared despondently out the window as he drove away, then made my way to the bathroom so that I could shower and get ready for work. As expected, I didn’t reach my destination. I stretched out on the floor of the hallway and sighed, then rolled over and stared at the ceiling. When our dog waddled over to see why I was mysteriously eye-level, I snatched her and drew her into my arms. I then rolled over into a fetal position, hugged my squirming dog to my chest, and wailed. This spectacle lasted for around twenty minutes, after which I tearfully made my way to work, too depressed to shower.
Cleaning the house together was practically an extreme sport, considering the inherent danger involved. If I wasn’t expecting my period, it was largely forgettable. If we decided to clean during Hell Week, we could be sure to find tearstained pages in my journal later, blurring scrawled confessions of “I can’t do this anymore.” The “this” in question was usually laundry, which often served as a metaphor for being forced into a traditional gender role. In the weeks following a particularly dramatic “fight” (in quotes because my husband never fought back), I would carefully remove these pages, not wanting my family to read them some day and think I was in an abusive relationship with my husband. He was not the abuser. My body was.
It didn’t seem fair that I was inexplicably cursed with such severe symptoms and that they had gotten worse over time. Instead of hiding and crying in bathrooms, I began to complain. I was an avid blogger and shared quips and thoughts with my readers (who were mostly friends of mine).
In September of 2009, I wrote a post that would eventually change everything: You know what I love? My uterus. I love that it has to shed its lining every month, and that I get to enjoy the following symptoms:
- Cramps so severe that the lower half of my body throbs with pain
- Intense depression/sadness that leads me to cry at the slightest provocation
- Absolutely losing my mind once the depression and sadness have set in (I’m out of control AND I’m loopy! Woo!)
- Enough bloating to go up a pant size
- Cravings for salt, fat, sugar & caffeine; all of which are proven to worsen symptoms of PMS
Thanks, bod. You really know what you're doing.
A girlfriend who was majoring in rehabilitation therapy left a comment that said, “You sound like you may have PMDD. This is likely not news to you, but have you tried any meds? What a bummer.” I emailed her that I had never heard of such a thing, but that I would welcome any type of relief—I would welcome any confirmation that what I was going through wasn’t normal. She replied, “Look into the PMDD thing. No need to suffer! It sounds like your body is really abusing you and there are meds that can help you fight back :)”
I anxiously made an appointment with my gynecologist and wrote down a list of my symptoms, knowing that I would probably be too nervous to remember them all in person. When I arrived, I was shaking. Even now I’m not sure if I was more scared that there was something wrong enough with me to be diagnosable or that I wouldn’t fit the description and thus couldn’t be treated. I handed Dr. Reidel the paper with my symptoms and murmured, through tears, that I battled them every month. “I heard that . . . this could be PMDD? That it isn’t normal?” She looked at me and offered a compassionate smile.
“You poor thing.”
I learned that I am a poster child for premenstrual dysphoric disorder, displaying a whopping fourteen of sixteen diagnosable symptoms. Common literature suggests that women who have more than five should see a physician.
After briefly discussing other options I had tried (diet and exercise, meditation, prayer), she quickly and sympathetically scrawled out a prescription for Yasmin and gave me a month’s worth of samples, all while shaking her head wistfully at me. She also breezily mentioned that the first three months of being on the pill might be worse than the PMDD, but this came with the assurance that by month four, I would be experiencing unparalleled tranquility.
Her warning should not have been given so lightly. I spent three entire months staring blankly at walls, still crying over laundry, and eating toast in bed. Almost overnight, though, the fog dissipated. One month later, I had my first bout of normal PMS. I was catty and morose. Just catty and morose! I was able to go to work! My husband didn’t duck when I looked at him! I mopped the floor and didn’t have to stop in the middle to cry about a movie I saw two years ago! Most importantly, I didn’t want to kill myself. I was the master of my emotions.
In the three years that I’ve been taking Yasmin, I have not once felt my impulses click into the higher gear that frightened me for eleven years. There is no screaming. There is no weeping.
Recently I saw a commercial for a lawyer offering to represent victims in a class-action lawsuit against Bayer, the company that makes Yasmin. I see ads on my Facebook page, inquiring, “Do you take Yasmin? Have you had a pulmonary embolism?” It’s not rare for my girlfriends to ask me, “Aren’t you scared of blood clots and dying and stuff?” Well, yeah. I spent half of my life being ruled by a hormone disorder that randomly sent my panic level to DEFCON 1. Even with medically balanced hormones, old habits die hard. I’ve read the horror stories, memorized the symptoms, and, of course, have fantasized about them. I've even envisioned a future in which I die and my husband becomes a millionaire not just from the lawsuit, but also due to the lucrative business of selling my tragic story, “She Just Wanted a Normal Period.” This usually results in the delusion that he will turn into an eccentric hermit with long fingernails, which honestly makes my theoretical death more bearable to me because I wouldn’t be missing anything.
I’m not stupid; I know the risks well. That’s why I’ve taken a few precautions like bumping up my cardio routine, taking walks every few hours at work, and paying attention to how my body feels in case I show any symptoms. Ultimately, though, I can’t predict whether or not I’ll be part of the fraction of women who die from complications possibly related to Yasmin. What I do know is that without it, I would be fighting for my life. For me, it’s an easy choice.
Lindsey Harris is an MFA candidate who once told a famous writer that Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy fame) is her idol. She still really admires Darlene Connor, too.
Art by Anna Karakalou.