How to be friends with your period

The first time I heard the term ‘PMS’ was in a Jim Davidson comedy sketch when I was seven. Why I was watching misogynist stand up as a small child is another issue, and probably qualifies for its own blog, but here we are. The joke went that women were only bearable one week of every month, as the rest of the time they were either “on, coming on, or coming off”. I didn’t get it at the time but in hindsight, the prick had a point.

Obviously not about us being ‘unbearable’, he was projecting there. But the part about (some) women being afflicted by hormones every month. Already this feels like an uncomfortable accusation and is a point of contention amongst my female friends. Some vehemently deny any change in mood that they would attribute to their cycle, not least one that might impact their behaviour, and though I believe them I would wager they are in the minority. If you’re anything like me the time of the month plays a significant part in your life - and that’s quite a difficult thing to admit. Not just because “eeeww periods” as we are taught, but because it feels like I am complicit in the sexist trope of irrational, hormonal womanhood. PMS and its associated symptoms don’t feel a million miles away from a diagnosis of hysteria. I don’t want to perpetuate a narrative that says our bodies make us less capable of logical thought, or more emotionally unstable than our male counterparts. But to ignore the impact hormones can have on our lives is to ignore a potentially contributing factor to our mental wellbeing – something I did for a long time to my detriment.

I suffered with depression and anxiety throughout my teenage years and spoke to a number of GPs and therapists during that time. It wasn’t until I started seeing a new therapist at 19 that the subject of hormones was ever mentioned. During one session I told her that I’d had a particularly difficult week – I’d woken up one day feeling crippled by anxiety, for no apparent reason, and spent subsequent days writhing around in bed. I explained that after 3 or 4 days the sense of despair began to ease and I was able to attend uni classes again. When she asked if I was on my period at the time I was quite offended. I thought the suggestion was derivative and belittling – as if all that anguish could be explained away by aunt flow. I did the maths and, yes, I had been on my period, but I was sure that had nothing to do with it. She didn’t push the issue.

Despite my immediate rejection of its relevance I started to track my cycle in a way I hadn’t before and within a few months the pattern was undeniable. My period was not the sole cause of my anxiety (I had bad days or weeks throughout the month) but it was clearly an exacerbating factor. Sometimes the whole week before it was due I would notice loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, general low mood, even panic attacks. Although there wasn’t much I could do to control the hormones themselves, just knowing that they were part of the reason I felt so shit became a relief. There were days that I’d wake up, get in the shower and be knocked sideways by an impromptu wave of hopelessness. Then I’d check my period tracker and see that it was starting in a day or two. It felt like a rope tethering me to normality.

Over the years I have also learnt to adjust my habits around period time. I avoid alcohol in the week prior as it makes my symptoms much worse; I’m stricter than usual about exercise and meditation, both of which alleviate the feelings of anxiety and sadness; I even change plans sometimes to avoid days I think might be especially hormonal. Being proactive in this way helps me feel more in control of my stress levels, but I know I am still capable of functioning any day of the month. Acknowledging PMS as a factor in my mental health does not mean I feel weak or incapable, quite the contrary. I feel empowered by the level of awareness I have of my own body and mind.  Self- insight and self-connection are great strengths, and ones that can only be harnessed if we are honest with ourselves about what we need. If I have to give an important presentation on the day I start my period then I will. But if I have the option to give it a few days later, I’ll do that instead.

The sooner we stop associating anything emotional with deficiency the sooner we can learn to exist with ourselves, as ourselves.