Friday, July 11, 2008

On Periods

I'm putting up something I wrote last year. I hesitated a long while before posting it because it is much more personal than my usual style, but here it is anyway.

I’m feeling just a bit unwell today, with my periods approaching, a sore throat, and a tired body. And yet it reminds me of how privileged my life is right now. I could, if I felt like it, call in sick and laze the day away at home. (I did not because I felt guilty, not being ill enough and with a long vacation due in two weeks; also because I would be bored alone at home, and we’re out of cooking gas so lunch would be a problem.)

Once I decided I was going to office, all I had to do was get bathed and dressed and sit in the car. The ride, admittedly, was slightly uncomfortable, because my weak back amplified the effect of each little bump on the road – but I take it as a measure of my comfort that something so minor was the most significant discomfort I faced.

The Guy kindly stopped outside Café Coffee Day so I could go in and pick up a lunch I liked, and a drink that would make me feel better. And I reached office feeling substantially better than I had at home.

There are three things to which I can attribute my relative comfort: the Guy, of course, that kindest and most patient of beings; the contraceptive pills I take which make my periods much easier to bear; and my relative independence, financially and otherwise, that allows me to make my own decisions (owning a car, I submit, is a subset of this).

Compare to a few years ago, when I was staying with my parents, financially dependent on them, and when the beginning of my periods would bring an onslaught of cramps so severe that I would need to rush home and spend the next couple of hours writhing in bed. I would take a pill, sometimes, if the pain was too difficult to bear, and place a hot water bottle on my tummy. But I had been psyched into thinking that taking pills for cramps was a weakness and would ultimately harm my body in some way, so I would be very sparing with them.

Living in a rather conservative society, it was taboo to talk about my “condition” in front of males. Once a couple of male classmates, seeing me unwell, kindly offered me a ride home, going far out of their way to do so. I was too ill to talk to them on the way home, and had to stop the car once to puke. And they only guessed that I was overcome with acidity or a stomach upset. I still regret that I was too unwell to thank them properly after I got home.

I wonder now that my mother never offered to take me to a doctor, and consoled me with the hope that the pain might reduce after childbirth (!), as it had for her. She got me tonics, though, and took me to a homeopath, and though all that worked for some time, it never had any prolonged effect.

I wonder, also, that doctors never advocated – probably still don’t – oral contraceptives. I know friends who had talked to doctors and were advised painkillers like the one I started taking. That dulled the pain somewhat, but still reduced me to misery for one day of every month. I realise that oral contraceptives have side effects; that taking them for prolonged periods might be harmful; but why isn’t it even an option? Why does society so conveniently turn a blind’s eye on women’s suffering and deem it natural? Why do our own parents not try harder to protect their children from pain?

I remember once, being in school and suffering from terrible cramps. I was overcome by nausea and puked. My friends helped me along to the headmistress’ office to ask for permission for me to go home (I think). She refused to let me, said pain at this time was natural, and the painkiller I had taken must be the cause of the nausea. I don’t remember what I thought of it then: I am appalled now, at such insensitiveness in a woman who was supposed to be our guardian while we were at school.

Yet I have often noticed women being insensitive in such matters – probably because all women don’t go through the same level of discomfort and pain and find it difficult to understand that others have a more difficult time. All the men I have ever confided in have always been more sympathetic, perhaps because they are in awe of something they don’t understand, or perhaps because I took care to confide only in those men who I was sure would be considerate.

Often, when the pain was upon me, I used to regret being a woman, and sometimes thought that anything was better than such pain. Yet it lasted for only a couple of hours, and then I would wonder what the big fuss was about. It scares me still, though. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m forced to go off the pills. These days, the first sign of my periods is often a sudden irritableness, a pain in my back, or a sudden weakness. Cramps are slight, subtle nudges that the time is nigh and I should be prepared. I can work the entire day (I had earlier needed to go home early when my period started in the middle of the day) and feel no more than fatigue. I think my period started as I am writing, and yet I feel no worse than I did when I started, and in fact, much better than I felt at home this morning.

I am surprised that something that is apparently so easy to overcome is still endured by so many women every month. I am appalled that we seem to push such issues under the carpet, expecting girls to be modest and suffer, being too hypocritical to even discuss it openly. And yet a girl's puberty is cause for celebration, for she has 'grown up' (read: can now reproduce) and in Assam, they used to have mock-marriages for girls at this time. (I don't know details of the ceremony, for my parents were against the practice and I have only heard about it from other people, but I know it involves the girl getting new clothes and jewellery and probably some religious rituals and a feast.)

I saw this topic discussed on a couple of blogs some time ago: read the Mad Momma and Chandni.


Banno said...

Certainly at the time we were growing up, bearing pain stoically without a painkiller was the way it was meant to be. Why? I agree that women tend to be more indifferent to your pain at such times, because most of us are conditioned to believe that pain in one way or the other is our lot. And the real woman just goes on, nevertheless. Complaining, cribbing, or just taking a day off is a sign of moral depravity. Take care.

Never Mind!! said...

I think it is the taboo of takingb Birth control pills which makes people automatically assume you are using them for "protection".

I used to have severely painful periods too and the doctor prescribed "ovral" which was basically estrogen. MY mother for a long time refused for me to take the medicine becasue she was afraid it would impair my reproductive system. Of course there were people in the family who told me that the cramps were God's way of teaching you to bear labor pains!!

Unmana said...

Banno: Indeed. I don't understand that attitude though - why endure something that is hard and that you can solve?

Never mind: I don't think that is the only reason. (Though I don't see why you shouldn't use them for protection, too.) I think it's just this whole attitude about pushing "women's issues" under the carpet because they're messy and uncomfortable. Yes, they are. But ignoring the mess doesn't help anyone.

Manjushree Abhinav said...

Strangely enough, I am reminded of Echart Tolles's words, on how to bear pain. He asks us women, to be more present to the body at that time. I think sooner or later all of us go through seeking ways of dealing with pain without using medicines. And, being present to pain is a luxury few of us can afford.
Most of the time, my body aches on Sundays, period or not.

Deborah said...

Painful periods are sometimes caused by endometriosis, which, very roughly, is the enriched blood lining of the womb growing outside the womb. Childbirth seems to strip all the lining out, and for that reason, periods are less painful afterwards.

I have never had endometriosis, or if I did, it was so mild that I barely noticed it. However I did get noticeable, although not unbearably painful, menstrual cramps. But they stopped after the birth of my eldest child.

ggop said...

I don't know if its only my experience but many Indian women are under the impression they lose fertility or take longer to conceive if they have taken pills. I don't agree with this line of reasoning.

BCPs are actually good for keeping endometriosis in check. I agree about the lack of empathy from some women.