How I regained control over my body after years of debilitating PMS
“Is it that time of the month again?” *Crowd gasps*
I remember being 10 watching this scene in the movie Clueless, where Murray reduces his girlfriend Dionne to a hormonal woman who can’t control her emotions, and knowing that he had said something bad.
I hadn’t yet started my period, but it was something I anticipated with a mix of dread and cautious excitement. The idea of getting my period appealed to me because it was mysterious and womanly, and therefore sophisticated. The protagonist in my favorite book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was eager to get her period, and I felt a sense of wonder about the idea of my own future period—a special prize of womanhood. But a secret anxiety lived alongside my excitement. I knew there was something to be feared about “that time of the month.” Something to insult. In Clueless, the crowd’s reaction was an indicator that Murray had voiced an opinion that was inherently understood, but not supposed to be said aloud.
Culturally, however, it has become the norm for men to publicly shame women for having periods, or imply that women are incapable of controlling themselves when it’s “that time of the month.”
During an interview with Don Lemon, Donald Trump famously said of Megyn Kelly, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Trump later insisted that by “her wherever,” he meant Kelly’s nose, but the question of where this phantom blood materializes from is less important than the supposed implied intent: That angry women are emotional women who can’t control their bleeding—or their feelings.
These comments felt especially personal to me. I’ve struggled for years with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), an extreme form of PMS that causes intense physical symptoms and emotional symptoms—including severe anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.
It all began a year after watching Clueless—and countless reads of Are You There God? later—when I started my period. Despite my initial hopes and cautious optimism, I immediately had a rough time with it. My cycles were unpredictable; I never knew when my period would decide to grace me with its presence. I was constantly ruining underwear, clothes, sheets. I dealt with gastrointestinal issues in additional to “regular” cramps, swollen breasts, and muscle pain. And my PMS was a force. I have always been an emotional person, easy to hurt or upset, and quick to cry, and it only became worse. A week or so before my period arrived, I felt emotionally shaky, like I wasn’t standing on solid ground, and was prone to mood swings.
The fact is, PMDD and major depressive disorder look quite similar, and as someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety since my teenage years, I had trouble distinguishing what symptoms resulted from my preexisting conditions, and what was “just” PMS.
For a while, therapy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), meditation, and exercise all helped me manage my depression and anxiety and seemed to help my PMS. But sometime after I turned 28, I noticed that my PMS had shifted from lasting one week to lasting nearly three. For most of the month, my PMS changed me. I wasn’t able to focus at work and often escaped to the back stairwell to cry. In fact, everything made me cry, including the most benign behavior from a friend or a glance from a coworker. Exercise and self-care went out the window entirely. I snapped for no reason. I screamed. I pushed people away. I felt out of my body. I felt out of my mind.
I recognized that my depression and anxiety and PMS were interconnected, and if my usual methods of well-being weren’t helping the latter, they likely weren’t helping the former two, either. But consciously arriving at this point of recognition was hard. I internalized my pain and suffering because I had internalized the messages of men—men who intentionally antagonize women for exhibiting the exact qualities I now embodied. The messages I had received told me that periods were inherently embarrassing and repulsive. That periods are a burden for women to bear, and women alone. (P.S. Why Is Everyone So Obsessed with Periods Right Now?)
It took months for me to recognize that I did not have to carry the weight of what society says women have to bear. That I didn’t have to embody this stereotypical view of a woman on her period. That a woman should feel no shame or fear about having her period, and that it doesn’t render her incapable of doing her job.
My therapist encouraged me to see my doctor. I had done some at-home research, and when I read about the symptoms of PMDD, I felt a strong resonance: fatigue, mood changes, irritability, depression, easy crying, difficulty concentrating.
When my doctor agreed that my all-encompassing PMS symptoms met the criteria for a PMDD diagnosis, I cried with relief. She recommended a low-dose estrogen and progestin oral contraceptive to help stabilize my hormones. Around the same time, I saw a psychiatrist who recommended I switch to a more energizing SSRI that she said could help with my lethargy and with PMDD symptoms.
For the first couple of weeks after starting my new regimen, I felt a small shift: the early stirrings of hope, like butterflies in my stomach. I knew from years of experience with SSRIs that antidepressants weren’t “happy pills,” but that they could help provide me with the resources to take better care of myself and to feel more hopeful about the future.
The subtle shifts continued to take effect over the next few weeks. I found solace in what my body felt capable of doing: weekly yoga, meditation, and lots of breathing exercises. I was kind to my body instead of feeling angry about what I had perceived to be its limitations. In a yoga class, I balanced one foot on a block, the other wedged against my inner thigh in a tree pose. I wasn’t able to hold the pose for very long, but it felt good to remember that my body was capable of many things. I had forgotten that my body was capable of more than just feeling sad.
After months of my new regimen, I feel like my body belongs to me again. (And I haven’t escaped to the stairwell to cry at work in months.) Most importantly, despite attempts by men to demean or discredit women by using PMS as a scapegoat, I now recognize that there is nothing shameful about being emotional, or moody, or a woman. I will always be someone who cries easily, who feels emotions deeply. These are the qualities that make me me: a person who is empathetic and loving and warm. I am emotional, and sensitive, and I believe in the healing power of a good, cathartic cry. And I am also strong, smart, and capable. Somedays, I even feel like a badass. And I won’t let anyone reduce me to a stereotype.
This article originally appeared on Shape.com.