When I was 14 years old, I made a summertime visit to the doctor’s office. The purpose was to receive immunizations meeting the state’s health requirements for incoming high school freshman. I braced myself for the question I knew would be asked and resolved to remain breezy.
“Do you have your period honey?”
“[With conspiratorial giggle] No, I don’t mean now sweetie. I mean ever.”
“The answer is still no.”
There’s a reason I’m able to recall this scene with total clarity. Although that particular medical center has long since closed, if I were allowed into the building today, I’d walk to the space I occupied during this conversation. I’d feel the face flush, reiterating the embarrassing non-function of my reproductive system.
A few months earlier I’d graduated from primary school. I left young girlhood with an ignominious, and among my classmates, infamous distinction. I was the only girl who hadn’t begun menstruating. The only female who wore her training bra, not out of real need, but a simple desire to keep up with her demographic peers. WHEN, my angsty teen heart wondered, would I mature like everyone else and join the cult of menstruating womanhood?
That question was answered the summer after sophomore year of high school. I was nearly 16 years old and aboard a plane home from Poland, an exciting overseas tour with the Chicago Children’s Choir. On this flight back to Chicago, my period started. I was overjoyed. Yes, finally! I was a woman at last. When I tell my students today that I’m a late bloomer, I mean it literally.
The excitement was short-lived. That first “time of the month” lasted a full three weeks. Our family practitioner concurred with my mother, a registered nurse. This was an extreme exception, the result of late puberty mixed with the disorienting effects of international travel. The cycle would normalize.
A year later, after a string of periods that left me bleeding no less than 14 days at a stretch (sometimes I’d be “lucky” enough to get a full week off), my mom carried me out of a public library. I was nauseous, dizzy with cramps and weak with anemia. The decision was made to try to regulate my raging woman clock with birth control pills. For six years, as I finished high school and completed undergrad studies, life was tolerable. My periods were always on the longer side (7-8 days) and cramp-prone, but the 28-day ordered cycle was in place.
At 22, the migraines that plagued me in grammar school returned – with a vengeance. Believing that the pill’s hormones were the root cause of these blinding headaches, my then-doctor and I chose a non-hormonal IUD as a birth control option. I was free of pill reminders for the next decade and the headaches did recede. But the longer periods returned and with an Intrauterine device, cramps can be acute and prolonged. This was the better of the only two options recognized as available to me at the time. I lived with it.
When I was 32 and separated from my second husband Eddie, I made a visit to the lady doctor before our impending divorce brought the end of health coverage. It was time for the IUD to be removed and with great trepidation, I resumed taking the pill. Although the IUD had been helpful in tapering screaming headaches, as an uninsured, struggling writer, I couldn’t afford the $1000 price tag to obtain a replacement. The prescribed pill was possible at $30 a month. So financial concerns dictated reckoning with a known enemy. Maybe this time would be different. I was past the flush of hormonal youth.
Two years later I was enjoying Millennium Park with my then-boyfriend JC, his adult daughter Amber and young granddaughter Chloe. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon and I’d just finished splashing in the fountain with Chloe when it happened: a sudden, violent onset of blinding nausea that left me spilling the contents of lunch on public land. This would become the new normal. Headaches lasting up to 10 days, punctuated by violent vomiting, aversion to light and sound. These episodes had another fun feature: alopecia. Along with headache maintenance, I got used to another cycle: bald spot, steroids, regrowth, repeat.
After a CT scan and battery of other tests confirmed I wasn’t dying of a brain tumor, my current doctor placed me on a Progesterone-only pill. I was 35 years old. My cycle was winding down. Less hormones might do the trick. After I started taking the lower-hormone pill, a subtle (for the rest of the world) but vivid miracle occurred. For 14 glorious months I was period-free. No debilitating cramps, no extended weeks of blood and most wonderful of all, no headaches. Not one. All of the food I ate stayed in my belly. For over a year, I gleaned zero looks of disgust from commuters watching me throw up on train platforms or in garbage cans, drawing the understandable conclusion that I’d had too much fun at happy hour. My hair grew back and stayed rooted.
It’s probably no coincidence that this menstruation-free time coincided with concerted singlehood. After JC and I split, as readers of this blog may recall, I left the game for a while to get my head right. I needed individual and group therapy. I needed my friends and travel. I needed to sing “Besame Mucho” at a Puerto Rican destination wedding. One thing I did not need was another fucked up, co-dependent relationship.
So naturally when I’d grown comfortable with life as a gadfly, a now financially-solvent solo act, I met my soul mate. Bob. And as I fell it seems, so did my womb. A couple months after we started dating, my period returned. Nothing had changed but love and regular intercourse, but so it was. How could I complain? I’d found my person, and my body responded.
Predictably the headaches returned, mild at first. As time went on, they progressed in intensity and duration. This past December, I had to run (or more honestly, stumble zombie-like) out of a corporate Christmas party. It was 6 pm and the familiar flush of nausea and cold sweat let me know I was moments away from vomiting. I made it to a trash can a block away, aware once more of judgmental passerby assuming I’d imbibed too much. Bob came to collect me from the train station near our home. I’d thrown up three times during a 15-minute ride. Not for the first time, Bob placed a necessary bucket on the floor of my bed side.
Last week Friday morning I awoke with alacrity and dread. I stumbled to the bathroom just in time for the afterbirth: blood running down my legs, soaking my underwear as I clutched a cramped abdomen. I barely moved all day save to change tampons on the hour. The next day, Saturday, I attended an event and drank a little too much scotch. I went to bed at 9:30 pm with a headache and there remained until Tuesday morning. I couldn’t hold down water. I couldn’t turn my head to change the television channel without streaks of light hammering my head. My period and scotch generated a perfect migraine storm that left me unable to do much but lie awake for the better part of 36 hours with eyes closed. Plenty of time to think.
Yesterday I visited my long-time hairdresser Linda. Toward the end of our session as she was tousle drying wet locks, she stopped talking and bit her lip. She had something to say but because we’ve been friends so long, I sensed painful hesitation.
“You’ve got another bald spot. It’s at the crown of your head. Put your finger here.”
The day before, I’d taken a shower, the first pleasurable one of the week. Standing fully erect no longer bore the possibility of unconsciousness or dry heaving. As I rinsed conditioner, an unusually long and not insubstantial clump of hair ran into the drain. I blamed the phenomenon on days of sweaty, migraine bedhead tangles.
I’m nearly 38 years old. Long ago, I made the personal decision to skip childbearing. For any number of reasons, it’s not in the plan. Bob and I are on the same page. Like I said, I’ve found my match. On Monday afternoon, I have an appointment with the primary care physician who began treating me before the Millennium Park incident, and I have a very specific ask. I want a hysterectomy. Even I can’t believe I’m going to ASK for an invasive procedure, but I need to shove aside long and irrational fears of all things involving needles and knives. Because I’m done. I’ve suffered enough.