If you're male, stop reading. You don't want to know.
One day during my elementary school education, all the girls were suddenly ushered out of class to "learn about the Girl Scout program" or something like that. I was already a Girl Scout, but whatever this special occasion was, it was required.
It turned out to be an initiation into the mysteries of the menses. For me, the whole concept was truly mysterious; to my mother's infinite relief, I'd never expressed any curiosity about where babies come from or the differences between girls and boys. I'm sure I sat through the session on menstruation with a "huh"? look on my face and the same feeling in my heart. The audiovisuals and the presenter made it clear that this would happen to all of us, but I was skeptical in the way that the young are skeptical about death. Applying my childlike logic, which several years earlier had determined that I would never have children, I concluded that this menstruation thing would not happen to me or, if if it did, it was still far off in the future.
Of course, I was wrong on both counts.
When I was about 11-1/2 years old, toward the end of a February day at school, I started to feel terrible. I wasn't nauseated or in acute pain; I simply didn't feel well. I couldn't go home because my father was at work and my mother didn't drive, but I wasn't getting much out of class, either, as I felt worse and worse. Finally, it was time to leave, and finally I got home.
I told my mother I didn't feel well, but without more specific symptoms she didn't know what to do. I went to my room to change and came back out, holding up a pair of underwear with brown stains in the crotch. I was scared, as I knew that this was why I didn't feel well, but I didn't know what it was. My mother did. She knew instantly that my time had come, and this seemed to upset her. She did not want to cope with it nor, for some reason, did she want my father to know.
I think most girls must find this first step toward womanhood both exciting and frightening, but for me, once I understood what it was, there was something about it that made me sad. I recognized that I would never be a little girl again, and I missed that already. I felt the sadness of something lost without experiencing the joy of something gained.
For years, my period brought with it a certain amount of pain, occasionally enough to make me vomit. Once or twice a family friend, an older boy, would pick me up early from school, but I'd have been mortified if he'd ever found out why. (Probably he knew.) My period embarrassed me, as it seemed to embarrass my mother, and made me even quieter and more reclusive. Sometimes it was impossible to imagine having it for another 35–40 years (or, at that age, to imagine living that long).
Once, in my 20s, I inadvertently took an overdose of ibuprofen to deal with the pain. I always took much more than the recommended dosage.
In my mid- to late 20s, I—and even other people—noticed that I would undergo a mood change once in a while. Then I realized that I would feel so tired that I would fall asleep anywhere at any time, that my breasts hurt, and that I would feel lousy. I would get strange bursts of energy where I would suddenly want to do things that I hated to do, like laundry and housework. My sense of humor, always acerbic, would become deadly. One day someone must have mentioned PMS, because I looked it up. It described me perfectly.
As time passed, the symptoms have worsened; some are physical, such as swollen ankles and muscle pain and tension all over, but especially in the back and groin. There is also the emotional tension, sometimes so great that I feel unmanageable waves of despair and even experience suicidal feelings. I can tell myself that it is only hormones, that the little things that loom so ominously will prove to be trivial in a week or so.
Reality is in the moment, however, and at those moments I cannot stop or manage how I feel. Those who make jokes about PMS cannot know how horrible it is to experience such a complete, if temporary, disconnect of the emotional from the rational self. It's like a vampire or werewolf self that harms with knowledge and even regret but without full control.
It does help to know that there is a biological cause, but that is of little comfort to the animal spirit, which cries in despair and wants only relief.
Sometimes it affects my work, sometimes my relationships. I know how I must appear to others, and I know that in a week or 10 days they may wonder, as I do, at the transformation back into my rational self.
I'm nearly 45, so the end I could never imagine is within sight—menopause. For now, I choose to remain ignorant of the physical and emotional effects of what awaits me. The time between my periods has shortened from 28–30 days to 25–26, as though my body is eager to fulfill its obligations toward the preservation of the species or eager to hasten the end of its ability to fulfill them. The effect is that I, and those around me, suffer the symptoms that much more often.
As I journey toward cronehood, I try to regret not having children in the way normal people have such normal regrets. In some ways I do, as I regret many opportunities squandered, lost, or taken away, or possibilities that were never had. Just as I regret that I will never surf in Hawaii, sing on Broadway, play major league baseball, live in the woods, or even get a great job that utilizes my abilities and experience, I regret that I will never experience pregnancy or the moment of sharing the news and that I will never have a little one to call my own, to raise, and to reassure me in my dotage. I will also never have a house, a garage, a car, a yard or garden, two cats, a dog, and a fence—all the things that many Americans expect to have and that define "normal" or "typical."
What seems expected, even taken for granted, has always seemed difficult and out of reach to me. How do so many so easily accept so much responsibility? From the outside it looks effortless but seems weighty and onerous.
Just as I've never accepted that I've grown up, I've never accepted the responsibilities or the joys that come with adulthood. I can't see myself in any role other than the loner, the outsider who looks in with curiosity but who doesn't wish to join in, the outsider who can't understand, explain, or surmount the barriers. They are there, and they confound me as always.
Thirty-six years of periods and pain, of womanhood, and of preparation—for what? I do not know. I am less confident now and know even less than the sorrowful young girl holding up her soiled underwear as she asks, "What is it?"
Will I ever find out?