Sunday, February 10, 2008

Happy anniversary to me!

If my memory is correct, this month I celebrate (if that's the correct word) 35 years of menstruation, or approximately 420 flushed eggs. As much as I'm not keen on ritual, at least as practiced in American society, I'm feeling a strange need for a ritual to acknowledge this anniversary. With a ritual, perhaps I wouldn't feel so different and alone. Maybe I could share some of my secrets and fears, and maybe someone would understand them—really understand them.

Despite all the secret society filmstrips and lectures, I didn't even recognize my first period when I got it. All I knew is that during the afternoon I started to feel bad. It wasn't a headache, a stomachache, or anything recognizable. It was an overall sensation of ache, emptiness, pain, and malaise. I thought I was going to die and that that wasn't a bad idea, under the circumstances.

The feeling came out of nowhere, as did the light brown stains in the panties. After telling my mother how lousy I felt, I showed them to her and said, "Do you think this [whatever it is] has anything to do with it?"

I don't remember my adolescent cycles being painful, but then I had other things to focus on. PMS and dysmenorrhea seemed to come with adulthood, along with anxiety and depression. Welcome to the world of grown-ups.

Nothing helps PMS for me—for the past 10 days I have been tense, irritable, and despairing, despite knowing the underlying physical cause. Knowing and recognizing the pattern gives me no control over my feelings and little over my behavior. Last night I disappointed J. because I couldn't bring myself to go to the University of Chicago folk festival. I had slept much of the day, trying to block memories and feelings, and to sit at a uplifting concert with tension pummeling my innards and my heart seemed unthinkable. Even grocery shopping, which requires some effort but is at least as unemotional as it gets, was preferable. Poor J.

Over-the-counter painkillers help the dysmenorrhea, but as time went on I took too many of them.

On one memorable occasion, my period started when my aunt had taken me to Charlottesville, Virginia, to see Monticello, Michie Tavern, and Ash Lawn. For me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see them, so I could not afford to feel terrible, and I didn't want to ruin my aunt's trip, either. (She wanted to go because she was approaching 70 and didn't know how much good health she would have left to take such trips. She proved to be wiser than she knew—after a very active life, she died at 71 of pancreatic cancer.)

So, in the morning I took more than the usual amount of ibuprofen, more than the dosage recommended for an entire day.

It didn't work quickly enough, so I took more.

And more.

And more.

I don't know how much I took within the next hour or two or three, but I guessed later that it was somewhere between 18 and 24. Although I was woozy, naturally, I did enjoy the trip, one of the highlights of my life. But I vowed never to do anything so foolish again.

A few years ago, I quit taking ibuprofen and aspirin because I wondered if abuse of them had contributed to my hearing loss. Now I seem able to get by on the regulation dosage of time-release acetaminophen.

If I assume 22 years of PMS, 12 times a year, lasting 10 days on average, that means that for 2,640 days of my life I have been a physical and emotional wreck, whatever my actual circumstances. That's more than seven years. Seven years. For those seven years, which doesn't take into account the dysmenorrhea, I have not been rewarded with a spouse, children, or a happy and stable family life. It's been seven years of futility, of unrewarded pain.

Now, as I approach 47, remind me why I am supposed to dread menopause—the end of something that never really began but that caused a lot of misery for a lot of years.

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