This month I am celebrating the sixth month anniversary of the last time that I had my period. My knickers have been blood free for a whole half a year and, exceptionally awkward paper cuts aside, I hope this continues for as long as possible. How did this miracle occur? The Mirena Coil. I love it so much, that sometimes when I think about it I wonder if this is how religious people feel about Jesus. It is, in no uncertain terms, my saviour.
Like all moments of experiencing the divine, the path to period-free paradise was a rocky one. When it was first suggested that I might like to try a LARC (that’s Long Acting Reversible Contraception for those of you who have not had to dedicate so much brain space to such matters) I was very resistant. No one would be poking anything through my cervix, thank you very much. Moreover, I wanted to know what would happen if I reacted badly to the hormones involved. How long would it take for the effects to wear off? Would having it taken out hurt? When it comes to matters of the uterus, however, there are few alternatives other than to go down the hormone route.
My trepidation aside, the fact of the matter was that my period had to be, if not stopped, then drastically altered. At the age of 18, I changed from having a manageable amount of bleeding with light cramping once a month to re-enacting the elevator scene from The Shining in my knickers for roughly two weeks out of every four. And the pain, oh my the pain. The only good thing that can be said about it is that it has given me a healthy stock of anecdotes that can be deployed to rid the area of annoying people who also happen to be very squeamish. Such as the one about the time I passed a clot that was bigger than my hand. Or the one about the time I had such bad stomach cramps that it full view of all my family (Happy Christmas!) I just went ahead and bit down into the back of an armchair. Or the one about the time I was on a trip up a really tall church tower and could not see on the way back down because the pain had so effectively blurred my vision.
Between the ages of 18 and 21 my medical history contains five different Pills all with a lovely barrage of side effects, a prescription painkiller that did nothing, two ultrasound exams, multiple blood tests and pelvic exams, appointments with GPs, nurses, family planning nurses, a consultant gynecologist, an OBGYN surgeon, one laparoscopy and one Mirena IUD device. I was tested for cysts, polyps, PCOS, a thyroid disorder, a clotting disorder and, finally, endometriosis. The cause of my problem was never found, the final word going to my surgeon who assured me that, “Some people just have pain”.
Mirena in place, I then had a rampant post-surgical infection and about a year of gradually lessening spotting to get to the current point. Oh, and at one point, the strings on my IUD went missing, leading to more ultrasounds to try and locate the thing and make sure that it wasn’t roaming freely around my abdominal cavity. At the time, it was all very stressful. I was studying for my undergraduate degree and just wanted a normal period again. One that let me function as a human being and had minimal impact on both my health and my life. I was tired of feeling bloody and broken. I am incredibly fortunate that the Mirena has given me this.
What it has also given me, however, is an alarming insight into the rhetoric around the category known as ‘women’s health’. Women are often encouraged, as women, to talk to each other more openly about our health and our bodies. The need to de-stigmatise them is often cited, along with raising awareness for what is normal and what is not. At the same time, the category of ‘women’s health’ can shut conversation down. It’s just a period. It’s normal. You just need to wait a while. It just happens sometimes.
Women’s health exists in a state of rhetorical suspense. We can keep talking about it, but no action is to be taken. Moreover, as ailments of the ovaries are treated more often than not by hormonal contraceptives, there is the sense that this is distinct from other types of medicine. It’s a lifestyle choice. The fact that they frequently come with a whole host of side effects (which in itself is a whole separate headache) can also be downplayed compared to those of other medications. When I was given antibiotics for my infection, I was told in no uncertain terms to call my Dr should certain side effects occur. When I was given the Pill, I was told that I should just wait and see if the side effects would settle down.
We should of course feel that we can talk about our health and our bodies. Even about those socially unacceptable periods. Part of the reason for writing this is to do just that. But discussion has to be the first step and not the end goal. We need to push to get to the point where we can talk and our listened to, where our questions are answered and our concerns taken seriously and we are not told that these things just happen and perhaps we should just wait and see how it turns out. Writing about my Mirena signposted to me a lot of other issues that I could go on about. The fact that hormonal contraceptives are often presented as the only option. The many problems of finding a Pill that suits you. Women not realising that they have options about controlling their menstruation. The list goes on. Central to all of them is the fact that we not only need to talk more about our health and or bodies, but act on this too, whether it be individually pushing a GP for answers or improving education. Sometimes I get quite angry that if women’s health was treated in a much more proactive fashion, I could have had even longer without a period. And imagine just how many blood stained pants that would have saved.