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When Your Period Tries to Kill You

Aug 20 2015 1:05 PM
When Your Period Tries to Kill You

Image by Sophie Chadwick

I always dreaded my period, but I never thought that it spent every month putting me in life-threatening danger.

Sitting cross-legged on a hospital bed, I was relaying the history of my period to a doctor. He looked at me quizzically, glancing at my notes. "25? You're very young." That afternoon, I found out that I was severely anemic. I was admitted to hospital for a blood transfusion; over 12 hours, I slowly absorbed three bags of blood, hooked up to a drip in a ward amongst women three times my age.

Earlier that day, I'd received a call from my doctor about my blood test results. She had ordered me to go to A&E immediately, telling me that my hemoglobin levels were dangerously low. Disorientated and alone, I'd quietly wept as nurses attached plastic valves into my veins. I was so tired that I could barely walk, and found myself being pushed around the hospital's lengthy corridors in a wheelchair. Even sitting up was difficult. My body kept folding in half. It can be easy to forget the vulnerability of being human when you're kept occupied by a stream of distractions to the extent that you stop listening to your body. That night I'd been sharply reminded that none of us are infallible.

Every month since I'd hit puberty, I was losing a life-threatening amount of blood--and I'd thought it was the norm.

The intense tiredness had started at the end of June. Fresh home from a festival, I'd felt a bit exhausted from carrying heavy things, but thought that a day of rest would sort me out. Instead, the lethargy got worse. Everyday tasks became extremely difficult. I felt exhausted all the time, and frustrated to the point of tears. I struggled with my work and could barely walk up flights of stairs. Trying to do my usual light exercises filled me with dread--most days I just couldn't muster up the energy. I couldn't even drag myself to the kitchen to cook, and a lot of the time I wanted to lie on the sofa and give up. I'd started falling asleep in the middle of the day.

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This was sleep I didn't want, and couldn't fight--sleep that made me feel out of control and helpless. In the morning, if I stood up too quickly I'd be besieged with dizziness and headaches. And of course, I had been craving ice like an addict.

Life deals you these hands sometimes, throwing signals at you to stop before it's too late. At first, I didn't listen, plagued with mild thoughts of illegitimacy: Was I tired, or just lazy? Most people took one look at me and I assumed I was fine. In a political atmosphere in which your worth and value is so closely tied to your productivity, I felt guilty, and kept pushing myself to do things and be places.

It was a relief to be diagnosed, for my physical exhaustion to have a source. The severe anemia had been caused by my heavy periods. Every month since I'd hit puberty, I was losing a life-threatening amount of blood--and I'd thought it was the norm. Night pads would have to be changed at midnight, and on my heaviest days I couldn't leave the house without at least 5 super tampons.

I first got my period when I was 11. Thanks to my school's subpar sex education, I'd learnt that a tampon could expand up to three times its original size, but I had no idea how much bleeding was average for someone my age. The focus was on the form of our bodies, rather than the function. So I struggled silently through my teens and early twenties, with only those closest to me understanding the extent of my pain.

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I endured cripplingly debilitating periods, with pain so bad that I'd have to call in sick to school or work. I'd wake in the middle of the night in pain on the first day of my cycle. The nausea was so bad I'd sit in the bathroom vomiting, too wary to eat in case it happened again. I'd lose hours of sleep, breaking out in clammy sweats. My period would come on at work and I'd have to find a way to get permission to go home. My time of the month didn't inspire mild inconvenience, but rather dread and fear. It had felt like my period was trying to kill me--and years later, it almost did.

Anemia is common in women who have heavy periods, but the two don't always correlate. It can usually be countered with a balanced diet of iron rich foods. In my case, eating spinach and kidney beans wasn't enough to counter my blood loss. It seems women are more at risk, and less likely to be initially flagged.

With no point of reference as I came of age, I didn't question what was happening to me.

"Iron deficiency in menstruating women is not taken seriously as an indicator of disease as it is in men and post-menopausal women," explains Sophie Osbourne, a NHS doctor in Enfield, north London.

Her take mirrors my own experiences--a year ago, when my blood test results indicated minor anemia, my doctor didn't think it was important enough to let me know.

"It is fairly uncommon for minor deficiency to develop into major deficiency unless there are other factors in play," she continues. "Very heavy periods will certainly give some shockingly low iron values if persisting over time."

Osbourne tells me that she had admitted many women with iron deficiency during her career. "In many cases," she explains, "bleeding from the bowels was suspected, but in the end it was the periods that were to blame."

In schools and workplaces and public spaces, people invent increasingly innovative ways to hide tampons up their sleeves on the journey to the toilet, or find discreet ways to empty menstrual cups in shared bathrooms. Period stigma taught me very early on that things happening to bodies that aren't cisgender and male were weird and wrong, and they weren't to be talked about.

There was a time when women fought to grasp full knowledge of their reproductive health. The women's movement of 1969 lead to the collaborative book project Our Bodies, Ourselves. Fueled by an unprecedented thirst for knowledge against a backdrop of the then-heavily male dominated health profession, the book originated from a consciousness-raising workshop on women's bodies.

Nowadays, we don't really talk about our periods. With no point of reference as I came of age, I didn't question what was happening to me. I was apprehensive to talk about my period problems with friends, and felt like a fraud telling employers that my pain was the reason I wouldn't be turning up to work. Over the years, I learned to manage my condition. Switching to reusable cups rather than disposable pads and tampons drastically reduced embarrassing leakage situations. Avoiding sustained stressful situations alleviated monthly pain. Going freelance meant that I could take a few days off and not feel guilty, because I no longer had a boss to answer to.

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A few days after the blood transfusion, I found myself still tired, frustrated, and dialing my doctor. Naively, I thought the procedure would have worked like charging a phone--pumping me up with brand new blood and sending on my way, good as new. Instead, I was sent home with a cellophane bag full of boxes of pills. At its peak, I was totaling ten tablets a day, the most significant designed to stop my period altogether so that heavy blood loss wouldn't defeat the point of the transfusion.

Proper recovery took weeks, and I'm still in the process of it, but now I feel alive again. It's the little things, like dashing up the stairs to grab something without having to take time to rest. It's the absence of shattering headaches, and the ability to get on my bike without feeling like I might pass out. Along with the lethargy came a dulling of senses, but now my emotions are tuned into an overwhelming gratitude. That I'm better thanks to strangers donating their blood--that is now my blood--is a constant source of awe. I'm still a bit scared of my period. But I think I've experienced the worst of its consequences--at least for now.

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