Originally published on The Huffington Post
I have an interesting relationship with my period. I don’t have one.
Two years ago I changed my birth control method from the pill to an intrauterine device (IUD). What I learned afterwards is that losing your monthly visits from ‘Aunt Flo’ is a common side effect — a side effect that is now my reality.
But that wasn’t always the case.
I have been a late bloomer my entire life. I didn’t get my first tooth until I was 18 months old; I didn’t start my growth spurt until midway through high school; and, perhaps most shockingly, I didn’t get my first period until I was 17 years old.
Throughout my teen years, my friends found comfort in each other’s shared complaints over menstrual cramps, mood swings and menstrual-related fatigue. I listened to their stories, unaware of what menstruation actually felt like and unable to contribute to conversation. I was a silent outsider.
But then my period came. And it came with a vengeance.
Perhaps it was making up for lost time or perhaps it was inevitable, but I could finally relate to my friends’ period stories. In fact, my period-related complaints often sounded worse. As it turned out, I was not experiencing a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle.
I had menorrhagia.
Symptoms of menorrhagia include periods lasting longer than seven days (check!), painful menstrual cramps (check!), menstrual blood clots (check!), anemia or fatigue (check!), needing to wake up in the middle of the night to change a pad (check!) and bleeding through more than seven tampons or pads per day (check!). To give you a better idea of the magnitude of the situation, I bled through 12 pads in a single school day, changing pads at least once every 45 minutes.
I dreaded standing up, sitting down, shifting my weight, walking, running, taking deep breaths, sneezing, laughing, yawning and any other physical activity, no matter how small — not to mention going to school. I wondered if what I was experiencing was normal. Was this my life from now on? Strategically planning bathroom visits and shoving as many pads as possible into my purse in hopes they lasted the entire school day? Thankfully, no.
As terrifying, inconvenient and annoying as my experience with menorrhagia was, I was lucky. I had easy access to clean and functioning bathrooms and proper menstrual hygiene products. I had checkups with my family doctor and gynecologist. I had a supportive mother. And, eventually, I was able to morph my menstrual cycle into what is considered ‘normal’ by taking birth control pills.
Unfortunately, countless women and girls around the world cannot say the same.
In many areas that lack access to sanitary menstrual hygiene methods and safe toilets, a girl’s period means more than just puberty. Getting your period means sexual harassment and embarrassment; it means perceived ‘uncleanliness’; it means vaginal infections from using dirty rags as pads; it means dropping out of school.
As someone who struggled with menstruation, I deeply sympathize with those who lack the ability to take control of their menstrual cycles. To the women and girls around the world who suffer from menorrhagia, please know that you are not alone. To the courageous girls who refuse to let their periods interfere with their educations, please know that the world is in awe of your strength. To everyone reading this (men and boys included), please know that menstruation is a normal part of life and should not be a taboo or embarrassing topic.
Menstruation matters — and not just for women and girls. Improper menstruation management can negatively impact public health, the environment, girls’ education and economic development. Don’t you think it’s time we end the stigma?