“I have periods now, like normal girls; I too am among the knowing….”
You are three weeks shy of your thirteenth birthday the first time it happens. A thin trickle of blood that will grow heavier by the time you get home. You are in the basement bathroom of the synagogue, rehearsing. In little more than a week you will stand in front of all your friends and family to become a bat mitzvah: you will read from the Torah and enter womanhood. You are suddenly thankful your dress is a dark color—emerald green—and, owing to the season, a thick satin. You wad up an impossible amount of one-ply toilet paper and stuff it in your underwear. It feels like a softball in your pants, and you’re sure everyone notices that you’re walking funny. Anxious, you gnaw on the stems of your glasses until the plastic coating is gone and the sharp metal wires draw blood behind your ears.
By sixteen, you’ve learned to do everything right: black jeans, pads in the rear pocket of your backpack, tampons concealed in long sleeves, a hoodie in your locker to tie around your waist. Still, the bleeding is unpredictable. Menses—from the Latin mensis, month or moon—are supposed to come that often, but yours are much more frequent. Some months you bleed more days than not. Your body has always been broader than the other girls’, your face doughier, limbs thicker, teeth yellower, hair unrulier; this is just one more betrayal. Super-plus tampons are no match. Your stomach twists when teachers ask you to write on the board, to turn your back to the class. Once, you stand up after sixth-period Spanish and find a Rorschach of bright red blood in your chair, an unmistakable mark on the seat of your pants. You drag the chair to the front of the classroom and start explaining to the teacher. Your throat tightens, your eyes well and you think: Do other students have these conversations with their teachers? This particular teacher has never liked you, but today you see kindness in her eyes.
Every couple of months, your parents go to BJ’s Wholesale Club and return with the giant box of tampons, the one meant for dorm rooms or families with several daughters. Your father ribs you: You know what they say—never trust anything that can bleed for a week without dying. Your mother reminds you to wrap your bloody maxi pads fully before putting them in the trash: No one wants to see that. You learn to find shame in bleeding. How can you lose so much blood without dying?
Flirt with eating disorders. Spend hours on the elliptical, consume nothing but lettuce and Diet Coke for days. You think: This is how gymnasts get their periods to stop, right? You are small and wide-shouldered, just like they are. But it doesn’t work. Your ancestors were Eastern European farm women, stocky, built to withstand famine and hard labor. Fat clings to the soft parts of your frame like mayonnaise in the far corners of the jar. Your iron drops. Your skin grows pale. Your fingers turn red and white and purple in cooler temperatures. Your weight hardly budges. The blood still flows.
In college, you envy the girls with five-day periods, your roommate who goes her whole cycle using only light tampons. You’ve never used light tampons in your life. You stash your super-plus tampons in your purses, in the pockets of your coats. At night on your heaviest days, you layer maxi pads in your underwear until they’re inches thick. You’re sure the people you pass in the halls can hear the adhesive sticking to your thighs under your pajama pants. You make what feels like too many trips to the bathroom—in dorms, academic buildings, frat houses, coffee shops, bars. Bathrooms in all states of mess, and you’ve gone in anyway. Sometimes you make it just in time, with just a tiny red spot on your underwear. When you’re lucky, you straddle the toilet and find that it was pure anxiety, all in your head, no blood at all.
The Torah says that a woman cannot have sex while menstruating. The mikveh is a pool of water in which Orthodox Jewish women must purify themselves after bleeding. As part of the process, a white cloth must be inserted and come out pristine, followed by seven blood-free days. By now, you are as irreligious as they come. You think: If I lived like this, I’d never be considered clean.
Your uterus is a third wheel in each of your relationships. The likelihood of blood makes you a shy lover. You schedule dates around your bleeding, often unsuccessfully. You start seeing a new man, and the first time he asks you to come over, you decline and tell him you have your period. A week later, he asks again, but you are still bleeding, and then again a week after that. Shame yields to frustration. I’m sorry, you say, your faces bathed in moonlight, my body isn’t normal. The hormones make you lustful on your heaviest days, but at the same time you never feel less desirable, bloated and bleeding. Occasionally, the stars align and you don’t bleed, but the planning is still onerous—not just condoms and a toothbrush, but a phalanx of sanitary items and anxiety about the color of your new lover’s sheets. Even the men who are kind and patient eventually get tired.
Try different birth control pills. Pink pills, white pills, blue pills, yellow pills. Always in pastel shades, like tiny Easter eggs. You obsessively consume them at exactly the same time each day. Your skin craters and clears. Your blood flow remains unchanged. How many gynecologists’ offices have you wept in because none of them will help you? They tell you there’s nothing wrong with you, clinically speaking; you’re just a heavy and irregular bleeder. They recommend iron supplements and various birth control pills and tell you it will improve with age. You stand barefoot in doctors’ bathrooms, shaking with rage in your paper gown, staring into the mirror at the redness rimming your eyes.
The viscosity and color change throughout your cycle—the oldest blood, brown and sticky; the heaviest, crimson and liquid. You find old blood in all sorts of places—on the underside of your toilet seat, wedged deep into your nailbeds, stained on freshly washed sheets. You ruin your favorite pairs of underwear, dark silky lace meant only for lovers. Even on black fabric, the reddish brown doesn’t wash out.
Every doctor’s appointment: pee in a cup. You haven’t had sex in months, you say, you’re on the pill and you use condoms. It doesn’t matter. Pee in a cup. Traces of blood often make your sample unusable. You explain to the doctor, yet again, that you’re spotting. You know there are people in this world who would give anything for a functioning uterus. You wish you could give them yours. Yours never stops functioning.
The cramps grow worse with age. Your body is punishing you for going yet another month without conceiving a child. You find yourself invoking a god you’ve only ever pretended to believe in: Why did you give me a uterus? Women have been doing this forever; you are just the newest blood in a long line of biology. Balled up in bed with a heating pad clutched to your abdomen, you remember hearing about your grandmother’s sanitary belt, the menstrual technology of her time. You think: I could have had it worse.
Try a menstrual cup. It holds an ounce of liquid, which the package insert explains is the amount of a typical monthly period. On your heaviest days, it hardly lasts a few hours. Changing it for the first time looks like a murder scene: your hands dripping blood, goopy rivulets of red running down your legs and kissing where your thighs touch. You are surprised at how the unadulterated blood smells—meaty and ferrous. You empty the cup in the shower and watch the blood pool at your feet before swirling down the drain in a tiny red tornado. At this point, you’ve been bleeding for about half your life.
At twenty-five, you go to Planned Parenthood for a refill on your birth control. The PA who does your pelvic exam has pink hair, a nose ring and an immediate way of putting you at ease. She tells you that, like roughly one in five people with uteruses, yours is retroverted—tipped backward toward the anus, instead of forward toward the belly. She assures you it’s nothing to worry about. She adds: It’s good to know your body. In your quarter-century of life, no one has ever said this to you.
Read up on the history of gynecology. Reading about sex and love doesn’t interest you; reading about culture and bodies does—the history of men trying to correct women, of women trying to correct themselves. You learn about the things we put inside ourselves: hormones, cotton, linen, latex, silicone, polyethylene, steel, copper, flesh. You learn that hysteria—derived from the Greek hystera, uterus—was considered a mental illness well into the 20th century. Pretty much any symptom experienced by a woman could be attributed to hysteria, and in many ways still is. You learn that menses were thought to be linked to the phases of the moon, celestial bodies a constant stretching through millennia. You learn that women weren’t allowed to board steam locomotives at first, because it was believed the speed would damage their reproductive organs. You think: If only they knew how much damage bodies do to themselves.
After a weekend spent vomiting with a knifelike pain in your belly, you learn you’ve been carrying around stones in your abdomen, the closest thing to pregnancy you ever want to have. The stones—a prodigious amount, your doctors say—have shifted and your organs have become inflamed, a feeling comparable to childbirth, you’re told, but the pain quickly subsides once diagnosed and treated. You have your stone-filled gallbladder removed, and six months after that your wisdom teeth. Neither procedure is anywhere near as painful as your period. The scars from your laparoscopy are smaller than the stains in your underwear. When your teeth come out, the doctor warns that you will bleed, and gives you a long list of ways to stop it. There’s a bit of red on your gums, almost painless, easily stanched with gauze. You laugh at the amount, then smile and think: Wisdom indeed.
You don’t want your bleeding to define you, and yet it has subsumed much of your life. You see many doctors, none for any length of time. With hormones and experience, you’ve forced your body into something of a rhythm; it is finally starting to obey. The bleeding is still heavy and irregular, but much less so than in your younger, more vulnerable years. You’ve grown adept at explaining your body to lovers. You own absorbent underwear that costs as much as a decent bottle of wine. The moon waxes and wanes. Slowly, you learn not to be ashamed.
You are almost thirty, but your stomach still knots every time you stand up, if only for a moment. You still use your menstrual cup, though the clear plastic has grown yellowed over time. On days when you feel brave, you wear light-colored pants. Still, though, the fear is always there. Even though your body has grown somewhat compliant over time, it still rebels. It wants to create. To destroy. To clench. To bleed. It wants to expel and start anew.