We all know – or many of us who menstruate do – that sometimes women’s periods skip a month or two. It’s common and mostly harmless. We’re aware that exercising too much during our periods can be harmful, and we know consuming liquids helps. But how many of us have been told about the implications of mental health on menstruation?
I wasn’t. Until I learned it the hard way.
It was rather out of the blue – I was 21, and trundling through the final year of college, nearly 6 years ago. I remember every excruciating detail like it happened yesterday. My father was diagnosed with cancer, in the brain. To date, I don’t remember the medical term for his illness.
We decided that I would finish my degree and not take a break from my studies. My mother and father would go to a top notch hospital in Chennai for his treatment. For a while, it seemed like nothing really changed in my life, at least in my immediate reality. And yet everything had.
The stress must have been high – I don’t remember – but somewhere I must have been internalising it to protect myself. The first three months, I didn’t get my period. I wasn’t sexually active, so I wasn’t too worried.
After the third month, my period came. I wasn’t happy. The flow was heavy and uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait for it to taper on the third day. Except it didn’t. I thought since it had been a while since I bled last, maybe it was a slightly longer period. It was. I became increasingly anxious as the 10th day went by with no sign of it ending. And then the 15th day passed, and the 18th, the 20th and then the 30th. I had successfully bled an entire month. I was weak and constantly dizzy. Clearly, it was time to call my mother.
Already under an incredible amount of pressure because of my father’s chemo and radiation treatment, that incredible woman somehow found time to help me relax. She hadn’t seen me in months, so she had no idea how bad it had gotten. She sent me money anyway, and a contact for an Ayurvedic doctor, who, to date I fondly remember as the Quack.
What followed was constant check ups over two months that demanded a blood thyroid test, but somehow missed out on a haemoglobin check. She gave me a combination of truly revolting medicines, and excitedly told me they would curb the blood flow over time. She even gave me an alcohol-based kashayam to give me the energy I lacked.
To be honest, if there was anyone who was a Quack at this point, it was I. Three months of bleeding, with barely a day or two in between cycles and I didn’t insist on switching to allopathy. I went from 58 to 45 kilograms in a matter of six months. And I refused to go for regular checkups. I still have messages on my phone from friends – good friends – urging me to go to the doctor, offering their support, offering their parents’ support. I was stubborn.
Around this time, my father’s brain CT came back clear, so my parents returned home too. My father was in the clear! But my mother had me – weak, shaken – on her hands now. I won’t forget the look on her face when she saw me. We went to a local clinic and I won’t forget the shock on the doctor’s face when she saw me, either. She demanded an instant blood count. My haemoglobin level, which should have been at a healthy 12, was at a 4. She recommended a blood transfusion.
It took me six months to recover. Six long months, during which I was on hormones and iron, and failed to clear an entrance exam for my postgraduate studies. Even then, no one made the connection between my stress and my period.
Eight months down the line, I cleared my entrance for postgraduate studies in one of the most reputed institutions of the country. Good news for a short period, because at the same time, my father had a relapse. The cancer was in his brain, again. My memory of the first semester consists of me shuttling between Delhi and Chennai to help out, and of course – bleeding.
Once again, I went to a doctor. This time, I was smart about it. I told her of the history and about my father and told her aggressive hormones were the only way to help. She acknowledged my history, but put me on mild medication to begin with – Trapic 500. I switched doctors.
The second one, from a reputed hospital, categorically denied any relation between my period and stress. “What can you be worrying about so much that results in something like this?” she asked me. Miserable old bat.
She put me through another two weeks’ continuous bleeding before finally giving in to my pleas and giving me a mild hormone – Dronis 30. It worked. I was just as stressed about my father’s deteriorating condition, but at least I wasn’t menstruating alongside.
My father passed away a couple months later. I wasn’t bleeding anymore. Somehow, reading the two statements together don’t make sense to me, even today.
Neither does the lack of awareness amongst any of us – myself, an educated 22-year-old, my mother, a woman who’s given birth twice, and four experienced healthcare professionals – about the debilitating effects of mental health on one’s periods.
The doctors might not all have had all the details about my life to join the dots, but they didn’t ask either. Questions about stress and work never came up. A sedentary lifestyle (false – I used to walk 6 kms everyday during my post grad) and poor diet were assumed to be the reasons for my PCOD, which caused me to bleed. Maybe we need healthcare professionals to look at patients as individuals with history, rather than as the next case that comes their way.
I never received validation from medical professions for my theory that it was my failing mental health that caused me to bleed out like that. But I put my story here before you, to see if you will.