I got my first period when I was 11. I know. I was really young. Too young in fact. At least, that’s what my first gynaecologist said to me when I went to see him at 13. It was a period problem. It was heavy and painful and irregular. I remember when he wrote down the words “Menarche: 11 years” and then looked up at me and sighed, silently judging me.
At school, there had been an incident. I’d been sitting on one of the metal benches during lunch break and when I got up there was a splotch of blood on the desk. I rubbed it off with my navy blue sweater. I went to the school nurse and got a cheap, low-budget, totally low-key, sanitary napkin. My classmates who’d seen the blood started catcalling and hooting the moment I walked in.
I was so traumatised that I decided to skip school as often as I could. My attendance became sporadic and I started studying at home. The cramps would get so bad that I would have to crawl from my bed to my bathroom every time I needed to change.
So, when I went to see this rather sagacious doctor and he looked at me as if I’d committed a sin, I was bewildered. I didn’t know what exactly I’d done, but I felt ashamed like I had committed a sin. The sin of the period. Most of my friends hadn’t even gotten their period yet. The boys and girls in my class were whispering about me. They said I was “maturing” as if, instead of writing my maths exam, I was lying under the stairs giving birth to a litter in a box.
Dear God, I was turning into a woman and I could do nothing to stop it.
Look! Boobs! Gahhhhh!
“It happens when you eat too much chicken.” My gynaecologist said, interrupting my inner monologue. “Non-vegetarian and spicy food must’ve brought it on early. Are you finding it hard to focus on your studies? Maybe you’re feeling excited all the time about the boys in your class?”
I puzzled over this for some time. As a 13-year-old, my life revolved around homework, Harry Potter and yes, crumb chicken. It was one of my favourite dishes. Could that be it? Is that why my homework was always unsatisfactory and marks inadequate? Was my crush on Daniel Radcliffe getting the better of me? (I’d been doodling his name along the margins of my social studies textbook). Did I have to give up chicken? The thought brought tears to my eyes. What would I say to Ravi, the kind old cook at the local Dhaba who always made me whatever I demanded?
At 14, rather inexplicably, I started putting on weight. And not like the normal kind. I’m talking 55 kilos at the end of 9th grade and 75 kilos by the time I was writing my 12th boards. It was like something inside my body had imploded. I was constantly moody, irritable, hungry and exhausted. The worst thing was that my period would skip for several months and when it came, it wouldn’t stop. I’d bleed for 30, 40, 50 days. I’d become anaemic. I’d look pale. I had to buy sanitary napkin packs by the carton.
When I was in law college, freshman year, doing a part-time job as a spoken English teacher, my biggest fear was that one day I’d turn around to write down something on the whiteboard and this whole room of grown-ups would see the red stain spreading across the back of my Anarkali Kurti.
By 21, I must’ve been to at least 10 different gynaecologists. Cantankerous, the whole lot of them. “What have you done to your daughter?!” One gynaecologist in Delhi exclaimed to my parents in sheer dismay.
“When I got my period at 15, my grandmother slapped me so hard. What have you been doing, you stupid slut, she said to me”. The heavyset woman in Pune told me. “You must stay away from boys. Don’t think about that haan, it has side effects”.
“When did you get your period this month? When? How? Why?” A military doctor harassed me about the dates of my period, refusing to understand that I couldn’t keep track of them because they were so erratic. He badgered me for so long, that I nearly burst into tears. Then his assistant took me to a corner, asked me to undo my bra and squeezed my breasts so hard I nearly fainted. No, she wasn’t molesting me. She was trying to see if there were any leaks. Lady, I wanted to say, you’d have to buy me a drink before I’d let you do that.
I had PCOS. Polycystic ovaries. Yeah, I know the women reading this must’ve picked up on that by now. Your ovaries develop cysts and your uterine wall becomes extremely thick due to hormonal imbalance. At one point in time, I had more testosterone in me than a bodybuilder.
I was on birth control since the age of 16, and just so you know, it’s like being Carrie from the Stephen King novel. At 21, my gynaecologist gave me a dire warning. “You’re an unmarried girl. Don’t let anyone know you’re on the pill. See, they might think you’re having sex”.
Wait a second. What if I wanted people to think that?
Then, there were the insulin pills. The drugs counteracted one another so beautifully that every day brought a new surprise. What would it be today? Nausea, migraines, extreme hunger, insomnia or a nervous breakdown?
I’d also fall down a lot, suddenly, for no reason. I’d develop acne which was more like an outbreak. There were nasty boils all over my face, my scalp, my neck and my back. It got really hard to find the right clothes for me to fit in so I had to shop exclusively at plus size stores, surreptitiously going in and out of changing rooms without looking at my backside in the floor-length mirror.
At no point, did even one gynaecologist ask me how I was feeling. They didn’t care.
See, I struggled with depression throughout my teens. I had an eating disorder which was supposed to make me feel better, but then I’d put on weight which would make me feel even more depressed. I tried everything. Medication, juice cleanses, gymming, tarot cards, healing crystals, astrology and exorcists. Sorry, gynaecologists.
Not a single one wanted to talk about my problem. Why was I struggling to take care of myself? Why couldn’t I make the choice to eat right, exercise, sleep well, de-stress or follow a good routine? What was making me hate myself so much that I was literally trying to self-annihilate?
For every woman, her body is connected to her feminine psyche. Your mental peace and emotional well-being determine what your next period is going to be like. Mental health and menstrual health are so deeply intertwined, that it’s a shock when gynaecologists just look at you like a walking-talking uterus. Your mind, your thoughts, your feelings, are completely disregarded.
You’re looked down on because you’re a woman, and the one thing you’re supposed to do is bleed. You mess that up and you’re a spectacular failure. Like a pathetic excuse for a woman. If you don’t bleed enough or bleed too much, there’s something seriously wrong with you. You can’t have kids. You’re infertile. You’re barren. No man will take you. You’ll die an old maid. You will never be happy.
You’ve got that the wrong way around people. If you invested more in a young girl’s happiness, you’d find that menstruation isn’t that hard for her anymore.
Menstruation isn’t an alien bodily function, separate and disconnected from the rest of you. It’s a fallout of a healthy mind and body. Instead of bombing a young girl with drugs, try having a conversation with her. How is she doing? Are her friends bullying her? Are her parents getting a divorce? Did someone break her heart? Did a teacher hit her? Is her family forcing her to marry? Is someone sexually harassing her? What does she want to do with her life?
How can you as a doctor, help her take better care of herself, so that your patient can have a healthier period? Can you suggest therapy for her mental health? Can that bring hormonal normalcy? Can that make menstruation easy?
Menstruation is not the standard of a real woman. Mental wellness is.
The next time Whisper asks you to have a happy period, remember, ‘happy’ is the issue. Not the period.
Feature image is representational.