It's hard to believe there was a time when I couldn't wait to get my first period. I didn't care that it meant I'd bleed for days on end and be forced to wear one of those diaper-like pads. My older sister and some of my friends had reached this rite of passage, and I was desperate to join their club.
I was 12 years old when it finally happened. The day before I started my period, I was more emotional than normal. I sat in my room and cried over something super small. While I didn't know what was going on with me, my mom saw right through my overdramatic tears. She let out a knowing laugh and said, "You're going to get your period." I hoped she was right, but I didn't make the connection. I thought, "What does crying have to do with getting my period?" Little did I know that I was experiencing my first case of premenstrual syndrome, or PMS.
The next day at school, I still didn't feel like myself. My brain was foggy, and I found it difficult to concentrate. Sure enough, when I got home and used the bathroom, I was surprised and excited to see that my purple underwear was freshly stained. I was officially a young woman (or a señorita, as my parents called me).
From the beginning, my cycle was out of whack. While I was assured by my pediatrician that irregular periods were normal in the first few years of mensuration, I would typically get my period two to three times a month and had what felt like never-ending mood swings because of it. Nothing about it felt normal, but I figured the problem would go away once I got older.
It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I had my first visit with a gynecologist and was told I was suffering from dysfunctional uterine bleeding, which, like it sounds, is when the uterus bleeds at times that it shouldn't. This bleeding is typically caused by hormonal changes and can occur at any time during the monthly cycle. After being treated for this and finally getting regular periods, I assumed the worst of my menstrual issues were behind me. That couldn't be further from the truth.
There were days I felt like I was going to lose my mind over the tiniest things, and eventually, my family and close friends learned to tiptoe around my incredibly short fuse. Rather than take my bouts of anger personally, they'd say things like, "Oh, it must be that time," and vow to stay away from me. I was both appreciative of this understanding and annoyed to be called out so often for something that was out of my control. I don't think anyone realized how physically and emotionally draining the constant ups and downs were for me.
When I was 21, the same gynecologist suggested I go on birth control to help manage my "bad PMS." I was hopeful this would be the right solution, but it drastically worsened my symptoms. Almost immediately, I became depressed, couldn't eat, and started having anxiety attacks. After a week of missing classes, I stopped taking the pill. From then on, I tried to manage my periods as best as I could on my own, even if it meant isolating myself from everyone around me.
All hell would break loose the two weeks before my period, and I'd become a completely different person — a person I didn't like.
Several years later, my symptoms had become more intense, and I felt completely out of control. All hell would break loose the two weeks before my period, and I'd become a completely different person — a person I didn't like. While irritability, back pain, and extremely specific food cravings were a given, I also struggled with things I wouldn't think to associate with my period. I'd become enraged by certain sounds, for example, like someone chewing their food or my dog licking his paws. I'd also obsessively clean my apartment and feel overwhelmed by the slightest imperfections. It was torture and difficult to make sense of, let alone talk about.
At 29, I could no longer pretend this was normal. For half the month, my days were filled with sadness and uncontrollable anger. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I'd cry all the time: in the shower, during my commute to work, and even at my desk between meetings. I also started having panic attacks. Once I'd get my period, I would sometimes have cramps so debilitating that I'd swear I'd gladly get a hysterectomy. And then just like that, I'd feel like myself again. I was back to belting out Third Eye Blind songs, being silly with my boyfriend, and obsessing over my chihuahua. Then the cycle would start all over.
I reached a point that I can best describe as a deep, dark hole. I was so tired of what I had been going through and noticed my internal dialogue taking a scary turn. I knew I needed help.
I made an appointment with my primary doctor and explained that my period had become unbearable. She went through a list of symptoms starting with the more physical ones, including pelvic pain, breast tenderness, nausea, and fatigue. I told her I regularly experienced all of those. She then went through the mood-related ones like anger, sadness, and loss of interest in activities, all of which I had. Finally, she asked me if I had suicidal thoughts, and as I held back tears, I admitted, "Yes." After I confirmed those symptoms disappeared once I got my period, she told me she believed I had premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD, which is a severe form of PMS that interferes with your daily life and relationships. She said that while what I was going through wasn't normal, there were a number of ways to treat it. Just hearing this was such a relief.
My options included birth control and antidepressants, both of which are proven to relieve PMDD symptoms. Because of my past experience with birth control, I opted for antidepressants, even though I didn't necessarily consider myself to be depressed. I was surprised to learn that I'd only have to take them for half the month, during those dreaded two weeks before my period. I didn't know what to expect, but I immediately noticed a difference. My moods had steadied, and I was no longer crying. More importantly, I was no longer having thoughts of hurting myself. Finding the proper dosage took about a year, and I experienced side effects along the way (loss of appetite, fatigue, dizziness), but I truly believe that treatment saved my sanity and maybe even my life.
Today I'm 31, and I'd be lying if I said I still don't live in fear of my period. Some months are still a struggle, but I'm so proud of the progress I've made. Along with medication, a therapist and a support system are key. Talking about this journey, instead of hiding it, has been so powerful for me. And while I don't know anyone else who has this condition, reading about other women's experiences reminds me I'm not alone.