2018 Journey to Understanding my own Women's Health
As with the beginning of every year, I have been reflecting over the last few days on the, significant moments of the past 12 months. There were so many huge milestones for me, including being accepted into med school and quitting my job of 6 years. Interestingly though, some of the most significant moments for me came from experiences that we don’t always share publicly. I have grown personally beyond belief in the past year, taking leaps and bounds with my mental health and becoming more myself than ever before. Part of this journey was characterised by some difficulty with my menstrual cycle, resulting in a broadening of my understanding of my own women’s specific health. I was shocked that there was a large aspect of my own health and wellbeing that I knew so little about and on having conversations with friends, many others have the same limited knowledge. So, in this week’s blog I’ll be taking you with me on my journey to a greater understanding of my own women’s health, and a broadening of my awareness of how women’s health is looked upon (or rather, ignored) by society.
For my entire life as a woman of child-bearing age (since I was 11 years old) I have ignored my period. Obviously, it’s impossible to completely ignore your period when you are frankly bleeding from your vagina every month, but other than my monthly menstruation I treated my woman-hood like it didn’t exist.
When I was 14 I went on the pill on the advice from the GP. My distressed parents took me to my local doctor begging for a solution for my raging mood swings and forehead pimples -a stage otherwise known as puberty. The solution was the contraceptive pill; a one-stop shop to cure all of the above, with the added bonus of contraception (not that I was sexually active for a long, long time after that). The pill became a normal part of my everyday experience. I didn’t question it any more than I questioned why the sky as blue. I was a woman, and therefore I took a synthetic substance every month to mask the otherwise ‘hideous’ effects of my monthly hormonal cycle.
In an effort to disguise my womanliness, I bragged to my friends that I ‘didn’t even notice my period’. I was a sporty child and teenager, and I didn’t want my male counterparts to think I couldn’t compete with them just because I had my period. As a result, I grew into an adult woman who had very limited knowledge of my monthly cycle and all of the very real hormonal changes that women’s bodies go through. It wasn’t until I began to have some very unusual symptoms in my late 20’s, that I started to question why we, as a society, rush to put young girls on the pill as soon as they start to show any signs of menstrual changes.
When I was 27 I started to experience severe headaches during menstruation. They started small and could be tamed by simple analgesia, but over some months the headaches progressed to be migraine-like in nature and I had multiple days off from work, paralysed and unable to move from the pain. I also experienced crippling cramps and back pain both during my period and at other random times of the month. Despite the pill, my mood swings became almost unbearable for even my closest counterparts, and I would often find myself crying hysterically for no reason at all. Of course, I was very worried about all of these symptoms (and many others that I won’t go into detail with here), and my mind jumped to the most extreme diagnosis: Cysts? Endometriosis? Cervical cancer?
Over a period of 2 years I visited 4 different doctors at different clinics in order to get an understanding and perhaps a solution to the agonising and extreme symptoms I was having. Explanations ranged from thrush to bacterial vaginosis, and I was swabbed and bled to screen for every possible STD under the sun. But alas, all of the tests were negative. I was exasperated and quite frankly embarrassed – my boyfriend at the time and I even tried abstinence to see if that would help. Finally, one day I realised that the one commonality between all of the GP’s I had visited was that they were men and not one of them had actually looked ‘down there’ to see if they could work out what was going on. I immediately found a female GP that had listed ‘women’s health’ as one of her interests on her website descriptor and booked the next available appointment.
My experience with my new GP was eye opening. She was thorough in her history taking, compiled all of the tests from the previous doctors, professionally performed a pelvic exam without me even having to ask and came up with two options for diagnosis: endometriosis or the contraceptive pill. Was It actually possible that the pill could be the root cause for all of these side effects I had been experiencing? I was written a referral for a pelvic scan and recommended a gynaecologist, but her parting recommendation was that I ‘give the pill a rest’ for a few months first, just to see what happens.
I’ll admit that I was afraid. The pill had been the longest stable relationship I’d had outside of my family members. By this time, I had been taking the pill for just over half of my life, and I was convinced that without it I would ‘go crazy’. Dubiously I complied with the instructions to cease the pill and I waited. To be honest, the results of this little experiment left me in complete disbelief. By one month without the pill I felt calmer, more stable in my mood, I had zero cramps or back aches, and only a mild headache when menstruation began. The next month even the headache had gone, and I felt more like myself than I ever had as an adult. I have now been off the pill for 10 months and I have no intention of ever going back on it.
What blows my mind about my story is that I’m not the only one. Discussions with my female colleagues and friends opened my eyes to the many other women who have experienced similar journeys to mine. I am thankful every day for having had this experience so that now I can fully understand my cycle and know what it feels like to be a woman. For the first time I am feeling my mood gently rise and fall with the weeks of the month, I feel tired when its normal to feel tired in my cycle, and energetic when I should. I feel more in tune with my body and my woman-hood than I have in my entire life, and I feel ever so slightly sad that it’s taken until I am 29 years old to have this experience. I set about reading all I could about the female monthly cycle, educating myself on all of the different phases of our cycles and the vast range of ‘normal’ variations within this.
What saddens me most is that as a young, developing woman, I was made to feel that my period was wrong. Societies expectations of women taught me to ignore and to cover up my period and as a result I matured into a woman who was detached from her body and her awareness of a monthly cycle that is absolutely normal and wonderful. My parents are certainly not to blame as they were following the instructions from our family GP. What is to blame, however, is the general perspective of society that women should have a 24-hour hormonal cycle like our male counterparts, rather than a 28-day cycle. Of course, the contraceptive pill is a wonderful invention that is not only an extremely effective contraceptive, but a treatment for many women who have medical diagnosis such as PCOS, endometriosis and many more. I only hope to make people more aware of the side effects of various pills on some women, and to not take the decision to put our daughters on the contraceptive pill lightly. I encourage people who are already on the pill or considering going on it, who do not need it for medical treatment, to really investigate the side effects and whether or not it is the right contraceptive for you and to ensure you have a lateral thinking GP who can support you through the process and make changes as necessary.
I am extremely grateful for my experience and the opportunity to get to know my body better. My eyes have been opened to so many aspects of women’s health and I have had so many engaging conversations with women with both similar and vastly different journeys to mine. Ladies let’s not have this topic be taboo. If you’re curious about your own female specific health then I would encourage you to chat to your GP, family and friends about it, for you might be surprised how many other women are eager to engage in this conversation as well!