In the United States, women’s healthcare is a joke.
Women in the US face the highest rates of maternal mortality in the developed world, and most of us are plagued by healthcare problems long before getting pregnant or giving birth.
My story, for example, began when I was about 15 – just a couple years after I started menstruating.
Irregular Periods, Mood Swings, and Cramps
My periods were never normal. They came when they wanted to, and everyone in my household knew when they were coming due to the severe mood swings that accompanied them. I also lost my appetite, had strange food cravings, and suffered from debilitating cramps.
Once, I had a cramp so bad that I had to pull over on the freeway. My mom made an appointment with the OB-GYN soon after.
I remember the doctor being kind and understanding – and walking me through all the scary parts of well-woman exam.
At the end of the visit, she put me on a low-dose combination birth control pill.
Taking the Pill
I started taking birth control pills, and the day I started my next period, I cried uncontrollably. I remember being on a date and using an entire box of tissues in my then-boyfriend’s car.
After the first month, my symptoms did improve. My periods were regular, and my PMS was less severe. I stayed on the pill for about 10 years, unaware of the potential side effects, such as an increased risk of developing depression.
When the brand of my pill changed for the third or fourth time (something that regularly happens when you get the generic brand from the pharmacy), I realized the pill wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do anymore.
I was in my mid-20s, and the pills weren’t working – at least when it came to my PMS and cramps. I also had other symptoms, such as acne, migraines, and fatigue around the time of my period.
When I reported these symptoms to a doctor, she encouraged me to take a break from birth control. I’m not exaggerating when I say it felt like a weight had been lifted.
Stopping the Pill
I went from being always bloated and a little bit miserable to feeling cyclical changes in my body and mood. I could also notice things I was completely unaware of before, like the distinctive heat of being stared at by a member of the opposite sex.
Seriously, birth control puts a veil over all kinds of instincts and emotions, and it was great to be free of the haze.
After quitting birth control, however, it took me 85 days to have a period.
By the time my period was back three months later, my PMS was back in full force, too.
I went back to the doctor, and she prescribed me vitamin B and D supplements, which did help with my energy levels, but didn’t help with much else.
After a few more months, I saw yet another doctor and tried to go back on birth control.
Let me telI you, I have never felt so physically sick – and miserable – as when I started taking the pill again. I decided the pill wasn’t working, and that hormonal birth control wasn’t an option anymore.
I got the copper IUD inserted (extremely painful, by the way), and I started thinking:
“Maybe I’m the problem; maybe I’m just depressed.”
Going to Therapy
So, I went to therapy.
After about a year, my therapist noticed that my worst spirals occurred every 19 to 51 days – or about as regularly as my periods.
At my therapist’s behest, I saw another doctor, who encouraged me to make some lifestyle changes, including seeing a therapist, which I was, of course, already doing.
She also prescribed me a laundry list of (expensive) supplements and encouraged me to try d.
Somehow, this was the first time in my life a doctor had ever even mentioned the four distinct phases of the menstrual cycle. It was also the first time a doctor had ever mentioned PMDD.
What Is PMDD?
PMDD stands for premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe form of PMS with both physical and mental symptoms.
For me, PMDD means:
· My digestive system stops working
· I feel extremely bloated
· My back hurts
· My breasts hurt
· I have severe cramps
· I break out into acne on my chin and cheeks
· I’m either starving, or my appetite disappears entirely
· Occasionally, the only thing I can stomach are pretzel M&M’s
· I am so, so tired
· I cry... a lot
· I feel totally hopeless (about my relationships, my writing, just about everything)
· I get angry and annoyed over the smallest things
· I fight with my partner
· I self-isolate
· Sometimes, I get migraines, and
· On really bad days, I even face suicidal ideation (mostly, I think about how everyone in my life would be better off if I was gone).
Although I know these things aren’t true, that my feelings are connected to my menstrual cycle, and that everything makes more sense (and usually fades in intensity) the moment I start to bleed; it all feels so real while it’s happening.
And even with all this, I still don’t have a diagnosis. Why? Doctors tell you to see therapists, and therapists tell you to see doctors, and no one really knows what’s going on – or how to help you.
Further, women are surprisingly undereducated about their own bodies and unable to advocate for themselves when even female doctors dismiss their concerns.
I first heard about PMDD in 2018, when I should have heard about it long before I started menstruating. I first discussed the term with a doctor in 2021, and even then she was unwilling to diagnose me or present any legitimate treatment options.
I first heard about the four phases of a woman’s monthly cycle from the same doctor in 2021. I firmly believe this should be common knowledge for everyone.
Until we start talking about women’s healthcare, we aren’t going to get anywhere in solving the crisis.
So, I’ve told you my story, and all I can do is hope it helps – hope for help.
I also moved to Germany recently, so I’m hoping women’s healthcare is better here. I will keep you updated on that one.
In the meantime, I am here if you want to share your story or otherwise discuss the state of women’s healthcare in the year of our lord 2023.