I live two lives.
For two weeks of the month, my mind is calm. I make decisions quickly and rationally. I’m patient, focused, and optimistic for the future. Daily life has its challenges, but there’s nothing I can’t overcome. The world remains intact, and I’m the person I want to be.
Until I’m not.
Approximately ten days before my period, my world dissolves into fog, and I am utterly lost.
Every month, a storm brews.
It usually starts with insomnia, then the locking-up of my short-term memory; next comes paranoia, and the inability to concentrate, even on the simplest task.
Then comes the rage. Blinding, seething, chocking waves of rage that rise and fall out of nowhere, sweeping me and the progress of the previous two weeks into chaos. Sometimes this rage is directed at the people I love.
Most times, it’s at myself.
There’s nothing to stop the onset of mood swings and despair during the week leading up to my period. All I can do is brace myself for the monthly roller coaster ride that I never wanted to board in the first place.
PMS is no picnic. But Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), a rare and often misunderstood mental illness that affects only 3-9 per cent of menstruating individuals, is something else entirely.
Of that population, 15 per cent attempt suicide each year.
To sum it up: my period makes me want to die. Every. Damn. Month.
Everyone told me it was “just PMS.”
It took over a decade to be diagnosed with PMDD because I knew very little about my own reproductive health as a teenager. I thought that the debilitating backaches, depression, and urge to self-harm that I experienced every month was part and parcel of being a woman.
Whenever a message in the media informed me that “women are crazy,” I internalized it without question.
I forced myself to live with it because I felt I had no other choice.
I went on and off birth control until my early twenties. In hindsight, I wish I had been taught more about the fertility awareness method by either my health teachers or my community.
Had I been more in tune with my body’s natural rhythm, I may have had an earlier diagnosis. I might not have blamed what I now know are PMDD symptoms on adjusting to the pill.
But then, much of women’s mental illness has historically been brushed aside as the effects of hormonal change. This has been a hugely significant part of gender-based oppression for centuries; one need look no further than the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath for some perspective.
Stigma is a part of the disease.
To make matters even more challenging for PMDD sufferers, menstruating individuals are still – STILL – largely discouraged from publicly discussing their reproductive health.
Charities across Canada often run low on pads and tampons because people don’t think to donate them. Also, many homeless or impoverished individuals who menstruate often experience health complications due to the stigma surrounding their periods.
This article is the most candid I’ve been about my PMDD to date, and I’m nervous about what reaction it might incur.
However, I firmly believe that the symptoms of PMDD are exacerbated by a gender-based inequality that desperately needs to change. It’s hard enough to ask for help when you’re experiencing a mental health crisis; imagine having your suicidal thoughts trivialized because you have ovaries.
There is not nearly enough discourse or information available on the illness, and researchers are only beginning to puzzle out why some women experience PMDD over others.
I am constantly cleaning up the messes this illness creates in my personal life.
PMDD divides life into a constant before and after of hell on earth, and is often misdiagnosed as bi-polar disorder. The best and maybe only way to determine the difference is by tracking your cycle and noting monthly patterns.
To all those who menstruate, please know: it is normal to feel shitty during your period, but it is NOT normal to have suicidal thoughts. Tell your doctor how you feel, and don’t stop until you’ve found ways to cope.
I love who I am two weeks out of the month. And now that I’m learning more about PMDD and sharing what I know, I’m hopeful I can like myself for the rest of the month too.
That’s really the dream for all those experiencing mental illness – to accept yourself for who you are no matter how you’re feeling.
I’m working on it.
Slowly, but surely.
Feature photo by Mystery Man Photography