I’m not sure how to write this post. I only just came to the idea that the sheer bald-faced panic I faced recently wasn’t cured by the extra sleep or the vitamins or my husband’s attention. It basically seemed to evaporate along with my menstrual period.
I have had this thought before, but my cramps are mild and I only bloat a little, I have always counted myself lucky that I don’t get a lot of the physical symptoms. So it never occurred to me that I might need to look out for extreme mental ones.
But last week, dear readers, things got dark for me. I kinda thought I was losing my mind or something. I seemed unable to communicate anything important to anyone and the whole world seemed to take on a dark pallor. (It didn’t help that it rained literally all week. Thanks, climate change!) But mostly I was just sickeningly tired. Head-pounding, stupidly tired.
That’s where I started looking for information. I was researching exhaustion and workplace mismatch. But I’m also finally desperate enough to acknowledge the timing of my little meltdown, and that it’s happened before. I was proud of myself for sailing through work pretty well despite wanting to hurt everything that moved.
I’m pretty practiced at it, actually.
I ended up looking at things for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – You become super-sad before your period. Because hormones, they think.
Needing five symptoms for a diagnosis, I easily checked off eleven.
Hmmm. I have not kept track of this because I have been on The Pill for most of the last 20 years, I don’t worry about when my period is coming. And my symptoms are so mild, right?
In February 1963 Sylvia Plath carefully insulated her sleeping children before sticking her head far back in her oven. She had been notorious for intense mood swings and previous suicide attempts, while of course also composing some of the most evocative prose of her day. She was 30.
Years ago I read a convincing article that argued she suffered from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, in addition to Bipolar Disorder. But the picture was drawn of a young woman possessed by her monthly cycle.
I read this like watching a horror movie, then promptly filed it away. Such a frightening idea that someone so brilliant could be so ensnared by something so mundane.
And some people don’t believe PMDD exists at all. Dr. Joan Chrisler, who is a psychology professor and president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research insists it’s “culture-bound.” This implies women in other parts of the world don’t experience any of the familiar PMS symptoms.
According to Feminist Voices, “Chrisler’s research on menstruation critically examines social understandings of menstruation, such as the cultural construction of ‘PMS’. In speaking about the constructed history of PMS, she states, “it is amazing to think in the 1970s that nobody knew what it was and now everybody thinks she has it.””
According to Medium, “these mood symptoms are culturally over-attributed to the menstrual cycle, and could be indicative of other issues — such as lack of social support, stress, declining health.” I think we’re onto something here.
“PMS, like the “wandering womb” and “uterine suffocation”, blames the female reproductive organs for negative conditions associated with those who have a uterus.” Hell yes. Maybe the common denominator is…. something else. But female=/=bad.
Medium wraps it up, “The underlying theme remains the same: that those born with a uterus are controlled by it.” Yeah, screw that! Just like men aren’t controlled by their…. Well they kind of are, tho’, right?
Every single one of these fun articles was inspired by the same book, The Geography of Madness by Frank Bures. In it he follows the concept around the world that some populations suffer from maladies that just don’t exist in other places.
He does report that symptoms such as pain, fatigue and bloating are pretty universal, but says Western psychosomatic mood issues stem from old ideas about “hysteria.”
I suspect the truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. For one thing, women outside of the West are discouraged from reporting and probably from feeling certain things, just like we are. Why is their lack of reporting emotional issues any more reliable than our experience of them?
And the serious mental issues many women report may be the kernel of truth behind what Hippocrates and all the rest have been gabbing about.
Time confusingly muses, “So is the concept of PMS just a remnant of sexist ideas about women’s changing moods from a time when most physicians were male? The new study from a team led by Dr. Sarah Romans of the University of Otago in New Zealand, reviewed 47 studies that followed women’s moods across the menstrual cycle, but unfortunately isn’t designed to provide an answer.
“For one thing, because they wanted to look at healthy women, the authors excluded data on women seeking help for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a syndrome they do not dispute, in which 1% to 9% of women experience extreme mood problems related to the menstrual cycle.”
So, they admit it exists while dismissing the idea as medicalized moods. Bizarrely, the studies they cite didn’t find any consistent evidence of premenstrual anything. Which is weird, and all very well but I’m not seeing fuckin ghosts here.
Maybe it’s the Western diet. Maybe it’s hormones in the water. Maybe it’s the special kind of shit we deal with every day. But more research and talking need to happen.
The American Psychological Association (the official psychologist’s club in the US) also quotes Dr. Paula Caplan as saying, “It is really appalling that using PMDD for women who want recognition for discomfort is a very clear message that goes something like: ‘OK, OK, we’ll believe you are feeling bad if we get to call you mentally ill for feeling bad.’ Can you imagine if we did that to men?”
Okay, true enough. Men do get to go around acting crazy an awful lot.
But Dr. Caplan, who wrote They Say You’re Crazy, continues, “emotional displays that are considered normal in men are seen as a mental disorder in women.”
That may be, but what I experienced last week was far from what I would consider normal emotional displays for anyone.
Salon gathers many threads around Sylvia Plath, explaining, “Plath endlessly noted her agonizing symptoms, castigated herself for her inability to gain control over her life, even dreamed frequently about her periods, and yet could not make the connection between her cycles of fertility and cycles of torment.”
And it can get worse as you get older.
How long has this been going on?? It explains the maddening tendency for my rage and anxiety to reappear seemingly out of nowhere. It could have served to help obscure the annual gulag that is seasonal depression. Salon quotes PMS expert Dr. Glenn Bair, “Depression is the slowest symptom to clear, and in fact seems to build up over time,” as your lack of ability to control your emotions starts to affect your life.
The American Psychological Association carries on being dismissive. Dr. Chrisler says that officially dubbing severe premenstrual symptoms a Disorder “allows you to hold onto a view of yourself as a good mother who doesn’t lose her temper.”
What mother believes such nonsense? For a group who claim to speak for women, these people are very dismissive of women’s stories.
It sure looks like a real thing to me. There’s a subreddit, of course. There’s this heartbreakingly eloquent essay by a woman who took the only way out she could find. She found relief by having all of her reproductive organs removed.
Ironically, what we have here is a disorder that most people assume is all in your head being dismissed by the head shrinkers as not existing at all.
It sure looks real. In 1993 Dr. Jean Endicott of the New York Psychiatric Institute published a paper where she reported, “there is evidence from autopsies that completed suicide is more likely to occur during the late luteal phase of the cycle.”
What a tangled web we weave! In its introduction to the Sylvia Plath article, Salon explains, “Aesthetic purists tend to attack all such biological-influence theories as reductive,” which is a great way of saying no one likes to believe just how much the state of our brains affects the state of our minds.
I haven’t been treating myself well for a while now. It’s been a hellish year, no joke, on many levels. Still waiting for that lull where I can catch my breath and it just hasn’t come. The past couple months have seen my thoughts turn especially dark and it’s starting to get scary.
Hubs and I occasionally play with the idea of moving back to Cleveland. It’s where we met, where family still lives. But I’m not sure if life without seasonal depression is something I’m willing to give up.
I think if I take better care of myself this other ugly manifestation will fade too. As embarrassing as it may be, I’m excited to have a new puzzle piece. I’m tracking things for a couple of months to make sure, but the difference between this week and last week plus the deja-vu of it all have me pretty convinced.
And in the back of my mind, I have known it was getting worse for a while. PMS is usually reserved for punchlines, and I have been living with the mistaken assumption that strength of physical symptoms was an indicator of overall effect. It never occurred to me that when I thought I was losing my mind my body was just roaring its primal female scream.
If women had built the world, there would be entire subcultures and religions dedicated to the reproductive cycle. Sects of women in various states and phases of life, great works of art and literature, whole schools of thought informed by the experience of living in a female body.
You know, like how we’re always hearing about their goddam dicks.
As much as we hate to be reduced to our bodies, the somatic experience is a vital element in how we understand the world. If your brain is not working right, neither are you.
I need more veggies, exercise and sleep. I need a schedule that doesn’t involve being up half the night all the time. Maybe then I will find the energy to get things done.