Geeks vs Loneliness: talking about periods

A few words on periods, and why they still seem to be a taboo subject...

Welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our spot on the site where we talk about things that may be affecting you, or people around you. We promise no miracle cures, just that we’ll turn up, that we actually care, and that every now and then, we may say something that may be of use to you.

This week, we’re in the company of the brilliant Caroline Preece, for a chat about periods. Over the Caroline…

Earlier this month, 23-year-old British long jumper Jazmin Sawyers made the refreshingly honest decision to reveal the reason for her pulling out of a competition in Boston – period cramps.

Now if more women were honest, Sawyers’ admission wouldn’t be such a surprise, but the reality is far different. Despite around half the population having periods at one point in their life or another, they’re rarely talked about even in the privacy of our homes, let alone in public or in the media.

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In a Twitter message, the athlete said: “This happens almost every month. Last month I almost missed a flight because I couldn’t drive with the pain, and last year I was only able to compete in the qualification round of the Olympics due to a whole load of painkillers, and still felt awful.

“It’s something I’ve been working with medical staff to fix, but we haven’t yet found a solution. We discuss injuries and illness openly, but this is something we don’t talk about and I wanted to put it out there because I’m sure there are other young athletes dealing with it. Girl, I believe you when you say how bad it is – you’re not alone.”

And she’s right – more and more light is being shed of the myriad problems faced by women who did nothing wrong except be born with a working reproductive system. In a study by student publication The Tab, 36 per cent of female Cambridge University students recently admitted to missed periods during term time, with around half of them saying it was due to stress.

Den of Geek’s own Jane Roberts also wrote about the pain of fibroids back in 2015, a condition that means she must constantly dose herself with strong painkillers.

The lack of research into the overall health impact of menstruation and related things such as the contraceptive pill (more on that in a moment) means that even medical professionals often don’t know the best way to help those suffering, playing a guessing game based on what they’ve learned from patients and the small amount of findings available to them.

This leads to a often years-long and sometimes expensive process in which women go to their GP, get put on one medication, react badly, get referred, get put on another medication and come out of the other side worse off, all throwing additional stress and worry into the mix.

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One aspect of the menstrual cycle that is left even more mysterious is the disastrous effect it can have on mental health, from mild premenstrual tension to more serious conditions such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder. These things cause millions of women to miss work and family time with crippling physical and psychological symptoms that often leave them bedridden or close to.

Symptoms often taken for granted and subsequently ignored are things such as mood swings, fatigue, irritability and cravings along with anxiety and depression. Anyone reading that list without a passing knowledge of what it’s like to have periods would probably attribute them to a bad hangover or ‘coming down with something’. In fact, they’re just an unavoidable part of life for many.

The symptoms can be so bad that they’re mistaken for severe depression or other mental health problems, which can result in a chicken or egg dilemma.

This seemingly natural process can affect every aspect of life from early teenhood. Bobbi Thompson, a 17-year-old who suffers from bad PMS, was struck with anxiety and sickness immediately before sitting an important exam.

“Right before the exam I took a panic attack, fainted, threw up, yes I admit partly due to anxiety but definitely PMS had a contribution,” she told Den of Geek. “This resulted in me having to dash home so family could try to calm me down as I was in the mind set of refusing to sit it.

“Eventually I went in, aided by my year head, biology department head and my sister. I wasted 20 minutes of vital exam time crying before attempting a question. In the end I got a B, one mark from an A but I have to wonder, would I have been more successful minus periods?”

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It’s often the case that treatments for period pains or associated problems are overlooked because of the perception that the process is ‘natural’ and should be left alone. That makes it even more important for prominent people like actress Lena Dunham to highlight invisible issues, like she regularly does with her struggle with endometriosis.

In an essay for the New York Times, Dunham wrote: “Birth control pills are many women’s method of choice for preventing unintended pregnancy and should be covered by all insurance policies for that reason alone. But for millions of women living with endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, cystic acne, migraines, uterine abnormalities and a history of ectopic pregnancies, birth control can be a crucial, even lifesaving, medical treatment.”

She goes on to talk about the essential nature of treatment for certain conditions that allow women who suffer to go about their lives as normal – working, socialising, forming families and everything else besides.

These are extreme cases, but even for those who suffer milder discomforts, women are caught between a rock and a hard place, ignoring their bodies because to give in to its whims would be to admit a weakness that doesn’t affect their male friends and colleagues.

Many women in relationships will know well the disgruntlement that comes with saying they’re just ‘not in the mood’, and the misplaced guilt that comes with calling in sick with ‘women’s issues’. It’s a monthly war that doesn’t begin and end with the event itself, but carries on throughout the cycle and includes stages of intense mood fluctuations that can’t be attributed to hormone changes until much later. At times, it’s hard not to feel like we’re being held hostage by our bodies.

It also goes the other way, of course, with any bad mood or poorly explained absence jokingly attributed to the woman in question being on her ‘time of the month’.

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The only way to fight these perceptions is to talk more openly about them, and to introduce more education for both men and women from an earlier age. It’s inexcusable that we are left so clueless, with teenagers terrified of something that they’ve not been taught is coming, and adults dealing with ongoing problems not even their doctor can diagnose or treat effectively.

Jazmin Sawyers is incredibly brave for speaking about the real reasons behind her dropping out of the competition, but not – as some will say – because she shouldn’t talk about such things. She’s brave because no one would expect her to do it, and it’s a lesson to us all to do the same.

Thanks, as always, for reading.