by Angela Perin, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
My first real introduction to education about periods came when I was about 12, and my mother called me into the lounge for a private talk (I thought it was about a school report card, so I was a little nervous, but not at all prepared for what was to come). She pulled out a large brown paper bag and began with, “Did your cousin Debbie tell you she got her period…?” (or something to that effect). Embarrassment and anxiousness overwhelmed me, and at that point I could only regret that the talk had not been about my report card.
It wasn’t a long conversation (I’m guessing that Mum may not have been that comfortable either) and the rest of what she said was just a blur. I can’t even remember if the bag was opened to show me what was inside, but whatever it was, I’m really sure I didn’t want to know about it! And as soon as she had finished and I was allowed to escape, I took the brown paper bag and shoved it to the back of my underwear drawer – hoping no-one would ever see it (including my two younger sisters with whom I shared a bedroom), and that Mum (or anyone else) would never bring up the conversation again!
When I started high school at the age of 12, I had to board away from home during the week (in Alice Springs, NT) as there was no high school where I lived (Hermannsburg), and as much as I wanted to forget about the event and conversation with my Mum, the ‘large’ brown paper bag that was kept hidden at the back of my underwear drawer was a constant reminder of what lay ahead of me. The only mild relief from the anxiety was that I was in a bedroom by myself where I boarded, so the chances of someone finding the brown paper bag were more remote.
For the next 1 ½ years I navigated my way through high school and the start of puberty as best as I could. The day came (and I remember the week clearly as it was just before the weekend my family were moving to Alice Springs to live) when I went to the toilet and noticed blood on my underwear. I kind of knew what it was, but also recall being a little frightened as I really wasn’t sure of what was going on, and what would happen next. That night I scrounged at the back of my drawer and opened the dreaded brown paper bag. Let me tell you, back 30+ odd years ago, they did NOT make pads like they do today! The pad felt so awful and uncomfortable, and was so big and bulky (I felt like a duck waddling around wearing it) that I decided to make my own modifications on the second night – by cutting the pad in half. Well, that didn’t really work either – there was fluff and bits everywhere (basically the pad didn’t hold together after being cut), and after burning the pads in the incinerator out the back (anxiously hoping my guardians wouldn’t ask me what, and why I was burning), I vowed not to wear those pads again!
And I didn’t… I didn’t tell my Mum (or anyone else) that I had got my period. I navigated my way through my periods with dread, using toilet paper in lieu of a pad (the toilet paper at our high school were the shiny, totally non-absorbent square sheets – you needed a lot, and there was always an anxious moment going into a cubicle and hoping that the paper hadn’t run out) and having it laid in and around my underwear in an attempt to stop any leaks. I had no idea of when to expect my period and was anxious and petrified of having an accidental leakage, and of someone finding out I had my period. Trying to plan around social or school events (including sport and camps) was equally as stressful, notwithstanding the added stress of having to keep it secret. Getting blood out of my sheets or pyjamas if I leaked at night required further secretive adaptations, and only added to what I felt was an already awfully embarrassing experience – I had to work out when I would be in my room alone (once my family moved, we had boarders and I shared a room with one of them) and try to remove the blood, and then hope to heavens that my Mum didn’t notice the stains when she did the washing. My Mum never said anything, although I feel in retrospect that she probably knew, but just didn’t know how to approach the situation (not that I wanted her to at the time).
Six months later was my 14th birthday. We were visiting family in Perth for the holidays and had decided to go to the beach for the day. It was a stinking hot day (40 degrees plus from memory) but I had got my period, so I was trying to think up excuses for why I wouldn’t be swimming including, “Oh, I just don’t feel like it…”. My aunty blurted out to my Mum in full earshot of everyone who was there, “Has Angela got her period?” At that moment the ground could have opened up and swallowed me (never to return) and I would have been happy. Not only had I never told my mum, now the whole family and even those not in my immediate family knew! I can’t remember how the day went, but I managed somehow to stumble through it. I don’t recall it was ever discussed any further, and although I was embarrassed, in some way I feel I may have been glad that it was no longer a secret and that my Mum openly knew.
At some point in the latter years of high school I decided that toilet paper just wasn’t cutting it, and decided to be brave and try pads again. Buying pads was however still a secretive exercise, and painful in itself. We lived just across the road from a supermarket, so this exercise for me involved having to make sure no-one was in the house at the time (so no-one would ask where I was going or what I was buying), walking across the road, checking all the aisles to make sure there was no-one in the shop that I knew, going to the pad aisle and just praying that no-one would see me, rushing to the checkout and hoping that the assistant would not need to do a loudspeaker price check, and then running home, shoving the bag in the back of my drawer, and breathing a huge sigh of relief when the mission was accomplished (especially if there had been a number of failed attempts in the course of this). Added to this discomfort, there was the mission around disposing of the pads – another secretive exercise – which took considerable planning and execution (I nearly burnt the backyard down one day – but that’s another story…).
Adding to my general anxiousness and discomfort was the physical pain I began to feel during the time when I got my period. I began to experience severe cramps at the start of my period, which would have me writhing around on the floor in pain for several hours. I don’t recall I ever missed a day’s school because of it (again, it would have been too embarrassing to approach my mum), so I somehow struggled through these days, feeling exhausted and drained at the end of the day and wiped out the next. Interestingly enough, although the pain occurred on the first day of my period, I never associated it with actually having anything directly to do with my period (even though deep down I probably knew it did) – which I feel now in retrospect was me not wanting to acknowledge what was actually happening to my body.
In summary, mostly what I felt was dread, anxiousness, shame and embarrassment around my period and also a lot of confusion because I really didn’t have a connection to my body, and didn’t really understand what was going on. If this was what being a woman was, it didn’t seem that great.
In my 20’s and 30’s I learnt to be a little more open and accepting of my body, and worked on developing some other ways to manage the pain, which lessened to some extent. I vowed I would be more open with my own (three) daughters regarding puberty and periods etc., and did this successfully to the point that we openly discussed periods and using pads. However, while I noticed I didn’t have the same shame and embarrassment around my period, there was still a real lack of connection to what was actually happening to my body, and I never associated how my period was in respect to the way I was living, and what I was doing between each period. I didn’t change my routine or how I was when I had my period (except perhaps when I was forced to, due to cramps), and although I was never a big user of tampons (when I finally learnt how to use those – however, that’s another story in itself…), I viewed them as being convenient in enabling me to get on with life with minimal disruption and without having to interrupt sporting activities or other planned social events. (And because I used organic tampons and pads, I considered that this equated to being responsible and looking after my body.)
And of course, this meant when my daughters began menstruating I passed on this same reflection. In other words, my ideal of what it was to be a woman largely had to do with what was happening ‘to’ the physical body and the various physical changes that occurred as a result, not what was happening ‘within’ the body. At the time, I was heavily into alternative medicine, so when my eldest daughter began experiencing heavy cramps during her period I sought these methods, which still largely only looked at the external of the body (diet, exercise etc.), to try and alleviate the pain. They weren’t that successful and at best only offered temporary relief. While I felt I had more of an appreciation of what it was to be a woman, something still wasn’t right. And combined with all the ideals I had taken on up until that point, including all of the things I felt obliged to ‘do’ as a woman (including mothering, cooking, cleaning, working, being a good wife etc.), I still had no connection to myself or my body and was still left feeling that if this is being a woman, it still feels empty and it isn’t that great.
Up until two years ago I knew there was something more, but didn’t know what that was.
In the past two years, with the wonderful support and inspiring work of Universal Medicine and particularly Natalie Benhayon, together with all the amazing women I have in my life, I have re-connected to a truth that I have always known deep within. And that is, that being a woman is not about having breasts, or whether or not you have children, or whether or not you are actively menstruating, or whether or not you wear a dress or skirt, or whether or not you are in an intimate relationship or having sex. It is about connecting to the preciousness and gentleness within and allowing that to be the energy with which we express and the way we go about our daily lives. It is about connecting to our bodies, re-learning to honour and appreciate this connection, and listening to what our bodies are telling us about the way in which we are living.
In the past two years, I have slowly and gently re-learnt to listen to my body, and begun to understand the true blessing that a woman’s body and her periods are; to understand that the way I live is held in the body, and that my body is therefore a reflection of how I am living. I am re-learning that having a period is not a disconnected event that happens ‘to’ my body just because I am a woman, and that it is not something that is controlled externally, but that this is a cycle that is deeply connected to my body and one that I am responsible for. The more gentle and loving I have been with and in my body, the more I am allowing my body to truly reflect to me where I am at.
I am re-learning that a period can be a wonderful opportunity to look at the way in which we are living, and that it provides a wonderful opportunity to heal much of the momentum and ‘doingness’ that seems to reflect the false ideal in our society of what it is to be a woman, and to simply connect to the ‘being’ and stillness within.
While I don’t feel I am yet in menopause, my periods have become irregular in the past few years and I feel I am now approaching this new cycle and phase in my body. However, regardless of whether or not I am menstruating or how often, I now feel more of a connection to my body and myself as a woman than I have ever felt. It is a gentle work in progress, and one which I know at last is a true honouring of what it is to be a woman – a true connection within. I no longer succumb to the outside picture and the false ideals and beliefs that society calls us to be as women, in denial of who we truly are.
I am deeply grateful for the support and reflection of the many beautiful women in my life (in essence, we, all women, are beautiful) and the opportunity to connect to my body and to truly begin to feel what it is to be a woman. Finally I am beginning to trust what I feel it means to truly be and live as a woman – and it feels amazing!