NOBODY talks about periods. Not really. It’s sort of up (or down) there with talking about going to the toilet; it’s deemed impolite and unnecessary.
Imagine standing in your office kitchen with a group of colleagues, talking about your stabbing menstrual cramps or your horrendously heavy flow. It just doesn’t happen.
That said, we’ve all heard of PMS. Most of us have experienced it in one way or another: memories of our mums, if not ourselves or our partners. You hear people refer to it all the time and even in workplaces there’ll be a nod towards her ‘time of the month’. This is because, even though we don’t like to discuss it, periods affect us all. It makes sense really — without them, we wouldn’t exist.
And yet nobody knows about PMDD, the evil omnipotent twin sister of PMS. That includes most GPs, even though it affects approximately 5-8%, that’s one in twenty at least, of all menstruating women.
PMDD stands for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. It means that half-way through your cycle, when you release your egg, you get struck down with intense sadness, anger and paranoia. You often suffer significant bloating in your tummy and breasts. It is the Jekyll and Hyde of medical conditions.
Once your period starts, the cloud lifts. You go home and apologise to all the people you’ve hurt for the last week or so. And the following month you do the same thing.
I was diagnosed with PMDD at 34. I was living in the Middle East with two small kids and my mood was beginning to seriously affect my relationship. Of course, I only sought medical help when my tummy began to bloat so much that I looked five months pregnant. I couldn’t fit into my clothes and had zero energy; not easy when you have two kids under three.
So, with the support of my sister and husband, I went to the hospital to be checked. As it is all private healthcare in Abu Dhabi, when they test you, they REALLY test you. I was checked for everything and when I went back for the results, I was devastated to learn that the results were clear.
I broke down in tears. I knew in my heart that something was wrong. I also feared that I wasn’t going to manage continuing to face the battle for very long. The doctor was wonderful, he knelt by the bed and asked me if I was happy at home, if my husband treated me well.
When I assured him that thankfully I wasn’t one of the many women suffering domestic abuse, he paused for thought. In my memory, this doctor looks like Kramer from Seinfeld - without the crazed expression and with slightly less wacky hair. He looked at me, considered my reaction to being told I was medically fine, and diagnosed me with PMDD.
It is hard to express what this moment has meant for me. The next time I went back to the hospital the doctor was gone. He was an angel that saved me, in a place where mental health is only beginning to get serious attention.
PMDD is reportedly hormonal and genetic. Researchers at the National Institute of Health in the US have found that women with PMDD have an altered gene complex that processes hormones and stressors differently. So, it is when women have a genetic sensitivity to progesterone and estrogen, that they have a violent reaction mid-way through a menstrual cycle.
The really upsetting thing is that most medical professionals still don’t know about it. Since my diagnosis, I have educated three different doctors, sharing my condition and what I need to deal with it. Thankfully, there are plenty of support groups on Facebook, revealing the true extent of the problem.
My hope is that my two daughters won’t have to face the same bewildering battle as me. But this can only change if we talk about it more. This might mean bravely mentioning your period in public.
We must recognise that periods allow us to reproduce and they have a huge impact on our daily lives.
This will hopefully invite more interest in PMS and importantly, PMDD too.
Until things change socially, my advice is that If you feel you are suffering you need to start tracking it. Talk to your female relatives about their experiences. Visit your doctor with your records and research and tell them about the condition. If you’re lucky, they will have heard of it and some doctors have. If not, you will have to fight your ground and do what you can to make your life better, in some cases to make it bearable.
Having returned to Ireland, I will never again meet the doctor who diagnosed me, but I owe him so much. All I can do is talk about my experience, talk about my symptoms and hope beyond hope that I reach someone suffering out there in silence.