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#personal-essay

Unlearning the Shame of My Irregular Menstrual Cycle

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5 min read

Unlearning the Shame of My Irregular Menstrual Cycle Photo

by Jessica Wu | November 15, 2018

From middle school to college, one of the prevailing emotions related to my period was embarrassment.

I was embarrassed to be wearing a pad, embarrassed about changing in the locker room, and embarrassed to change my pad in the bathroom. The shame was so crippling that I would not change my pad for hours for fear of someone in the next stall hearing the plastic riiiip (yes, even in college).

Those feelings of embarrassment eventually morphed into uncontrollable stress. Just like people feel stress in areas like their back or neck, I felt mine directly in my lower abdominal area. Any other sources of stress would immediately make me hypersensitive, especially around the time of my period.

During one year of high school, after I started my first job, I began bleeding uncontrollably heavy for 2 - 3 weeks every 2 - 3 weeks, like clockwork. My mom did her best to help me, adding iron to my diet and making notoriously unsavory zhong yao concoctions (anyone with a Chinese mom will know what I’m talking about!). Eastern medicine is known to be a slow-and-steady means of healing, and my grieving body seemed to be hopelessly shutting out any help. Ultimately, I normalized something that was abnormal.

When I moved to New York City for college, my irregular periods got even worse. I was regularly interning for someone during fashion week; being in a new city, coupled with The Devil Wears Prada-level tasks, snowballed into unending stress. One day I started my period, and then didn’t stop bleeding for three months.

I forgot what it felt like to not wear a pad, and I continued with my everyday tasks in total discomfort. Almost every night of those three months I’d cry myself to sleep under the covers in my dorm, hoping my roommate wouldn’t hear. It was a lonely journey in many ways, because I was ashamed to tell my friends. If only my younger self had more courage to seek medical help, or just open to up to my fellow people with periods about what I was going through! The one person I was open with actually deterred medical treatment.

My mom refused to let me go on birth control because she had heard this-and-that about hormonal methods of controlling the body’s natural cycle. At this point, I was diagnosed anemic, experienced hair loss and daily fatigue, and had lost all color in my face (my lips were white). When I came home for a holiday break and the months-long periods continued, I firmly told her that I would at least see a gynecologist, and she finally agreed.

The consultation with my first-ever gynecologist included an ultrasound to detect any abnormalities. It turned out that I had a 13 mm endometrial polyp that was causing this irregular heavy bleeding. My doctor told me that I could either go on birth control or get the polyp surgically removed. I decided to go with an oral contraceptive. I was on it for 2 years and it was great at regulating my cycles, although its side effects were weight gain, cramps, and changing my skin forever (I’d literally never had a pimple in my life before birth control).

After I felt stable, I realized that I didn’t want to be dependent on the pill for “normalcy,” so I tried to wean myself off. Then, after a year or two, work-related stress began disrupting my cycle again. I found a new gynecologist in NYC and consulted them about getting back on birth control. After experimenting with hormone dosages to find out what I needed to regulate my periods, I’ve now been on Microgestin for the last year.

The trial and error between pills and all the emotional and physical rollercoasters in between, though annoying at times, made me consider the bigger picture: I couldn’t just take the pills and expect them to change my cycle, or my life, overnight. I had to make changes here and there, from cleaning up my everyday diet and getting regular exercise in, to stress management and discretion with accepting jobs.

Everything in my life is interconnected and hangs in a delicate but easily disrupted balance. It took some major issues with my period for me to understand that, but it also changed my perspective on my personal health for the better.

I’m proud to say that I’ve completely shed the shame of bleeding.

In fact, most people who meet me for the first time are sure to hear about my three month-long bleeding epic. I’ve spoken frankly at a fashion industry panel discussion about my abnormally long periods. What at first was complaining and venting about cramps on my Instagram turned into countless mini conversations with complete strangers about their personal stories and experiences, unbridled by judgment, taboo, or stigma.

Through the kindness of my direct online community, I was able to launch Period Space, an online reproductive health resource and platform aimed at destigmatizing periods and encouraging ongoing public discussion on menstruation.

I want the next generation to grow up with better reproductive health education, have more open discussions about menstruation, and know that there are countless people who are going through the same thing. I also want communities to act as support groups for each other. Ultimately, my goal with Period Space is to give back to our immediate and faraway communities by democratizing access to menstrual hygiene products. It is a harrowing fact that most of the world can’t afford or doesn’t have access to proper products for their periods, and there is still much to be done to establishing period equity for all.  

Step by step, period by period, I hope to encourage others to vocalize their reproductive health concerns, share their menstrual struggles, and tear down the taboos. Start now, in the comments below!

Jessica Wu is a stylist, model, e-commerce Director, and the founder of menstrual and reproductive health platform Period Space. After years of struggling with her own period, she wanted to create a safe space for people of all walks of life to learn more about their bodies and share their experiences, as well as destigmatize the conversation around periods and bleeding.

by Jessica Wu

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