My first period arrived on Halloween — a fittingly spooky occasion for unexpected blood. I was 15 years old, arguably too old for trick or treating and, among my friends, too old to be undergoing puberty as well.
At the time, I was slightly repulsed and slightly intrigued. For years, once a month, I’d been listening to my mother walk around the house quipping about her ovaries and rubbing her lower back. I’d heard my friends talk about their “time of the month” routines. One always wore skirts — she said the looseness felt nice. Another kept chocolate in the pockets of her jackets at all times. I’d been taking mental notes for my own period: eat treats, wear skirts, keep the whole thing a secret from everyone but your close girlfriends.
From there, it took nearly a year for my period to become regular. The symptoms were mild, my boobs didn’t grow, there wasn’t much pain. I’d wear my least cute underwear, and the world went on as usual.
In college, however, a larger transformation took place. My first cycle as a freshman did not come on quietly like I’d been used to. Debilitating headaches struck before, during, and after my period — pain so bad that the only solution was sleep. My stomach felt like it might fall out and my gut churned like the inside of a lava lamp. I was starving all the time, but everything made me nauseous. I was inexplicably fatigued. I was so bloated, my jeans wouldn’t button. So I developed a new routine: Each time my period arrived, I stayed in bed and spoke to no one.
No matter how hard I tried — meditation, walks, reading — the discomfort was overwhelming. Normally, in tough times, I coped by cooking. This was my form of catharsis, of finding comfort: the slow process of stirring and smelling, tasting and plating. But when I attempted anything at all in the kitchen while on my period, that slowness was agonizing. The smells were nauseating. I resented being out of my bed and upright. When in bed, I wanted to read — to catch up on novels I had not yet finished or articles I’d saved for later. But on my period, I found I couldn’t focus. With headaches setting in, the words would blur before my eyes. My bloat would distract me.
Still, there was one silver lining: I now could commiserate with the women around me — I realized this sort of discomfort came with a community. And with that camaraderie came a small measure of pride. I felt closer to the women in my life who bled once a month like I did — I was amazed that we all were not just enduring our period symptoms, but continuing on with life as usual in spite of the ways our bodies were making things difficult. Admittedly, after all these years, I even felt some sympathy for my mother walking around and stroking her lower back. I learned that sometimes we need to be verbal and loud about what is going on — we need to whine, openly, about our symptoms. It helped. I ritualized my crying and complaining as earned parts of my body’s calendar.
Now, years out of college, I believe I’ve finally learned how to properly practice self-care in the throes of my cycle. I do concrete things to make myself feel better: I take MidolⓇ as directed, every 6 hours. It helps with the bloating, the headaches, and the general discomfort from cramps and back aches. I use a hot water bottle, and lie on my side. I allow myself to be still and talk about my discomfort unabashedly. I request that my boyfriend or my roommate gently scratch my back (my favorite sensation). And then I permit myself rituals of indulgence.
Ritual one: order takeout. Normally, I have specific cravings: cucumbers, sharp Manchego cheese, thin prosciutto, home-baked sourdough bread, fresh fennel. As a cook, I love watching flavors take shape from scratch. But while on my period, greasy, reliable takeout is a much-needed change of pace. Sometimes, I follow this with a slice of chocolate cake. I’ve learned that food can still offer me comfort, as it always has — just in a different form.
Ritual two: I watch anything romantic that will stream. We’re talking trashy reality dating TV — anything that will keep me riveted enough to forget my bloat and my cramps for an episode’s worth of time. While normally, I’m a bit more of a movie buff, these episodes help turn off my brain for a bit — which, in the midst of a headache, can be very soothing.
So yes, over the years, I’ve found ways to normalize the discomfort and retain some control over this taxing, monthly phase. I’ve learned to cope. And though I sometimes feel euphoric at my period’s departure, I also await it again. Yes, with reservations. But also with awe and patience and a craving for chocolate and takeout. Loudness at the ready.