After my first tattoo, body art popped out at me like a ‘90s optical illusion poster. Same thing happened when I got engaged, and every diamond glint caught my peripheral. My eyes zeroing in on a once-innocuous accessory, now the object of inventory, scrutiny, and comparison.
Similarly, almost a year and a half without a period, I find myself acutely aware of every complaint of cramps, every impassioned post about Diva Cups in a women’s-only Facebook group, and every pregnancy announcement — reminders of what it's like to have a "normally functioning" female reproductive system
I could rejoin the sisterhood and get my period again, too, but it would require me to take the birth control pills I picked up a few weeks ago, but left to collect dust on an entryway table. I haven’t opened the box, applied the days-of-the-week sticker, or taken any pills yet because it would mean that my experiment of getting off birth control, after a 15-year run, didn’t yield my desired result: a consistent cycle. This is because I have polycystic ovarian syndrome.
It took about six months of being off the pill, waiting for my period to return like a WWII sweetheart, for a forgotten voice to hiss in my ear, It might be hard for you to get pregnant.
That’s what my first gynecologist told me at 16. It was a half a lifetime ago, so I can’t quite remember the doctor who maybe didn’t want to concern a young girl with complicated details, like the fact that a PCOS diagnosis doesn’t 100% predict fertility difficulties, or that plenty of women conceive without assistance despite having this condition, or the fact that there are several medications and processes that successfully get people with PCOS pregnant when they're ready. Or maybe I was told, but put the prognosis away in the recesses of my mind, because the future felt so big and so far away.
But here I am at my future’s doorstep. I’m 32 years old, engaged, and starting to seriously discuss family planning options with my partner.
Since that teenage gyno appointment, I mindlessly popped pills from various cardboard squares and pink plastic clamshells for 15 years to regulate my period, until my 30s spurred thoughts of motherhood. I asked myself, What if I stop taking these? I had no idea what would happen, and a sudden, deep desire to find out.
I had a foggy, in retrospect misguided, idea that the pill was somehow getting in the way of my body’s “natural” rhythms. I assumed that going au naturale would recalibrate my reproductive system, almost priming me for pregnancy — in case I should decide I was ready for that.
During the first month off the pill, I was hopeful. I prepared, almost gleefully, for a painful, heavy period of epic proportions — unbridled by synthetic hormones — by looking for any sign of PMS. Nothing happened, but I was not too concerned. Surely my first period after prolonged use of birth control could take a little longer than usual to show up. But then it took...a lot longer.
Every bathroom trip was a hopeful search for any sign of something I used to think was such a guaranteed annoyance. Then I questioned whether my period would come back at all. For several months, I kept weekly acupuncture appointments and took 10 Chinese herb pills a day. I drank raspberry tea, supposedly for uterine health, which tasted like a pile of raked leaves. I tested my ovulation using strips I ordered from the internet, but a solid line never appeared. In hindsight I understand that trying to conjure up a period without using the pills I had been prescribed looks a lot like what people go through trying to get pregnant. At the time, I was after one thing, and one thing only: that nearly forgotten flow.
The groundswell of period normalization has made me feel increasingly like an interloper in my own sex.
I have a bad habit of buying things as a way to displace internal turmoil. Consequently, I have a pretty extensive enamel pin collection. I display them all on my dresser, pushed into a cork board organized by categories, so that I can choose which piece of flair best represents any given mood, holiday, or activity. In the feminist-y section, two in particular often catch my eye: a little pink birth control pack that reminds me of the Ortho TriCyclen from high school, and an anatomically correct depiction of female reproductive organs in a cute pair of panties. I feel irrationally resentful of both of these, and have considered removing them from the board several times.
Instead, I wore them both to the Women’s March, as a small gesture of support for the cause. I walked alongside signs figuratively screaming, “DOES MY PERIOD SCARE YOU?” reminding me of the dusty box of tampons under my sink. I wanted to literally scream back, “STOP BRAGGING!” at each bedazzled set of fallopian tubes on posterboard. This political and social climate, heightened by a very real threat to women’s reproductive rights, fosters an in-your-face brand of feminism hell bent on bringing female physiology to the forefront of conversation. While it’s something I wholly support and believe to be necessary, the groundswell of period normalization has made me feel increasingly like an interloper in my own sex.
Threats to reproductive health in general, coupled with the future of my own fertility — complete with impending wedding date and seemingly weekly baby announcements from peers — has made it difficult for me to ignore the underlying issue of my absent flow.
Six months after the March, with an ultrasound wand inside me, and my fiancé by my side for moral support, I wait for my reproductive endocrinologist to offer a new prognosis. I'm hopeful that the surreal experience of peering into a dark and quiet uterus will shed new light on where my period has gone, and when it could be expected to return. I had always envisioned my first ultrasound with my partner to be a more joyous experience, but life isn't a TV drama. Sometimes it's more of a dark comedy.
The S in PCOS stands for syndrome, which means it’s a cluster of symptoms, or criteria, rather than one specific ailment. The most common are long-term absent or irregular periods, elevated androgen levels, and cysts on the ovaries. Check, check, check! If you have at least two, you’re considered to have PCOS. I have all three.
I wave a white flag at my diagnosis, admitting there’s probably nothing the acupuncture, herbs, and positive vibes I’ve been employing can do to fix this. Really, there’s is no “beating this thing,” because this thing is just me. In the end, my 15-month journey of trying to rediscover and stake claim on my own body led me exactly where I started, right to the one thing I thought I’d sworn off: birth control.
Forgive the pun, but it feels like a bitter pill to swallow after spending more than a year rebelling against my own body with both middle fingers raised at my only real treatment option to regain my period with regularity — which is important in the prevention of cancerous cells, too. Ironically, even though I originally believed taking birth control was causing me harm, I now know abstaining could put me at a greater risk.
I can’t help but feel like my human girl starter pack was missing a few pieces. But, I’m learning to accept and embrace my imperfect insides, even though they don't do cool things like sync up with lunar phases nor my close girlfriends’ cycles. “I know it’s eclipse season; I feel it in my uterus — you know what I’m talking about,” a friend says to me. I earnestly don’t know. I wish I did, but it’s okay.
I’m trying to focus my energy on appreciating the other spectacular things that come easily to my physical body, like natural muscular strength, perfect eyebrows, and multi-tasking like a boss. However, this sort of mental recalibration doesn’t happen overnight; it’s an ongoing meditative practice — hence my new prescription still sitting in its pharmacy bag, neglected, near the front door.
I know the maddening truth about wanting to get pregnant, PCOS or not — you don’t know how difficult it will be until you try, but my fertility doctor doesn’t seem at all concerned, explaining the wide spectrum of reproductive assistance available if and when I am ready. “You’ll be okay,” she says with a reassuring smile, as I dry my eyes after our first visit.
I go home that day knowing three things to be true. It could be hard for me to get pregnant; the end of my menstrual draught is literally only a pill away; and I will be okay.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.