This is a conversation about period pain, and everything that goes along with that.
One day in the Autostraddle Slack “office” we were casually chatting about tracking our periods and our partner’s periods; soon our banter turned into a rousing discussion about period pain, uterus pain, the medical establishment being incompetent at best and harmful/dangerous at worst (often both!), PMDD, and how we as individuals manage the pain that people are so often told is simply “part of having a period / uterus / body!” You know, just a regular day at the office.
We decided to collect our thoughts, feelings, and experiences about period pain into a roundtable for you. Here it is!
Renea Baek Goddard, Writer
My partner is a butch lesbian who is currently taking a light dose of testosterone. Xe says hir periods had always felt heavy and painful, and lightened up significantly when Xe started taking testosterone — but the cramps and pain actually got way worse.
I admit that I’m one of those people who had the wrong idea about period pain and testosterone: that is, I definitely thought any amount of T would stop periods completely or at least take away the intensity of period pain and discomfort. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to put this topic in a broader context: butch/gender-nonconforming lesbians experiencing exclusionary behavior from feminine cis women, even in the same communities and relationships. Would a butch complaining about cramps receive the same sympathy as a femme?
Like my partner, I also experience pretty intense period pain and I know the frustration of having this pain minimized or misunderstood by others. While I’ve mostly only experienced this from men and my socially conservative family, gender-nonconforming women also face similar experiences from other women and LGBT people (on top of your usual, run-of-the-mill misogyny).Topics like period pain seem to expose a form of misogyny that even feminine cis lesbians like myself often unknowingly participate in.
“It would have meant the whole world to me if I had seen some sort of representation or conversation about trans people in discussions of reproductive justice when I was growing up. It would have helped me in my process of figuring out who I was and made it less self-betraying. Like, I tried to be a trans man, or thought that I should, because there just wasn’t a conversation about folks like me. It felt like there was a stigma within the trans men community about talking about periods at all, and I didn’t feel like I was accepted in lesbian communities because of my masculinity.” — Loba, 23
Carolyn Yates, Writer
Lately when I think of “period pain” I think both of the migraines I’ve suddenly started to have in the days just before I menstruate and ovulate, and also of crying on my bathroom floor, the floor and I covered in blood, trying to get my compact-sized menstrual cup to somehow fit in my usually size-queer vagina and completely perplexed and frustrated with how it will not. (Yes, I’ve tried other cups. Yes, I tried water-based lube. Yes, at the point I started to try it I was pretty relaxed and not yet feeling frustrated and weird.) Previously I’ve tried Thinx, and when they were new I was obsessed — they were my favorite high-waisted underwear, how great to get to wear them on my period — but I didn’t notice how much they had started to almost burn after more than an hour or two of wear until I used tampons for a cycle and didn’t feel wildly uncomfortable the whole time. RIP Thinx. I’ve also tried sea sponges on and off over the past five years, but have yet to find one that doesn’t feel like it’s exfoliating my insides during insertion and that doesn’t just wring itself out if I sneeze. Since I’m normally pretty in touch with what my vagina is and is not into, all of this trial and error makes me feel pretty frustrated and weirdly like it’s some sort of professional failing instead of a totally reasonable and unremarkable process to be going through.
I also think of cramps. I am lucky to have a degree of cramps that let me still be somewhat present in my body and life, as long as I use a transdermal painkiller and wear soft clothes and don’t have anywhere to be and can nap, but I get them during ovulation, too, so before I made the connection (and set up an elaborate series of Clue reminders so I’d remember it) I spent a lot of time feeling extremely grumpy and uncomfortable and unable to perform to late-capitalist standards of productivity without knowing why. Knowing what’s up doesn’t totally make it better, but it helps.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Writer
I am incredibly lucky that when I was growing up, my mother let me know it was perfectly acceptable to miss school due to period pain. Back then, I often got flu-like symptoms leading up to and during the first couple days of my period. Headache, chills, vomiting, pain, all of it! I’m really glad that I don’t experience that anymore (I’m not sure what exactly changed to make it stop, but it stopped once I hit my 20s). But I do still deal with intense cramps, especially on the first two days of my period and occasionally lasting longer. I also have never had a “regular” cycle in my whole dang life, which is very frustrating because no matter my attempts to chart and track my periods, they just kind of come when they want to, so I can’t really prepare for them. While I take over-the-counter pain medication for the cramps and also use things like heating pads and a gravity blanket to ease some of the cramps, often the best solution I have is to just sleep. I can sleep for a whole ass day on day one of my period, and sometimes when it’s a really bad one, I do. I’m lucky that I have a flexible work-from-home life since calling in sick due to period pain still isn’t normalized in most office cultures (to which I say: FUCK THAT!!!!!!). The intensity of the pain definitely varies cycle to cycle, but one consistency I’ve found is that the more weeks there are between my periods (sometimes I go 8+ weeks between periods), the worse the pain is. When I was briefly on birth control, my cycles became more regular which made that less of a thing BUT my body and mind did not react well to hormonal birth control so I don’t foresee myself ever going back on it as a way to regulate my period.
Ro White, S L I C K Editor
I am incredibly lucky to be a bleeder who doesn’t experience much physical pain with my period, but my body sure loves to double down on every other kind of discomfort — epic fatigue, ballooning boobs and depression, plus 24 hours of intense anxiety exactly one day before my period starts. I’ve done a lot of work on my mental health over the past few years and am in a much more stable place, but my emotional period pain (if one could call it that) consistently flares right before I menstruate. Last year I had a routine appointment with my gynecologist, and she suggested that I might have PMDD, which is basically when PMS hulks the hell out. I’ve made some life adjustments to manage it for now, but I might look into medication options if these mood lows continue to be gnarly.
When I was first trying to hack PMDD, I read a LOT about the menstrual cycle and was shocked by how much I didn’t know. One of the most helpful books I read was Woman Code by Alisa Vitti. The language in this book is AGGRESSIVELY gendered and oriented towards cis straight women, but once I learned how to grit my teeth and look past that, I found a ton of information about how to plan your work and goals around your cycle, which is something I had never even considered! Now I set my biggest writing goals just before ovulation when I have the most energy and focus and take on work that requires less brain power during my luteal phase, when I’m most likely spiraling into a deep, dark pit of hormone-induced despair. Taking advantage of where my hormones are at during different parts of the month has been incredibly empowering.
Christina Tucker, Writer
Oh period pain, my first friend, my enemy. For as long as I can remember I have had miserable, horrible cramps the first two or so days of my period. Puking, lower back pain — sometimes I am just covered in sweat?? It’s horrible. When I was younger, I had pretty regular, not super heavy periods for maybe four or five days. Now that I am post 30, the first three days of bleeding are mind bogglingly heavy, like did you know that there is that much blood inside of your whole body type heavy. It’s exhausting, honestly. I’ve been lucky enough that I have had jobs that I could call out of work when I needed to, but I had a hard time thinking that my period was enough of a reason to stay home, even when it made me throw up. Another fun thing I’ve noticed now that I am over 30 is that my emotions are bananas the week before. I am not a particularly emotional person, usually? So when I am like “All I want to do is watch episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and eat a sheet cake but also beef jerky and lightly cry,” I am very confused, even though it happens every month! It seems likely that I have some kind of fibroid situation, and I certainly should look into it, but *sigh* I am dreadfully lazy!
Heather Hogan, Senior Writer & TV Editor
When I was 27, I started having really bad periods. Like really bad. Heavy bleeding, excruciating uterus and back pain. I went to my primary care physician and to my OBGYN and they both just shrugged at me. I was an unmarried, not sexually active woman living in the rural south. They both thought I should just get myself a husband and some babies and that’d do the trick. It did not do the trick, and when I was 29, in addition to the period pain, every time I went for a run, about ten minutes in, I would suddenly start feeling like someone was, quite literally, stabbing me in the vagina with a knife. That always lasted maybe five minutes, and then intense uterus cramps and rectal cramps, followed by waves of nausea.
My PCP and my OBGYN and my newfound GI doctor all three shrugged again. Period pain was normal, they said. I said, “No, this vagina stabbing is ALL THE TIME when I go for a run.” They told me to stop running. I did. It started happening to me the week before my period when I would ride my bike, so that meant I could exercise two weeks a month only, because exercising on my period was out of the question. For eight years, my period pain kept getting worse and worse and worse. To manage, I ate Advil and Tylenol like candy and kept one heating pad on my back and one heating pad on my uterus for the week of my period, barely able to get out of bed. Finally, one day, on my way to Rite Aid to get more Advil during my period, I was hit with such an intense wave of pain that I passed right the fuck out on the sidewalk.
My partner, Stacy, had tried talking to me repeatedly about how this much pain wasn’t normal, but all I ever heard when she told me that — both because I was in pain and because I had a lot of feelings about what butches should be able to handle — was that I wasn’t strong enough, and that my pain was a disappointment to her. And anyway, hadn’t the doctors told me there was nothing they could do for me? When I passed out that day, she put her foot down and I made an appointment with an OBGYN who specializes in uterine dysfunction. And well, it turns out that I had SEVERE endometriosis. And also I was VERY anemic. I was bleeding so heavily on my period — both vaginally and rectally, my friends — that my red blood cell count was low enough for me to have a transfusion. Because the endometriosis was ALL OVER THE INSIDE OF BODY. It was on the outside of my uterus, the outside of my ovaries, the outside of my bladder, the outside of my intestines. It had punched a hole in the recto-vaginal wall. It was like every single one of my internal organs besides my heart and lungs was having its own period once a month.
I had endometrial ablation surgery, and when the surgeon was wheeling me to recovery, he said, “How were you even walking around?”
Well, doc, because I didn’t think I had another choice.
Since my surgery, I started taking oral birth control continuously, which means I don’t have a period anymore and never will again. I won’t stop taking it until I hit menopause. And also since my surgery, I have not had ONE SINGLE MINUTE of period pain. Not once! I cannot even begin to describe the quality of life difference. It changed everything for me. I wish I’d known enough when I was 27 to push for answers or find better doctors. I lost at least one week of my life every month for over a decade because my doctors wrote me off! Never again!
Valerie Anne, Writer
I got my period at 11 years old (First in my class! A terrible burden to bear!) and it has been a constant nuisance in my life ever since. Cramps so bad I couldn’t sleep, heavy flows that would last days, constant paranoia that I would stain whatever chair or car seat I was on. Plus there were the migraines that would lay me out for a day or two, lower back pain so bad I have been known to think my kidneys were failing, mood swings so extreme they were alarming even to me. I don’t even remember how young I was when I first went on birth control, but it was definitely before I was sexually active. I’ve been on and off it ever since, and have experienced all kinds of fun side effects from it. In my early 20s I would often have to go off my birth control for a few months or a year at a time because my refills would run out and I couldn’t afford a co-pay for a new appointment, which also resulted in exciting symptoms. At one point in my late 20s, my period decided that as soon as the birth control was out of my system, I would just… bleed. Not as heavy and without a lot of the PMS symptoms of my youth, but just… constant. Which is mostly just annoying, but can sometimes trigger anemia. I think at this point four months straight was my record. I went to one doctor and she gave me some ultrasounds and just kind of shrugged and said she can’t tell what’s wrong but it’s probably because I’m overweight so just lose weight and take birth control and probably it’ll get better. I think my lifetime of debilitating period cramp pain is part of the reason my pain tolerance is so high that no one believed me when I broke my rib coughing from pneumonia. Doctor after doctor was just kind of like, “hm yeah your hormones must be out of whack, take birth control,” without ever diagnosing me with anything. The last doctor I went to listened patiently to my history and the look of horror on her face when I told her that the last doctor didn’t feel like diagnosing me because the answer was probably birth control was oddly comforting. She was kind and compassionate in a way no doctor of any kind had ever been with me, told me that while being overweight sometimes can affect periods there’s no way to know if that’s a factor until we get a diagnosis, etc. She was a miracle! She ordered me some more ultrasounds and sent me on my way, promising we’d figure it out… then there was a global pandemic. So now I’m just bleeding and waiting until it’s safe to have someone shove a camera all up in me so this nice lady can look at my wonky ovaries and see if the PCOS or endometriosis that runs in my family is lurking inside me.
Oh and also? Since I’ve basically just turned this into a diary entry about my period? Once when I was like 12 or 13, and my mother was talking to my aunt about how my period was heavy and irregular and painful and she turned to me and assured me that when I was older and started having orgasms more regularly, it would get better. Not only was this EXTREMELY HUMILIATING at the time it was also extremely untrue for me and I will never forget this lie I was told. I have plenty of orgasms and my period is just as fucked up as ever.
Carly Usdin, To L and Back Co-Host
I love talking about my journey with endometriosis — not because it is fun (it is not!) but so maybe other folks won’t have to go through what I went through.
In my mid-20s I started getting this very specific lower abdominal pain during the week leading up to my period. Initially, before realizing the pattern, I thought it was just cramps or gas or something. I remember telling my OBGYN at the time and they were unsure what was causing it. So I just went about my business, thinking maybe it would just go away eventually. Instead, it progressively got worse.
Then in my later-20s it was starting to affect my quality of life. Every month, for 10-12 days, i would experience a sharp pain in my lower abdomen every two hours, like clockwork. This would stop once my period started. Additionally, I couldn’t exert physical energy of any kind, as it would trigger an even more painful 20-30 minute spurt. Walking briskly (I lived in NYC!), any exercise, sex… I couldn’t do anything. I found a new OBGYN, desperate to figure out what was wrong with me. She had me try several birth control pills (which is a not-fun, slow process) but none of those did anything. She actually told me that I couldn’t possibly have endometriosis, since it would have reacted to the birth control. I took her word for it — she was a doctor, after all! But my symptoms only worsened. I now had nausea and pain so severe I had to lie down in the fetal position anytime it hurt. I still didn’t know what was wrong with me so I had to make up excuses for why I was cancelling plans with friends or calling out of work. Over-the-counter pain meds didn’t work at all, so I had a very small ration of oxycodone which helped but I was also terrified to take too frequently.
An average month for me was about 2 weeks where I spent 20 minutes every 2 hours in debilitating pain. I barely slept. Finally I found a pelvic pain specialist and went in for a consult. I described all of my symptoms, all of my attempted remedies, everything the other doctors told me. And he looked at me and said, “I can almost guarantee you have endometriosis.” But there’s really no way to diagnose it for certain without surgery. A few weeks later I had a laparoscopic procedure. I wound up in there for over 6 hours. The surgeon at one point told my very concerned wife that it was “Stage 4” (I still don’t know what that means) and that it was “everywhere.” They also found some fibroids and cysts while they were in there, and took out my appendix for good measure.
After healing from that I got an IUD to slow the regrowth of the endometrial tissue, and let me tell you, THAT was actually the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. I screamed so loudy the people in adjacent exam rooms must’ve thought I was being murdered. The fact that doctors do not offer a shot of pain meds before insertion as standard procedure is absolutely criminal. Now when I go back I insist, I won’t let them near me without it.
In the end it took over 6 years to be properly diagnosed. Endometriosis has no cure — I know I could wind up in terrible pain again someday, but the surgery really helped so, so much, and the IUD will help keep it from escalating again. Plus now my doctors know to look for it, and I know what the symptoms feel like, so if it ever gets bad again I’m confident I’ll be on top of it. I still have some pain, but it’s less frequent and less intense and much more manageable. But the psychological effects are something that still affect me and I am trying to work through. A few years after my diagnosis, my sister was diagnosed as well. And then once we described our symptoms to our mother, she determined that she probably had it too.