Guest post by Nathalie Saunders

Nathalie is a queer, mixed race writer, who lives with multiple chronic mental and physical illness. She was paid for her contribution thanks to sponsorship from eco-friendly femcare brand &SISTERS.

They’re offering Hysterical Women readers 15% off their organic cotton tampons, pads & liners, and their nüdie menstrual cup – see below for discount code and more details.

I was 11 when I had my first period. I saw the small red dots of blood in my knickers and I knew straight away what this meant. With an older sister and a mother who were open about menstruation, I knew what to expect physically, but I wasn’t taught what to expect emotionally. In that moment, all I felt was embarrassment, shame, fear and sadness. When I got my full blown periods, these feelings intensified.

My periods were no longer small dots of blood; they were leaking, overwhelming pools of blood that stained bus seats, school chairs and countless pairs of knickers. Pain would hit, along with generally feeling fatigued and, as a hormonal teen, I was expected to be emotional. I always felt as if something was ‘off’ with my periods, but when I raised it with doctors they said most people experience pain and they asked me to quantify my period flow. I felt more embarrassment and like it was a trick question. I felt dismissed and like I didn’t understand my own body. Little did I know, this was only a taste of what would follow with my medical and menstrual journey.

I’d reluctantly learnt to work with my periods throughout my teen years, until at 19 I opted to go on the pill. The first one I tried sent me into a deep depression within the first week. I stuck it out for a month, then went to the doctor and asked to change pills. Her first reaction was to tell me that it was recommended I continue for three months. I started to cry and explained how I’d been feeling, refusing point blank to keep going for three months. She questioned me, stating that crying could be normal. When I told her it was upwards of four hours every day, without fail, she reluctantly said that yes, it was “quite an extreme reaction”, and she would start me on a new one.

I went through this process four or five times until I settled on the least worst option for me. I couldn’t tell the full effect the pill had on me, I couldn’t tell if my emotions were my own or the hormones, and it regulated my periods but didn’t make them more manageable. Despite my questions and complaints to my doctor, I was never recommended any other contraceptive methods, and my hormonal balance was never checked. I got the impression I was just seen as a bit difficult and fussy. That feeling was coupled with the constant fat phobia I faced at every weight check and I was starting to question the purpose of this process, other than stopping me from getting pregnant.

I stayed on the pill for two years before choosing to come off it and, after a couple months, I started noticing drastic changes in my behaviour. I was hysterically upset at the drop of a pin, extremely anxious, becoming fatigued, suffering from awful cramps and back pain. My recreational use of cannabis became daily and crucial to dealing with both my pain and anxiety. Through time, research and a conversation with a friend, I diagnosed myself with PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – a severe form of PMS) and went to my doctor to get this confirmed. My doctor had never heard of PMDD but felt confident she could try the first line of treatment… the pill… my heart fell to my feet and I explained my history with the pill. She was the first doctor to be surprised at how many they had tried me on, but it didn’t stop her trying me on three more. All had the same varying effects as the last time, but one sent me into a depression so bad that a psychiatric hold was considered.

Thankfully, I found a PMDD specialist and started the referral process. I felt like I was declining fast and I was told the waitlist was 9-12 months. It felt like too long when every month I was considering ending my own life. I asked for help in the interim and I was given an ’emergency’ mental health referral that took three months. After one appointment, I was refused help because of my cannabis use. I still to this day believe that, because of its cyclical nature, doctors have downplayed or dismissed my mental distress, believing I will ultimately come out of it. How bad did it have to get before they listened? And would it always be dismissed because it was associated with my period?

I eventually saw my specialist and, like most assessments, it felt a bit like a test, with lots of questions that I was scared I wasn’t answering right. I wanted to be heard and understood. Not dismissed. Again. The hardest part of the assessment was actually his lack of understanding around LGBTQI+ issues and diversity; questioning both my identity as queer and polyamorous. It felt like just another way in which no one was understanding me or what I was going through. But, at the end of the session, I at least left with a plan; a plan, that would take almost two years to come into effect. My GP surgery refused to prescribe his proposed treatment, as the guidelines for it didn’t mention PMDD and its application, and I was left in limbo waiting on an appeal.

While I was waiting for my treatment I had a particularly brutal period. Whilst removing my moon cup, a sharp pain hit my lower abdomen and I yelled out in pain as my vision went blurry. After experiencing the worst cramps of my life for hours, I ended up in A&E and wasn’t seen for another five hours – all the while still cramping, with no painkillers offered and none of my own coping mechanisms. When I was finally seen, I was asked if I was on my period and I said yes, but it was the last couple days of it and this felt different. The male doctor then decided to mansplain cramps to me, and that I may experience them during my period, and sent me home. I went home, cried with a hot water bottle and eventually fell asleep. I was tired of it all. Over a year later, In March of 2020, I managed to start my treatment by moving GP practices – but still faced more roadblocks, including constant fear mongering and questioning if I truly wanted to start my treatment, as it may be risky.

I’m now 26. I’ve had my period for 15 years and it has never been easy, but doctors have made it feel worse. I still have to explain my condition to every doctor I meet and I believe going on the pill caused my PMDD to flare up to its unbearable state. The dismissal of my symptoms from day one has had an impact on both my mental health and how I navigate the medical system as a cis-women. I’m constantly scared I will be seen as hysterical, I’ve noticed just how much my words are twisted in doctors’ notes and reports, and how just my physical appearance can effect an entire appointment outcome. I now create content about my experience in the medical system to demonstrate just how hard it can be, in the hope that awareness and knowledge will foster understanding and better health care for AFAB people and minorities.

You can find Nathalie on Instagram, @chronicallybitchy

Founded by mother-daughter duo, Lucy and Claire, &SISTERS is changing the conversation around menstruation, creating products that are better for your body, better for the planet, and better for women globally.

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Find &SISTERS online, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also back their equity crowdfunding campaign, to build the menstrual ecosystem of the future, on Seedrs.