Carolyn DeForest, Ph.D
Not long ago, the fall of 2011, over the course of a few days, I became sick- almost debilitated – with a searing headache, nausea, and aches and pains in my neck and back that were unprecedented in my experience. And, as if I didn’t feel bad enough, I was also on my period. Yes, menstruating- bleeding like there was no tomorrow, I was aching and cramping and feeling out of sorts basically from head to toe. This went on for a few days. If you’ve ever had a period, I’m sure you have run into this phenomenon of bleeding and living through some kind of malaise on top of it. It’s a real joy.
Life, as it often is, was stressful for me at the time. I was running a new business, trying to get some writing done, tending to family members, both two- and four-legged, engaged in some tense volunteer work and trying to keep a house together, as usual. When you are juggling so many things, it’s almost easy to adjust to significant discomfort, isn’t it? And, if you lived your entire life menstruating on a regular basis, it’s even easier to take for granted the periodic pain and circumstances of bleeding on top of it. Haven’t you done that? Sure you have. You throw back some Ibuprofen with water, arm yourself with all your menstrual gear and you keep moving. It’s what we routinely do, because we have to. The culture does not make allowances for us and our bleeding bodies and typically neither do we.
Anyhow, after about the third day of this pain which kept building, it suddenly dawned on me that I was menstruating at the same time that I was having what now seemed like flu-like symptoms. These were the days before I made the switch to a menstrual cup, and so I was faithfully wearing my organic tampons during this period. I’m almost certain a real light bulb appeared above my head as I had the thought which was so clear and strong: uh oh, I should make sure I don’t have Toxic Shock Syndrome! (Recently, I had been dialoguing with the organization You ARE Loved and was lucky enough to be ripe with knowledge and vivid reminders about TSS.) No sooner had I finished the thought than I was in the bathroom removing the tampon and lining my undies with a pad.
From there, I promptly went to the emergency room with my beloved husband. From the moment I walked into the door, I was telling anyone who wanted my information that I was menstruating along with these flu-like symptoms and that I was concerned about TSS. (You know you have to give your symptoms and tell your story at least five times. Why is that, exactly? To make sure you aren’t just making things up?)
Make no mistake, I felt the subtle but present social pressure not to keep announcing that I was bleeding, but I (and my husband, bless him) kept declaring it anyway. As I talked through the quizzical stares, I kept thinking about how so many girls and women have died or have come close to death because the fact that they were menstruating was overlooked or just not factored into the medical equation. This sad fact helps demonstrate, in part, why I created Ruby’s Red Wash. Through my product and the message behind it, I aim to illustrate that the menstruating aspect of human female being matters. Women and girls, individuals with their differences, matter. Female being is different from male being and noticing the difference makes a difference.
In some instances it can make the difference between life and death, as with Toxic Shock Syndrome, for example. Culturally, we have become so accustomed to equating female being with inferior being, that we often avoid pointing out or underlining what is typically female to avoid persecution or discrimination. In my case, pressing the issue that I was menstruating along with my symptoms prompted the ER doctor to get bloodwork on me. Mercifully, I did not have Toxic Shock Syndrome, but it turned out that I had a migraine (probably menstrually/hormonally related, my best guess).
It’s a sad fact that the cultural invisibility and secrecy surrounding menstruation does not escape the world of medicine, so answering the question, “When was your last menstrual period?” is not going to do the trick if you want to be a real advocate for yourself. The lesson of this story is, 1) pay attention to your body, and 2) speak up for yourself. And by all means, don’t let the habitual secrecy of menstruation or your doctors allow you to ignore an important part of yourself and your health.
By noticing and speaking up, the life you save could be your own.