Kelsey spent 7 weeks interning here at The Eco Femme headquarters in early 2017, here, she shares her journey from first period to her diagnosis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (You can read a more detailed piece about her journey with PCOS here). Our thanks to her for sharing her story! <3
It was fall, the bright possibility of a new school year blazing fresh in my mind. I was 11 years old and just beginning the fifth grade, uncomfortable in my too tall and too big body. Even more uncomfortable in my rural New Jersey town, which I had reluctantly moved to three years earlier. I was awash with a constant feeling of anxiety, questioning the nature of my friendships and of my sexuality in a majorly conservative town. One warm day, I was doing a stretching exercise in gym class, my legs spread, the soles of my feet pressed against those of my now faceless friend. We were holding hands and pulling each other’s backs too hard, giggling. At one point, I looked down and saw blood staining the crotch of my gray sweatpants, I looked up, wondering if my friend had noticed. I don’t remember how I felt in that exact moment, though I desperately wish I did. I waited until I got off the bus and walked home to call my mom and ask her what was happening to me. I remember sitting in my parents bathroom, staring at the blood staining my underwear. I was reading the instructional booklet that came accompanying the delicately wrapped purple pantyliner in my hand, craving knowledge. Sitting here, writing this story, I have an overwhelming need to go back and hug my little self, kiss her face, and tell her how beautiful that moment was.
Since that tender age of 11, a lot of my life has been consumed with worry over my menstrual cycle and reproductive health. Why is period not only late but wildly inconsistent? Is this bump normal, this pain? Why is my blood that color? Is PMS why I’m crying out of nowhere, or am I actually just sad? Is ANY of this normal? When I was beginning to think about intimacy, the constant questioning of birth control methods started. Are my pills making me gain weight? Why do I have no sex drive? Do they even help regulate my cycle? Constantly thinking about these things really takes a lot of mental energy. It seemed this absolutely essential part of many people’s lives was wholly being ignored. It baffled me that all we received was a short puberty session, one that came too late for me. That session, looking back, is so obviously tinged with clinical American capitalism. Instead of explaining the importance of this life moment, and the significance of taking care of yourself, it was a rundown of which products and brands to use. There were even special kits given out that boldly featured the name of the sponsoring brand.
Though I was blessed with a family who was more than willing to discuss these natural processes, it was still tinged with shame, and treated sheepishly by both sides. It had the feeling of a subject not to be expanded upon. Though everyone would like to think their experiences are unique, I know well enough that this is how most people interact with their menstrual cycle. Regardless of where you are from, I think there is a commonality in this type of intense, shameful experience. Often times, there is absolutely no introduction to the process of menstruating, so it can be shrouded in even more fear and shame.
As a now 20 year old woman, I am feeling so blessed to be more in touch with my cycle and with my body generally. The rest of my menstruation story holds a lot of pain and confusion. In the summer of 2014, after having terrible experiences with hormonal birth control, I was fitted with a copper IUD. Though this process was painful, having a method that was long term, really reliable, and hormone free was a huge source of empowerment for me. I had control over my body and I barely even had to think about it. I started using a menstrual cup, which was unfamiliar, but satisfied my need for a low cost method of handling my period, along with an environmentally friendly one. After a year or so, I was experiencing constant spotting and cramping. It was suspected I had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a very common disorder. It affects hormone levels and leads to a variety of menstrual problems, so it was believed to be the cause of my bleeding and cramping. There are some messy, long term issues such as issues getting pregnant and problems with insulin. Many other immediate symptoms accompany PCOS such as excessive facial and body hair- all of these the last thing on earth a teenage girl wants to deal with. This diagnosis was later confirmed by an ultrasound, and blood tests. The cause is unknown, though it is likely genetic.
At first, this diagnosis was deeply upsetting for me. I spent many weeks in a fog, completely emotionally distraught. I was in the thralls of my first semester of college, dealing with classes, family, new friends, crushes, and the fraying of old relationships. It all seemed like too much. I wished I wasn’t dealing with any of it. Soon, I started to realize that this diagnosis was empowering. My PCOS could be treated in many ways. I could take anti-androgens for the symptoms, and hormonal birth control pills to stop the bleeding. I could make an effort to lose weight and be healthier. I got my IUD removed, started taking pills, and my bleeding immediately stopped. I started going to the gym almost daily, mostly as a stress relief. I felt strong and lucky to know what was happening to my body. I asked the nurse who did my ultrasound to print out a picture of my ovaries and I hung it on my wall, happy to be able to have a visual element to something that has caused me so much pain.
Through all of this, I had been looking into a way to bring my two lifelong passions (and concentration of study) of environmental studies and gender studies/empowerment together. I was looking forward to my first Field Work Term, a seven-week period from early January to mid February where I was expected to do an internship or work in a field of my choice. Eco Femme was recommended to me by a good friend and mentor I had met traveling on my gap year. So began my journey over 8,000 miles across the world to Auroville, India.
At Eco Femme, I mostly worked on guest and volunteer outreach, as well as other office-y tasks (presentations, data entry, etc.). I contacted guest houses and hostels, assessing their interest in a session. Often I went over with a bag full of pads and sit, talk, and answer questions. I hosted the weekly open house, and saw to the influx of office visitors that increases dramatically in the busy months. I had many touching times talking with people from all over the world about this common thread of menstruation.
I’m deeply curious about the way others relate to their periods. I found that being able to share is very cathartic for so many. At times it feels like people are just waiting for the right time to open up about their experiences. I always feel so honored to share these moments of laughter, confusion, pain, and deepness. I have been able to relate to so many about my PCOS and receive and give support. My experiences working with Eco Femme have truly inspired me to share my story, and facilitate conversation and advance knowledge about menstruation.