This essay was read publicly in Feb. 2018 before the audience of Nasty Women, a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, hosted at ArtHaus in Phoenix.
Another version of the essay has also appeared in the Untidy Secrets ‘Zine, 2016, available at Ash Avenue Comics in Tempe.
My first period came when I was at school. Actually, it was after school. I had stayed late because I was a member of the Hendrix Junior High School Science Club and we had just had a meeting. I was saying goodbye to this cute boy I liked—Jonathan. It was my dad’s weekend (my parents are divorced and he had visitation). I wearing black Levi’s cut-off shorts and a striped black and white t-shirt.
It was weird—I didn’t feel any different. I wondered if anyone else had noticed.
I didn’t even notice the blood, myself, until we got home to my dad’s tiny apartment and I went pee. Oh shit, there was some blood in my underpants. I kind of freaked. My dad didn’t have a washing machine.
A further, more immediate problem, was the fact that I had no materials to deal with this mess. That is, at my dad’s house, I had no menstrual pads, no tampons—nothing. My mom, even though she no longer had a uterus (hysterectomy, circa 1986) kept pads and tampons on hand under the bathroom sink. Most likely for me, but perhaps also for female guests who might be in need. It was a courtesy kinda thing to do.
Anyway, I would need to go back over to my mom’s house, probably, to resolve this, and that was something my dad did not like to do on his weekend.
In retrospect, I probably should have just swallowed my pride and asked him to drive me over to the nearby Walgreens. I could have proudly exclaimed to my dad—who would have been nice about it—I got my period! And I need pads!
But I was too bashful. And so I made up an excuse: I left my Halloween candy at mom’s. It was early November, Halloween had just happened, and I figured I could hide enough pads and tampons in my magic pumpkin to sneak back to dad’s and no one would be the wiser. I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t tell him the truth.
I begged him to take me back to mom’s. He was totally annoyed and at first he said no. But then he seemed to catch on. Something about the urgency in my voice must have tipped him off: this wasn’t just about candy corn and Snickers. Reluctantly, he drove me back over to mom’s, but then stayed in the car with the engine running while I ran in to grab my haul.
As I bolted through the door, my mom saw me and stopped mid-cigarette. “I uh, forgot something,” I blurted. Her eyebrows popped up but she didn’t say anything.
On the way out again, as almost like an afterthought, I shouted over my shoulder to her: “Bye! Oh, by the way! I got my period!”
“Good for you!” she shouted back, as I ran back outside and jumped in my dad’s crappy car.
“Good for me? Good for me?” I thought and puzzled in the car. What the hell could she mean: Good for me? Wasn’t this supposed to signal the end of my innocence? End of my childhood? End of all things good, and pure and simple? Good for me?
She was fooling no one!
It turned out to be true. For most of my life in and after puberty, my period turned out to be one of THEE worst sources of pain and inconvenience of my entire young life. I mean, intense pain. I mean curl over on the edge of your bed doubled up and contemplate suicide pain. And not in a hyperbolic way. In a real, visceral way, where you actually start to think: well, if I die, at least I will never again have to go through this once a month, monthly kind of pain.
Yes, that is real for me. My period has actually made me want to destroy myself.
I talked to doctors. I tried almost every type of birth control (pill formula) under the sun because it was supposed to help me “regulate.” I’ve tried giant horse pills of naproxen sodium, Midol and ibudprophen, to not much relief. Even Oxycodone. But it was only temporary.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, when I donated my health oocytes a few times the hormone therapy I underwent eliminated my period pain for my later 20s.
But, as a young adult, for years I simply had to live with terrible, excrutiating cramps. I missed school and work over them. They would keep me up all night, curled in a ball, lcoked to the edge of my futon.
When I was 17, I convinced my mom she should let me try brith control for the first time. She acted suspicious about it. The irony about it is, me and my high school boyfriend were not having sex. I was THEE last girl in my group of friends to lose her cherry and when I did it was after graduation and with a condom.
But period remained a very big deal at my school—in junior high. Who just got hers, who was currently having hers, who might have missed one (oops)!. If you showed up to school in a particularly sour mood someone would say that you were “ragging.” Which would warrant some eye-rolling. But still—it was a serious put-down. You did not want to be accused of “ragging!” And you’d deny it if you really were.
My best friend once told me this anomaly anecdote—something weird that happened to her on the bus when she was riding home one day without any of our regular friends. Some girl from our school whom she’d never seen before sat down on the bus seat next to her. The girl had been friendly—really friendly, like, almost suspiciously friendly. She talked and talked. She seemed nervous for no good reason. But still, they seemed to be hitting it off, and Melanie was seduced by this girl’s easy friendship. Then, when the girl got up to leave for her stop, she noticed it. The girl had a giant blood mark all over the seat of her pants. Melanie said goodbye to the girl and acted like she hadn’t noticed. The girl didn’t say anything either, just exited the bus and cut a quick clip for home.
Only girls know, by the way, the special place on your pants that gets marked. It’s not like a target—smack in the middle of your booty. It’s like up and underneath, yes, right between the crease of your thighs. You kind of can’t notice too much—unless it spreads a lot, which blood mixed with other fluid tends to do.
There was another time after school I can recall. I was a latchkey kid in the 90s so me and my sister would just walk straight home. I never had any plans because I didn’t have any friends. But one day a fierce knock at the door took us my surprise. I looked through the peephole and it was my friend Andrea, clearly acting anxious outside. I let her in because we often walked too school together. It was weird to see her in the afternoon.
But she seemed upset—like almost on the brink of tears. She showed me how she’d bled through her shorts at afternoon choral practice. She was mortified. She was certain that EVERYONE knew. I tried to calm her down. I told her she could call her dad for a ride and I even lent her some pads and a pair of shorts. Still she was devastated. Tomorrow at school everyone would know.
I don’t remember if anyone said a word the next day. But the damage was done and a sort of lesson was learned.
I am also forced to remembers the two or three times I bled through. Once of the worst was when I bled through in Señor Kartchner’s Spanish 102 class. He was a real prick to me. We were doing an activity where he was calling on people to come read at the front of the room. I knew I was bleeding through my pants and when he called on me, I said politely: “No thank you I don’t want to do it.” But he then took it upon himself to heckle and ridicule me and insist that everyone HAD to do it. So I better get up. Lest I would fail.
I remember standing shakily and awkwardly up and trying to fold my book as a V and use it as a shield around my body. I could still hear one of the handsome cholos in my class whisper: “I bet she’s on her rag” as I shyly from my seat. And sure enough, there was a flood of scandalous whispers in the class because everyone could see my blood mark, even though I was trying to hide it. My face flushed as red as my pants. I hated Señor Kartchner forever after that. I got a C in his class, and that was THEE only C on my high school transcript.
There was so much fear, shame and humiliation around your period in junior high and high school. And frankly, it never goes away. You never see any indication that it’s going on with women in society on a daily, even though it frequently is.
We shouldn’t forget about periods.
She shouldn’t act like we can just wrap them up in gauze or plug them up with tampons and pads and they will just neatly and quietly go away. So many women have some kind of trauma related to this experience.
And it’s not like you can just will your body to NOT bleed (just like it’s not possible to will your own body to be or NOT be pregnant). It’s not fair.
No woman should be punished or shamed for her display of the rose mark, or the cherry fire, or the blood pants, or anything else you want to call it.
It comes and it goes. Just like the sunset. And there’s not a whole lot of damn anything you can do, but accept it.