I got up this morning and, once I’d navigated the stairs through my head-fog and taken two paracetamol for tummy ache, I promptly dropped a whole pack of Rice Krispies on the floor. As I turned around, I knocked a carton of milk off the kitchen counter. Then the tears came. Then the shouting. Then the guilt when the whole house woke at six thirty on a Sunday.
Hangover, maybe? Anxiety? Depression, anyone? No. It’s Pre menstrual Syndrome. PMS.
I’m 51 next month and hopefully hurtling towards the menopause. I’ve been having periods since I was 11 and, taking off my pregnancies when I was PMSless, that’s 444 times in my life I have felt like this.
The majority of women of childbearing age have menstrual cycles of approximately 28 days. Up to 85% of women report changes in physiological and psychological symptoms for approximately one week immediately before menstruation. For 10% of these women, PMS seriously disrupts their everyday life. This means that 2 million, or 5% of women’s lives are seriously disrupted every three weeks.
My own symptoms have included severe pain and mood change and, along with many other women, I found PMS disrupted my life to a major extent. The worst aspect of PMS is that once I have fought through the denial and ‘admitted’ to it, any passion, anger or annoyance you express is channeled as ‘special lady time’, ‘pre-meditated tantrum’ or ‘hormones’ instead of my informed opinion, which I am expressing a little more loudly than I do at other times because I am feeling emotional.
Since I was a teenager I’ve tried every prescription and over the counter remedy there is for PMS, including knocking myself out with codeine-based PMS ‘cures’ to the point of near-addiction and taking prescribed artificially produced hormones in huge doses. None of these ‘cures’ have worked because, unbelievably, no one knows what actually causes PMS and therefore there is no cure for it. I’m a health psychologist and as well as documenting my own experiences, I’ve been listening to women tell me about their symptoms for years. Yet, according to medical science, PMS is still a contested condition.
One reaction I get to this news (particularly from those women and men who don’t have PMS) is that it’s rubbish and that ‘it’s hormones that cause it’. This is probably correct, as it’s connected to the menstrual and reproductive cycle, but until someone presents me with a definitive map of exactly which hormones ‘cause’ it, which parts of the body and ultimately the brain are affected by these hormones, then I am afraid that we can’t treat it effectively. But, even though 5% of women’s lives are seriously disrupted every three weeks, it has not been researched. Can you imagine what would happen if 85% of men were affected by something, 5% of their lives seriously disrupted?
As a consequence of no one knowing what causes PMS, there is no effective medical way to treat it. If you can get your GP to believe that you have PMS in the first place, then there is little she can do for you. Really.
As I’m interested in the psychological side of health, I’ve been looking at ways to understand my PMS better. One way of looking at it is away from a cure, and towards PMS being a part of life and making space for it. After all, 85% of women report symptoms. It’s a natural part of our reproductive system and in order to live with my PMS – it’s not going to magically go away – I try to organise my life in a way that helps me to take care of myself around sensitive times, in ways that suit me. I make the world work for me for a change. Maybe that’s a positive aspect of PMS, to allow women to be who they are without being restricted by ‘normal behaviour’, whatever that is. Women don’t need a pill or potion for PMS; they need the freedom to organise their lives in the way they best see fit.
My partner understands and now, when I’m crying at puppies and kittens song I’ve heard a thousand time and complaining loudly about the neighbours, and being extremely clumsy, he takes over (or works on his van!). He understands, because we’ve talked about it. He understands that it’s not personal, but it IS a magnification of valid issues I have expressed at a time when I feel emotional, that I’m not just ‘playing up’ or ‘being difficult’.
I’ve only got to ask the rest of the world understand now. And clean up the huge serving of Rice Krispies all over the kitchen floor.