I started my first period the day of my maternal grandfather’s funeral. I was alone in our house. My parents had left to attend the late morning service, after deciding that I was too sick to come along, but not sick enough to require a doctor’s care just yet. No one, not even I, was quite sure what my problem was.
I sipped weak tea, tried nibbling saltines. Amid bouts of queasiness and pain, I curled up in a miserable lump on the sofa, under a hand-knitted afghan. Then, on one of my bathroom trips, I noticed a telltale stain on my panties.
Throughout the previous year, the communal shower for our girls’ phys. ed. class had confirmed me as a menstrual late bloomer. (Among the earlier bloomers, a couple of girls in the class ahead of me had already skipped periods due to pregnancy.)
My mom sometimes called menstruation “the curse.” For most of my teens and into my early twenties, this was an apt description. I was irregular, so I could rarely predict when the bleeding, bloating, and nausea would start. The worst cycles were the ones when I was awakened from sleep by a searing abdomen, one that would only release me once I’d vomited up the prior day’s meals and thrashed and heaved for what seemed like hours. I’d retreat into the basement, as far from the upstairs family bedrooms as possible, muffle my moans and retching, then find a blanket as I eventually subsided into a fetal heap.
As my twenties progressed, I managed, partly through good luck and partly through newly available birth control pills, to defer children until I was decorously married and ready for parenthood. The joys of raising a family brought welcome release. I’d still cramp up on occasion, but most of the time I was too busy and too happy to pay much attention. Once the children grew up and menopause loomed, some cycles would produce a few cramps, with heavy flows and clots. Others were barely noticeable.
I’ve aged into a crone, though perhaps not an especially wise or effective one. The political landscape around me gets increasingly fraught. Many media platforms, whatever their slant, seem intent on increasing polarization to bolster their ratings and income. Attempts at quiet wisdom can get drowned out.
It’s been over a generation since I last bled. Now, my writhing and thrashing are mostly due to the distrust and oppression of a society turning increasingly brittle, fractured, and patriarchal. There’s no physical reason for my malaise. This time, the cramps are in my soul.