My menstrual life story: the early years were dominated by pretty typical menstrual related events: a little depression, cramps, some (uncontrollable at times) mood swings. Pretty much what the esteemed journal Viz refers to as a blob strop, with pain.
I became pregnant at 19, and contrary to my beliefs, on choice etc., I chose to continue with the pregnancy. Ever since, my hormones have entirely altered, tending to affect my health more obviously and in increasingly negative ways ever since, extremely so since I entered my 30s. While often having been diagnosed as on the cusp of anaemia, during pregnancy the (parasite) baby took all of my iron for himself leaving me with a pretty full-on iron deficiency that resulted in a number of dangerous dizzy/fainting episodes where I also couldn’t see properly! Thankfully, that regulated itself within a few weeks of him being born, (I assume I was taking iron supplements too?), then a myriad of new and unusual symptoms began to plague me, accruing over time. I began to get small nasty eczema patches on my hands. I had previously been a minor allergy sufferer, a few bouts of hayfever, and a tendency to get sinus headaches/infections at the tail end of a bad cold the odd time mostly. Now I was suddenly afflicted with hand eczema (which lasted for a number of months then receded to more of a winter thing, reaction to weather & heating most likely) and also started to get regular bad sinus infections. Trips to the doctor (free at that time as I was entitled to a medical card) confirmed that it is not unusual to suffer bad bouts of sinusitis and infections in your mid to late twenties but the GP did not elaborate further as to whether this was hormonal fluctuation related or not.
As time wore on my emotional/psychological symptoms began to increase, I found myself having increasingly uncontrollable bouts of rage mixed with bouts of miserable depression so I embarked on the roulette game of going on the pill. Going on the pill is a bit like taking medication for depression or other mental illnesses, no medical professional actually knows what one will “suit you” thus they just prescribe three month cycles of different ones to see how you react with them. It’s a tad scary, particularly when you are in the throes of strong emotional and psychological reactions to your hormonal trouble. My experiences of the Pill all ended in negativity, some began with positive effects but my symptoms would always eventually return and when they did stronger than ever before. The side effects from the pill were many and varied; from borderline homicidal rages to terribly sore breasts, to nausea, misery and many more.
Further health developments occurred after I moved house, began attending college as a mature student and was juggling childcare, housekeeping, study, work and commuting which was all very tiring. When summer came about after my 1st year in college I developed a strange illness manifested as stiff joints, particularly on waking in the morning, but also persisting throughout the day. I was in quite a bit of discomfort and felt generally unwell. The GP could not get to the bottom of what this was; I was prescribed a series of anti-inflammatory drugs, each of which caused nausea and did not really relieve the symptoms. I was tested for arthritis, results came back clear. I never received an actual diagnosis thus I can’t say whether this was a purely female hormonal issue, or more of a stress hormonal issue, or perhaps a combination of both. Significantly for me, it does mark a trajectory towards further ill health which is of a more obviously hormonal and ovarian cycle origin.
The following autumn/winter I developed a minor skin condition on my face. a couple of small patches of tiny little spots or pimples, sometimes itchy or sore , but mostly just unpleasant to look at from my perspective. In despair following some misdiagnosis and prescription of incorrect treatment, I ended up paying to attend a private dermatologist who diagnosed it as a small bout of adult acne. No explanation as to why it came on was offered, I was prescribed a long course of antibiotics (with strong side effects so I didn’t complete the course) followed by Zindaclin gel which cleared it all up efficiently. After this I continued to struggle with the more familiar but getting increasingly worse symptoms of anger issues, mood swings, depression and now intensifying additional physical pains.
Some years later things intensified, I was under stress anyway, I was about a year through reading for my PhD, and now in my 30s. However, nothing prepared me for the onslaught of troubling pains/other symptoms that came upon me and have only worsened since. For several months I was experiencing pains in my side, quite intense and unpleasant usually coming in conjunction with headaches, back, muscle and joint ache and sleep disorder. Since aches and sleep disorders were symptoms I was used to living with at this stage, the side pain definitely got my attention. Nevertheless I put up with the pain, and ensuing disruption from it, for a considerable length of time. Eventually I mentioned it to a friend who suggested it might be ovulation related. I had never considered that before so started to keep a record of when I experienced the side pain, lo and behold it transpired that it happened around about ovulation time every cycle. So I returned to the GP. The sympathetic female GP at the practice at the time was from the helpful school of belief that PMS and “women’s problems” do not exist. It took some convincing to get her to believe that I was genuinely suffering; she eventually agreed to refer me for a pelvic ultrasound and a visit to a consultant gynaecologist. The pelvic ultrasound did not identify any issues. The gynaecologist also lacked in empathy and bedside manner. He prescribed a course (3 months) of progesterone called Duphaston and sent me away again. I had an adverse reaction to the progesterone, I got excruciating breast pain, continued to get pains in my side around day 10-12 despite the hormones supposedly stopping ovulation and got bleakly depressed. After experiencing some incredibly dark depression veering into suicidal ideation territory, I stopped taking the pills. When I returned to the gynaecologist, some months later, he was dismissive of my reactions to the hormones and suggested there was nothing wrong with me. He informed me there was nothing else he could do and suggested I go get acupuncture. [Incidentally I had undergone acupuncture, alongside a course of “Chinese herbs”, some years earlier, for my sinusitis predominantly. However, after they did a full medical history with me they were also treating me for my menstrual/ovarian cycle issues. It did not help! Needles are not for me, I got no relief whatsoever from it, just discomfort and annoyance.] I told the gynaecologist about my previous unhelpful acupuncture experiences but he was done with me. So I continued to suffer, taking various concoctions of herbal supplements (as I had done in every intermittent period between doctor visits and desperation) none of which ever provided any change in my circumstances. Over the years I have played with Agnus Castus, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B Complex, Starflower Oil, Evening primrose Oil, Spirulina, Calcium, Magnesium, Vitamin D, Zinc, in varying doses and combinations, to no avail.
After some extensive research as to where I could find a medical professional to take me seriously, I came across a GP in Goatstown who specialised in using a combination of standard medical practice with functional medicine. He charged a fee of €195 for 1st visit, followed by €180 per visit thereafter, to consult on complex/ unexplained illnesses. While my gut instinct screamed charlatan, my desperation drove me to seek out an appointment just to see if a different approach might get me some results? It was certainly a more pleasant doctor visit experience insofar as I had plenty of time to list all my symptoms, a good long discussion about all that ailed me alongside what was going on in my life. However, for 4 times the price of a GP visit in my locality, at the time, that should be a given! Following the first visit I was sent to the local hospital, local to Goatstown that is, to get a series of blood tests at different times in my cycle, Days 1-3, Days 10-12, Days 18-21, to measure hormones in the blood. I also had to arrange to order and purchase a saliva testing kit from a diagnostic testing place in the UK then return it by courier. I had drawn the line at putting a stool sample in the post. After all the tests I returned to the Goatstown GP for my “results”, which unsurprisingly shed no light on anything, apart from the saliva tests suggesting my adrenal function can sometimes be borderline low. These “results” led to “prescription” of a long list of supplements, some sold exclusively at the Clinic premises, and suggested I had heavy metal toxicity, unusual since I hadn’t been “tested” for it. Perhaps it was from my Metallica obsession days? In my anger and confusion I made a follow up appointment and even bought some supplements in a (slightly) cheaper health shop on the way home. I subsequently cancelled the next appointment, then estimated that between the 2 visits to Goatstown, the diagnostic testing kit, the supplements bought, the transport costs incurred both to his surgery and to the hospital for blood tests, that I spent the best part of €1000 for nothing. Can anyone fathom how frustrating that is, how despondent it leaves you when your pockets have been cleaned out but still you feel like shit and have no hope of improvement looming on the horizon at all? Needless to say reading this piece by Jeanette Winterson regarding the menopause irked me something incredible, as she advocates for this snake oil charlatan strand of “medicine”. In my experience all it amounts to is having a seemingly nice person sit down and listen to your ailments while they siphon a large amount of money off of you.
For the next 2-3 years the symptoms persisted getting progressively worse with each cycle; which had shortened to a 25/6 day cycle. A clear pattern of hormone surges, cycle day troubles began to emerge. Manifested initially as a 4-5 day period, followed by 5-6 days feeling okay, circa day 10-12 (sometimes for a couple of days) I would experience ovarian pain at ovulation time. On bad cycles the ovulation pain/mittelschmerz would include excruciating pain, on some occasions non-stop for a whole day, other occasions a few hours each day. Additional symptoms included sweating, insomnia, fatigue, brain fog, weakness and lethargy. Then I wouldn’t feel so bad again until Day 16, which is when the classic PMS symptoms kick in albeit 10 days before menstruation is due to begin. This usually starts with terrible mood swings, serious flying off the handle stuff and rages, then I have no ability to regulate my body temperature which usually results in me being too hot when everyone else in the house is feeling the cold, and too cold (with ice cold extremities) when everyone else is warm. This runs in conjunction with extreme tiredness, cramps, muscle and joint aches and tender breasts. The muscle/joint aches are often exacerbated by a dragging pain sensation, particularly in my legs, but often it starts from the shoulders down, most uncomfortable and fatigue inducing. So day 16, sometimes 17 too, would be quite severe on this symptom level then the symptoms would fluctuate in severity until my period begins on day 25/26 with varying levels of depression also. This pattern persisted until just over a year ago when some more horrible things began to add to the cannon of misery. Firstly the acne condition returned, worse than before, not that bad in comparison to real sufferers (but since I never suffered that badly with spots/acne as a teenager it is very noticeable and ugly to me). I put up with it for a while until I decided I needed a prescription for the gel that helped clear it up before. Just before this the itching kicked in. I started to experience incredibly irritating all over body itching, my skin felt prickly all over and I couldn’t sleep as I couldn’t stop itching and consequently scratching, it drove me nuts. So when I attended the GP in order to request the prescription I explained the itching phenomenon to her and was met with a “poor you, bloody hormones eh” response. She suggested vitamin B complex might offer some relief, I was already dabbling in that nonsense again which unsurprisingly turned out to be of no help, yet again. As of yet I cannot really distinguish an explanation for this itching phenomenon. It appears to come on just before and during ovulation time, yet it also flares up during the premenstrual time, days 16-26, on occasion; I have also recorded it as particularly bad just prior to menstruation a couple of times. I am yet to discern what exactly is causing it. The itching has led to a resurgence of the latent hand eczema, which returned last autumn/winter and shows no sign of going yet. Every time the itching flares up, so too does the eczema, at varying levels of severity. I also experience bouts of all my energy and colour draining out of my body, which is both physically and visually obvious to me and those around me, usually punctuated by intense fatigue, sometimes nausea. For a few years I have been getting this thing I liked to call hot knees, my knees would be stiff and quite hot to the touch, sometimes red to look at. This has evolved into an erratic stiff left knee; it can be quite painful, sometimes audibly clicking. It is symptomatically reminiscent of osteoarthritis, but recently after having an intense period of constant pain from it for a number of weeks, it then disappeared for almost 2 weeks until just this week when it returned, baffling? Worryingly still I suffer a heightened/hyper-sensitivity to the atmosphere and odours, smells, scents; it is a terrible hindrance and intensifies with any hormonal peaks and surges throughout my cycle. It basically means that I am assaulted by all manner of unpleasant olfactory sensations. I now have way more allergy days than I have ever had before in my life, so persistently get headaches alongside classic hay fever type symptoms. Regarding headaches, I have pretty much learned to live with a constant dull pain in my head, around my eyes and sinuses, tending only to refer to headaches with searing pain as actual headaches since I have become so accustomed to perpetual head pain. I have since began to notice a deterioration in my cycle that means I no longer experience any particularly well feeling days in between menstruation and ovulation, or vice versa, there just seems to be constant daily issues from the slightly annoying to the I need to stay in bed level of severity.