The intense tiredness had started at the end of June. Fresh home from a festival, I'd felt a bit exhausted from carrying heavy things, but thought that a day of rest would sort me out. Instead, the lethargy got worse. Everyday tasks became extremely difficult. I felt exhausted all the time, and frustrated to the point of tears. I struggled with my work and could barely walk up flights of stairs. Trying to do my usual light exercises filled me with dread--most days I just couldn't muster up the energy. I couldn't even drag myself to the kitchen to cook, and a lot of the time I wanted to lie on the sofa and give up. I'd started falling asleep in the middle of the day.
Every month since I'd hit puberty, I was losing a life-threatening amount of blood--and I'd thought it was the norm.
This was sleep I didn't want, and couldn't fight--sleep that made me feel out of control and helpless. In the morning, if I stood up too quickly I'd be besieged with dizziness and headaches. And of course, I had been craving ice like an addict.Life deals you these hands sometimes, throwing signals at you to stop before it's too late. At first, I didn't listen, plagued with mild thoughts of illegitimacy: Was I tired, or just lazy? Most people took one look at me and I assumed I was fine. In a political atmosphere in which your worth and value is so closely tied to your productivity, I felt guilty, and kept pushing myself to do things and be places.
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I endured cripplingly debilitating periods, with pain so bad that I'd have to call in sick to school or work. I'd wake in the middle of the night in pain on the first day of my cycle. The nausea was so bad I'd sit in the bathroom vomiting, too wary to eat in case it happened again. I'd lose hours of sleep, breaking out in clammy sweats. My period would come on at work and I'd have to find a way to get permission to go home. My time of the month didn't inspire mild inconvenience, but rather dread and fear. It had felt like my period was trying to kill me--and years later, it almost did.
"Iron deficiency in menstruating women is not taken seriously as an indicator of disease as it is in men and post-menopausal women," explains Sophie Osbourne, a NHS doctor in Enfield, north London.Her take mirrors my own experiences--a year ago, when my blood test results indicated minor anemia, my doctor didn't think it was important enough to let me know."It is fairly uncommon for minor deficiency to develop into major deficiency unless there are other factors in play," she continues. "Very heavy periods will certainly give some shockingly low iron values if persisting over time."Osbourne tells me that she had admitted many women with iron deficiency during her career. "In many cases," she explains, "bleeding from the bowels was suspected, but in the end it was the periods that were to blame."In schools and workplaces and public spaces, people invent increasingly innovative ways to hide tampons up their sleeves on the journey to the toilet, or find discreet ways to empty menstrual cups in shared bathrooms. Period stigma taught me very early on that things happening to bodies that aren't cisgender and male were weird and wrong, and they weren't to be talked about.
With no point of reference as I came of age, I didn't question what was happening to me.
A few days after the blood transfusion, I found myself still tired, frustrated, and dialing my doctor. Naively, I thought the procedure would have worked like charging a phone--pumping me up with brand new blood and sending on my way, good as new. Instead, I was sent home with a cellophane bag full of boxes of pills. At its peak, I was totaling ten tablets a day, the most significant designed to stop my period altogether so that heavy blood loss wouldn't defeat the point of the transfusion.Proper recovery took weeks, and I'm still in the process of it, but now I feel alive again. It's the little things, like dashing up the stairs to grab something without having to take time to rest. It's the absence of shattering headaches, and the ability to get on my bike without feeling like I might pass out. Along with the lethargy came a dulling of senses, but now my emotions are tuned into an overwhelming gratitude. That I'm better thanks to strangers donating their blood--that is now my blood--is a constant source of awe. I'm still a bit scared of my period. But I think I've experienced the worst of its consequences--at least for now.
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