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  • Writer's pictureSarah Foley

TSS - 018 ~ a cycle, a season

content warning: mental illness


I have always had a tumultuous time with my coursing hormones. Getting my first period was one of the most exciting days of my young life. The timing felt god-given: I woke up on my 13th birthday to blood. It was the first day of year 8, teenagedom and bleeding. I asked Mum if the arrival of my womanhood so timely on my day of 13 years meant I could finally read Kaz Cooke’s iconic Girl Stuff. Fuck yeah. I devoured it, mostly the sex bits, and only recently gifted it to a pubescent young person in my life.


Mum used to say that I was always awful before my period. I had twenty-day cycles after a couple of years of the typical irregularity. They didn’t faze me then, I was blessed with no pain, no cramping, and manageable PMS . I did however, as I’ve written about before, have concerns with the progression of my puberty. I developed body hair young, the first traces at eight years old. Hair kept growing, confusing me, long before the body hair positivity movements that have protected adult Sarah. I was told by the doctors I couldn’t/didn’t have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) because I was a small bodied person (???). I heard this again for years before finally desperately pushing for a pelvic ultrasound a couple of years ago, in which, low and behold, there were too many follicles and all my symptoms were taken seriously. Yay! A diagnosis! Unsurprisingly, as with so many of the women in my life, I had to seriously advocate for my symptoms to be taken seriously.


My outrageously talented therapist, forever a beacon of hope in women’s health, made a gentle suggestion that the very real mood symptoms of PCOS could have been the ‘bipolar’ symptoms I had been pathologising for years. At the time, it had been oddly easy to get a diagnosis that ‘explained’ the ups and downs, albeit this diagnosis giving me much relief at the time, instead of my whole system and self being investigated when I was struggling. I remember speaking to this particularly well known psychiatrist for all of twenty minutes before I was diagnosed. My life changed. The way I understood my moods changed- they were part of a sickness, unrelated to the conditions of my environment. And so years later, I began the process of finding a psychiatrist who would take this potential mis-diagnosis seriously. I wonder how many women with hormonal disorders have been diagnosed with mood disorders? Correct or incorrect. Obviously, the psychiatrist that took my uncertainty seriously was female, and unlike any psychiatrist I had ever seen. She listened and agreed that quite likely, my frequently extreme low periods were related to my menstrual cycle. She went so far as to say that if the first psychiatrist had known I had PCOS, he likely wouldn't have diagnosed me with bipolar without significant further questioning. Yay for women listening to women. We love!


In the last two years, particularly in the last year of no mood controlling medications, my hormones have demanded attention. They have become wilder than I’ve ever known them to be. They are all consuming for days at a time, rendering me incapable of logical thought outside of hopelessness. They are darkness, terror, black holes of panic and insecurity. They are exhaustion, deep self-sabotaging vibes, and deeper sadness. If you know it, you know it. I’ve worried for myself, considered going back on anti-depressants, considered ruining the best parts of my life. I have hidden in a hole of pain, walked for my life, journaled furiously, reached out for support, avoided support, sought help, sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.


I am on what feels like a gazillion things to support my hormones plus the lifestyle changes I implemented, firstly in response to the massive hormonal disaster that is coming off the pill. I saw a naturopath when I did this, but mostly found her triggering and not at all trauma-informed, prescribing a path that was heading towards eating disorder territory. So, I quit it but started taking a few specific hormone supplements and have done so every day for the last nearly three years. But recently, with the state of the PMS implosions every month, I decided to go back to a naturopath who has prescribed me a series of oestrogen detoxing cures that is having a mighty impact.


Herein is one month of my intensity prior to most recently seeing a naturopath. I wrote this a few months ago when things were particularly turbulent, and I took each of the following photo booth sets at the most intense part of each week for this month. I wonder if you relate, if the days before your period or the period of something you love requires a surrendering to darkness, pain, panic. Or if you feel as free and powerful in the week after your period ends? As light and sensual sporadically throughout?


What I do want to note, is that things are a little better at the moment. I can’t say that it is only the new supplements, I’ve been more introspective and more dedicated to my self-work than ever before. Things in my personal life are also a little calmer, no doubt this is influencing my cycle. I think they go together. My body physically feels different: less hard bloating, less days of horrifying intensity, less all-consuming sugar cravings. I feel hope, for less intense cycles to come.


But I do know that it is worth addressing if your moods are as fluctuant and impactful as mine can be, when it truly alters your day-to-day life, it is not normal however common.


The darkening autumn / luteal phase


Perhaps this month won’t be as bad. Perhaps this time I’ll be lighter, in control, managing. But I’m slowing, I can feel it. At the first signs of it, I always think it’s too early for PMS symptoms to hit, terror that I have many days of the feelings to come. By day 24, I am weaning off heavier exercise; necessary in the soothing of my cortisol in this spikey season. When I ran long distances, I despised this need for rest. A week out of every month my running was completely impacted. Alas, I am doing slower exercise now, my body demanding less intensity.


When the mood actually hits, it is cyclonic. It is all consuming and entirely unreasonable. Sometimes, only for a few minutes at a time in which I feel that I am only my anxiety, but sometimes it can be hours or more of aching pain. I cannot remember anything worth remembering, I cannot focus on study, reading, or the affirmations I have been building within. My brain uses all its energy to hate, mostly me. I am swallowed by the darkness and unable to function. It drags me with it. I have therapy in this time thankfully, she is my godsend. My therapist affirms the desire to wrench dark thoughts from my body and express them. We would rather I communicate in the ways I know how, but in this darkness, I am all the skills of an adolescent unaware. But this month, I really try. Everything about my anxious attachment thrives in this period, I validate and confirm every negative thought I have about myself and believe whole heartedly that I will be alone, unloved, despised, for my truth is now visible again. Sometimes I ask James if it is possible for him to affirmation me more during this period, he tries so hard to do that for me. His boundaries and his capacity, those I am endlessly proud of him for creating, feel deliberate and personal in this time. He just doesn’t love me, in fact, he hates me. But I try so hard to communicate delicately and with care for his needs and with care for the amount of love he does have for me. It works, somewhat. I am not as anxious, I withdraw instead. I accept the impending explosion of us, prepare for a depression I could not survive, and beg PMS to be over soon.


But this month there are traces of me that are forcing their way in, I know I will get through these days. I think that I might be beginning to see something good in me, a soft internal monologue disputing the vitriol. I am anxious but I am okay. I feel so much guilt and shame for this awfulness that seems to erupt from me monthly, but I am trying to see it differently. I hope for the days to be over. I hope for the spring of the end of my bleed. But the bleed is still to come.


The wild winter / period


I thought this month, as I often do, that I might have been safe from the dark continuation of my

sorrow, but the few days of respite I received between day 27 and day 31/1 gave false hope. I have faded into a slow, barely-there presence. Yet, I have also become energised and filled with an irritability unmatchable and an anger that ebbs and flows. Simultaneously I have no energy, and bursts of too much. My body is tired, aching, throbbing. The actual cramping in my uterus is worst on day 1 and 2, before fading off mercifully. I am so lucky the pain in my body is so usually short lived. As I usually do, I have a particular throbbing in my thighs, radiating down my legs, mostly my right. Sometimes I feel like the shedding of lining, the bleeding, hurts. But not this month, just the muscles protesting inside my womb.

I can both not wait, and could wait forever for the day there is a 9 month ceasing of my period. I am so excited, so often yearning for a baby. But that yearning is matched equally with fear and panic that I will never be good enough for that massive responsibility. I worry that the intensity of my menstrual cycle moods would be enhanced within the scope of pregnancy hormones. I worry that I would be so extremely prone to post-natal depression, depressive in nature, and panicky with the things I love.


I am so irritable. I am ready to fight, I will fight, I probably need to fight to get through. I hear indifference in James’ every word where it is not. My growing connection with myself fades completely, I believe my every thought with no space for consideration. I am working so hard on this, he loves me, I love me, I am okay. The heavy blanket of self-hate is most present in this time. The things I am learning are so hard to access under the blanket. I have repeated the same words to myself for 25 years. But I have always been worthy, I was never broken. The new words feel paper thin next to the cement of the old. I practice my affirmations, but right now they feel useless, lies. I protest our existence for a few days, but hope that he will hold me, where I should be holding me. Maybe next month I will be better.


I walk every day, I try and do yoga, sometimes I succeed. I love walking and thinking. I love that I have taught myself not to exercise with the same vigour as usual in this time, I welcome this break. It is loving. I sleep a lot, and crave sugar more than I would like. Sometimes I wonder if I crave sugar or I crave the body fullness, the momentary comfort that used to come with bingeing. I am not too sure. I am okay with either. I feel the fullness of my stomach, a hardness and sometimes a softness that changes constantly but is reliable around this time of my cycle.


I wonder if I will ever feel better, or if this month I will truly ruin everything. Right now, the latter seems more likely. Is this the month my demon voice will force everyone away? She is the most awful company. I think I might hate her. I know I shouldn’t, I should meet her with love, but where is that love hiding right now? It’s long gone. I am depression, winter, stomach aches, restlessness, loneliness, quiet. I am not me.


The soft spring / follicular phase


Oh.


On about day 7, things are just lighter. I wake with such relief and gratitude that I am present in myself again. I welcome myself back, thank fuck honestly. I am awakening to myself; I can see me in the mirror and I feel that I know her. This is the me that I sell to everyone else, right now I can see why I do that.


Because she is me. My whole body drifts more gently through my spaces, knowing that in these moments I am living my best fucking life. There is an ease and an exuberant confidence that comes from knowing you have a couple of weeks before the unravelling begins again.


I know to build back softly, but I am ready to exercise again and want to push it. The first few days of the follicular phase are still underpinned with tiredness: emotional and physical. The victory of making it through is contained within panic that I’ve done irreparable damage this time. A few days pass before I am confident that I am really truly okay, retrospective sympathy in action. I’m so proud of myself for making it through.


My body feels better, it looks better. My skin feels softer, the repulsion of touch transformed into full body desire. I am lifting, and I feel wiser than ever. Another month of learning, well deserved joy finally at the forefront. I am always being reminded: it does pass, it doesn’t always hurt, there is light at the end, you were born into a cyclical body. I bask in feeling a little more healed this time around, a little more ready for the darkness this month than I was the last. I relish this time knowing the cycle is utterly unavoidable.


The stormy summer/ ovulation


It is rarely the best time for me. Sometimes, I feel okay, even good. For one or two days right at ovulation, I feel sad, anxious, teary. A knowing stab in my lower side marks the release of the egg, ‘mittelschmerz’, it is called, literally middle pain. I know the cervical mucus well, the time very clear to me. It has always been a relief to me that despite PCOS, I regularly ovulate. It is an odd time because it is split into binary states- sorrow/anguish and sensuality/wholeness. For a clear couple of days, I have anxious sadness, but beyond that I feel almost glorious. I feel that my hair is thicker, richer in colour, my body feels like completely my own, my skin glows, my clothes fit better and I feel into my sensuality.


I am my most sexual during this period, and also oddly directly before my period. In the middle of the pre-period depression, I have itching moments to touch and be touched. During the ovulation week, I feel desirable and want to desire. I feel connected to my feminine, I feel like I belong in my world with my people. I can exercise at my best and have more energy to focus, be creative, expressive, spontaneous. The psychological internal deep dive I am doing makes more sense in this time, affirmations feel clearer and truer, thoughts consolidate and evolve.


I can see that this clear cycle gives me space to experience all of the emotions, states, energies, and connections that I might need- away from my control and in spite of my attempts to control. It can be so intense; I am working on softening all the stages, and hope that at some point in this psychological and hormonal work there will be less obvious difference between each week of my cycle. I began writing this piece months ago, and already feel the truth of the softening. Of course, my environment, stressors and influences impact how intense each month might be, but I am hoping to be far more equipped to manage what each stage has the potential to be.


The cycle goes on, every month slightly different, some better than others. I grow with knowledge every month, slightly more attuned, slightly more compassionate, ever so slightly more grateful. But I know the darkness will one day come back with the same fierceness it always has, my sensitivity, temperament and history all combining to form a body deeply impacted by its internal and external environments. Inevitably, we all are in some way. And so, the cycle continues, shifting as I do every month for many months to come.


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