Crimson and Clover

Ever since I started menstruating at the age of 12, my uterus has been the bane of my existence. I had witnessed my mom’s awful experience of abnormally heavy and painful periods and I dreaded it happening to me. The day that I got my period for the first time, I was so distraught that I cried. I remember laying in bed for the rest of that day, just sobbing into my pillow.

I came to call my experience the “Mean Reds,” a term I borrowed from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The “mean reds” is Holly Golightly’s term for something worse than getting the blues. I chose to borrow that term because it seemed a fitting euphemism for a terrible period. And the Mean Reds were terrible—for three decades. They quite literally disrupted my life.

From Day 1, the Mean Reds lasted well over a week for me. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the cramps I experienced were sometimes so bad that I’d start sweating, get dizzy, and feel as if I was going to pass out or throw up. The excessive bleeding led to anemia, which meant I had very little energy as well. In addition to that, I spent far too much time in the bathroom because even heavy flow pads and extra underwear just weren’t enough protection most of the time.

I didn’t find a way to ameliorate the Mean Reds until I was in college, so I went through all of junior high, high school, and the first year or so of college hating my uterus and my body for most of the month. I was late for class and even missed class at times either because there seemed to be no ebb to the flow and I just couldn’t leave the bathroom or because I was so dizzy I feared I’d pass out if I tried to stand up. I often had embarrassing accidents and can recall one particular time when I had to go the nurse’s office in junior high, have them call my mom to drive in another pair of pants all the way to school for me so I could change, and then got flack from my algebra teacher because I’d missed half the class. I took to wearing dark colored pants and tops that would cover my rear-end just in case because I never knew when an accident was going to strike and figured it’d be obvious if I changed my clothes during the day. It was hard for me to concentrate in class at times because of the cramps and other associated problems, but not to the point that it ever affected my grades. The Mean Reds did keep me from doing things, though. I definitely didn’t attempt to go swimming or engage in much physical activity whenever they were happening. They were one of the reasons I quit cheerleading after my freshman year of high school. All I wanted to do really was curl up in bed and stay there til they went away.

I went to the gynecologist for the first time when I was in college and told her about the Mean Reds. She sympathized and told me that what I experienced was not a “normal” period and that the Mean Reds could be controlled by medication. For over a decade after that, the solution to the Mean Reds was birth control pills (oral contraceptives). While they certainly lessened my flow both in terms of volume and length of time and they reduced the pain of cramps, making life far more bearable for a while, they caused a host of other problems which I didn’t fully realize until many years later.

The pills I was prescribed always contained estrogen and, unbeknownst to me until much later in my life, my body was already producing too much of this hormone. Unfortunately, an imbalance of hormonesspecifically higher levels of estrogenis known to contribute to the growth of uterine fibroids, non-cancerous tumors that grow in the uterus. Oral contraceptives also affect mood; they are known to contribute to depression in some women and this was certainly the case for me.

When I moved to the DC Metro area after grad school, the first doctor that I had focused on women’s overall wellness and she was the first to discover that I had fibroid tumors growing in my uterus. Uterine fibroids are quite prevalent in women and they account for the vast majority of visits to OB/GYNs for women’s sexual health problems. There is also evidence that uterine fibroids may be genetic; the Center for Uterine Fibroids is enrolling eligible participants in a study to uncover genes that may cause fibroids. My then-doctor advised me to either stop eating meat or eat only organic meat so as to avoid added growth hormones, which could further aggravate fibroid growth (I am finally taking that advice, however, I feel it necessary to note here that it’s actually illegal to inject poultry with growth hormones, so, technically speaking, no chicken or turkey should ever contain these).

Fibroids cause all of the awful things that I had experienced from the start of my period and, as they worsen over time, they can also cause things like breakthrough bleeding (bleeding in between periods), painful intercourse, and infertility issues. Yes, I experienced all of those things too. Shortly after my husband and I married, the Mean Reds had become awful again like they’d been back in high school and, what’s worse, they’d become almost constant. I bled more days than I didn’t.

A series of ultrasounds and other tests followed and my doctor referred me to a fertility specialist for treatment. The first question she asked me was whether I planned to have children because my condition made it very unlikely that I would be able to. The second thing I remember her telling me was that I would eventually have to have a hysterectomy. She presented it not as a possibility but an inevitability. At the time, I was certainly not ready to become a parent; as a teenager, I had sworn I would not because I’d always feared that I’d end up like so many women I’d known who did most if not all the parenting themselves and had little to no support from their male partners. But, there was also a part of me that understood that this was my only shot; if there was any desire at all in me to be a mother, then ready or not, I had to act on that. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the fact that a baby might never grow in my uterus because it was so infested with these parasites, these invaders, that had made it their home, and it made me terribly sad. My husband and I decided to give it a shot, knowing the odds were against us. I stopped taking birth control pills and, amazingly, it was as if a light came on inside me because I actually felt good and happy—-really happy—and I couldn’t remember feeling that way for a very long time. Clearly, the pills had been screwing with my mood, contributing significantly to the depression that I’d experienced for over a decade (see Silence Is Golden and other related posts for more on my depression). Without the pills, my mood definitely improved, but all of the horrible problems that came with the Mean Reds had returned with a vengeance, of course.

Over the next year and a half, I underwent a series of both laparoscopic and more invasive surgeries to remove the largest of the fibroids in my uterus as well as to reset my uterus, which was tipped. Ever present in my mind was the knowledge that even after all of these operations, there was still a huge possibility that I would never conceive. I’d had enough of the Mean Reds and was about to give up trying altogether when I discovered that the miracle had happened and I was pregnant.

The new OB/GYN who saw me through my pregnancy scheduled a C section birth because I was at risk for bleeding out. I actually went into labor the week before my scheduled operation, which was frightening; I was terrified of not reaching the hospital in time. But the worst was yet to come. What should have been the happiest moment of my life became an incredibly traumatic one because even after the precautions of the C section delivery, I still hemorrhaged. Later that same day, I had to have a second procedure to stop the bleeding. I spent an entire week in the hospital vomiting because of the anesthesia they’d given me with the second procedure, sick because I was unable to eat, weak from blood loss, upset because I was trying and failing to breastfeed my newborn son and was unable even to hold my baby for much of that time because I felt so miserable. I remember my parents calling to check in on me after the birth and my mom’s face said it all: sheer terror was the expression she had and she could barely hide her tears. Dear God, I thought, I must look like death. I honestly think my husband feared I would die. I’d lost a lot of blood, so much so that my doctor finally ordered a transfusion. I saw the fear in my husband’s face when he read the pamphlet and I consented to the procedure. I looked him in the eyes and told him confidently that it was going to be OK as he fought back tears. The scary part was already over for me, though the after-effects of that compound trauma lasted seven years.

Meanwhile, the saga of the Mean Reds continued as well. I had additional laparoscopic surgeries after my son’s birth and I was loathe to take oral contraceptives again so opted to have uterine ablation in an effort to try to minimize menstrual bleeding and, not long after that, a tubal ligation. After what I’d gone through to have my son, there was no way I was going to attempt to have any further children, especially when my doctor told me that my uterus “couldn’t handle” another pregnancy. I knew what that meant: I’d be risking my life if I tried to have another child. I was—and will forever be—extremely grateful for the one child that I am fortunate enough to have.

Fast forward seven years to a hernia surgery that revealed fibroids had grown to massive sizes once again. In my latest appointment with a new OB/GYN, I discovered that the tumors were the size of a 4-5 month pregnancy. At this point, the doctor said that every medical option for treating my fibroids had been exhausted, so her recommendation was a hysterectomy. I had the surgery scheduled, but ultimately couldn’t do it. I wanted a better solution. Frankly, I was done having surgeries on my uterus and I was through with “treatments” that never truly addressed the underlying problem—my hormonal imbalance. I spoke with the doctor and we canceled the procedure and discussed revisiting the possibility in the near future depending on how much the fibroids grew.

After that discussion, I decided that whether or not my uterus was going to be removed, I needed to make peace with that part of myself. I ended up writing a letter to my uterus in which I expressed how much I’d hated it and all of the awfulness and negativity that it had brought me over the past three decades. I also wrote that the only good thing that had ever come from it was my son, the person I loved most in the world. As I wrote those words, I realized that I couldn’t truly hate that part of myself because despite all of the pain it had caused me, it had also brought me the greatest joy in my life. Moreover, hating my uterus was hating a part of myself and I had gone through way too much healing to continue to despise even a small piece of myself. I had to let it go. And I did. I continued to write, thinking about the goddess Shakti, the womb of creation. The void from which the universe was birthed is reflected in me, in my womb; that part of myself is a physical embodiment of the mother goddess(es). So, no matter what awfulness I’d experienced in three decades of the Mean Reds, that creative power was still a beautiful, wondrous thing and so, amid the negativity, I also expressed profound gratitude. I took the letter that I’d written to my uterus, tore it up, and burned it. Burning and fire are a release, and that purge was exactly what I needed. After I did that, I meditated and, for the first time, I felt a deep connection to the mother goddess(es). I felt a warmth and love fill me and surround me as if that spiritual force were acknowledging just how great the significance of my act of forgiving myself had been. I shed tears of awe and gratitude.

That was only the first step to a pretty tremendous sacral healing. Another important one happened back in March when I attended an event held at Crystal Cognizance. The event was on storytelling and healing and included a DIY tea bar courtesy of Juices & Berries Apothecary. Elaina, the owner of Juices & Berries, is an herbalist combining knowledge passed down from her ancestors with the science of plants. There are no accidents. I will be forever grateful to Dahlia Rose for hosting that event and encouraging me to tell my story to the other women in attendance. When I shared my story that night, I learned that a number of herbal remedies have been used to treat conditions such as mine and that Elaina had in fact treated other women who’ve experienced heavy periods and fibroid tumors. I was eager to try treatments with her, seeing even a small improvement in my menstrual cycle as a huge positive. I didn’t believe my fibroids would entirely disappear, but if there was even a chance that I could have a more “normal” cycle and possibly avoid a hysterectomy, which I viewed as an absolute last resort due to the disruption it would cause to my hormones and emotional well-being, I was willing to take it.

I scheduled an appointment with Elaina to complete and review what is by far the most thorough medical history I’ve ever been asked to give (kuddos to you, Elaina!). Shortly after that, I began a protocol intended to (at long last!) regulate my body’s production of estrogen, thereby shrinking my fibroids and finally allowing me to have a shorter, less painful, and less heavy menstrual cycle.

It’s been seven months since I started my herbal regimen. When I began my protocol, my period was a literal life interruption. I had at least two weeks of extremely heavy bleeding (we’re talking so bad I felt I couldn’t leave the house for fear of having a very bad, very embarrassing accident in public), painful cramps, lethargy, an overall poor mood, and an enlarged uterus and lower abdomen. Now, I have about a week and a half to two weeks of bleeding, only ONE DAY of which could be classified as truly heavy, hardly any cramping, and a much improved mood (I only get a little extra emotional and sleepy just before it starts), and the size of my lower abdominal region has shrunk (I’ve dropped a pants size since March). I am overjoyed to know that the Mean Reds are a thing of the past and will be forever grateful to Elaina for how much she has helped me. The amount of progress and healing I’ve made under her care over the past several months has been greater and more meaningful than years of surgeries. Thank you, Elaina!

My hope is that by sharing my story with other women, they too can demand better care that actually addresses the cause of uterine fibroids and heavy periods and doesn’t affect their psychological well-being. It’s no less than what we deserve.

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