Do I feel vulnerable writing about my period?
But I’m going to write about it anyway, because I think that it is important that I talk about all aspects of my eating disorder, and not having periods was one of them.
I was a late developer; I had not started my periods when I was 17. Then my bodyweight fell so alarmingly with the onset of anorexia that in order to get them started, my doctor, in his wisdom, put me on the pill. I had been brought up to respect and trust that my doctor knew what was good for me, and I did not question his decision. I took my prescription and sure enough, periods came. Deceptively.
Pill periods are deceptive because they look and act like real periods but they are not. I thought that the periods that I was having were a sign that everything was working, and because my doctor seemed to think so too, I did not question it. I was happy because finally I was the same as all the other girls at school; I felt more normal. At 17, I was not taking the pill because I needed contraception; I was taking it because my doctor told me I needed periods.
Healthy girls have periods.
This much is true. Regular periods are a sign of hormonal balance and a regular menstrual cycle shows that everything is working tickety-boo just as it should do. When I lost a drastic amount of weight at 17 my periods did not stop, but that was only because they had not yet started. Anorexia in girls and women often brings with it amenorrhea- loss of periods. If I had had them at 17 chances are I would have stopped them as my bodyweight fell. There are a number of health problems associated with amenorrhea; infertility, osteoporosis and adrenal dysfunction to name a few….
Anyhow… I was on the pill for a while, and that gave me periods- so everything was ok … right?
As I discovered years later, the periods that one has when one is on the pill are not real periods.
They are fake ones. You see, when on the pill your body is being forced to shed the lining of the uterus, its not doing it because it thinks it needs to or because one has the correct amount of natural hormones present in order to make that happen. So really, it is not a period at all.
If I had been having natural periods before taking the pill, they would have occurred because my pituitary gland would have been producing two hormones called FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) and LH (Luteinizing Hormone). These hormones would then have stimulated my ovary to produce an egg each month. Due to my lack of periods one could assume that something here was not kicking in. Contraceptive pills are a combination of synthetic estrogen and progestin. Oral contraceptives “fool” the pituitary gland so that it produces less follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone. In my case, the pill was providing me with some fake hormones, and that was about it.
When one is “on the pill”, there is a week where one doesn’t take it each month. In that week off, the thin lining of the uterus is shed: The fake bleed.
More recently, I did some research into why women on the pill have periods at all, and the best reason that I could find was that a women on the pill has periods for no reason other than to help her feel that she is still in some kind of cycle; it’s totally arbitrary and there are sources that claim that the ‘week off’ was simply put there because it might scare people if they did not see a period every month. The ‘week off’ that most pill packages allow for stimulates what is known as a withdrawal period. It’s the body’s reaction to the withdrawal of the hormonal cycle. This is why a period while on the pill is usually lighter and shorter.
I did not really understand then that I was having fake periods and that they were not a sign that everything was working naturally within me. I cannot really imagine why doctors think or thought then that an answer to a 17-year-old girl who is not having natural periods would be to give her synthesized hormones rather than explore reasons why she might not me producing hormones of her own in the correct levels. As a result, I was on the pill for ten years.
Because my periods were fake, I never felt anything when I had a period; no PMS, or mood swings… nothing. It was just kind of annoying. Hormonally I felt bland.
Over 100 million women worldwide take the pill, so it must be harmless …right?
That depends what your opinion is on synthetic hormones and messing with your body internally are. That is something that I encourage any women to research and make up her own opinion on. I did just that, and for my own personal reasons, at 26 years old, after six months of researching into the pill, I decided to come off it. At that time I was in recovery from anorexia, and my bodyweight had gone up some, I was engaged to a wonderful man and I did need contraception. I asked my doctor’s (a different doctor now) advice, and she told me to get a coil. Again, I trusted her and I got one inserted.
The coil had stopped my fake periods and I was pretty happy not having them at all as they had been uncomfortable and inconvenient…..
At 30 I realized that that the coil too had been sold to me as an answer to my contraception problems without a full explanation of the potential side effects. I felt lied to and confused. I was just so done with having my body being pumped with fake hormones and scared that I had no idea what it felt like to be a ‘normal’ women. I decided to get rid of the coil.
When I removed my coil, I was nervous. I did not know if I would have a natural period or not. I knew that having a period would be testament that my body was working as it should be, and that now that I was at a much healthier bodyweight I could theoretically be weight restored enough to have a period. It felt like a test, and I wanted to pass it. I waited. I hoped.
My period did not come.
I was surprised to discover that this disappointed me. I never told anyone that, but it really got me down. I thought that anorexia had jacked up my hormonal cycle beyond repair and it saddened me. I had been looking to having a period as a testament that my body had recovered from my eating disorder and its long term effects. It felt personal, anorexia is a disease, a parasite that nearly killed me and I hate it. I wanted a period as an up yours to anorexia, to prove that I could get healthy again and that my eating disorder would not continue to damage my health.
As the weeks passed after removing my coil and no periods came, I felt saddened at the understanding that my eating disorder had probably ruined my hormonal cycle irreparably. But I dealt with that disappointment accordingly… I might have cried a bit in secret (I hate admitting that sort of thing!), but I got over it. I told myself to buck up, stop feeling sorry for myself and get on with my life. The main thing was that my weight was good, my anorexia was fleeting and in comparison to years earlier I was in much better physical and mental condition, I figured rather than moping I could continue to be proactive:
I tried all sorts of things to get my period to start. I went to see a few doctors; most of them told me to take the pill….
I took a course of very expensive Chinese herbs that the Chinese Dr promised me would start my cycle for me: it did not…
I tried a variety of holistic approaches, including dedicating 10 minutes every day for six months meditating on my period…
Another year past, my bodyweight was even better, and I felt incredible. I hit what I consider to be fully weight restored (not just theoretically weight restored- and believe me, there is a difference. Theoretically weight restored is a weight at which in theory is ‘normal’ but you, your doctor and everyone else that cares an inch about you knows deep down is still too thin. Fully weight restored is just that, you have thighs, a rounded tummy and those lovely curves that were designed to be there) and it has really made all the difference to my overall feelings of wellness. I love feeling my thighs touch and my belly. Other than the pot-belly-syndrome I have fully enjoyed reaching new ground as far as being a good bodyweight is concerned.
Then just over six moths ago, after a bout of period envy after seeing a tampax commercial, I decided to try putting on a little bit more weight, because if I got myself a little heavier and still no periods then at least I could say that I tried. I no longer fear eating fat, or a fuller figure. Of course my eating disorder tried to chime in and freak out about that – but I am an old pro at stomping on my anorexia. I concentrated on putting on a little bit more weight. And I did, that too felt wonderful and healthy.
Weird things happened last week. I got a spot on my forehead for one, thats happened before, but its not happened very often, then I got so bloated. I blamed this on the new kefir that I was trying out. The most profound thing is that my sense of smell heightened. I could smell everything- that was very weird. But all was clear to me when it happened- I got a period.
It was somewhat emotional for me. 32 years old and never had a natural cycle before. Then a long time after I had totally given up on it, it came. This is not about just having a period, this is about knowing that my body is operating optimally. In the same way that I see my rubbing thighs and rounded belly as trophies to show that I overcame my eating disorder I see my period as a testament to my health and recovery.
Amenorrhea is not just something that people with anorexia experience, many athletes do too. A study (Arch Phys Med Rehabil, May, 2007) showed that 40% of a group of female triathletes had a history of amenorrhea. Other common menstrual abnormalities include oligomenorrhea (a menstrual cycle between 35 and 90 days), and delayed onset of first period. However, most of the subjects in this study were reported to not be consuming enough calories and nutrients. I think that shows that it is generally a symptom of not eating enough.
Girls need hips! Our femoral fat stores – those around our hips, buttocks, and thighs are important for female health. I know a number of people that are not having periods, and non of them have anorexia, but all of them are skinny. While some of these women consume an energy-deficient diet, others consume the same total calories as those with normal menstrual cycles, but eat much less protein and fat but higher carbohydrates. This is the problem with raw vegan diets and other restrictive diets that do not contain enough of a balance between fat, protein and carbs.
This is what I want to talk about- I see it all over the social media sites, on peoples personal blogs and videos. The trend of thought that a Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate diet is actually superiorly healthy is so far from the truth it makes me cringe! I know from experience because for over ten years my intense fear of fat prevented me from eating any!
I have even seen some videos posted by fruitarians discussing girls losing periods as perfectly normal part of being healthy and testament that they are being good fruitarians! Seriously!? It makes me sick that people are promoting the loss of a menstrual cycle as a good thing!
There is this very thin line between eating healthily and not eating enough fat. That is what the majority of my recovery looked like, okay I was eating and that is better than not eating, but a low fat diet is not a healthy idea for a person recovering from an eating disorder. For the first three years of my recovery I did not eat enough fat! I did put on weight and if you were to measure my BMI it would have been ‘normal’- but this is a perfect example of how a person can look ‘ok’ but actually be still to skinny to be healthy. In a society where skinny is considered desirable there are more and more girls that are not suffering chronic eating disorders as such, but are experiencing disordered eating because they are trying to be thinner than their bodies want them to be. My periods did not return despite my weight being considered in the ‘normal’ range.
The problem with BMI charts is that they can be a tool used to justify a dangerously low body weight. For a long time my BMI was high enough to be just out of the “severely underweight” range, and so whenever anyone questioned my weight or my health I just quoted that number at them and told them “see….my BMI is in the normal range….I’m fine”
I was not fine, I was in denial and I was using a the BMI thing as a recognized ‘health tool’ to keep me there. When I really turned things around and healed my relationship with fat, my BMI rose, and it stayed up, and now, finally, my periods have come.
I think that for a woman who has lost her periods and whose bodyweight is on the slim side, even if the BMI chart says that she is theoretically in a ‘normal’ weight range she should probably be heavier; that is really hard to convince someone who is scared to put on weight. I have found that education around the fact that eating fat does not make one fat is a great starting point to helping a person get their head around eating more fat.
Personally I think that only when a person has sustained a bodyweight of what could be considered the higher end of the “normal’ range for a year or more can she begin to look for reasons other than a low bodyweight being the cause of a loss of menstrual cycle.
And for some of us, that is reality that is crushingly hard to take.
The other factor is individuality. Some women can live on a raw vegan diet and retain their healthy periods. I cannot. My body needs fat. I think problems arise when health gurus promote specific diets and cleanses that might have worked for them as something that is relevant to every body. We are all different, and if as a women you lose your period I think that is a great indication tat the diet that you are on is not working for you, regardless of what worked for your friends or some clown on Facebook.
One of the first things that I did last week when I got my period was I called my mother. She was thrilled. She wrote me an email the following day telling me that me getting my period had made her year. I felt good about that, there have been so many times in the past when my eating disorder must have ruined her year for her, it felt wonderful that in my recovery I can make up for some of those painful times.
I know that some of you reading this are parent to a young woman who has lost her period due to an eating disorder. I know that many of you dream of that time when your daughter will get her menstrual cycle back. Keep going, keep pushing, keep encouraging her to eat fat and keep your chin up! I sincerely hope that day will come for you, and that you will not have to wait 15 years for it as my mother did.
I know that some of you reading this have lost your periods. If you are anything like I was you will be telling yourself that this post does not apply to you, and that you are theoretically a normal weight, and that gaining weight has nothing to do with your lack of a cycle. I hope that this post might have planted a seed. Just consider it.
I know that some of you reading this are a good healthy weight, but that every now and then you look at a skinny girl and wish away your curves. I hope that after reading this you might consider that what looks thin and happy on the outside might not be so healthy on the inside. I hope that you understand your hips and thighs are a sign of inner health, and push out those thoughts that tell you otherwise.
I think that more women than ever suffer amenorrhea in this society where thin is glamorized, the shows that we watch and the images that we see don’t show that side of the story. Unfortunately, we just don’t tend to talk enough about the dark side of thin.