I am going to start by saying something that is going to make almost everyone reading this cringe: I have been on my period for almost two years straight. Let me clarify: on some days the bleeding has been so heavy that I debated going to the hospital, and on others, the bleeding has been minimal. The issue is, even on the minimal days, I have cramping, I have PMS symptoms, and I am uncomfortable. I don’t think there has been a single day in the past 19 months where I haven’t had to wear at least a pad. There’s no rhyme or reason to my bleeding patterns; it’s just there. It sucks. And the worst part? I’m starting to think it may never go away.
To provide some context, my issues didn’t just randomly pop up a couple of years ago. Since I was 16, I’ve been on and off all sorts of birth control. It started when I wouldn’t get my period, and then I would get it for three months straight. That was when I first hit an issue with the problematic nature of the female healthcare field. I went into my first gynecology appointment, and the doctor who saw me said, “There’s nothing wrong with you. This is normal.”
What?! It was normal that I would get my period for a year plus, and then bleed uncontrollably for months? It was normal that I had cramps so bad I was vomiting and unable to get out of bed? She chalked it up to my age, saying that it was because I was so young and that the first couple of years after you get your period, the bleeding would be “erratic.”
It hadn’t been a “couple of years,” though. I had been dealing with an irregular period for the past four years. She made me feel dumb, like I was overexaggerating my symptoms. She treated me like I was being a baby, and just needed to get over it. Every woman feels bad about their periods, so I needed to get over it.
It turns out I wasn’t being a baby, and it wasn’t normal. I finally went to another doctor, and she drew blood and found out my hormones were far from normal. Because of this, she put me on birth control. This worked for a couple of years — I took the pill, took the placebo, sometimes had a period, sometimes didn’t. Whatever the case, it was fine. Until I became sexually active.
After having sex for the first time, it hurt like crazy. Not just during sex, but after. I felt like my uterus was on fire. A couple of days later, I was in the urgent care clinic, after almost passing out because I was bleeding so bad. That doctor told me again it was normal, and that I needed to get over it. She said that it was just a result of having sex. “Sex can trigger periods, you know,” she told me.
That bleeding stint lasted six months. I went to the doctor during that time and all she would do is change birth controls. When I complained about how badly sex was hurting (yes, you can have sex while you’re on your period, despite what popular opinion may say) and how I didn’t even want to have sex with anyone because of the pain, she didn’t take me seriously. She brushed it off as me being “nervous” because I was new to having sex, and didn’t even want to consider that it might be related to my bleeding. I even told her that sometimes the bleeding would almost stop, but then get triggered again by sex. Again, she didn’t want to hear it.
After that bleeding stopped and I had been loaded up with progesterone and estrogen, I thought I was fine. I had some random bleeding, but it wasn’t constant, and I thought, “OK, maybe this pill combination will work.” And then, almost two years ago, I had the worst and scariest bleeding episode yet. It was terrifying, and being at college, I didn’t feel like I had anyone around for help. Panic-stricken, I drove to the ER.
And guess what the gynecologist on call said to me? “This is probably just because of your birth control; wait it out. This is normal.”
I knew it wasn’t normal. I knew it wasn’t OK. I went back to my doctor, and finally, she made the decision to take me off all of my pills and hormones to see if that would help. It didn’t, but for the first time, I was beginning to feel seen. I really do have to applaud this doctor; she actually took control and did a lot more testing to see what was going on, even though it all came back with nothing. Head CTs, ultrasounds, and MRIs all revealed nothing, but she started talking to her colleagues and really advocating for me. It was the first time I didn’t feel crazy, or like I was exaggerating. I didn’t feel shut out.
Even though she had started to listen to me about my periods, though, she still didn’t do anything about my issues with painful sex and the bleeding it triggered. And I mean painful. This wasn’t nervous painful, this wasn’t “not warmed-up” painful — this was terrible, bad, don’t-want-sex-ever-again painful. She said it was nerves, and she never talked about it in our appointments. Maybe it was because she didn’t have time, but that’s the problem. It was one of my major symptoms, and my doctor didn’t have time for it. It had been years of this at this point, and I was still feeling hopeless.
That brings us to two-ish years later. These days, my bleeding is less heavy, like a constant, light “last few days” period. However, the pain with sex hadn’t gotten any better. My bleeding was always getting worse, sex hurt like crazy, and I felt like I was broken. I had been told over and over by doctors that my bleeding was normal, that my pain during sex was my fault and didn’t matter, and that I was being a baby. I felt overwhelmed and underhelped, and I was beginning to feel desperate.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a PA in my clinic for an issue I was having with my IUD, and I caught her up to speed on what was going on. I told her about the bleeding and cramping I was constantly having and the painful sex. It had gotten to the point where the pain wasn’t going away, even days after sex. For once, she looked at me and said, “Wait, you’re only 20, you have a partner you’re comfortable with, and you’re still having pain?” And then she actually examined me.
For the first time, I had someone perform an exam looking at my muscles instead of dismissing my concerns outright. If my doctor had, years ago, done the same thing, she would’ve noticed that it wasn’t my brain that was the problem — it was my muscles. She would’ve done years ago what took the PA only moments to do. I would’ve gotten my prescription for pelvic floor physical therapy years ago, and been on my way to healing earlier. But she didn’t.
Because of my own experience, I was curious to see what other women had gone through. One quick Google search shows that my own journey toward self-advocacy is not unique. There are countless stories of what Sasha Ottey, leader of the National Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Association, calls “health-care gaslighting.” I found women like me who had their extreme pain during sex or period symptoms brushed off. There are women with excruciating endometriosis pain having to go through impossibly long lengths in order to get hysterectomies that could resolve their symptoms. This doesn’t even include the added struggles that women of color and transgender women face when simply trying to receive basic healthcare.
All of these articles, however, boil down to the single disturbing fact that women are less likely to be taken seriously when it comes to health conditions. This has even been demonstrated by many scientific studies that demonstrate lower levels of prescription pain medication and how women are less likely to be given serious attention by doctors, in a phenomenon known as “pain bias.”
The way women and people with vaginas are treated by the healthcare system as a whole is problematic, but when we can’t even be taken seriously by the doctors who are supposed to specialize in helping us, where do we go? My journey to where I am has been an emotional one. I was told I was exaggerating, that I needed to get used to it, that at every turn I should be OK with pain and discomfort. I was told that that was part of being a woman. I am still facing what feels like a never-ending period, but I have at least completed one victory: I am on the path to pain-free sex.
Here’s my bottom line: you have to be your own advocate. You know your body, you know when something is wrong. If I had ever given up on advocating for myself, I never would be getting the help I am today. Your periods should not be ruining your life. Sex should feel good. We are told that we need to accept that periods suck, that it’s hard to orgasm during sex and that we bleed sometimes during sex. Let me just tell you, none of this is normal.
I am still on my journey to fix my bleeding, and I am still on a journey to help my vaginal cramping. But for the first time since I was a freshman in high school, that journey seems to have a light at the end of the tunnel. You deserve to love your body, and you should never ever apologize for your symptoms, or be quieter when seeking treatment. You know your body. Trust what you know.