By Annalise Friend
I reckon it has been around since puberty, a monster that engulfs me for up to 2 weeks before bleeding. It took years to trace my hands over the surface of it and find claws, fur, limbs. To give it a name.
Coming across the Me v PMDD app is a culmination of this tracing. In it, you can select which symptoms of PMDD you want to track, to watch their intensity change each day. This simple structure gives names and validation to my years of experience. So here are the ones I am tracking (I have combined them where they overlap):
A rolling boil of warm fury bubbles under my skin. Others don’t seem to see it. My body is full, pregnant, seething and exists on the line of ‘I’ve had enough’. The heights of screaming, raging and snapping are instantly accessible. I tend not to jump there, however, having internalized good-girl gender conditioning so deeply that politeness, graciousness, compassion, and fear of expression become a prison. So, the lava knocks against the boundaries of my skin and skull, soaking my thoughts; and I watch it. I dream of snapping. I don’t.
The nervous system is electrified. A chainsaw grinds against the grain of all my nerves, simultaneously. I tend to hold awareness of many things in and outside of my body all the time anyway. When the monster consumes me, the baseline of sensitivity to feeling is bumped up even higher. These things irritate me, mucho: our dog with separation anxiety is under my feet barking at the delivery person, while the kid yells and the baby cries. The usual domestic clashes of clothes left here and plates left there mount into a cacophony of things jangling for my attention. Blokes blokes blokes: blokes in utes park out the front and talk on their phones, the dog barks, the kid yells, the baby cries. The things that irritate me are there throughout the month, and many of them I see as part of the heap of stuff put onto women: relentless domestic work, invisible emotional labor and caring, yet also anticipating and avoiding – and then being pissed off – about men looking at my body as I walk past them (dealing with a dog on the lead pulling on one wrist, a kid talking in the other ear, the baby crying in the pram that I push). The irritability at being in a body putting up with all of this, in a society that heaps this onto me, where men look at me like this, makes me want to snap. I don’t snap.
Feeling overwhelmed, anxiety/tension, trouble thinking or focusing, restlessness, lack of interest in daily tasks
My thinking tends towards the divergent; I see new ideas and fresh shooting possibilities. This includes the tasks to be done and also manifests in me pursuing many things in life simultaneously – artistry, academia, motherhood, relationships, business. Each of these areas takes work, and the to-do lists for each become a clamor when I have PMDD symptoms. They build and build and I want to put my hands over my face against them. Tasks feel big and I feel like I can’t do them; there’s too much. I still do many things though. Thoughts of escape into a cave alone tempt me. It was possible to try and replicate this retreat before motherhood by retreating to bed when I could, putting a pillow over my head and listening to an audio hypnosis or yoga nidra track through headphones. The problem with retreat, however, is that life is not structured for it. Uni assignments, research or teaching, gigs, work and financial imperatives don’t appreciate retreat. If symptoms from PMDD last, for me, usually 10 days to 2 weeks, sometimes within a menstrual cycle that is 21 days, then most of my life is wanting retreat as a coping mechanism and not getting it. So there’s a lot of being overwhelmed and doing things anyway, while I apply all of the breathing and mindful techniques that I possibly can. The mental focus required to get through is up there with that in giving birth. The scattergun brain is pulled by all of the tasks – email that person now, actually I have to add that into the accounts, kid wants lunch – and it’s some kind of Herculean effort to come back to doing the original task.
Feelings of hopelessness, sadness/depression, thoughts of suicide
Just why? Why do it all? Some self-pity lives in the sadness/depression category: why did I get this, why do I have such an extreme condition that imprisons me? In these moments I feel small, weak and ground down by PMDD and the chronic cycling that stretches out before me. It is hard to confess, but I have suicidal thoughts. The extremity of the symptoms makes me yearn for escape, and suicide seems like the only one. These thoughts are a symptom themselves, as the anger, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, sadness and depression heap up. The thoughts also happen because the many treatments that I have been given don’t work. I have tried: antidepressants, sometimes doubling the dose for the PMDD time – no effect, except possibly to help me put on weight and of course now it will have to be carefully managed if I ever want to get off them; a hormonal IUD, the Mirena; and both the combined and progesterone-only pill. Sometimes all of these at once. If I am honest, there has been no improvement, except possibly an increase in depression and weight gain, which are side effects of these medications. I kept walking into the wall of trying complementary therapies and hoping they will work – naturopathy, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, reflexology. Nope, nope, nope, nope. I would feel like a failure that there was no change. One practitioner asked me why I wasn’t improving, as if it was my fault, that I was a wilful patient refusing to prove the cure. Grasping for hope in these treatments and them failing can magnify the thoughts of suicide.
Back pain, headache
Sometimes I think that a car accident when I was 17 jolted something out in my sacrum or neck. This was not investigated at the time. During PMDD these niggling tension points become nerve-ropes strung to snapping point. Sciatica and the headaches I got for a long time on waking (and tried approximately 675 pillows and massage treatments to alleviate) increase during PMDD time. I do yoga and consciously relax these parts, and still, the pain continues. Sometimes I have taken Tramadol or Codeine to deal with the increased pain (scripts I have for pain relief for the endometriosis and adenomyosis, conditions I also have). I feel guilty taking them for PMDD symptoms. The opioids lessen the psychological turmoil and the pain. However, you can’t take them while breastfeeding or pregnant, they make you sleepy which makes doing life hard, and asking a pharmacist, or now a GP, for codeine makes me feel like they think I am an addict.
Bloating, weight gain, breast pain and tenderness, change in appetite/cravings
I have big boobs anyway. I have internalized an awareness of them brought on by living in this culture and comments about them. When they feel bloated and sore during PMDD times it feels extra hard to avoid them being seen, and the associated feelings are of being ugly and heinous. The bloating and weight gain generally exacerbates an older sense of ‘feeling fat’. During PMDD I can feel like a bloated whale-witch, ready to explode, so goddamn female. Yes, the joke (ha de ha) of craving chocolate is true. It is an imperative:) It is a coping mechanism, a relief (and it turns out, a biological push during this time). Just as at other times, a woman eating chocolate, feeling bad about/in her body and judged by society as fat or bloated feels like a weird bind – but more, so much more so at this time.
Sensitivity to light/sound
The turbo car that revs next door for hours permeates me, its vibration magnifies the bubbling of the lava and the grinding across the nerves. As does the bathroom exhaust fan, the rattle and woosh of the washing machine and dishwasher, the hoon cars that seem to need to do their victory circuits at any time, day or night (I promise I don’t intentionally keep living near these idiots), the neighbors upstairs having a party or the housemate dudes talking ego philosophy outside my window till 3am – all of these are felt throughout every cell. There is no avoiding, no blocking out, no buffer. This increases the feeling of being trapped in this body that feels everything.
Trouble sleeping/insomnia, tiredness, and low energy
The body feels exhausted dealing with the high key of tense nerves and scattered thoughts. Diving under a pillow doesn’t escape the oceanic roaring tension between my ears, which are there as the baseline of existence.
And some bliss…
Ok, there are also some good things. Flows of sexuality, creativity, woman-ness, and even vague, suspended moments of bliss and euphoria. There is an imperative to get it out, to write it, to dance it, to say it, which has a compelling charge.
Tracking and writing from my experience of these symptoms is liberating because PMDD has been such an isolating, internal experience. The increased awareness and advocacy for those of us with the condition is deeply appreciated. I hope others who come after me have a better time and more support.
I am now at the point of preparing for a laparoscopic hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo oopherectomy to address PMDD and the adenomyosis in my uterus in one blow. There seems to be a range of recovery experiences from the surgery, but I am hesitantly hopeful that it will bring an end to this nightmare. Sure, it will induce menopause which may well not be fun – but this. An end to this, please.
Having endometriosis and adenomyosis also means that the menstrual phase is indescribably painful for me. Yet I ‘prefer’ that to the luteal, ‘premenstrual’ phase. The grinding and strain across all levels of my being that saturate my consciousness when premenstrual is way worse than the extreme physical pain of the other conditions.
May a way come that heals this.
About the Warrior
I have been a performer and teacher of body percussion, percussion, spoken word and movement. I have a Ph.D. looking at conscious hip-hop and self-branding. I am now a partner in a business that sells ethical and eco yoga gear. I am also a Mum, have PMDD, endometriosis, and adenomyosis. I know. It’s a lot.