By Alexa Ashworth
This personal narrative is how I came to know the inner truths of my body and how I learned to befriend the terrifying “other-me” that made a monthly appearance without my consent. For several years, I could never find the right words to explain who that “other-me” was. This process of knowing began about three years ago during some giant life transitions: moving from my home state in Minnesota to Colorado, taking on a new job, beginning new relationships, and starting a three-year master’s program.
Throughout my story, I will be sharing personal reflections I have made while battling the wounds of inner dark places and the strengths I found in understanding “who I am” at the core of my being. This journey I am about to take you on will also address how I learned to cope in a state of overwhelm and manage thoughts of self-harm. I’ll also share the lessons I have found in letting my body speak and how I am choosing to continue carrying on each month to live my life now. So it begins—
Journey to Knowing
As a little girl, I was always connected to and warmly embraced by the beauty of the outdoors. I had a natural gift of being in tune with my body’s inner vibrations in relation to the environment around me. I did not know what powers I held within me and what my life would reveal to me during those younger years; however, I knew I loved the silence, stillness, and simplicity of being in nature because it was the only place where my thoughts and heart aligned. It was in the silence where I felt peace. It was in the silence where I was the most imaginative me.
Growing into my elementary years, I had this longing to be whole, so I proceeded to seek out activities that gave me that irresistible sense of expressing some piece of me I could not do at home. When life transitions in my immediate family became challenging, when relationships brought heartache, and friendships grew confusing, I had extreme emotional outbursts and moments where I wished to run away from this world and disappear into the lightness of thin air. In these trying times, it was hard not to fixate on the ideas of defeat, brokenness, or loneliness that consumed my being. I was fortunate during my younger developmental years to live in a home surrounded by a forest and a neighboring tree farm. The trees were my sanctuary and place of restoration when the weight of my surroundings was heavy. I also had a few elder mentors, teachers, and a stable father figure that addressed my emotions and talked them through with me to move forward in the world with ease. Although, as I entered my adolescent to young adult years, labeling emotions and allowing them to “go through my body” was not enough to calm the unforeseen internal storms ahead.
My darkest and most difficult chapters of life occurred between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four. During these years, I traveled overseas, went through a painful break up of a nine-year relationship, had new roommate scenarios, new relationship lessons, and experienced pure exhaustion from undergraduate studies. One experience that is imprinted in my memory from age twenty took place in Northumberland, England. I am sharing this memory because it is relevant to what I later share in more detail about my learned symptoms.
There were several different months, looking back, where I had to escape the group I traveled with and be distant because I felt such deep pain and what I could only label as depression. The pain felt as if it would wrap around my bones and squeeze until I was forced to act on the thought of “How do I escape??” Which as you know, if you have Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), this is very contradictory because you cannot escape the human anatomy that is innately, YOU. I was also confused about why I would feel these emotions so intensely because I was finally out of the country, exploring enchanting areas, and living out a dream I only once imagined. I honestly had no reason for these depressive, unruly thoughts. One evening I ran out of our living quarters to a pasture, sat under a tree and cried so hard I believe I added to the river that was in front of me with the stories of my body’s tears. This deep cry lasted for what felt like forever. I blamed part of these experiences on the toxicity of my nine-year relationship at the time. However, with what I know now, my body was telling me something more, and there was no one else to blame for my emotional outbursts, but myself. Since living in England, episodes like this became very regular, and my loss of control worsened.
I was halfway into age twenty-four when my intuition and conscious connections of my repetitive behavioral patterns allowed me to discover I had been suffering from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). This discovery was shocking and life-changing altogether. My behavioral patterns over the years consisted of fear around allowing myself to deepen friendships, feeling lost and broken inside, and not being able to stay committed to specific groups or activities for long periods of time. I had also been quick to make drastic decisions about ending a job and switching to a new job that further fulfilled other personal endeavors. I recognize now some of my swift endings were due to fear of not knowing what was next when my body was in the storm of its cycle. If I had had some insight into my body changing and had support around this phenomenon, potentially, I would have followed through with certain past commitments. The lack of education and understanding around my cycle during these years, looking back, has neutralized some of the harder experiences I once only felt victim to. It is through my reflections where I find my strengths.
I began to journal about my monthly symptoms around age twenty-three, and I recognized every month I would go through cycles of extreme highs and the lowest of lows. I use to tell my close friends and parents, “I wish I could stay the person I am this one week of every month when I feel like I am on top of the world!” I also use to say things like, “it feels like I am living in two different bodies, and I do not feel like I can stay one person.” I was not entirely off in how I felt or thought. My biggest frustration in these moments of sharing deep pains with loved ones was their repetitive advice that time would pass, and I would have to make the cognitive choice not to let it get the best of me. When these conversations arose, I could feel my insides boiling under my skin because I could not possibly explain that at times, I truly couldn’t make a choice, and IT WAS getting the best of me. It felt like someone switched my brain out overnight some months—replacing a conscious, rational, loving brain out with a foggy, irrational, hateful one. This event of emotions happened periodically over the months for a couple of years, so I asked myself daily, “How can I not let it get the best of me when I am not in control?” I use to not have an answer to this.
My symptoms alongside these understood behaviors were and still are feeling out of control, loss of energy, body aches, severe breast pains, difficulty concentrating, wanting to be alone, thoughts of what it would be like to not contribute to this world, change in appetite/tastes, and irritability to certain noises around me. In the moments I have not been able to control all the conflicting emotions, thoughts, and triggers in my surroundings at once, it has driven my anger to the point of wanting to be destructive. If it is not the anger that gets the best of me, then other conflicting emotions typically lead to a panic attack with uncontrollable crying. I rarely ever acted on self-harming thoughts in past trying moments. However, there have been times where it was extremely hard not to.
The first time I ever considered cutting my wrist, I somehow channeled my inner losses and turned to painting. This was around age twenty-two during my last year of undergraduate studies. I had one evening where I was so out of tune with my own body and losing control with everyone and everything around me that all I could think about was self-harming actions. I remember collapsing to the floor and in between the tears I looked up and saw some paintbrushes on the nearby kitchen table. In that moment, I forced myself to hang a piece of paper on the wall and start painting. I remember just the act of hanging the paper was like I was fighting an inner force telling me not to. Once the paper was on the wall, I started with the color red because I imagined what would happen if I did cut my wrist. I put that energy onto the paper in front of me. I honestly have no recollection of how the night ended or when I ultimately fell asleep. All I know now is if I could go back and talk to that younger me, I would have held her when she was on the floor and said, “All your emotions are much greater than you right now. You are capable. You are strong. You are loved. Let’s sit this through together.” And that is all I would have done for younger me, just sit next to her. I am currently tearing up as I write this statement because of knowing how deep the pain was and how much I have recently internally suffered.
Over the next couple of years, I had similar evenings to that night I painted; however, I tried really hard to bury the idea of cutting my wrist because it felt selfish. So instead, I would go for late-night runs until I was exhausted, bash my head into a wall if I could not calm down my spiraling mind, or drink a bottle of wine by myself and fall asleep. Later, living as twenty-four year old me, a year into my master’s program and living in Colorado, I personally identified I had PMDD, after another night’s scare. One evening leaving a friend’s barbeque, I could not ground myself or put my emotions at rest with any form of a coping strategy, so I sat on my kitchen floor when I arrived home crying uncontrollably once again. The barbeque was small, everyone was in high spirits, and nothing happened to me at the event to make me fall apart. I could not comprehend why I suddenly hit a wall. As I was choking on my tears, I grabbed a knife off the counter and chose to actively cut my wrist because I could not take it anymore. I wanted to know if the pain of something else would stop the tornado tearing apart my brain to the point of debilitating dysfunction I felt within. For a moment, it did stop my spiraling thoughts. For a moment, the act of cutting did reroute my brain to focus on something outside myself and numbed my state of overwhelm. Then, as I started to collect my thoughts and became more conscious of my surroundings, I further felt ashamed of myself. “Why am I doing this?” I could not continue to act on such a thing. I somehow got myself to bed, and the next day my bed is where I stayed. From peer exhaustion and actually being afraid of whom I was becoming, I called my parents to tell them about my night and that I needed some sort of help navigating such intense emotions. I was at the end of my rope and did not know how to make sense of anything I experienced anymore.
I had a difficult time sharing and talking through darker moments, such as the nights spent on kitchen floors because of how vulnerable and fragile I was. After having a couple of days to settle down, my parents decided that these regular emotional hurricanes I experienced were something greater than me, and they suggested helping me find a female doctor. This was something I had not considered and was open to the idea. Especially since I felt like some of my experiences were very physical and not necessarily of a mental disorder. I also did not believe that a therapist could sort this out for me at the time because of the bodily aches and pains involved.
After much research and finding a clinic that used our family’s insurance, I was blessed with an amazing female doctor. She treated our first visit as a therapy session and really got to know me, taking my life experiences seriously. On our next visit, she printed some articles and information on Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. She asked me if I had ever heard of PMDD before, and I said, “NO.” I told her I had never heard of this my whole life. She continued to explain she suspected this is what I had been suffering from, and she was not surprised by the worsening of my symptoms because of being in my early twenties. I was relieved to know I was not crazy but was overcome with a wave of helplessness and anger due to not knowing sooner. Growing up, I was taught you get a period, and that is it. In school, the sex education teacher never explained to all of us ladies that our periods may not be exactly the same and that you all may have very different experienced symptoms as your body matures. Overall, the new information I was learning at a fast rate, alongside reading other women’s personal stories, was initially a lot to take in. However, I now feel altogether relieved that I can now name the “other me,” that other me being PMDD.
I am now twenty-six, and over the past three years have had to reclaim, love, accept, and forgive a new me. In a recent marvelous published piece I read called Soulful Silence by Ellen Wimmer, she writes,
“To say that silence is an isolative experience discounts the notion that phenomena have a life and wisdom of their own, that they shape all beings and by extension, connect all beings. One can posit that if I am wrestling with my anxiety, my joy, my grief, that they are still a part of me—that those things are mine and belong to me. For some, that may be true. However, by recognizing the self as a vessel or facilitator and the phenomenon as “the other,” one is able to experience the phenomenon from a place of radical acceptance and humility (page 3).”
This is how I started my process of reclaiming who I am now and who I want to be moving forward. I have taken courageous steps of breaking down a previous lifestyle and trying on a new one this last year. The phenomenon of my whole life experiences and the lessons my body was trying to teach me came together in one flash of my inner psyche. As I removed myself from what my body has battled and put into context what I had actually been experiencing, I could radically accept a body and mind that did not feel like my own. As I mentally came to accept this new inner phenomenon, I could further bring all these new insightful and educational thoughts outside myself within me, owning my life’s story. I now recognize myself as a whole, beautifully crafted, wild human. I have also learned to love both sides of me; more recently see the two sides of me as one harmonious being.
Current Lifestyle Changes
During the educational phase from my doctor and own research, I grew to forgive myself by detaching myself from previous pains and saying, “The pain does not define me.” As I let this process start to unfold and reclaimed my emotions I did not understand over the years, I then started to consciously think about new lifestyle changes. I will be honest and say that to act on what has sounded like simple lifestyle improvements have been harder than I thought. So be VERY patient with yourself and choose one food at a time to replace with another food that does not serve you well and start with three herbal supplements in your daily diet instead of all of them being suggested to you at once. I have had to create my own pace with trying new foods, herbal medicines, vitamins, and daily grounding techniques. What I am learning is that it can take one year just to implement or introduce two new healthy habits into a current routine, making it naturally a part of your lifestyle. I am also learning to listen to my body, and if one herbal remedy is not working, I will not force it. I have literally thrown out recommended remedies and moved right along to the next because we are all so uniquely different, and our bodies do know what is best for them. So listen to that and let your intuition guide you.
A few significant changes I have made that are working for me now have been: mapping out fourteen days prior to the day I bleed, so in the luteal phase, I can be more conscious of what I consume. I also have alternative drink and food choices at hand, take consistent daily vitamins, diffuse essential oils (since I am sensitive to smells), and created a mindful meditation playlist on my Spotify.
Within the fourteen-day time frame, I drink more tea and buy several Health-Ad Kombucha’s to replace my temptation for espresso or a cup of coffee. I have completely cut out wine and have not drunk wine for almost two years now, which has made a huge difference in my “low” times and probably was the best choice I made in starting to accept a new lifestyle. I order Organo coffee from amazon, which is not acidic and easier on my stomach. There are also mushroom coffee packets in local Natural Grocers that can help reduce caffeine intake, but give you that warm sensation normal coffee does. If I do want a beer, I have had to be more mindful of when I choose to have one depending on where I am at in my cycle. Now instead of having a couple of beers at a brewery, I only have one or ask for a half pour, so it is even less of what I use to consume. I have recently started to ask at breweries for a light beer, mixed with more Kombucha. Over this past year, this process is helping me not care for alcohol much at all anymore. For foods, I have been adding more colorful vegetables and fruits to my plate. I make protein smoothies and have healthy energy bars on hand throughout busy days. I have cut out most meats from my diet, which was initially hard because I grew up in the Midwest with many hunters in my family. If I do want meat, I have been buying more vegan-based meatballs or sausages and freezing salmon to have in place of meat during my cycle. This is all still becoming a part of a new routine in how I grocery shop and is very experiential. I do not believe there is a perfect way to eat, and not everyone likes the same foods, so I have learned just to play and be open to new flavors and recipes throughout this process.
The vitamins I take daily are D3, Super B-Complex, Magnesium, and Fish Oil. The essential oils I diffuse are xiang mao, rose absolute, ylang-ylang, fulfill your destiny, and valor. The essential oils I have rubbed on my belly area and lower back are blends with bergamot and progessence plus in them. I have only been using these oils persistently for under a year now, and I am still growing to understand how each one helps ground me in moments or states of overwhelm. The only herbal supplements I have tried are chaste berry and St. John’s Wort. Chaste berry gave me intense headaches, so I tossed it. St. John’s Wort I took persistently for a week and it made my chest feel tight and weightless which kept me feeling anxious. I know some herbal supplements say to take them for up to six weeks until you experience a noticeable change. However, if they make you uncomfortable over the course of a week, I do not believe we should force it upon ourselves longer because then you are going against the waves of your body’s course. I am currently open to herbal supplements that have helped or are helping other women, since none have made an uplifting difference for me. Other than detox teas and ginger baths, I am staying with my current routine until I am comfortable trying a new herbal remedy again.
I tried medication at the end of the month when I first found out I had PMDD at age twenty-four, which was in 2017. My doctor prescribed an antidepressant (SSRI) called Citalopram. My doctor thought it would be a good idea to try this medication out a while to see if it truly was my menstrual cycle playing a role in my depressive symptoms each month. I followed through with the process, starting out with .5mg daily for one month. I was taking it at night before bed in case I had any side effects. I did have difficulty sleeping and would see flashes of yellow from the corner of my eyes through certain movements. Therefore, I began taking it in the morning, which did not affect me as much as nighttime. Being on an SSRI did make my symptoms stop, and my period was coming and going each month as if I was a normal functioning human. Due to Citalopram drastically helping my symptoms, my doctor concluded I do have PMDD. After a month, my doctor increased my daily dosage to 10mg, and after about two months of this, I had to stop completely. I felt zombie-like on this medication, and because I am an empath, enjoy the emotionally expressive sides of me, and never believed in medication for myself, I listened to what was right for me and stopped taking it. I knew I would have to go back to fighting my symptoms again, although, this time, I saw it as a challenge and was ready to find my own natural balances with each new monthly challenge.
Fueling my inner child by finding outlets for play through expressive activities is where it has always started for me when it comes to healing. Connecting with the outdoors as I did as a young girl has been one way I have re-connected with who I am. So I implement time to go into the woods or simply go for a walk in my neighborhood when everything around me seems unmanageable. I also close my eyes and take deep, elongated breaths, telling myself, “You are light. You are able.” Sometimes I repeat this and allow myself to doze off to sleep, so I do not get overly fixated on what I cannot control for the day. I also continue to paint and play with fine chalks on pastel paper because it has a child-like quality to it. As I have come to accept a radical lifestyle change, this disorder has made me live in the moment more than I ever have in the past. I have been trying to ask myself more frequently what it means to live in the day and just pick one thing I can control for the time being. This is going to be a life practice!
If I had to describe Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder to someone else and as I continually try to make sense of it myself, the following is how I will approach sharing with someone:
PMDD is a delicate dance between mental states of an overwhelmed, damaged self to a reflective, conscious self. In the storm is impulse, quick action, and recklessness, and the reality outside of the storm is mindfulness, thoughtful choices, and self-appreciation. When the cycle is complete, one can focus and has a crazy amount of energy throughout the day. Clarity comes through and we women start re-building the courage to accomplish what we have not yet finished, find space to make peace with ourselves and those we may have hurt, further pick up on something we left behind while being in the storm, and then move on to our next calling. We are in constant search of internal freedom. This is why battling the ideas of what it means to escape in times of a storm becomes a women’s only option of thought.
The most challenging piece to this disorder is reaching a state of awareness while submerged in the storm of the lost, debilitated self. Therefore lays an ongoing question, “How do we women choose to have a more consciously prepared self toward each of our own personal experiences?” because our storms are all experienced on different levels. I believe something we can all relate to is the desperate need to find inner tranquility when all combating symptoms consume the body’s ability to move a muscle, lying stagnant, and the mind is searching for anything to cease the pain. The impulsivity in these trial moments is what makes us at risk to our own self. Maybe it is in the mind where we have to memorize a calming script that we can turn to when we do not want to physically move for the day. When we are living in our best weeks of the month is when we should be most conscious of what our greatest joys are and gathering the tools necessary to calm the soul when our mind is fogged by combating symptoms. Otherwise, we are back in the perpetuated ideas of what it means to escape ourselves.
This disorder is a continuation of inner approvals and disapprovals that want to leave you restless. However, when you choose to be in it, truly be in it, and by “it” I mean your own humanly existence with a conscious understanding of where you are at in your cycle, then you can deeply accept, understand, and rest because the truth is “it” is just you. Nothing else, No one else is against you or for you. You are just unapologetically, authentically you.
As I continue to walk through my days, I allow the different voices to go through me at different times and label the voices, so I can journal the message that comes through with each new voice that speaks profound wisdom to me. I now see the monster residing within me as me, not separate, and I am courageously choosing to love it. As I continue to journal my experiences living with PMDD, it is taming the beast within.
Thank you for listening to the start of my story.