It’s a mild September morning, when you tell your parents you feel too unwell to go to school, and it isn’t a lie. But it isn’t the truth either.
The truth hit you the previous night, in the colour of crimson on paper white, the red dripping onto the stone floor tiles. Your face paled to match the paint on the wall behind, as your reflection, wide eyed, stared back at you under the harsh brightness of bathroom lights. Your soul left your body then, just for a little while, leaving you barely standing, weak and feeling fragile, like the dainty flower they’d say you are, but you never wanted to be. Deny.
Luckily you were home at the time, but “lucky” was the last you thought of yourself. It was a wake up call, a smack in the face with a rock in a sock or something just that hard: life.
You were less than ready for this roadblock to land between you and your treasured dreams, but you should’ve seen it coming: you knew what it was, you have been told before. In a vague, cryptic way, you were told to expect it and it always sounded like a problem nobody wanted to talk about. But no matter the hints and the warning signs, you were caught off guard, and couldn’t help feeling like you drew the short straw and were dealt the wrong cards. You’d never thought it would actually happen to you. It felt wrong and unfair in every way, it was a betrayal, a mistake, an ill-humoured twist of fate. Not a part of the future you dreamed up for yourself. Not something you would need or ever want and you really weren’t ready at the age of twelve, but let’s face it: you would’ve never been ready. Not for what was to come. At that point, you should’ve learnt: life can and will always get worse.
At dinner, you didn’t say anything, or nothing that you can remember, anyways. You don’t recall if anybody said anything either, you only remember staring into nothing as you often do, sitting at the table in your yellow, duck print pyjamas and toilet tissue folded inside your underwear, sipping your cocoa with unmatched anxiety. It will pass, you promised yourself, when you went to bed with your dozens of teddy bears, hanging onto stubborn hope and pretence that nothing was happening and nothing had to change, because your body would listen and change its mind.
It did not.
The next morning, you feel sick to your stomach when it’s clear that yesterday’s nightmare didn’t evaporate at the touch of the first rays of sunlight, it didn't dissolve at the crack of dawn. It’s staying, as your uninvited private guest for a while. You sneak around like an assassin, hiding from sight and hiding all evidence. At breakfast, you still don’t say anything apart from what you had already decided: you are not going to school. You don’t remember much of a push back, it must be because you actually look ill. But you spare your parents the details, even though you need help, because anything devastating enough has to be said from a safe distance: you aren’t good with words out loud and face to face. You are better at writing them. So you wait until they leave the house and text your mum. You don’t say the taboo words or anything difficult, you only say as much as you must, and that your belly hurts. That last one is a lie, but you write it still, so that you don’t leave room for misunderstanding. You would rather die than to explain it, after all.
Your mum buys you what you need to catch the blood and leaves you be, which you are grateful for. You eat a whole bar of Milka every day and mark these days in your Hello Kitty calendar (which was a gift, but you secretly like it) because you are told to keep track of them, colouring a tiny triangle slice of the corner of each day’s cell discreetly. Nobody should even think to ask about the meaning behind such a small detail, but just in case, you make sure not to use a red pen.
It’s over in a little more than a week with you hitting a brand new high score of getting blood on the most clothes over the shortest time, and you are keen to forget the shame. At this point, you don’t truly believe it would return to you, but it comes like clockwork, your unwelcome wretched curse. Twenty days is all you’ve got. Twenty days of bliss you always took for granted and mistook for forever. How did you not realise how good you had it? Your spirits fall with the autumn leaves as reality sinks in, dressed in blood and dying, as the trees fall asleep for winter. You stay up late.
This is why girls don’t go on adventures, you realise, thinking about all your favourite books. You are not going to live the life of your dear Gary Stu, Old Shatterhand, travelling the wild west on horseback and falling in love with an Apache prince. That door slammed shut in your face and was bolted, the key turning in the lock at the first drop of blood before you ever stepped outside. You will never live that life. Now, the need for convenient access to bathrooms and period products is an obstacle in your way (far greater than being born in the wrong century to start with), it’s a fence too high to jump. No more precious wild west dreams and pink smoked tipi nights, no more fighting alongside Winnetou. Your tragically fictional heroes would no doubt be just as disgusted by you as you are by what you had to become or in the best case they would simply not notice you: you can be a throwaway character to treat a wounded man once, not even getting a paragraph in the whole book. But they would mention, if you are pretty enough.
There are no more sports, either. You quit for the whole year, only doing PE during the twenty days of bliss between the bloodbaths, when the water doesn’t run red in the shower and you don’t wake in a pool of your own blood buried under your plushie toys, your long pyjama pants soaking red down to your ankles. On those days, you sneak to the bathroom to change and you change your bed. You throw the bloodsoaked sheets and clothes into the laundry basket, folded in a way that it doesn’t show and pretend nothing happened. You always make sure nobody sees you in bloodied clothes.
You miss school a lot. Sometimes, it is just so bad you cannot leave the house, so you tell a lie about how your belly hurts, and stay home. When you do have to go in, it’s overwhelming. Having to double up on period products and still only lasting thirty minutes safely, without bleeding through everything is a red flag painted in blood: it isn’t a good sign and it isn’t normal either, but you don’t know this yet. You only know that you must have a jumper to wear tied around your waist and that the classes are forty five minutes long, so you will spend every single break in-between locked in a bathroom stall, attempting the impossible: to open a new pad without it making a noise.
Some other kids faint at the sight of blood when someone cuts their finger. You are lucky not to be squeamish, for you see your hands covered in your own blood far too often, along with a bathtub that looks like a murder scene. You must be the victim, over and over again. You become very sceptical of investigations on TV dramas where they reveal blood stains with UV lamps and call it “evidence”. According to that, there’s an awful lot of evidence you were murdered with upmost brutality, in multiple locations. You even feel a little bit dead each time, month and month again, a ghost of your own that dreams of a different life. You never get used to it.
The hard things like social gatherings are even harder now: you need the bathroom, and your mind is on whether you can stand up safely without bleeding through your clothes or whether it is too late for that already. You bare your teeth at the man across the table who tells you to smile because the concern on your face does not suit a “pretty girl”. You never hear them nagging the boys with that, but maybe they have a reason to just smile their stupid, ignorant smiles, just discovering their dicks for the first time, instead of having to come to terms with how they’d won the doom lottery, getting sorted a uterus; a troublesome organ you have no intention of making any use of. You always preferred animals to babies.
Turns out, heavy bleeding is far from the worst that can happen to you. The pain you lied about catches up, your own prophecy that cannot be untold. Nor can it be avoided. Again, you didn’t know how good you had it. As time goes on, your PMS eats away at your days of bliss: a few days at first, then a week, and finally two. The short week right after your period is all you have left without cramping and tenderness, a small window when you can just be you, unbothered, or at the very least: unbothered by your own traitor of a body.
That’s not even the worst. The worst is always the first day of the cycle, though it does take a few years to get real bad. First, the painkillers stop working. You try different ones, but swallowing pills causes you more pain, because you never mastered that skill, and so you give up the failing experiment. Next, you realise that there is agony so unbearable for your body that it makes you throw up. Continuously. At that point, nothing helps anymore: no pills, no light therapy and no hot water bottles. The pain doesn’t stop until you fall asleep. Then, you can wake up and feel a little lighter… But sleep does not come in agony.
Despite your pride you are reduced to sweat and tears and begging. You are begging your mother to give you something that works. You beg her to bring over the baseball bat and knock you unconscious, and you beg for drugs you have never tried, and you beg for a kitchen knife. She tells you she cannot help, and that this is just how things are. She tells you pain is just another feeling, a thought in your head and your mind is strong enough to make you feel like it’s something else, just a feeling that doesn’t hurt, like the feeling of somebody stroking your hair, if you can just focus strongly enough. And you try it. You would try anything, but nothing works, and you are always left alone because even your mother doesn’t have the time and patience to watch you toss and turn and cry for hours that stretch longer every month. Your mind is not strong enough. You sink your teeth into your hands and arms and you hit your foot on the wall. Pain cancels pain, but you can’t make it bad enough. You hit your head on the wall to see if you can make yourself pass out but you are too afraid of crashing your skull on it, too afraid to hit hard enough. You simply cannot do it. Eventually, you grow exhausted and pass out. You can finally sleep.
When you wake, you feel light and devoid of sensation, a low-bar euphoria. It’s over for now and you can start counting down the twenty seven days before it happens again. And it happens again. Only, you either got stronger or the pain’s gotten worse, because it takes longer for you to pass out, prolonging agony.
By the time you turn twentythree it lasts twelve hours. Twelve hours of crawling on all fours between your bedroom and the bathroom, which two are luckily still adjacent in the small houseshare where you’re renting your room. It’s also a sick day off work and your manager yells at you over the phone. It’s not like you don’t need that money to pay your rent, and there’s no sick pay. Especially no sick pay for “normal human functions”, but you aren’t just slacking off. You can’t even stand up straight.
But maybe it would be the last time, because on that day you take your first pill. You never wanted to go on them, but it was the only choice offered and at this point you’d really try anything. So when your GP dismisses you like the throwaway female character you are, without giving you the time of day or half a paragraph in your own appointment’s story, you take what you can get. Even if you don’t want it in the first place.
It prevents ovulation, that is what’s hurting you, he says, but he only listened, never examined you. You aren’t sure whether he is right or wrong, but you do know that the day of ovulation is not the same as the first day of the cycle, so you don’t understand. In any case you hoped for more, after hearing the word “endometriosis” for the first time from a colleague, but maybe your doctor just didn’t know how to diagnose that. You try to get a referral for an actual checkup, but he tells you he specialises in gynaecology and you should trust him. You don’t but you don’t get to have another line in the story, so you get out and get your pills, for free, thanks to the NHS, and you take your new, prescription only painkillers which you have to pay for and like all others they don’t work. But there’s hope that those pills might do.
You stay up after you wake. You’ve learned over the years to stay up late: you might get away with four hours of sleep later on, from about 2 AM, if you visit the bathroom just before then, without waking up in a pool of blood when your alarm goes off at six. If it’s your lucky day. You spent endless hours like that, from the very start, turning into a night owl reading through fanfiction sites, and now that you have moved out, it is especially important, if you wish to keep your deposit, that you don’t ruin the mattress that you sleep on.
At least it has never been a struggle to stay up all night and read, for as long as your soul has a place to fly and your mind can get lost in a page of words, you are able to go on those adventures you’ve dreamed of; where you would rather be. Far from the cramps, the blood and nausea, and far from the thought of how you will have to change yourself for the better and the worse, making an imperfect compromise, day after day, one small pill at a time — you don’t want to go to sleep.