Periods were called "The Curse" at the boarding school I went to. Aged 11, in the first few weeks of term we were taken into the toilets by the girls in the year above and put through what was named, "Corruption." This involved a humiliating quiz to see who knew the most about sex and puberty and then we watched as a girl shoved a tampon in a glass of water to demonstrate what happens inside us.
We had a rule that when one of us in our year started the Curse we had to let everyone else know. I remember saying to one girl, "Congratulations on being a woman." Where that came from, I don't know.... And that was it. There wasn't any informative education from female teachers about menstruation, or what to expect. How normal it might feel to have a bloated stomach, stomach cramps, and changes in mood. What to do if you leaked into your underwear or bed. Reassurance. So the silence just meant we all just got on with it. A period was something we were cursed with and should never be something that should get in the way of our activity or school work. I continued this belief and pattern into my early 40s.
It was in the gym one day, talking to other women when I exclaimed that I don't get PMT. "Yeah, right, " They said. "Do you ever notice that your mood changes, that sometimes you have more energy than other times?" I realised then, that I had always put those feelings down to mental health, even wondering if I was bi-polar at times. "It is just fluctuations in your hormones," I was told.
Wow. It took me nearly 40 years to realise that I am just the same as every other woman and to really tune into and listen to my body. It is not a sign of mental illness having mood swings. Or having times when you want to binge on chocolate and lie on the sofa and other times you feel you could run a marathon. How strongly I denied this connection to my menstrual cycle.
For girls growing up in boarding schools, they miss out on parenting. There is no mother to role model how to manage your monthly cycle. To normalise the different stages that our bodies go through every week throughout every month of the year. Being brought up in a boarding school formed on patriarchal values, girls also learn that vulnerability is a weakness and signs of the feminine should be suppressed. Education often comes from one another - other teenage girls who are relaying the information that was relayed to them by the year above.
I discovered a woman called Lucy Peach on You Tube who talks about "The Power of the Period." She explains the different seasons of a period and how to act accordingly to each week you are in. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. She advises you to keep the week quieter when you are on your period (winter) with the reassurance that the following week (Spring), your energy would return. Makes so much sense.
If only I had known this as a teenage girl and given my body what it needed rather than pushing it so hard, believing my period should never get in the way of anything I did. As I enter Peri-Menopause, this information sadly has come too late. However, I feel grateful I will not pass this same belief pattern on to my own daughters.
When facing the next dilemma of whether to take HRT, I notice my own survival personality rearing its head again. "You'll be fine, other women might need it, but you can handle it."
How long do I wait? Do I wait until I am falling off a cliff before I acknowledge the impact of the peri-menopause on my own mental and physical health? Is it a weakness not to be able to just put up with it? Or am I just the same as every other woman and when my hormones fall away it makes it very difficult to continue this lifestyle with all its modern-day demands?
As soon as I started taking the HRT I felt different. I knew at that point it was a placebo effect, but I had asked for help and I felt supported. Maybe I didn't have to just grin and bear it and reinforce my strength to myself and the world by going through menopause on my own.
The "Survival Personality, " coined by Nick Duffel, that children create to get through boarding school can be incredibly hard to let go of. It serves a purpose at the time but as an adult can cause havoc in relationships and how we look after ourselves. By increasing our awareness of this, we can start to see chinks in its armour and start to change our behaviour patterns. This then benefits our adult selves and those around us.
Changing hormones during the peri-menopause can often lead women to start to re-evaluate themselves at this time of life. I often work with women at this stage of life as it is a catalyst for the survival personality to start to fall away. Past traumas are calling out to be processed and grief to be felt and released. Unfortunately, HRT can't help with all of this and it takes a lot of courage to keep going on this path that is needed before moving into the next wondrous chapter of life.
I am providing a training with my colleague Sara Warner in October for Therapists and Coaches who work with women who went to boarding school in which we highlight so many of the impacts of growing up in a school, and the nuances and hidden traumas that are so easily missed for women. Both by the ex-boarder and the therapist.
For more information click on the link below.