Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

PartnersSeptember 5, 2023

‘It’s a bloody mess’: Six people on what they wish everyone knew about periods

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Everyone who gets their period has a different kind of experience. Here, six people talk about the things they wish they knew earlier.

From bleeding through your pants onto the couch, to being ignored or misdiagnosed for more serious conditions, the spectrum of issues surrounding periods is wide and often misunderstood.

We asked a group of people – from an athlete to a mum to a women’s health expert – to talk about what their periods are like, what they’ve learnt since their first, and what they want others to know.

Wendy Talbot, athlete, 31

The week before champion kickboxer Wendy Talbot’s period arrives is generally a “bloody mess”.

“I have next to no energy, I can’t focus, I feel shitty,” says the professional fighter, “training feels like it is not going to plan, and you’re filled with self-doubt.”

Talbot, 31, is based out of Auckland gym City Kickboxing and is in the midst of a fight camp for a bout in October. She was actually on her period when she spoke to The Spinoff and described her current training regime.

“I’m doing two to three workouts a day, six days a week – and when you’re bleeding out ya hooch that is not fun.”

She wishes she had always known how her period can affect her mental and physical output.

Talbot has been fighting since she was 17 but it’s only been in the last two years she has started to take her cycle into consideration. 

“As women we are always told to push through, but there needs to be more talk about it because there are things we can do about it – we can taper off our training and rest more around our periods.”

“We bleed once a month and if our cycle falls within fight night, we have to consider that.”

This happened to Talbot once: “I went to sleep the night before weigh in and I woke up with my period and an extra 1.2kgs.” 

She jumped in the sauna to try and sweat it off, but missed weight by 500 grams. The fight still went ahead, but she lost money as a result.

With more girls coming on the fighting scene she’s grateful they have each other to share their experiences with. She wants to see increased awareness around female fighters and their periods, especially how they can train and weight cut safely.

Priya Delana, mother of two, 37

Priya Delana only found out she had endometriosis while giving birth to her first baby.

Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) grows outside of the uterus. It affects one in 10 New Zealand people with uteri, with symptoms like period and pelvic pain and heavy bleeding, and can impact fertility.

Delana was 35 and, prior to falling pregnant, had been getting her period like clockwork for over 20 years. Every month her period was accompanied by intense pain, but because her cycle was regular this was never investigated. 

A family history of endometriosis can be a risk factor, but her symptoms continued to be overlooked even after her younger sister was diagnosed with the condition in 2016.

It wasn’t until her emergency caesarean section in 2021 when the medical team discovered an extensive growth of endometrial lining.

Other than an “off-handed remark” from her surgeon who was surprised she had been able to conceive at all, Delana was sent home with no information about what this diagnosis meant for her.

Her period came back around five months later, still regular but more painful than before. Shortly after, she fell pregnant again, giving birth to baby number two naturally in May. Three months on, she is yet to get her period back.

Since the age of 14, Delana says she normalised her symptoms, thanks to a naturally high pain tolerance and people telling her it’s “normal” to be sore.

On a scale of one to 10, she says the pain is a seven, an eight on a bad day. Her tactic? Just deal with it: “I’ve normalised it so that a hot water bottle and panadol is enough.” 

Delana finds herself wishing she had always known the intense pain she was experiencing on her period wasn’t normal: “Why did it take an emergency c-section for me to get a diagnosis?” 

Mo Webb-Liddall, student, 21

Mo Webb-Liddall got their period at 13, in year nine. Since then, they say their period has been pretty regular. “I’ve always been pretty lucky – I’ve basically never been caught off-guard.” 

They don’t recall any horror stories of being caught unprepared, and say that the cramps they get each month are easily quashed with an ibuprofen.

But despite their relative luck with the physical symptoms, Webb-Liddall has trouble with the psychological effect of their period, due to their ADHD diagnosis. 

“My PMS is a lot harsher and my ADHD symptoms get worse when I’m on my period. I get more brain fog and my concentration is even worse when I’m getting or on my period because the hormone drops my dopamine levels even further.”

And they still have trouble getting support for these challenges, which are often hard to explain to work or university.

“You can’t necessarily work around all the deadlines with uni, and even with work, if I’m in that phase of my cycle I can’t focus so it’s much harder to get anything done, but I don’t know what they could do about that.”

They wish there was more understanding of the diverse range of experiences of people on their period, that the mental toll for some can be just as debilitating as the cramps that others experience. They’re still learning to be patient with themselves when their PMS symptoms are particularly strong.

“I get really irritable and my fuse is way shorter. I’ll be more grumpy at work or with friends and then I’ll feel guilty. I have to try to be gentle with myself, as well as with the people around me.”

And while they are confident that they’ve never been caught out unprepared, Webb-Liddall always makes sure their pockets are stocked with tampons, should they or anyone they’re with need one.

“I have tampons in every pocket, in every bag, just in case. Every time I move flat I’ve found like four boxes-worth hidden away in random pockets.”

Marissa Holder, diagnosed with endometriosis, 33

Every month, Marissa Holder is “out of action” for 36 hours, the pain caused by her endometriosis leaving her unable to work, move or even think.  

She used to be out for three whole days, until she recently started taking tranexamic acid, an antifibrinolytic drug which reduces the amount of time she spends both bleeding and in pain. 

But still, when the endometriosis pain hits, the busy 33-year-old has to cancel all her commitments: work, band practice, gym and social events until the symptoms subside.

Coming to terms with this reality has seen Holder give up aspirations of working as a personal trainer, knowing she can’t cancel on clients repeatedly every month.

It’s an unpredictable condition: “when it hits, it hits, there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” she says, but counts herself lucky to have a job and a network around her that are understanding and supportive.

Her diagnosis took 10 years and multiple appointments with different doctors, despite persistent symptoms from the age of 15 that worsened in her 20s. 

“Eventually at 25 I found a doctor who didn’t brush me off and properly investigated,” says Holder.

Since then she’s had a laparoscopy, a type of keyhole surgery used to remove the endometriosis, but the tissue has since grown back. She’s tried the oral contraceptive pill, the Depo-provera injection and the Mirena intrauterine device, all commonly used to manage endometriosis symptoms, but these caused negative side effects like drastic mood swings.

With no plans to have children, Holder considered having her womb removed, citing the irony of suffering through endometriosis for a reproductive system she doesn’t even want. 

She changed her mind when she realised that the surgery might manage some, but not all, of her symptoms and could leave her with a different raft of side effects.

With tranexamic acid now reducing the length of her debilitating symptoms, it’s better to deal with the devil you know, says Holder.

“People react so differently to different treatments, so it’s a balancing act of choosing what we want to suffer from.”

Her message to others is not to give up: “If you get stuck, don’t give up talking, ask around for advice.”

Orna McGinn, Auckland specialist GP with a special interest in women’s health

Dr Olivia Stuart, fertility specialist and obstetrician at Fertility Associates in Auckland

The challenge is that troublesome periods continue to be normalised, says Auckland specialist GP Orna McGinn. “There is an expectation that periods will be sore, heavy, abnormal and people feel unable to say they are not happy about this,” she says.

McGinn has long been an advocate for women’s health and says she’d like to see women talking to each other more about what they’re feeling – if you can’t leave the house because you’re in so much pain, that’s not normal, says McGinn.

Fertility specialist Olivia Stuart (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahungunu), finds that people will have period problems for most of their life but will soldier on without taking pain relief or seeking help. She stresses the importance of seeking help when you notice anything unusual about your period and that using a period app can help to keep track.

“It’s hard to remember your period when there’s so much else going on in life. With an app you can see clearly if your periods are consistently long, heavy, irregular or absent.”

But Stuart also wants people to know that periods are like snowflakes: no two are ever exactly the same.

“We’re led to believe, especially as doctors at medical school, that every 28 days we see the same bleeding, but it’s never like that.

“If it’s really light, then heavy the next time, that’s quite normal, so long as it is manageable and there are no other concerning symptoms.”

Both women say it’s important to listen to your own body, and to find a doctor who takes your word seriously.

“Don’t give up or take no for an answer,” says McGinn, because symptoms of PCOS and endometriosis can show differently, but there are ways to treat and manage the pain – from surgeries to medicines, McGinn says, that “can be life-changing.”

Having seen hundreds of women through their practices, and through their own experiences, McGinn and Stuart agree that periods are different for everyone. Armed with that knowledge, they hope people feel empowered to be more open about their periods.

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