Emotional and social politics of PMS

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I was a sink with a leaky faucet. The tears wouldn’t stop. There was nothing wrong. I wasn’t sad. I just couldn’t stop crying. My mind churned out reasons to be sad, and I cried until I had a pair of swollen goldfish eyes. The worst part about it? This wasn’t the first time.

Once, I cried for the entire drive down to Los Angeles, stopping only to make a phone call — which I cut short because the sobbing became too violent for me to continue talking about how I wasn’t actually sad.

Riding BART one afternoon, I teared up when I spotted a white-haired couple with fine wrinkles running the length of arms they’d wrapped around each other. The woman cradled her head, eyes closed, in the curve of his neck. They looked like a sculpture. It was beautiful. Was it beautiful enough to render me paralyzed, clutching the hanging strap and rocking in the middle of the BART train, my face streaked with tears? I’m not so sure.

Another time, I started crying because the only thing to do in the wooded rural town of Tillamook, Oregon, was to visit a cheese factory. We planned to stealth-camp that night, but the small town had a disproportionately large transient population. We wandered until I started wailing on the sidewalk. We could have left to camp on farmland, but instead, the tears wouldn’t stop. I remember saying, “I hate Tillamook. This is such a God-forsaken town. I hope I never, ever find myself here again.”

This strikes every 27 days, like clockwork. Days 19 to 27 become increasingly difficult. When the tears finally come, I feel relieved — the end is just around the corner — and, at the same time, completely forlorn. It feels like someone’s whisked my brain into meringue. It’s fluffy and empty. Nothing’s rational. Everything’s emotional. I’m tired. Cranky. Lost in a brain fog so thick San Francisco looks sunny by comparison. My stomach becomes an industrial-strength vacuum inhaling everything edible within 20 feet of it, and satiety becomes an abstraction I’ve heard spoken of but can’t imagine.

Despite extensive scientific research and thoughtful analyses of the social and political implications of premenstrual syndrome as both a medical complication and a cultural phenomenon, a dire lack of social and cultural understanding persists. This is not about being nice or sympathetic. What’s at stake is how we conceptualize personal agency and gender equality.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, up to three out of four women experience at least one physical or emotional symptom of PMS. But the number and severity of symptoms varies dramatically from person to person. I struggle explaining to men and women who don’t experience PMS that it’s painful and debilitating in ways different from other common ailments such as the flu. I hesitate to tell people just how much PMS affects my ability to think and act rationally, since their preconceptions are inevitably colored by every joke, complaint or snide remark they’ve heard on TV and in their social circles.

There’s the one that goes, “Why do women call it PMS?”

“Because mad cow disease was already taken.”

Sure, laughter is the best medicine. But we can do better than that.

Here’s one way to picture it: less mad cow, more angsty pubescent. It’s easier to recall our most irrational teenage moments (and PMS-colored days) with disbelief and emotional distance. Was that really me? Did I really talk, act, think, feel, etc. that way? We mask our horror with bemusement.

Attitudes toward PMS can be divided into a few camps: Some argue it’s a construct, others believe women are inherently emotional and irrational, and a third group finds the syndrome annoying or disruptive. Next month, I will explore the latter two schools of thought in this column.

The first group, which includes some medical professionals, sees PMS as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They believe I’ve been brainwashed so thoroughly I can believe nothing else. I induce the crankiness, the exhaustion and the depression and make false correlations between these negative experiences and my menstrual cycle. Some feminists get angry about it. After all, it’s a superstition that keeps us down. Fight the patriarchy! Womyn unite! I understand that anger, but I’m not only speaking for myself when I say I’ve wished, with every premenstrual tear, that it were imaginary.

I know it’s not just in my head: it used to sneak up on me when I wasn’t paying attention. I would think I was having a couple of bad days. I would wonder why I was having consecutive migraine attacks and trouble focusing and sleeping — why I was picking fights over trivialities with people I cared about. Mostly, I would wonder why I cried — all day. I checked my calendar, and it would be exactly 25 days into my menstrual cycle. It was that time of the month. Again.

Sophie Lee writes the Thursday column on health and wellness. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @sophieylee.