Once a month, I feel like I’m going to die.
It starts with a subtle pain in my upper back that slowly inches to my lower back, erupting like a fire in my lower abdomen.
In high school, my physical pain caused by my period was inhibiting to the point where I’d have to be pulled out of class early. Often, if I didn’t have access to any painkillers, I would clench my stomach and cry until I was forced into a restless sleep. The pain that occurred every month never failed to leave me doubled over.
Although my physical pain has lessened, the mental pain that comes with a period has never really gone away.
Many would refer to this mental pain as premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. PMS is known for causing mood swings and seemingly “irrational” behavior. But my feelings during my period feel far from irrational.
As a nonbinary person, my period heavily triggers my gender dysphoria. The American Psychiatric Association describes gender dysphoria as “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.” I have come to accept my body, my femininity and my sexuality, but accepting my period has been extremely difficult.
When I was younger, maybe around 8 years old, I’d hear my mom call my name from the bathroom. “Elaina! Bring me a Kotex!” I’d drop the dolls I was playing with and run to her purse. She taught me that was where she kept her pads. I’d grab one and run to the restroom, handing it to her past the door that was left slightly ajar.
Once, I asked, “What are those for? Why do you always need me to bring them to you?” My question came mainly out of annoyance because I didn’t understand why she didn’t keep them on her if she knew she needed them.
She answered, “They’re for your period. You only get your period when you’re a woman. Right now, you’re just a little girl; you don’t have to worry about that yet.”
But when I finally got my period around age 11, I didn’t feel like a woman. I felt like an awkward kid who didn’t even feel so comfortable being called a girl. My mother claimed I was now a woman, though, and she said it was time for me to learn about periods.
“Women get their periods when their bodies begin making eggs,” she said. “Eggs are how babies are made, but when an egg isn’t filled with a baby, it dies, and our body has to let go of the dead egg by bleeding.”
She didn’t explain how these magical eggs were filled with babies, but I took her word for it. Everything she told me I believed. Even if I didn’t feel like a woman or a girl at the time, I trusted what she said to be true and thought that I’d eventually feel like the woman she assumed I was.
My elementary school only reaffirmed what my mother taught me. One day, they separated girls and boys and told us we were going to learn about puberty. The girls were strictly taught about their periods, how their bodies would transform and what boys had to do with the magical eggs. Both my mom and my school had a hand in teaching me that periods are strictly a reproductive trait belonging to women and women alone.
And so, on the first day of my cycle, the pain I feel is at its worst — not just because of the physical pain but because of this unwanted reminder, a reminder that no matter how much I have distanced myself from womanhood, I still have to deal with a part of myself that is gendered by others.
Once I’m reminded of this, I’m reminded of the many other aspects of my being that are gendered against my will: being called “ma’am” by a stranger on the street or being told I’m growing up to be “a beautiful woman” by a family member. Normally, I’m able to brush these things off. I’m able to remind myself I’m not out, and so I can’t be mad if people misgender me. I remind myself that not everyone is educated on the subject.
Out of frustration, I sometimes begin to theorize a world in which periods aren’t gendered. What if we were taught about periods in the same room with boys? What if we were taught that many people can get their periods, that periods are not just limited to women and that trans men and gender-nonconforming people can get their periods, too? We could also be taught that you don’t have to get your period in order to be a woman.
Once a month, I feel like I’m going to die.
But once a month, I am also able to envision a world where the language used to teach kids about periods doesn’t confer gender upon them. I long to live in such a world.