Midlife melancholy

Midlife melancholy

Image for representation

Over 30 years ago, I bled, bled, and bled. Now over 30 years later, I bleed. Even as ‘Period. End of Sentence’, wins the Best Documentary Short, at the venerable 2019 Academy Awards, I bleed. Only this time, I bleed red anger. Because even after all this time, more than 400 of the 769 young, unmarried women that Delhi-based campaigning non-profit Haiyya surveyed said that they were not sure if their problem was ‘severe’ enough for them to visit a gynaecologist. Just as I wasn’t sure. And those that ought to have known better weren’t either.

I still wonder why my excessive bleeding from down there did not ring the same alarm bells that all excessive bleeding from anywhere should? What made my mother dispatch the teenage me to a long-retired “lady doctor” in our neighbourhood for some mysterious emergency medication that made it all stop, briefly?

What was the reason that my mother, a college graduate who prided herself on her modernity, and her four vaginal births, not take my staccato bleeding and not bleeding, seriously enough to book an emergency appointment with a gynaecologist? What made her prefer to stay quiet? But I really wonder, what made me not want to make a noise?

These 769 young women, and millions more, have answers to the questions I didn’t even know to ask. In one word, the answer is ‘sharam’ or shame, a precious, but equally a puerile phenomenon that marks the transformation of girls into women, much like their first period does. In two words, the answer is shame and the system. In three words, the answer is shame, the system, and the society.

These are also excellent excuses, for our willful neglect of ourselves, and for this, we women, particularly those of us that have the claim to education and privilege, must bear some of the blame. My story may have begun with the relatively benign bleeding, but iAt ended in the excruciating pain of ovarian torsion, and emergency surgery, for which I continue to pay the price of not being able to buy halfway decent health insurance.

All did not end well, because women like me, whose being seen is still being debated, being heard is somewhat of an experiment, being known to bleed is best denied, are still being trained not to tell. Pain, and pleasure, are both taboo.

I did eventually go to a gynaecologist but it took another 10 or so years, and not because I’d bled and bled and bled, which I had, but because I found myself doubled up in pain. I visited the city’s top-notch gynaecologist for what turned out to be a forgettable but unforgettable experience.

An assembly line of patients was put through a hierarchy of gynaecologists, who attended to at least three women at a go, in one room, till you got to “top-notch”, who then told you, in the middle of a ‘vaginal’ that you had overreacted. Or over-acted. The system succeeded in failing me in my feminine frailty, for no fault of mine. As it does the 18% of the women Haiyya surveyed, who said they feel uncomfortable and scared of being judged by the service provider.

Lack of awareness

This is echoed by Rebecca A. Nebel, PhD, of the Society for Women’s Health Research, in her article ‘Assessing Research Gaps and Unmet Needs in Endometriosis’ for the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, “Due in part to the societal normalisation of women’s pain and stigma around menstrual issues, there is also a lack of disease awareness among patients, healthcare providers, and the public.”

The shame of these encounters, if you are lucky enough to afford to have them, and if honour doesn’t come in the way to a doctor, persists long after the symptoms of the sickness go away, albeit only to return in some other shape and form.

Like the notice of decline by a health insurer because I had undergone an unpronounceable surgery that had led to the extraction of some unmentionable body parts. At 45, after being married for 17 years, and sexually active for more, and delivering one human, I can still feel the remnants of my girlhood shame, like long-forgotten uneven pebbles in my pocket.

Now, as a peri-menopausal parent to a pubertal 11-year old, I have flooded her bookshelf with every conceivable book on her body, and my home is littered with all manner of strategically-placed pantyliners, sanitary pads, tampons, and the like, and there is much shared glee in front of the grocery store aisle in discovering even more.

I am told, through the family grapevine, that I really shouldn’t have, and it’s all a bit too much. The birds and the bees are best left, not on bookshelves, but on trees. But in handing her body to her in a book, my daughter is also my chance to reclaim my own body, from the birds and the bees, and the trees. 

And now 30 years later, I still remember that I bled and I bled and I bled. What if 30 years later, my daughter finds her mother’s long-forgotten, uneven pebbles in her pocket?

(The writer is a communications and policy professional)