It’s the night before Christmas Eve. I am twelve and three quarters years old. I come home from swim practice and see an unexpected splotch in my underwear that looks like blood, but brassier. This color is not represented in American Girl’s Keeping and Caring of You.
The next day I go to the airport with my dad and my nine-year-old little brother to pick up my grandparents. I am convinced that everyone knows I’m wearing a pad. I don’t want my mom to tell anyone, though it seems likely that my grandmother and aunt know. This is the first time that I’m jealous my mother has a sister while I don’t. I envy the emotional labor that she can share, starting with but not limited to, having your period during the holidays. My little brother will never have to deal with this embarrassment. I hate him for it.
One day, after I’ve been getting my period for about two months, I tell my mom that my stomach hurts and I don’t want to go to swim practice. She assures me exercise will help the cramps.
I stand in my bathroom unable to put on a swimsuit. Pain swells throughout my abdomen, my back aches, my skin stings with sweat but I’m freezing. I look at myself in the mirror. My reflection is pale and the sound of my breath blurs until I can’t hear much at all. In a moment, I can’t see anything. The silence is interrupted by a crash.
When I open my eyes, I’m on the tile floor of the bathroom. Around me is a broken glass that held shells collected from trips to Florida, the Jersey Shore, and Hawaii, also scattered on the floor. My mom rushes in to ask what happened.
I cry naked on the bathroom floor and vomit and ask what’s wrong with me. She doesn’t know; she never experienced period cramps like this. Exercise will not help the particular brand of PMS that causes fainting spells. In fourteen years, I will be referred to an endometriosis specialist.
We don’t go to swim practice that night. I don’t know what excuse she tells my little brother.
Another swim meet. I’m fifteen and have gotten used to tampons and regularly popping Advil once a month. It’s a badge of honor that I have these problems which none of my friends can relate to. I am somehow more woman than them.
Before my first race I go to the bathroom. In the stall I feel lightheaded and a stabbing that radiates from the center of my body through my hair and fingernails. I recognize a mom from my team whose daughters I coach. She fetches my mother for me with a grace I can’t appreciate because I’m retching over a public pool toilet.
In this moment, I fantasize about a hysterectomy. Though I haven’t heard that word, the fantasy is of my organs being taken out, told they’re no good, but that’s okay. I don’t have to have this problem anymore.
My father drives me home. I lay down in the backseat of the minivan where I groan, sigh, cry, and, in the worst moments, am reduced to silence. My mom and little brother get a ride home from the pool with some neighbors. I don’t know what reason they give for me to have left before swimming any of my races.
By seventeen it is clear that this problem is not getting better. The gynecologist suggests hormonal birth control. We are Catholic, but not that much, so my parents say okay.
This summer our family is going on a safari in Tanzania. We go far out into the world to get a break from our own. The worse our phones work, the less of the language we understand, the more fulfilled we return.
Before we can go, we need vaccinations and prescriptions for malaria pills. All four of us sit in a room with a doctor who specializes in these less common medications. My mother asks about me.
“My daughter just started oral contraceptives, but for medical reasons, not because she needs birth control! I’m not worried about it working for that, but, if the medications could interfere for taking care of her other issues.” Her question isn’t really a question, just rambling.
My little brother is the most aloof person I know. His fourteen-year-old self surely doesn’t pay enough attention for the phrase “oral contraceptive” to register, but “birth control” he’ll recognize. Whether he wants to or not, my little brother knows something about my period.
I’ve been getting my period for ten years, half of that time under the regulation of hormonal birth control. Over the years I switched pills four times due to side effects like having my period twice in one month or migraines. I suspect that my body is somehow immune to the pills, rejecting every attempt to calm itself.
The summer after I graduate college we go on another family trip: two weeks in China. If I don’t take my pill at the exact same time every day I’ll bleed within an hour. Since I’ve been taking the pill at 5:00PM at home, I need to take it at 5:00AM during out trip. My brother and I share hotel rooms, so he wakes up when my alarms go off. He is in college now. I know he knows what birth control is, but I don’t know if he understands why I’m so strict about mine, waking him up before dawn.
He never asks me any questions. I wonder if he remembers those times when we were kids and I came home from school early or skipped dinner with the family. I wonder if he ever wished for an older brother instead of a sister. I hope this will make him a compassionate husband and a gentle father to daughters, should he have any. I wonder if he would have learned some things any other way.
Lauren Cortese is a fiction writer working on her first novel. She is currently based in Annapolis, MD and will soon begin PhD studies at the University of East Anglia. This is her first published piece of creative nonfiction.
Wow this is an amazing read! I’ve already read it more than once. It was so moving yet relatable. I honestly don’t have much words except, ‘wow’. This was beautifully written and I felt like you did an amazing job carrying us through this experience, and having us understand your viewpoint, even as you grew. I’d love to read more of your writing in the future, thank you for sharing this with us!