I've waged a lifelong battle: me versus estrogen, progesterone, serotonin and their other unpronounceable friends. I may win for a little while, but they’re guaranteed to come raging back and kick my butt monthly.
Given that I got my period when I was 13, I have been fighting this war for 27 years now. That’s as long as the combined years America fought in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Barbary Wars (which I’ve never heard of but apparently we were involved in somehow). I’m getting tired of this unending vicious cycle with my cycle.
It started back in eighth grade when I got my period for the first time. Before I have my period, I am one moody, sobby, stabby girl. Yes, I get the bloating and food cravings and whatnot, but that stuff doesn’t bother me--what does is the inability to control my emotions. If I’m irritable and itching for a fight, you can be sure I’ll figure out a way to pick one. If I’m on the sad end of the spectrum, sets in and I feel like a useless human being, regardless of my accomplishments. I have my period as I write this, in fact, so I’m currently convinced no one likes me and I’m an utter failure.
You’d think after all these years my body would get accustomed to the hormonal changes and adjust to them, but that’s not the case. While I’m much better able to deal with it now, every time it happens it knocks me back anew.
So I motored along unhappily with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), as my period problems are officially called, and then I had a baby at the age of 32. It would have been nice if someone had told me PMDD is a risk factor for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders like postpartum depression. After my first child was born I had a nightmarish case of postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder that took me a year to recover from, and another year after that to get over the post-traumatic stress. Take all the irritability and anxiety and depression of PMDD and kick it up about 10 notches, multiply that by a quadrillion, and you might have an idea of what it felt like. I’m grateful I was able to get through it, with professional help, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t change me profoundly.
And now? Now I’m 41 and having a ball with perimenopause. This is the time when your period goes all wonky, or, in more medical terms, becomes irregular. I can’t believe it is even possible for my moods to be more “swingy” than before. The average age of onset is 51, by the way, and I started at 39. Why am I not surprised?
A recent study found that the likelihood of major depression increases during perimenopause, and that women with histories of premenstrual syndrome or postpartum depression are at particular risk. This means my emotional changes are likely to be wild for the next several years.
Wish my husband luck.
I’m not sure why I’m one of those unlucky women who are supersensitive to every single hormonal change that comes down the pike. It would have made my life a hell of a lot easier had I not been. Those of you who don’t have such difficulties must look at look at me (and women like me) and think, “What is your problem? Toughen up!“ I would if I could, believe me.
In their enlightening book Women’s Moods: What Every Woman Must Know About Hormones, the Brain and Emotional Health, Dr. Deborah Sichel and Jeanne Watson Driscoll explain that some women’s brains “have the resiliency to withstand the impact of hormonal changes. This may in part be caused by differences in genetic makeup. Perhaps these women’s brains come equipped with chemical ‘circuit breakers’ that allow them to reregulate serotonin when estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate.” I am not such a woman. I wonder if I could go to Sephora and buy some new genetic makeup to replace the lousy stuff I’ve got?
It stinks to be biochemically challenged. However, it helps to know you have those challenges and to be prepared to take them on, instead of being taken by surprise over and over again. I finally understand that this is something I will always be dealing with, and I know to tell all and any of my medical providers about my history of hormonal difficulties. My dalliances with depression and anxiety aren’t my fault, and I know they can be managed. Best of all, I will be able to tell my daughter about all this at the start of what is likely to be her own battle with hormones.
Katherine Stone, 41, lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She writes about postpartum depression and women's mental health issues on her award-winning blog, Postpartum Progress.
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