Period Pain is Real Pain: Three Women Get Real About Menstrual Gaslighting

Period Pain is Real Pain: Three Women Get Real About Menstrual Gaslighting

This content was created by Girlboss in partnership with De Lune.

Menstrual pain is real pain—full stop. And yet, from a young age, we’re taught to hide our period from public view instead of being encouraged to have open, direct conversations about our cycles and the discomfort, inconvenience and sometimes downright severe pain that comes with them. Here, three women share their stories of dealing with menstrual pain—in the workplace, in the doctor’s office and beyond.

“During the five years of seeing different doctors and searching for answers, I felt unseen, unheard and dismissed.”

When I started my period at 14 I finally felt like I was in the 'club' and could participate in all those womanhood conversations. Little did I know that those conversations never included what a normal period was like. It took an ovarian cyst rupturing at the age of 15 for me to realize what I experienced each month was not normal. After my cyst rupturing and doing a handful of tests I was prescribed oral birth control to manage my period and heavy duty anti-inflammatory medication to help with the pain. Every month I would experience cramps and pain radiating down my left leg to the point I wasn't able to walk properly and was missing school due to the pain. This is when it really hit me that all my friends were able to go about their normal life without any disruptions from their period and that what I was experiencing wasn't normal.

I spent a lot of time with doctors talking about period pain and in turn becoming very much a patient and not a person. I saw a handful of different doctors throughout my teens where the only support I received was more medication—birth control back-to-back so I wouldn't have my period every month and pain medication to allow me to continue to live 'normally'. By my late teens I was experiencing such severe cramping and bloating—not only during my period but most of the month—that I wound up in the emergency room looking for more answers. After more ultrasounds and tests I was scheduled for laparoscopy surgery to diagnose endometriosis. During the five years of seeing different doctors and searching for answers, I felt unseen, unheard and dismissed. It's not a secret that doctors dismiss women's pain more, especially women of color, and through fighting for answers I felt small and like this pain must be made up since no one was taking me seriously. At 20 I was connected with a fertility specialist who specializes in endometriosis who finally heard me, saw me and validated what I was feeling. Just before I turned 21 I was diagnosed with endometriosis—nearly seven years after searching for answers to my pain.

When I was first diagnosed with endometriosis it was such a relief, I finally had answers for what I was feeling but these feelings quickly changed to shame. Something was 'wrong' with me and my body wasn't functioning properly. Did I do something wrong? How could I fix this? It became a mental battle to find love for my body despite its 'failures' and 'wrongness'. I was able to find medication that allowed me to treat my endometriosis and not live in pain. Despite not having physical pain, the emotional pain was still there. Throughout my late 20s more conversation around periods became normalized and those conversations created a space to feel less alone. I still navigate the shame that comes with an invisible illness like this but I also feel so empowered by the other women who are opening up the conversation around period health and wellness and feel more encouraged to share my journey so we, as a collective, don't feel alone in our experiences. Before I turned 30 I stopped my medication to treat my endometriosis as I wanted to find and feel my natural cycle again. The year and a half since stopping my medication has been a wild ride full of emotions—hello hormones!—and unlearning lots of narratives I was raised to believe. Having a natural period again has allowed me to structure my work and life around my cycles—knowing when I will have more energy versus when I will need more rest. I feel very privileged that I can plan my work around my cycle and even though it's not always perfect, it allows me to find more balance in my energy and pain tolerance. With this approach I do have to say no to some opportunities, and I don't vocalize my cycle is the reason, so oftentimes I feel as if I'm hiding parts of me. As much as period health is more openly discussed it still has stigma attached to it—especially period pain and the limitations it sets.

I highly recommend anyone who is struggling with their period to read In The Flo by Alisa Vitti and find a naturopath with hormonal focus to help you naturally manage your period and hormonal cycles.
—Mary, lingerie designer

“I started crying in the lab from the pain, and the T.A. had no clue what was going on.”

I’ve had really painful periods since I was 12 years old. I'm the oldest girl in my family and my mom didn't really educate me on periods at all. We never had any conversation about them. So I fully didn't understand what was going on with my body. In school, we had one health class—one day when the boys and girls got separated and it was a very hush-hush conversation about periods. Symptoms were not discussed, which still blows my mind today.

My pain would get so bad that I had to miss school. But I never talked about it to anyone, I assumed that I was the only one going through it and that I shouldn’t discuss it. It got so bad in engineering school, I would have these four-hour labs where you had to stand and complete your work. I started crying in the lab from the pain, and the T.A. had no clue what was going on.

I was given painkillers and put on contraception, none of the side-effects were really even discussed. It wasn’t a conversation.

And in college, this all came to a head. I was on birth control, still taking all of these painkillers. And at one point, I just had a real breaking point where I started to feel extremely lightheaded and my heart was beating really fast, and I went to the clinic on campus, and I was like, ‘I really don't know what's going on with me today, I feel like I’m going to pass out.’ The nurse had asked me what I had taken that day, and I said a ton of midol. She said, ‘oh you’re not just having bad period pain, you’re having a bad reaction to the medication,’ which never occurred to me as a possibility.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that these painkillers exist. I just think that they were not designed for menstrual pain specifically, and that's very clear when you see them taken by the handful every week of one’s period, every month for decades, and causing real side effects. You know, these are supposed to be one-off uses not chronically dosed.

It was striking to me how lacking the solutions were, and that’s when I met Courtney Mayszak, my co-founder of De Lune. We were talking about our formative period-pain experiences and we wanted to find a solution. What's the most safe and effective solution for period pain that could possibly exist? And why isn't this commercially available already?

We found that there were already a number of natural ingredients that had been clinically proven as safe and effective for period pain, like zinc, vitamin B-12, ginger and fenugreek. So we decided to try to test out these ingredients and combine them in the most potent combination possible.

I don’t think we should have to compromise because of a lack of choice. There can be a solution that’s safe, natural and effective. I don’t want other women to experience what I experienced, that’s my goal. That’s my dream. Menstrual pain shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought.
—Mimi Millard, co-founder of natural period pain relief brand De Lune

“I was always confused as to why no other girls had really rough cramps like me.”

I remember having to go to the ‘health room’ in high school every month so my period pains were quite debilitating. There was only one other girl that had it as bad as me and I was always confused as to why no other girls had really rough cramps like me. In highschool it got so bad that I was throwing up from the period cramps. I knew something was up, but I never actually saw a doctor about it when I was younger. Even when I joined the workforce, I was the one person at work that always had to have a work heating pad, and a home heating pad.

Most of the time when I saw doctors, they told me to take over-the-counter painkillers and to rest, but did not provide any reason why it might be so bad. One doctor told me I might have PCOS but said that it was difficult to get a diagnosis and left it at that. I wasn't really happy with what the doctors were telling me. In the meantime, I had been struggling with severe stomach pains since the age of 12. About 3 years ago I was diagnosed with GERD, and the doctors similarly did not do much to help me navigate the diagnosis and gave me a list of foods to avoid, they offered no clear solution so I've been dealing with doctors not taking me seriously for a long period of time.

Last year during the pandemic, I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and I reached out to a naturopath. After seeing a few doctors, my naturopath actually dealt with treating the problem as a whole. By working to heal my stomach, my cramp pains also slowly resolved themselves through this process. Granted, I still get rough pains every once in a while, they are nowhere near as bad as they used to be.

I work on an all-woman team, who have all seen how painful I've had it, so they are very supportive. Sometimes I'll have to take the morning off until the pain dissipates a bit but I've never felt that I've needed to ignore the pain due to embarrassment.”
—Oana Cazan, art director

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