Tales: Shame – First Period Story (Part 2)

One by one girls in my village fell to Eve’s curse.  Many of the girls started their period in the first year of high school.  I started my period on my summer break after I ended second-form which to most Americans and Canadians is known as eighth-grade.  I was lucky enough to start it during my summer break before I returned to school to begin the ninth-grade so this gave me enough time to mentally prepare. I remember it was a Saturday in August when it finally came leaving me feeling bloated with cramps, diarrhea, and a slight headache. Then when I saw the blood I was shocked and horrified to see that it was so dark that it almost looked like a dirty purple or an eggplant color.  I recall how disgusted it felt as a spontaneous flow of liquid oozed out of me forming blood clots.  At this point, I knew what to expect, but mentally no one spoke about the emotional feelings that came with it.  The day of my first period I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted to tell my older cousin, but I was too afraid that she would tell her mother who would then tell my mother so I kept my mouth shut and collected napkins, toilet paper, tissue, and paper-towel to put in my underwear to keep the blood from staining my clothing.  I recall that Saturday my two cousins along with their father went down to the bay for a swim and it was the only time I didn’t go swimming with them because I was too afraid I would have an accident.  There were many reasons why I failed to tell anyone and choose to suffer this alone.  The first was pure embarrassment and the lack of feeling like I could properly communicate with my mother on any issue that was personal to me.  Then there was the fear of being forced to go to the local store to buy a pack of pads in front of other customers.  While I was used to doing this for my mother and cousin the idea of doing it for myself crippled me with fear.

I survived my first period and with that perfected the art of using napkins and tissues instead of sanitary pads.  I thought they were more hygienic as all I had to do was flush them away, and I wouldn’t have to exit the female bathroom with a brown paper bag which was the telltale sign that a girl was changing her sanitary pad.  I continue this practice of using paper towel all the way until the next summer which marked the first year of officially starting a period.  I still had not told anyone, but in expecting me to start a period during that time my older cousin who worked at a supermarket bought me a sample pack for girls starting their cycle. Somehow I managed to have a period for a year and no one noticed. It was as if no really cared and if it wasn’t unnatural for a girl to go without a period no one would have asked. Keeping this a secret was very easy to do as no adult spoke to me unless it was to give me a command.  There were no questions of how my day was or how I was feeling so there was never any windows of opportunity to express myself.  Behavior like this wasn’t uncommon for me because I could clearly remember having toothaches for months and literally being afraid to say I was in pain.  The older I got the more I was able to control what I should and shouldn’t say to the adults in charge of me.  I often worried about telling my mother anything for fear that it garner some negative criticism or would interrupt her schedule.

I could have gone on in silence until I graduated high school, but I knew at some point everyone would assume the worse and I would be at the doctor’s office.  I started my period a few months after I turned 15 and by the time I turned 16, I still had not told anyone.  As I neared the end of the third-form my mother started forcing me to take multivitamins which was strange because she never cared before. I quietly assumed she was doing this because she also expected a period and felt there was something wrong, but she never verbalized this to me.  She just woke up one morning and started handing me Centrum vitamins.  Almost a year and five months after my first period I mustered up enough courage to tell her.  I planned it a week in advanced and practiced it in my head and decided when she came back from work and was in the kitchen I would tell her.  It was a Thursday afternoon when I told her, I started out sitting in the living room while she was in the kitchen prepping dinner.  Sitting there I nervously willed myself to get up and walk to the kitchen.  Then I remember getting up walking to the doorway then I stopped. I got the extra bit of courage to walk into the kitchen and feebly say, “Mommy I started my period today.” As I waited on her to response I looked down at the floor and then looked up in time to hear her say, “You know what that means?”  I was confused because I didn’t know what it meant until she uttered in her best Caribbean dialect, “you cannot have any boyfriends, no boys!” I was surprised that this was her response to me telling her I started my period.  I pondered on it and wanted to say to her, “I didn’t know I could have had a boyfriend before this?” I thought it but I never said it to her, I just stood there listening until she told me to take $20 from her bag and go buy a pack of pads from the store. I was relieved to have gotten this part over with but disappointed at what she told me.  I didn’t think she understood me well enough to know that no boys liked me and I didn’t like them.  Back then I had an idea of myself in my mind which was reinforced by my peers and even my mother and that was the true fact that I was ugly. There was no getting around this I wasn’t an attractive child on any level.  I wasn’t beautiful and I was told this very often by classmates and even heard these same words uttered from my mother whenever I had upset her in some way.

The day I told her I started my period, I wasn’t actually on my period. I decided to tell her this because it was a year after I initially started bleeding and I had to find the courage to tell her.  Everyone I knew told their mothers and as I could see their mothers were an important part of them feeling normal.  I wanted to feel normal too, but in the end, I didn’t.  Months after I told her, I never bought it up again and she never talked about it. I recalled long after she was aware she asked me about acquiring more sanitary pad and I told her that my older cousin would purchase them for me which wasn’t entirely true.  While my cousin did give me some feminine products I kept them and continued using the paper napkins. Yet again I couldn’t bring myself to even ask for money to purchase these things.  I didn’t feel like I needed her buying any of these things for me, I didn’t need her to have that extra burden.  It was a very strange pattern of thinking that I could never understand but this was how I felt.

I always looked back at this moment and wondered why I couldn’t telling her the day I started my period a year earlier.  What was keeping me from telling her and others?  I often thought that answer was based on what happened to the Convent School girl years earlier, but I wondered if that wasn’t a part of my memory would I still have the courage and confidence to disclose this to others.  My ability to not disclose what was hurting or bothering me was something that grew out of the need to not place extra burdens on others. It was also a way of preserving my pride, not experiencing shame, and just knowing that revealing anything about myself required a level of bravery that I didn’t possess.  The biggest take away I understood about my actions was that I feared what my mother and other thought of me. I grew to feel emotionally uncomfortable with talking to anyone about the personal aspects of my life. Whatever shame I held about past events or other people’s actions I internalized and became afraid of talking about it and was even ashamed of myself for feeling this way.

It was strange to think that I waited almost a year and a half before I told my mother but I did.  As I settled into this uncomfortable monthly experience I still continued to use the tissue paper because of the ease at which they could be removed and flushed away, but at night I wore the maxi pads.  During those years I was very uncomfortable in my body especially around that time of the month.  I recall that when I had to go to Barbados, my period came for the three days I was there.  We were staying at a friend of my father’s home, and since he was an old man he didn’t have a trash bin in his bathroom.  During that time I bought my pads with me, and with no way to discreetly dispose of used pads, I had to keep them in a plastic bag.  I tried to be as secretive as possible and was dangerously afraid that he would discover that I threw my bloody pads in his kitchen trash bin, so I kept them all; so I looked for pockets of moments where I could dispose of them, but I couldn’t find the right time or place.  I ended up keeping them in a bag until I returned home and was able to dispose of them out of the sight of others.  Looking back at those moments it was such a pity that I couldn’t feel comfortable enough to own this human experience, I had to hide it and the vulgarity that I presumed was a part of it.  This carried over into school, as I kept hiding it from my friends. While other girls would protest that they had cramps and couldn’t play netball I kept quiet and stole pain pills to avoid the pain.  Even when I had to leave school early because I wasn’t feeling well I would always say I was coming down with the flu or had a headache.  I never let anyone know it was because of my period for fear that they would think I was making up to get out of school, but mostly because I was too embarrassed to even say that I was menstruating.  If I had bad cramps I over prescript myself Advil, Aleve, or Tylenol to kill the pain so no one would see that I was affected by my period.  Even the pain pill I hoarded I did so in secret and often hid them from others for fear they would ask what they were for.

Almost a year after I started my period a group of nurses came to my high school to conduct a presentation for all the girls.  I remember we gathered in the school library where the entire female student body gathered to observe the presentation.  The presentation started with a brief introduction, then we watched a short clip about puberty and how women across the centuries dealt with periods.  After that, the nurse pulled out a 3D model of a cervix and began to explain how things worked in that area.  At the end of the presentation, they passed out sample packets of panty-liners, pads, and tampons.  After that, we moved into the question and answer section. Then just as the nurses were about to ask questions, the girls erupted into giddy laughter and began throwing tampons at each other. They were all laughing and saying words like gross or yuck. This drew the attention of our principal who yelled for everyone to stop.  She explained how embarrassing and disrespectful we were behaving.  While I wasn’t a part of the group who decided to do this we were all lumped into her criticism. She claimed that she wanted to make it a comfortable environment by removing all the boys and male teachers so we would have time to ourselves to discuss this matter.  She then drilled into our behavior and attitude about female issues stating that we were primitive, then said that our parents taught us nothing. She spoke about how disgusting the female restrooms were and about the fact she didn’t think many of us had respect for ourselves. Then there was the fact that some girls ritualistically picked on girls they knew were on their period by announcing it to anyone who would listen. I wasn’t a part of this strange reaction to the presentation because I actually appreciated seeing the video of how women dealt with their periods across time.  It was something that was often on my mind, but since no one ever talked about it in my household I appreciated this part of the presentation. While the teachers and principal quieted us down, I distinctly noticed how similar some of the girls’ behavior were to the students I encountered in the schoolyard years earlier.  I noted that the cooler girls in the audience gave subliminal cues to the other girls who kept prolonging the section by asking questions. They would roll their eyes, kiss their teeth, or mouth the words “shut up.” It was then I knew that at a moment when I assumed I could crawl out of my shell these girls reinforced the fact that I had to stay quiet. That day I wanted to ask so many questions, but I reframed from doing so for fear that the girls would boo at me.  For even if they were on their best behavior for that moment I knew that at some point they would have gotten to me and made me feel poorly about my keen interest in this topic.