Like a lot of brilliant, funny, wonderfully creative women, I suffer from anxiety and depression.
Also like a lot of brilliant, funny, wonderfully creative women, my particular strains of anxiety and depression have been diagnosed as a bunch of different things over the years.
In middle school, I was told I just hadn’t adjusted to my father’s death appropriately. In high school, I was told I was having panic attacks about college applications. In college, I was told that I suffered from anxiety brought on by misfiring synapses. After college, my doctor finally noticed that my panic attacks and depressive mood swings only happened once a month.
So, instead of throwing another SSRI at me (I was already hooked on one thanks to the college docs), my doctor gave me a fun form to fill out as homework. I had to mark my general mood every day on a scale from 1 to 5 every day for three months. On the same form, I needed to mark when my ever-unpredictable periods began and ended. It was fun homework. It was like doing dittos in first grade. Except instead of learning how to add numbers, I was counting the ways my hormones were making me go crazy.
At the end of three months, it was clear that there was a method to my so-called madness.
Basically, I fall into an almost personality-changing depression for 1-3 days each month right before my period. I was officially diagnosed with PMDD.
There's a few marked differences between PMS and PMDD. As I understand it (and I could be very wrong since I’m not a medical professional), PMS is a slow-burning caldron of discomfort the week before and during one's period. Bloating, headaches, fatigue, liquids appearing on one’s panties... I get many of these symptoms, too.
PMDD, however, usually just happens in the day or two before you get your menstrual flow and can carry you straight to the type of crazy town where you can actually want to hurt yourself.
When I'm a day before my period, it’s not just that I’m cranky and bloated. I feel very much as though a depression demon has crawled its way into my chest. My breathing is tighter. My mood is darker. I constantly feel on the verge of tears or a panic attack even though everything in my life is going hunky-dory.
Typical thoughts during this time include honestly believing that no one in the world loves or acknowledges me, or that I'll die alone, or that the movie theater I'm sitting in will probably be bombed mid-feature, or that the girl who was mean to me in sixth grade deserves to be punched because she’s evil, or that it would be fun to jump in front of a moving train, or that no other single person has ever felt as sad as me -- except for Morrissey.
These thoughts aren’t my own. The thoughts I usually have are about how I want to marry a British character actor, how I want to get better at comedy and how cool it would be to time travel. The negative thoughts and feelings I have right before my period aren’t my own. They’re just side effects of having PMDD.
It might seem disenfranchising to say, "My feelings right now aren't real and should be disregarded because I have women's troubles." Actually, it's absolutely disenfranchising. Part of being a human being is validating ourselves. We need to assert our identities by celebrating our needs, wants, opinions and emotions. My mind determines my reality and if my mind is telling me that I feel a certain way, then the point is I feel a certain way. When I’m depressed the day before my period, I am actually depressed.
However, one of the best ways I've found that I can fight my PMDD symptoms is to remind myself that those emotions aren't "real." You can't win a fight against you -- you'll just get caught in a "Why are you hitting yourself?" loop.
I have to look at that temporary depression as "an other" in my body that I have to beat back into a cage with deep breaths, exercise, nutrition, silly mantras and occasional prescribed pharmaceutical use.
I like to think of it like an emotional mirage. We all know the classic trope: a band of adventurers is wandering in the desert. They've had no food or water for days. They are exhausted and about to collapse due to the oppressive heat. Their malnutrition mixes with a few tricks of the light, and they believe that an oasis is in front of them. Everything in their brain is telling them that an oasis exists, so that should be their reality, but it's not actually real.
When you have PMDD, you can be in an awesome emotional place, and then one day that happiness is snuffed out like a candle. You get this whammy of anxiety and depression and your brain actually invents logical reasons for you to suddenly be suffering so much.
It's an emotional mirage. Your brain is telling you that you are sad and angry, but there's really no outside reason for that to be. Like, OK ... you're having a bad hair day. Your friend was 15 minutes late to hang out with you. Your co-worker gave you a fake smile when you said, “Hello.”
Under normal circumstances, I would laugh all of these things off. Within the PMDD mirage, they are causes for me to want to hurt myself emotionally and physically.
I think that’s the trickiest part of PMDD. Even though I was taught that being a woman meant I was strong and could conquer anything, it's hard, because what I see as my biggest, most crippling weakness -- the feelings I can't control -- only exist because I’m a woman. It's important that I let myself separate my body and hormones from the rest of me.
Whenever I’m in any sort of bad mood, I turn into a petulant little kid and I call my mom for support. The first thing she always asks when she hears the catch of tension in my throat on the other end of the line is, "What time of the month is it?" Even though that phrase has been used countless times in our culture to disenfranchise the feelings of women, she never says it to be dismissive of me. She’s simply giving the logical, reasoning side of my brain a wake-up call.
The good news is that because I’ve finally been diagnosed correctly, I’ve been able to conquer the shit out of my sadness. The bad news is, of course, every month the sadness rushes back.