YOU'RE BLEEDING, THIS MIGHT HELP: My Own Personal Period Survival Kit

Is it Shark Week where you are? Have you fallen to the Communists? Are there other clever period euphemisms I'm forgetting? Let's discuss what gets us through this magical time, shall we?
Publish date:
August 29, 2012
shoppables, periods, no shame, herbal remedies

HEY KIDS, guess what? I have my freaking period. If you knew me in real life, or if you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably heard me complaining about it, because truly, complaining about menstrual bullshit is a sacred province for many of us who are possessed of regularly bleeding uteruses. I look forward to the complaining, myself. It is the point where delicate self-care meets gross self-indulgence and I savor the chance to disgust the non-uterus-owning people in my life with tales of what happens when I’m riding that crimson wave every month.

I know we all have our own ways of dealing with our regular massacre at the Y. Today I’m sharing some of mine.

Cramp Bark

I have cramps. Like, right now. I know most period-having people do, but I’ve often suspected that mine are on the unusually bad side. They can affect my ability to walk or even stand. Or sleep. It’s kind of like having a giant spectral hand in my lower abdomen, gathering up my organs into its palm and then making a fist and squeezing the ever-loving fuck out of them. The resulting discomfort then radiates like beams from a happy sunshine face of vicious agony into my midsection and down my legs. It’s a good time.

Unless, of course, I have to move, or concentrate on anything. Painkillers do nothing. I was once famous for taking four Advil at once on a regular basis, in the feeble hope that it would have some slight effect, but no. The only thing that has ever worked for me is cramp bark.

Cramp bark comes from a shrub species known as Viburnum opulus, which is native to both Asia and Europe, and has also been transplanted to North America (there is a plant thought to be related that is native to North America, but it is a different plant). Many herbals assert that cramp bark was widely used by Native Americans, although given that the original plant is not native to this continent, this could be an unfortunate case of associating something with Indians because people will think it’s somehow instantly magical for it. Or maybe they mean the OTHER Viburnum, the one that is native to North America.

Regardless, cramp bark doesn’t need an embellished history to work, because this stuff really isn’t just another placebo effect. In fact, chemically speaking cramp bark contains some powerful antispasmodics (as do all the Viburnums, really, but cramp bark has the most), and has been used for hundreds of years as a uterine regulator and tonic. It is generally regarded as safe so long as you’re not pregnant, and in normal doses it has few side effects.

I tend to approach natural remedies with a healthy mixture of hopefulness and skepticism, but this is one herbal medicine that I have truly come to rely on because it’s the only thing that works for me. I make a tea (herbalists call this an infusion) by steeping two teaspoons of cut cramp bark (I get mine from Starwest Botanicals) in boiling water for around five to seven minutes. The resulting tea doesn’t taste great, but it’s not gross either -- and it can always be improved by a bit of honey.

Though even large amounts of cramp bark seem to be safe, it should only be taken as needed; as a rule I don’t use it to head off cramps but rather wait for cramps to appear and then drink my cramp bark tea to make them go away, which is kind of a neat effect to witness anyway, as it works surprisingly fast.

A Heating Pad

Of course, the heating pad is a time-tested staple for millions of menstruators. But have you ever thought to yourself, “Wow, I really want a nice new heating pad to deal with my horrible period-induced back pain and cramps, but I ALSO want to pay $200 for it.” The folks at Therasage have got you covered -- literally -- with their Instant Calmer Heating Pad, which uses natural jade stones to penetrate you with negative ions and infrared space alien healing beams or whatever. All joking aside, this looks like it could be a seriously kickass heating pad, but unless the nice folks at Therasage see fit to send me a free one, I ain’t ever going to find out.

(Therasage apparently also makes infrared saunas, which I think is what Jane has. Jane, have you ever gone in there on your period and did it help, like, suck the blood out? Or did it just give you a sense of inner peace about all the bleeding and/or pain? [Inner peace about the bleeding. xo --Jane])

For those of us who haven’t ever felt the urge to drop two bills on period care, there is always that charming old firetrap standby, the Sunbeam electric heating pad. Seriously, I have had mine for at least 15 years. I’ve fallen asleep on it -- in defiance of its many safety warnings -- more times than I can count and I have never yet burned the house down. If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is: the Sunbeam electric heating pad, it won’t burn your house down!

For those more invested in fire safety, a less dangerous sleep-friendly alternative to a plug-in model is a natural flaxseed-filled heating pad you stick in the microwave to heat up. It cools on its own over time, which minimizes the risk of burns that the ridiculously overbearing DON’T BURN YOURSELF, JERK warnings on the Sunbeam heating pad keep harping on about. It also has no cord to get tangled up in, and frankly a bag of flaxseed feels way nicer on a sore body part than a somewhat stiff electric heating pad filled with wires.

Unsurprisingly, Etsy is rife with pretty flaxseed heating packs, although I have yet to find the one I’m looking for, which would have a cover tenderly embroidered with the phrase “SHUT UP AND GO THE FUCK AWAY.” You know, like a signal to anyone who unwittingly happens upon me in this state.

Lady Movies

The genre of the lady movie is nebulous and ill defined and even hotly debated; I fully expect to get flak for my interpretation in comments. The most obvious representative example would be “Dirty Dancing,” which is arguably the ultimate lady movie for a certain generation, but you can indeed hate “Dirty Dancing” and still enjoy other movies of its ladyfied ilk. Although, I am bound to note that if you hate “Dirty Dancing,” I’m probably going to quietly suspect there is something up with you. SORRY. I JUDGE ON THIS BASIS. I JUDGE FOR NOT LIKING “DIRTY DANCING.”

A lady movie is a movie that is sort of unabashed in its efforts to appeal to a particular form of gender socialization; the kind of film I would ordinarily be deeply embarrassed about liking, but which when I am ragging somehow magically pushes all the right lady-buttons to become exactly what I want to see. Romances are usually lady movies, but not always. Any movie with “wedding” in the title is probably a lady movie. If it has a choreographed dance number? It’s probably a lady movie. All musicals, forever? LADY MOVIES.

(Speaking of musicals, I recently re-watched “Spice World” for the first time in ages recently, motivated by the Spice Girls’ Olympic Opening Ceremonies reunion, and I have to recommend it to you most strongly; it is a vastly underrated film that holds up way better than I expected, and I loved it enormously even upon the original release. NO, DON’T LEAVE, let me finish! The cast is amazing. Meatloaf and Roger Moore, in the same movie! That one guy from "Game of Thrones"! And that other one guy from the "Kids in the Hall"! Cameos from Jennifer Saunders and Hugh Laurie! Loads of weird British humor! AND SO MUCH MORE. If you can watch “Spice World” and not be left with a wistful longing both for the 90s and for a pair of platform sneaker-boots, then you are a stronger person than I.)

I am generally not a fan of the term “guilty pleasure” as it is applied to media; I think we should all just like what we like and not feel badly about it. But when I am not actively bleeding, I tend to bristle at films made specifically to appeal to a female audience -- or rather somebody’s idea of what a female audience wants to see.

But when I’m shedding my womb’s disappointment over my having failed to shove a fetus in it yet ANOTHER month? All bets are off. Sure, I’ll even watch “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” Whatever.

A Stuffed Uterus

I Heart Guts makes a huge stuffed uterus (really, even they call it huge) that I’ve wanted to buy for ages, and will probably eventually guilt my husband into getting me as a present. I like the idea of having one of these and punching it in its happy uterus face for every nasty cramp, to demonstrate my desire to hurt it back like it has hurt me. Like therapy. Wow, this got dark all of a sudden.

Actually, I could never punch a stuffed toy. I’d probably pet it and compliment it and call it pretty in the feeble hope that such a demonstration of kindness would inspire my own real-life internal uterus to calm the fuck down.

A Lack of Shame

There are plenty of bodily functions I will not discuss openly, because I think they’re just kinda gross, and while openly describing them may shatter some taboos, I’m kind of okay with the idea that it’s not generally socially encouraged to discuss your poop in public. Especially not in restaurants. Not that this stops people.

A lot of the grossness associated with menstruation, however, is explicitly gendered; culturally women are still being saddled with the idea that vaginas and their assorted reproductive organ friends are inherently dirty, bleeding or no, but are especially filthy and dangerous during menstruation. While you probably don’t want to go flinging your discarded uterine lining at people in the street -- that that I haven’t been tempted -- owing to biohazard concerns, there’s nothing dirty or unsafe about periods.

But still the ideology persists; it wasn’t that long ago that women douched with freaking Lysol, so convinced were they of the vadge’s inability to sufficiently regulate itself, which it generally does just fine even without the introduction of harsh searing chemicals. So many products still want you to feel shameful about your ladyparts, and even those that try to be self-aware and mocking of the cultural horror of periods manage to reinforce it.

I speak frankly and matter-of-factly about my period pretty much every month, to all sorts of people (especially, if I’m honest, to men, who as a group are probably most in need of some period desensitization). I don’t do it to gross people out, I do it to try in my own small and insignificant way to demystify and unshame the whole process.

Menstrual cycles are truly fascinating, when you get down to the biology of it, and there is a huge amount of diversity in period experience that we miss by not sharing our own stories, which can result in many girls (and adult women, for that matter) constantly feeling like they’re something wrong with them because they don’t have predictable cycles, or tampons are uncomfortable even though the ads promise they’re not, or nobody else seems debilitated by cramps so maybe it IS all in your head, silly woman.

So let’s talk about our periods, y’all. I guess we can also watch some movies, and share our heating pads, and braid each other’s hair, if you want. It’ll be cozy AND subversive; is there anything better than that?