What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I never had PMS in my life before I turned 30. Well, I never had the stereotypical PMS, the moodiness, the bloating, the... fatigue? I’m basically trying to remember what Midol commercials claim to cure. None of it happened to me.
I even doubted the reality of PMS as a thing, given that none of my friends seemed to suffer terribly from anything worse than a craving for chocolate, at least not where I could see it. Truth be told, I was actually -- briefly -- one of those EMBRACE YOUR INNER WOMAN-GODDESS AND THE RICH FERTILITY OF YOUR LADY BLOOOOOD people. I am not any more.
These days I realize that PMS is very much a thing, and sometimes a thing that makes life almost impossible for lots of people with ladyparts, but at the time, with no personal experience and a predictably egocentric young-adult worldview, I was dubious.
But then, once I crossed the threshold of my third decade, PMS started being a part of my life, and one I had to deal with. I still don’t get bloated, or headachey, or any of that rot, but my moods?
My moods are SAVAGE. Things go wrong in three categories:
1. Constant anger.
Generally, my temper is a long slow-burning fuse with a terrifying explosion at the end of it. Few people have ever seen me hulk out in this way, and none have forgotten it (nor have they allowed me to forget it -- I’M SCARY WHEN I’M ANGRY, I UNDERSTAND).
But sometimes, PMS sends this into reverse. For one week I will have a very short fuse and a series of small temper tantrums from which I (and everyone else) recovers relatively quickly. This isn't so bad, except it means I sometimes spend that week chronically angry over every little mistake, every perceived slight, every dumb comment.
I get angry at TV shows and movies for not being entertaining enough. I get angry at food for failing to be sufficiently delicious. I get angry at people for just existing and clogging up the coffee aisle at the grocery store. I have even gotten angry at soap, for not lathering in a rapid enough fashion, and at tea -- my beloved tea! -- for taking too long to steep. Oh, and these tights have a run in them; I'M GOING TO BURN THE HOUSE DOWN.
I find myself continuously exasperated by everything, and would much rather just seal myself off in some kind of rageproof isolation chamber or private premenstrual hut until it’s all over.
2. Relocation obsession.
Some folks get premenstrual and decide to change their hair color on a whim, or to overhaul their wardrobe in one fateful Saturday afternoon. PMS makes me think about moving. Obsessively.
I like where I live, don’t misunderstand. I’ve lived in the Boston area since 1995 and it is a fascinating place with loads of character. But I’ve always felt like an outsider here and probably always will, and these feelings manifest during the doubting-everything-in-my-life PMS week as a longing to move elsewhere. Usually California.
I have a powerful fondness for Los Angeles that surprises everyone who knows me, and it’s possible that my relocation urges are less a result of a real desire to move and more a matter of associating a certain place with a certain (far more relaxed and sunny) mindset. Regardless, I WANT TO GO THERE, and lie in the sun all day like a blissed-out lizard.
I can picture it all perfectly right up until I get to the part where I would have to move everything I own to the other side of the country, and then I get angry again.
3. A tragic lack of coordination.
When I’m hormonal, I drop everything. Is this just me?
I mean everything. That pen I was holding? It’s on the floor. When I went to pick it up, I knocked the keyboard into the cup of tea on my desk. In trying to stabilize the tea, I elbowed a stack of books into my lap and onto the floor.
My cats are terrified and run away as though they expect me to intentionally hurl household objects at them, no matter how many times I try to explain IT’S JUST PMS. It’s like my hands have stopped working, or like my regular functional hands have been replaced with misshapen blobs of Crisco.
As a result, I break and spill things a lot. Which makes me angry, again.
PMS -- also known as premenstrual syndrome, or premenstrual tension (PMT) if you’re from the UK and possibly other places -- is a monthly experience for millions of estrogen-producing individuals to varying degrees, often changing from month to month. There’s no test for PMS, but rather it is diagnosed by the presence of certain symptoms during certain sections of one’s menstrual cycles.
The most stereotypical symptoms are mood swings, water retention, anxiety, and sometimes touchy boobs (real doctors call this “breast tenderness” but I think “touchy boobs” is funnier). PMS can also cause acne, joint pain, insomnia, and constipation or diarrhea. DeLIGHTful, right?
Indeed, there are hundreds of documented symptoms of PMS. Very few of us are ever formally diagnosed with it by a physician; it tends to be something we learn to recognize via social conditioning, and identify on our own. Most of us knew all about PMS long before we ever talked to a doctor about it, and the sharing of symptoms is ubiquitous. At least 85% of menstruating people experience PMS, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
PMS that makes life impossible may instead be PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, in which symptoms are so dramatic that they impact the sufferer’s ability to engage in normal tasks. This disorder is far rarer, occuring only in 2%-5% of menstruating folks. The diagnostic criteria for PMDD is essentially that the patient must be able to prove by documentating their symptoms for two to three months that their PMS is really, really EXTRA bad; the symptoms are essentially the same, but in PMDD, they are intrusive enough as to be disabling.
Unsurprisingly, given the vagaries of diagnosis and treatment, science considers PMS and PMDD to be something of a mystery. Researchers agree that it probably has to do with changes in hormonal levels during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, but most women with PMS show hormones in normal ranges when tested. There is probably a link to seratonin production, in that hormonal shifts may cause less seratonin -- this being a chemical in our brains thought to contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness -- to be produced in the brain, but we simply don’t know how it all works.
As a result, many folks continue to question the existence of PMS at all. And not just misogynist doctors eager to tell women their symptoms are all “in their head,” but feminist scholars who argue that the social construction of PMS is used culturally as a tool to portray women as unstable, overemotional creatures at the mercy of their allegedly uncontrollable hormonal surges.
Social psychologist Carol Tavris, in her 1992 book “The Mismeasure of Woman,” blames much of the PMS controversy on the fact that symptoms -- particularly emotional and behavioral ones -- are self-reported, and self-reporting can be easily influenced by cultural expectations. Thus, if women are taught to expect that PMS is normal and will happen to them, they find ways to account for moods in a way that holds PMS responsible.
Tavris goes on:
We must also ask why so many women have responded so favorably to the term and use it so freely. [PMS researcher Mary Brown Parlee] suggests that ‘the language of PMS is a means by which many women can have their experiences of psychological distress, or actions they do not understand, validated as “real” and taken seriously.’ In that sense the language of PMS is empowering for women, she believes, because it gives a medical and social reality to experiences that were previously ignored, trivialized, or misunderstood.
Like all psychological diagnoses, then, PMS cuts two ways: It validates women, but it also stigmatizes them.
Tavris acknowledges that many who lay claim to the PMS label disagree with her, affirming that they KNOW their symptoms are real. I would probably count myself among them. I am quite certain that something changed a few years back, and I know that the only times I am truly miserable, ever -- ray of sunshine that I normally am -- happen in the week prior to my period.
But there is something to be said for thinking critically about the dangers of creating PMS as a medicalized syndrome, because it can be (and is!) used against women at all levels of society. It can be deployed as a sneering explanation for an individual woman’s refusal to accept masculine attention, or as logic against women being enabled to hold powerful roles in society, be they CEOs of major corporations or the President of the United States.
That is a problem; but whether the solution is to reject the idea of PMS altogether, I can’t say.
Right now, I’m just lucky I’m too busy dropping things to be capable of packing for a cross-country move. With me in this mood, my husband would surely not survive the trip, and I'm glad to have a label -- even a socially-constructed one -- to help explain it.