I Had a Menstrual Emergency on a Plane and I Don't Know if I Will Ever Get Better at Managing my Period

“Is everything alright?” he asked, looking doubtfully at me. I resented him for his sex organs that did not leak blood.
Publish date:
September 3, 2015
travel, airplanes, periods, menstruation

On a trip to Europe, my period was lasting days longer than normal and had unexpectedly picked up the pace right as I was boarding a plane. At first convinced that I was doomed to arrive in Paris in a pool of womb blood, I was forced to channel my hatred of my uterus into a motive to interact with strangers in order to avoid disaster.

There was a man between me and the aisle, and a flight attendant crew that was twenty percent female strolling up and down the plane. I was wearing tight fitting turquoise pants that were protected only by sweaty wads of toilet paper. The craft was being prepared for takeoff, and I was preparing to go over the intercom and ask for donations of feminine hygiene products.

I had been standing with my friend in the boarding tunnel, waiting to board a Ryanair from Oslo to Paris when I felt the unmistakable drop. We had spent the previous five days in Norway, where my period had kicked off. But it had been winding down to what I assumed was its end, since my last several changes alternated between a very mild flow and spotting. It’s uncomfortable to change tampons too often in the tapering phase of a period, and I was averse to scraping myself into a state of drywall.

I was also completely out of hygiene products, since I hadn’t been expecting my period on the trip. The plan had been to fly by the seat of my pants, not to bleed in the seat of my pants.

I knew the latter was my fate as they moved our lines out onto the asphalt to board the plane. I rearranged my bag to hide the bulls-eye of my butt and frantically asked my friend if she had anything.

“I just used my last one. You’re still on yours?”

I’ve always had a gifted cycle: ever since I was eleven, my period has been ahead of most of my peers, longer by several days and stronger by several tampon sizes. I don’t have overwhelming pain that sends me into the fetal position, just an overwhelming flow that seems as if it’s being pumped out by my heart instead of draining from my peeling womb tissues.

I thought my adulthood and my use of birth control had put the worst of seventh grade days behind me. I can more ably cope with visiting the bathroom every ninety minutes as a grown woman, since I don’t need the teacher to sign my notebook every time I need to shove a new piece of rocket cotton up my vaginal canal.

But I was also fairly new to birth control, and guilty of forgetting to take it at the same time everyday, often doubling up on doses. I should have gotten in the habit of setting an alarm, but I simply hadn’t. And despite my daily pill dementia, the length and flow of my period had both been diminishing.

Until that moment on the Europe trip. If I didn’t find a tampon soon, I was going to be spending the flight in a pool of womb blood.

We moved into the tiny back area of the plane, and I locked desperate eyes with the female stewardess. People were hustling behind me, trying to get into the cramped corridor so they could get into their cramped seats. I stopped in front of her and said with a pleading voice, “Can I use the bathroom?”

She glanced around and said “Sure, I will open it for you.” I waited as she reached over and opened the lock with a key, all the while being glared at by a line of people holding briefcases and babies. I shoved my suitcase to the side and slid inside.

I sat down and surveyed the damage. My worst fears were confirmed. I wasn’t just having a sweaty moment: my last tampon was totally soaked.

In a daze, I wrapped as much toilet paper as I could around my underwear, and inserted myself back out into the passenger procession. Instead of taking my ticketed middle seat, I sat down in the aisle seat, trying to think of what to do.

“Is that your seat?” My friend asked from her window position. I shook my head, trying to decide if I was going to leap up and go right back to the bathroom.

“Excuse me?” I looked up at a thin, smiling man speaking with a French accent. “That is my seat?”

I puffed my cheeks out and scooted over gingerly, trying to avoid disturbing my tp barricade. I should have used my words: “I’m not feeling well, can I please trade with you; I’m about to menstruate everywhere and need a clear line to the bathroom,” but the confines of the aircraft and the confines of ovaries had me overwhelmed.

“Is everything alright?” he asked, looking doubtfully at me. I resented him for his sex organs that did not leak blood. I shook my head, closed my eyes and leaned forward against the folded up tray table.

“You could ask if anyone has anything,” my friend suggested. There were a couple of women around, including the one in the window seat across the aisle from my man barrier. On a closer inspection, I realized she was the partner of the man who sat beside me, and their two children sat beside her. He was smiling at them playfully.

I didn’t need to be so rude. “I just need to go to the bathroom,” I explained, looking at him. “I don’t feel well.” I didn’t yet feel up to yelling at his partner across the aisle, asking if she had any feminine products.

He nodded. “I do not think you are supposed to go now, but you could try?”

The plane was moving and the flight attendants were making seat belt gestures.

He looked back at me. “I will get up if you want to try?” A person in front of us tried to stand and adjust something in the luggage rack. One of the male flight attendants came for them like a hawk, with a tight smile and a stern phrase that seated them instantly.

I closed my eyes and shook my head.

The dripping feelings continued over the next ten minutes as the plane took off and continued its ascent. It was like that time when I was sitting in history class in seventh grade, and felt the same unmistakable drop. Unsure of what to do and worried there would be something on my pants, I didn’t raise my hand until it was definitely too late. I had to wait for the class to file outside, the lights to be turned out and my teacher to issue me a threat that I better hurry up before I got up from my stained seat and ran after him, reddening and telling him the truth. He sent me to the bathroom and called back one of my friends, and I had to clean my desk and borrow her jacket for the rest of the day.

I had never been good at being a girl, and ten years later I apparently wasn’t good at being a woman. I imagined waiting on the plane until all the other passengers had left and then approaching the flight attendants, reddening and gesturing toward my seat, and asking if they had a complimentary blanket I could wrap myself in for the bus ride to Paris.

I opened my eyes. The fasten seat belt sign was still on, but I thought that the female flight attendant was still in the back of the plane.

“I’m getting up,” I said, more to the seat back tray than anyone in particular. The man nodded and quickly stood up so I could get into the aisle.

With no idea whether or not there were spots on the back of my pants, I began to move quickly toward the back of the plane. I glared at everyone who was staring at me, even though you naturally stare at someone who is walking around the plane when all other passengers are seated.

I swooped into the back area of the plane that was behind the lavatory.

“Do you have a tampon or pad?” I said to the startled flight attendant.

She frowned. “I don’t think so, I will check.” She unbuckled her seat belt and pulled out her black purse from a tiny aluminum cubby compartment. She removed an apple and rummaged through some other items before handing me a pink pad. “Here,” she said, still rummaging. She shook her head. “That is all I have.”

“Thank you,” I said, groping the lavatory with my body, as if I could enter it by osmosis.

“I’ll let you in,” she said. I looked up the aisle, where a tight-smiled male attendant was making his way swiftly toward me. She opened the lavatory when he was two rows away, and just as he reached me I swung the door into his face like a shield, so that he was forced to come to a halting stop. I trapped myself in the safety of the bathroom and took inventory of the damage. I had put the toilet paper to the test, but hadn’t yet leaked. I unwound the sweaty wads with resignation, then opened and carefully placed my pink pad salvation on my underwear.

I emerged a minute later, slightly protected. Two male flight attendants were now with my female hero, but they were sorting out food options and didn’t pay me any attention. I silently thanked her and blessed the female bond before returning to sit in the uncomfortable plastic sweat of a pad for the rest of the flight. I mostly kept my eyes closed, saying a please-slow-my-period-prayer, and making mental threats to my ovaries that I was going to spay myself, cute-future-children-who-would-wear-coveralls be-damned.

I also vowed to never, ever trust the pacing of my period again. I would stash my purses with enough tampons to keep a whole plane full of women protected. I could even pay it forward, and start a habit of taping tampons to the mirrors in public bathrooms.

When we landed in Paris, I gave a small smile to my man barrier before he left with his partner and children. They babbled at their parents, thrilled with the plane ride. Maybe I would survive my periods after all, and grow healthy infants in the nurturing space of my overachieving reproductive system. At least I’d be more diligent with my pill, or try other methods before I cut out my ovaries.

As we climbed out of the back of the plane, the female flight attendant was dutifully giving nods and “goodbyes” to the passengers along with one of the smiling males. I said a loud, whispered “thank you,” earning her gaze and a quick understanding smile. I smiled curtly at the male attendant and moved down the stairs, looking forward to starting a new adventure in new pants.