It was at a music festival when I realised something was seriously wrong. The sun was shining, I was drinking warm cider, the band was playing, I was surrounded by friends... And I started crying my bloody eyes out. In a bad way.
This was the culmination of years of putting up with mood swings, aggression, and random floods of tears. It was at this festival, hiding behind a tree so I wouldn't have to talk to my friends, that I decided things weren't OK. Or, more correctly, when my long-suffering boyfriend looked me straight in the eyes and said "Enough, we're going straight to the doctor's when we get home."
My relationship with hormonal birth control began five years ago. In these five years I’ve tried five different types, each one leaving me more desperate than before. Femodene made me angry; Microgynon brought on severe acne; Celeste gave me a hormonal skin condition; the coil made me irritable and woke me up at 5am on the dot for nine days a month with severe pain which left me pacing the bedroom for an hour every morning; and Marvellon, my personal nemesis, turned me into an anxious, anti-social, weeping nervous wreck with no sex drive and anger issues. I was unbearable to myself and others.
Which brings us up to the point where I was hiding behind the tree.
PMS isn't something we really talk about, unless it’s to make ‘hilarious’ jokes about ‘lady problems’. I didn't even know Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder existed (PMDD, essentially PMS on steroids), yet it's estimated it affects up to 8% of women. Professionals can argue all they like over the semantics of calling it a mental illness. All I know is that a debilitating cacophony of hormones left me feeling totally overwhelmed for at least half of every month.
Women suffering from hormone-related symptoms are working against two powerful stigmas. Mental illness is widely misunderstood - people can't seem to understand why you won't just 'snap out of it'. Couple that with the fact that the phrase 'oooh, must be that time of the month' is used as a way of undermining women the world over and you've got yourself a hearty cocktail of stigma sure to prevent women from seeking help or being treated properly when they do.
As a feminist I felt I’d rather die than admit that my period makes me 'weak' in any way. It feels wrong admitting it affects me so badly, when we're all supposed to roller blade, pirouette, and generally float through our periods in a state of unrelenting bliss. "Have a happy period" must be the most infuriating strap line in the English language.
It’s this stigma around PMS that has meant I haven’t found a doctor yet who will take me seriously. After telling one GP that I suspected my hormone cycle was making me depressed he said 'I'm sorry I can't help you, look up a clinic online,' before ushering me out of the back door because they'd already locked up behind me.
By the time it got to the point where my boyfriend was having to coax me out from behind a tree, I realised I’d had enough of being put on random pills by flippant doctors who didn't listen to my symptoms. I took to the Internet to work it out for myself. I looked at what pills I'd had before that had driven me to the brink and I checked out the hormone combinations in them. I learned which hormones might cause which symptoms. I learned which forms of synthetic progesterone were in which pills and at what levels. I learned how to figure out equivalent strengths of different forms of progesterone and I looked at how much oestrogen was in each pill. I spent so much time reading about oestrogen I nearly grew a third breast.
There's no hard and fast way to figure out what will work for you. But if you know what doesn't work, you might learn what to avoid. If nothing else, reading up on what exactly my options are when it comes to filling my body with hormones has helped me regain some of the control I felt I'd lost.