Period drama

I almost wrote a blog post about menstruation last night. But then I talked myself out of it. I don’t always think very much about who reads my posts – because when I do it usually stops me writing anything at all. There’s no one version of me that could possibly be acceptable to all of the many different people I know (and all the many more whom I don’t know, but who read my blog, and thus to some extent know me), with all their different beliefs and cultures and backgrounds and ages. That’s why I leave so much out (though you wouldn’t think it from all I’ve written). I almost always err on the side of inoffensiveness.

I’ve decided to be bolder than I usually am, and to take a deliberate step out of my comfort zone. If I lose readers by writing about my periods, then so be it. I’ll probably keep a few and gain a few as well. And actually, I’ve never checked how many people read this blog, so I only have comments and emails to go on.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Comments and emails give me a skewed impression of my readership. I get far far more from men than from women, which for a long time led me to assume that my readership is almost entirely male. (And that would be about right, wouldn’t it? Adventure travel and bicycles are generally considered boys’ topics, after all.)

But I do get some emails from women. Quite a lot of them begin with an apology – ‘sorry to write out of the blue’; ‘I’m sure you must get a lot of emails like this’; ‘please don’t bother replying if you’re busy’. Some of them go on to ask me a question about bike touring. A few tell me that reading my blog was one of the things that helped them turn their own cycle-touring dream into reality, or inspired them to make some other change in their life. These are my very favourite emails, and these readers are the ones I care about most.

I’m worried about what people will think when I write about menstruation. Men quite often greet the subject with polite disgust (‘yes, but I don’t know why you have to talk about it’), or with prurient over-interest. This will probably be one of the few posts my mother doesn’t print off and send to my grandmother, for fear of scandalizing her. But I doubt I’ll lose any of my readers who are also women, also ride bikes (or climb, or run, or row), and also have to rearrange their lives around their periods on a regular basis.

A few sportswomen have recently started talking about their monthly cycle affects their performance. And as soon as they did, I realized how ridiculous it was that no one had started this conversation much sooner. Because almost every woman menstruates. Some of us barely notice it; others are virtually bedridden for a few days. I had, I think, always assumed that professional athletes must be taking some kind of hormones to stop them menstruating altogether, but I don’t even know if that would be legal. They’re probably not. Some of them are probably struggling with their periods just as much as I do, frustrated that, unlike the rest of the time, they can’t get their body to do exactly what they want it to by means of training and willpower.

Periods vary enormously from woman to woman. I’m lucky in that mine are fairly short – I knew a girl at school who bled heavily for nine days out of every 28. And they even happen differently at different stages of your life. Mine have gone through some phases of being no trouble at all, and others of being extremely painful. For the last few years, they’ve been short and intense. I get a couple of days of pronounced PMT (which feels like a mini-depression – I’m incapable of looking on the bright side, convinced everyone hates me, and often on the verge of tears), and then a couple of days of strong, dizzying, nauseating pain. Not only that, it feels as if my entire body and mind have been taken over, and all the energy has drained to my throbbing uterus. It’s hard (sometimes impossible) to concentrate on writing. If I’m cycling, my (normally indomitable) thighs feel drained and weak. My lower abdomen churns constantly, like a sack full of angry snakes.

I’ve learned to arrange my life around them, and wherever possible to make sure I don’t commit to anything demanding on those two days. I request my courier shifts with this in mind. If I have an article due in, I make sure to get it done early. But this isn’t always possible. During my Cambridge interview I was in so much pain I was writhing around in my seat. (I still got in.) During my first day as a courier even Ibuprofen didn’t help, but I knew that if I went home early I wouldn’t have a job to come back to. During that horrendous ten-day dash to get out of China before my visa expired, one of the many challenges I had to overcome was a heavy and painful period.

I’m not, by the way, suggesting that life is much harder for women because of menstruation. Life is difficult and inconvenient for everyone in various ways. People have to keep going to work when they’ve just been dumped, or lost a parent or had a miscarriage. Some of us are diabetic, or have asthma. We all get at least one cold per winter, and keep going in spite of it. People go on bike trips and other expeditions whilst managing chronic health conditions and recurring injuries. (I would much rather deal with a period once a month than cycle across Asia with a wheat allergy – or even as a vegetarian for that matter.)

What is absurd though, is this strange conspiracy of silence around menstruation. It’s not exactly a minority concern – probably 50% of us will experience it at some point in our lives. And for some of us, our monthly cycle has a significant impact on our wellbeing, our mood and our performance in whatever task we’ve set ourselves. (It’s not always a negative impact. Round about the time I’m ovulating, I’m usually in a ridiculously good mood, full of energy and pulsating with optimism and good ideas.)

I had tried to anticipate this period, and even planned an extra day off the bike before I left Whitehorse, convinced that that would give it time to come and go. But, just as happened in Asia, where the demands I put on my body meant I had five blissful period-free months (and then an unexpected cataclysm just when I least needed it), the rigours of the last few weeks meant that my period was a week late, and I really couldn’t justify hanging around any longer. Perhaps, I thought optimistically, it wouldn’t happen at all. After all, I had lost a lot of weight, pretty quickly, and that often does the trick.

No such luck. After a couple of days of feeling curiously emotional, and at one point even bursting into tears during a long, doleful, self-pitying inner monologue on a long, slow climb, the pain started. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time. I’m about to embark on a three-day stretch of road (between Teslin and Watson Lake) with absolutely no services – no shops, no lodges, no people, nowhere to sleep but my tent. And the temperature’s hovering around -35C.

“-43 with windchill”, warned the server at Johnson’s Crossing.

“-51 here last night” said the cook at Teslin’s Yukon Lodge.

And that’s where I am now. I had planned to be a lot further on. But cycling’s been hard for the past two days, with the dizziness, and with the energy being sucked out of my legs towards my core, and with the cramps occasionally so bad that I groan out loud.

I’ve decided to forgive myself. I made small progress yesterday, and small progress today, and that’s better than no progress. A very kind person recently gave me some money for a room when I was in need, and I can think of no better time to use it. I’m going to spend the night in this comfortable motel room, having hot baths, cuddling a Nalgene full of boiling water, watching a movie if internet speed will allow, and getting as much sleep as I can. Hopefully tomorrow the worst will be over. And by the time I’ve reached Watson Lake, I should be fully recovered and refreshed, and ready to take on one of the most demanding and underpopulated sections of this ride – the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.

And furthermore, looking on the bright side, if I manage to lengthen my next couple of cycles by a week apiece, I should be able to avoid having a period during the Transcontinental this summer. There’s an incentive to push my limits, if ever there was one!

[This post is written from my current location – I’m in Teslin right now – but there are still a good few to come with accounts of the last few weeks. Sorry I’m not keeping myself in order.]

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