Doing Violence to My Body

I currently have a horrible migraine, and I know why. I know my body like the back of my hand—oh, wait—and usually, the trigger is so clear I can see the pain coming; or, once the pain comes, I can instantly pinpoint what started it. I became “pre-migraine” twice in as many days when uninvited guests “popped” into my room when I was in the middle of writing. Do you know how hard it is to pull your brain out of whatever morass is consuming you to interact with another human being? Especially when—infuriatingly—these grown adults at my job who have been given the gift of a ridiculously light teaching schedule walk in with a petulant expression and say they were just “bored,” so they feel like interrupting my very happily productive life to bitch, complain or … do nothing.  Just kind of stare at me and invent things to talk about, because they are like children who can’t entertain themselves.

I don't know how to entertain myself.
I don’t know how to not be bored.

But I digress.

Weather changes, red wine, too much dairy, working for a deadline, even intense conversations that last longer than an hour or two. All of these are established triggers for me whereby I sink into an abyss of pain and return with pills, an eye mask and the warm cloak of sleep.

Today, though, none of the usual causes are at fault. Instead, I have chosen to assault my body with a deadly weapon: hormones, loads and loads of them; drospirenone and ethinyl estradiol, to be exact. I am volleying them every day at my body, intent on defying the natural order to bring an end to unnecessary pain.

My family is inordinately blessed when it comes to reproducing. I currently have seven nieces and nephews, six from sisters who share my genes, a point I bring up because our mother is ridiculously fertile. She had mild drugs when giving birth to two of the four of us, and apart from my annoying insistence on being face-up, she faced no birthing complications except for a brother who didn’t want to exit her womb and came out ten pounds and two weeks late. My sisters and I have wide hips, and the first two times I had sex outside of the marital bed—heck, once while I was in it—I spent many a night terrified of being pregnant, even when the sex had involved only mild piquerism. I knew if anyone could defy norms of getting pregnant, it was my family, condoms (which I’d used; I’m not stupid!) be damned.


Plus there was that creepy ex who could totally pull a “prick the condom” deal, so … well … there’s that.

While the need for birth control for ordinary reasons evades me now, I have been one of “those girls” for most of my life: you know, the ones whose bodies yield buckets of blood and explode nastiness on everything at that time of month; who vomit and deal with pain so intense it reduces them to quivering messes on the bathroom floor.  While this has never seemed normal to me, my mother always employed a Puritan-esque attitude towards physical suffering: get over it.  Stop faking it.  For some reason, only migraines yielded her sympathy, perhaps because they weren’t a curse unloaded only on women (though we’re disproportionate sufferers).

Thus, as a teen, I was not one of those lucky girls whose parents actually deemed her pain legitimate and allowed her to miss school one or two days a month for the Black Mist and its undoing to her body.  Instead, I spent many an hour in the bathroom of the school nurse, who was my mother’s friend and whose daughter led my color guard with a mix of humor and zest.  She never commented on any vestigial mess left behind, or on the hours I spent in her restroom to remove traces of it (in the world before this awesome invention to help ladies).  In those days, I felt incredible amounts of shame for everything. Being told that what I was feeling wasn’t that bad and shouldn’t disrupt my life when it plainly did was hella confusing.

I used to gasp in the evenings at home as the consequences of not impregnating myself ravaged my body, consuming Advil after carefully meted out foods allocated to the BRAT diet (bananas, R-something, applesauce and toast) to avoid stomach ulcers.  I am nothing if not a rule-follower.

One slight relief came in college, when a woman the first time I went to the doctor about the incredible pain said to me, “It’s okay to take up to 800 mg of Advil at a time” as she handed me horse pills to save my life (with strict instructions to eat beforehand, as I always had, nausea be damned).  This led to a carefully designed survival method for making it through my period every month: first, take two Advil at the first sign of pain.  Next, wait thirty minutes for the meds to kick in so that you can drink your morning coffee without the caffeine inflaming your insides to an unbearable point, allowing you to avoid a headache and to enjoy a beloved part of your daily ritual.  Next, ensure that you are close to a bathroom at all times and avoid human contact most of the first few days, lest you have to break off mid-sentence and run for the bathroom to empty your bowels.  The second day, when the pain allows you to stand comfortably, exercise like a mad woman killing bandits, because it yields some relief.  Do this other thing that yields relief, which we don’t talk about, but could occur at this one time a month without bringing shame (like a God-ordained mercy, because getting off is only okay if you’re already in immense pain).  Stretch a lot.  Hide out at home so that you can deal with the agony without starting to explain it to other people, and then see their eyes glaze over as their mind says, “Oh, she’s one of those people who can’t handle the natural cycles of life.”  Damn them, pretty, petite blond and other types of girls, whose bodies are so slight and hips so narrow that their mothers did not curse them with lightning-bolts of pain shooting down their backs for merely daring not to reproduce. That last one is what finally led to my breaking point.

Last month, riding on the subway, I could feel white-hot pain extending from my back upwards to my elbows and then to my fingertips, and then downwards through my legs all the way to my toes.  I actually felt muscles aching IN MY FOOT! because of my period.  Pain radiated down my back so badly that I felt faint.  THIS IS NOT NORMAL.  I don’t CARE if it’s technically part of life, I am tired of this event called a “cycle.”  Every month since I was fourteen, except for a period of extreme duress in my mid-twenties, I have been in agony one week a month, and thus three months a year.  THIS IS NOT OKAY!


I went to the doctor once before, requesting help.  She told me, understandably, that I would need to take birth control pills to really control things.  At the time, I was married to a man I need not describe here, but suffice to say, he viewed birth control as “unnatural” and didn’t want me to put “a ton of extra hormones” into my body.  So that was out.  Other options included exercise, cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, and upping the levels of healthy things like vegetables, vitamins and “lighter foods.” At the time, exercise helped a bit, but most of the symptoms have remained for the bulk of my “adult” life.  I am nearing 30, which means that I have spent more of my life with this crippling pain than without it.  Last year, I went on birth control to have wild, crazy sex with my new boyfriend, but when the whole experience was less than positive and I realized I just wasn’t that into him, we broke up, and I stopped taking the pill.  It seemed too high-maintenance, but the experience meant that I had a brief conversation with an actual certified doctor and knew what I should take/what she recommended when I came to my super-bold conclusion.

That day on the subway en route to work, I thought about all the blasted annoyances that come with a period.  Being from the United States and living in a foreign culture that views tampons with a mix of horror and disdain (women just use pads here), I have had to lug half a dozen boxes with me on every trip between my home country and the Beijing Airport (ain’t that fun for security! Though I know they see much crazier shit).  I have to deal with the knowledge that when I’m on my period, my students and Chinese colleagues know, because that’s the only time they they use the Western toilet,  I’m the only Western teacher on my side of the building, and they throw everything away in open wastebaskets.


Further, while I have heard that here in China, being on your period is a legitimate reason to call out from work, I just never got comfortable enough with my administration (made up of women!) to say this.  So I have continued to suffer, curling up in my classroom and doubling up on Advil to beg my body to stop torturing me.  Unfortunately, after a dozen-plus years of using these wonderful NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), my beloved Ibuprofen has stopped working as well; it’s damn expensive here, and can, after all, cause ulcers; and exercise no longer helps. I come from a conservative background, the kind that now eschews birth control as causing abortions and wholly unnatural (even though our mother took it for years).  But that day on the train, I got pissed at the amount of pain I was in, and decided that something was going to change.  I’ve altered much of how I view the world, and while praising the Chinese for their birth control methods is NOT a savvy thing to do, I do know that most women here have an IUD and are religious about birth control since the choice to have a child out of wedlock is not okay.  Ever.  In the words of our English-speaking liaison, a retired Beijinger who wanted something to do in his downtime, “If you get pregnant here and you’re not married, you have an abortion.”  Well, okay, mister. Sitting there in excruciating (there!  I used the word!) pain for no other reason than being an hourglass-shaped woman with a body that just looooves to make babies, I resented the idea that for the near future, I would be suffering just because my sisters want to go the natural route and because, in the past, my partners have sniffed at the idea of their girlfriend or wife being on “unnatural” drugs.  Unnatural, my ass.  Are YOU the one suffering, past boyfriend/spouse?  No, you are not.  So screw you.

I spent the next couple of days reading up on Chinese birth control.  I knew you could get a Z-pack over the counter, and figured in this anti-excessive-children-world, I’d find something available that way for birth control, too.  While long-term, I would like an IUD, I want to get the fancy new one for women who have never given birth, and I still haven’t garnered up the courage to talk to my English-speaking admin about birth control. I was lucky enough to find a years-old post (seriously, almost a decade) by a woman who dealt with this while I was still in college, and she gave me the names of a couple of options.  I scoured the Internet until I determined which ones were legal in most Western countries and could even help with severe periods/PMS.  Then came the hard part: going to the actual pharmacy. They don’t talk about sex in China.  Teens aren’t supposed to date; in fact, as some high-profile high schools, they won’t write letters of recommendation if two kids are caught in a romance.  Couples form in or after college, a technically smart move but difficult to fathom in America, where most of my students at my southwest high school had more sexual experience than I could fathom.

Not in China.
Not in China.

The pharmacy I was most comfortable with sits on the second floor of one of the ubiquitous places in my huge northern city, next door to the Subway restaurant that foreign teachers from my school use on our “I Hate China” or “I’m Craving Something Familiar” days.  I looked up the word for birth control on my phone and didn’t even practice pronunciation because like hell I was going to say it out loud.  Our students often wander over there for lunch at Subway or next door at the Yoshinoya, and I was in no mood to advertise.  In any case, with the help of a pimple-faced guy in his early twenties and a more mature pharmacist, I was able to pick the appropriate type.

The first few weeks were easy.  My body works like a clock, and if I ever want to get pregnant, I am pretty sure based on family history it will be all too easy.  But now, as of yesterday, I entered the hard part, and the reason I titled this “Doing Violence to My Body.”  I’m not new to the rodeo, and I know that for all my bravura, flooding my body with hormones is confusing the hell out of it.  I am defying the natural order to take place, telling my body NOT to release an egg, NOT to thicken my uterine lining, NOT to basically due what it does best, because I no longer wish to be tortured.  ESPECIALLY when I am not even sure I ever want to have kids, these first few months are going to be brutal.  Because I am skipping my period.

YES, I have read up on this, and YES, I have talked to my physician…last year.  And I am skipping the “off week” part of BC, because the whole point to my birth control experiment is NOT to have wild, crazy sex, although I’m not opposed.  It’s to take control of my body for the first time in my life, regardless of what my heartbreakingly earnest family members and conservative community say.  The turning point is that I fully acknowledge that I am going against “what’s natural,” and I expect my body to react.

Such a rebel.
Such a rebel.

I have just taken the first pill in the pack to tell my body that it doesn’t get to do its thing.  While the “off-week” pills don’t involved a released egg, just some light bleeding, I am skipping that motherfucker in favor of a period-free life.  This will confuse the heck out of my body, and today’s migraine is just one example. I occasionally get migraines, a fact I mentioned nervously to my doctor the last time I went on the pill, since it was a risk factor mentioned on the Internet.  While she breezily dismissed my concern, I am trying to stay alert these first few months as my body adjusts.

Today’s migraine has no clear origin apart from skipping the placebo week of my birth control, which is why I think it might be caused by the pill.  Regardless, I usually–like clockwork–get a migraine on the first day of my period anyway.  I have had a few other symptoms–breasts swelling, occasional nausea, among others–but not enough to dissuade me from my course.  Basically, I want to acknowledge that I am going against the grain.  I am taking control of my body in a way that is not without risks, but instead of denying the risks, I’m embracing them.  Come on, motherfuckers.  TELL ME about the pain I should be having.  I might regret it, but at least for once, I’m the one making the decision, not a partner, and not fearmongering family members.  And maybe, if I hang in there, I’ll know a world without crippling pain once a month. Scare tactics be damned.

But they're so scary.
But they’re so frightening.

Salon: The Right is Coming for Your Birth Control

Birth Control Is About Sex!

Fearmongering & CTV: I don’t vouch for everything else on this guy’s site, but I think this entry is spot-on.

3 thoughts on “Doing Violence to My Body

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