It’s not easy to explain what pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is like for a woman to a man who has never experienced it.
But imagine this: you were hit in the head by a wrecking ball two weeks ago and you are now barely coming out of the coma. That’s how I feel right now with about four days left before I get my menses.
I live in a conservative Arab society. I’m lucky to have received a good education here and abroad and to have gone to medical school at that. I’ve long understood the physiological effects of PMS. I know when it hits me and I know ways to deal with it. But I’ve discovered that so many people – men and women – in Arab societies have no idea about PMS and its effects.
Being the weird person that I am, I’ve found myself explaining to many of my male friends everything about PMS. I’ve always felt it important that they understand what’s happening to me when I get a bit emotional and whacky. It’s also important they understand what’s happening to their other female friends and family members. I’ve explained to men that this is a time when men need to give an extra effort of understanding and compassion. It makes a world of difference to the women. It even helps minimize the emotional changes.
PMS is different for each woman. But there are some general signs and symptoms that represent the syndrome. Emotionally, women might experience anxiety, depression, crying spells, mood swings, food cravings, trouble sleeping, social withdrawal and poor concentration. Physically, a woman might experience joint or muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, weight gain from fluid retention, tender breasts, acne flare-ups, and constipation or diarrhea.
An estimated three out of every four women will experience some form of PMS. The severity of the symptoms varies with each woman as well.
My main PMS symptoms are anxiety, depression, crying, mood swings, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, and acne flare-ups.
PMS can start as early as ten days before the first day of menses and last for a few days into the menses. That means some women in some cycles can be moody for a full two weeks! And it’s not really their fault!
Me and My PMS
I cannot count the times I drove to work and suddenly broke out into what Oprah calls the ugly cry. And at the time, I could swear to you that I’m crying about something really important. I just can’t point my finger at what that is exactly. But I SWEAR it’s important! I’ll suddenly have a feeling that no one in the world loves me anymore. Or I’ll cry sobbingly over the paint that is cracking on one of my walls at home and how ugly it looks. Or I’ll be listening to a sad song and I’ll suddenly relate to it and feel the song is all about me and my sad life.
This crying is actually quite physiological. I call it brain ooze. During PMS, the body retains salt and water. This happens in the brain as well, which means our brains literally swell during PMS. The only way to get rid of this retained water, I tell myself, is to let it out in the form of brain ooze from your tear glands.
My brain oozed quite profusely somewhat recently when I was boarding a plane from San Diego, California to Salt Lake City, Utah. I was on my way home to Cairo and the trip was to be a very long one. I had my carry-on suitcase with me that had nothing in it other than my computer. By the time my turn came to board the plane, the flight attendant told me there was no more room for my carry-on and I’d have to check it in. That would mean I’d be without my carry-on for the rest of the trip. Brain ooze started leaking. Not that I couldn’t just take out my laptop and put it in my purse. No sirree. I could have. But I was suddenly overwhelmed with a need for my carry-on bag. I NEEDED it. My problem went up to the highest levels (I took it there), and the pilot of the plane found a way to minimize brain ooze stains on the floor of his plane. I could take my blanky – I mean my carry-on bag – with me.
At work, my PMS has manifested in what appears to colleagues as illogical explosive episodes (we’ll call them IEEs for short). This happens most commonly during meetings. At one meeting when I had an IEE, a friend of mine quickly took out her cell phone and captured the moment. I really wish I had taken that picture to show you. It can be very ugly.
I remember having an IEE over how a report was written by colleagues in another section about two years ago. Nothing they wrote made sense to me. Again, I took it up to the highest of levels – their boss. Their boss couldn’t figure out what the problem was so he arranged for a meeting between the two of us and the employee in question. I got into a very heated conversation – with myself. The other two were calm and collected and watched me as if watching a phenomenon. Eventually, the boss told me, “Nadia, you are so riled up your face is red. How can this be so important?” It wasn’t. But it took me a few days – and letting go of lots of brain ooze – to realize that.
My PMS causes me to have a constant feeling that “something’s wrong”. I wake up in the morning feeling something’s wrong. I wrack my brains trying to pin-point it. Sometimes I’ll find something small that needs to be fixed or I’ll remember a small issue at work. The anxiety won’t necessarily go away but I’ll have been able to give a reason for the uncomfortable feeling.
Dealing With It
I’ve long wanted to be able to put a sign around my neck saying, “Woman with PMS” so that people would either understand why I’m acting the way I am or that they’ll just keep their distance till it’s over. What I do instead is tell any female friend in the vicinity and any male friend I feel comfortable enough with to divulge such sensitive information.
I’ve recently gone beyond this to making announcements on Twitter. That way, there are about 900 people in the world that know my “situation”.
You can see I’ve struggled with this for years. It’s actually been getting worse. I’m pretty sure it’s because not only am I getting the typical symptoms of PMS but I’ve also been sex-deprived for more than five years (husband living and working abroad). Just imagine what a severely hormonal sex-deprived woman can be like.
My OB-GYN once prescribed a natural remedy for my PMS. Primrose. I tried it for a couple of months but to me it just seemed to make my symptoms worse. I then once came across a psychiatrist friend of mine and told him about my escalating PMS symptoms. He prescribed a small dose of an anti-depressive drug for two weeks each month.
I loved that drug. I took it for the first two weeks and suddenly nothing in this world could irk me. Nothing. The drug put me in a state I could explain as being in a splendidly wonderful stupor. I thought I had found the solution to my crisis until I realized that the voices in my head had all quieted down. How could I live without my voices?? It’s those voices that egg me on to write. You’ve all met “Little Man in My Head” and “GPS Lady”. You all know how incredibly amazing they are. So once I realized the drug had taken that away from me – basically who I was – I decided it wasn’t working for me. I’d rather be a maniacal, emotionally explosive, exciting woman with voices in her head than a calm, collected woman on an anti-depressive high.
Yesterday a friend of mine, Pakinam Amer @pakinamamer, was wondering out loud on Twitter whether it might be logical that women shouldn’t be appointed into some sensitive professional positions, such as being judges, because of our potential IEEs, anxiety attacks, and illogical thought processes that sometimes happen during PMS.
I don’t really think so. PMS is like having a really bad day. We all have those. When I have PMS, I know somewhere in my swollen, oozing brain that PMS is the main perpetrator behind the way I feel at that time. I have learned how to re-program the swollen-state of my brain. I’ve learned how to re-circuit my thinking process to go around the swelling, understand the sources of my emotions, and find a new way to come up with a logical thought process. When you know where the problem is you can find ways to go around that problem. Of course, an active life-style, exercise, decreasing salt in your diet, and finding ways to de-stress are some lifestyle changes that help decrease the manifestations of PMS. They work.
It’s also important to be aware that men aren’t the perfect creatures themselves. Any woman who has spent any amount of time around a man can tell you how moody, emotionally dependent, and child-like men can be at times. Research actually indicates that drops in testosterone levels as a result of stress in male animals and in men can result in what scientists are calling irritable male syndrome (IMS). Men can be hormonal too. We women have known this since the beginning of time. It’s just taken this long for researchers to decide to study it.
So no, I don’t think women should be prevented from occupying sensitive positions such as judges, presidents, ministers, etc. because at certain times of the month they can get hormonal. We get PMS, yes. Many of us do, anyways. Severity varies from one woman to another. And there are ways to decrease its severity. And no matter how bad it gets, we still have the ability to think logically – if we decide to. And if something is important, we will certainly decide to.