He Ain’t Heavy …

It seems that in New Zealand schoolgirls are skipping class and sports because they can’t afford the sanitary items that make their periods a normal part of life.  Labour MP Louisa Wall is heading up a campaign to draw attention to this disturbing fact.  While the girls are from poor economic backgrounds, they are living in a developed country, so its incredibly sad that this happens to them in this day and age.  I wonder how many young girls in Ireland are struggling with the same problem.  It’s a little bit shocking that any girl, no matter where she lives would have to deal with their period without access to sanitary products.   Sanitary protection is not a luxury, its a basic need, and its wrong that their education is interrupted because they can’t get it.

Most of us with Endo (if not all?) struggle with heavy and painful periods, sometimes the amount of sanitary towels required over a single period is, well, quite a lot to put it mildly.  I remember being asked by an acupuncturist once what I meant when I said I had very heavy periods.  I answered well I could use a full packet of Always Ultra in a 24 hour period.  One eyebrow rose slightly and his eyes widened…. mmm…I’d say we could agree that constitutes heavy.  For those of you that might use other brands or other forms, that’s 14 super absorbent, long length towels. With wings, you have to have wings!  Without being graphic, that’s a lot of blood….

I grew up on Neil Diamond songs, my mother was a fan, so I know the words of all the songs from Cracklin’ Rosie to Longfellow Serenade.  (Dad  went through a Meatloaf phase at one stage while I was travelling with him in the mornings to college so I also know all the words to I Would Do Anything for Love and Good girls go to Heaven, what can I say, we all have our crosses to bear!) I’ve always liked his version of He Ain’t Heavy, he’s my brother, Diamond not Meatloaf!, and while I know the song talks about a girl carrying her younger brother on her back, she gave that reply when asked was he a burden.  Sometimes my period is a burden, it’s not a celebration of my womanhood, it’s not just an inconvenience that happens for 3-4 days once a month and barely causes a blip on my monthly household bills.  Its more than that.  I could spend on average €16 on sanitary towels a month, add a packet of Neurofen plus and you’re over the €20 mark.  If that’s€250 euros a year for me.  For a family on a tight budget with a mother and possibly 2 daughters, that’s suddenly a big part of your yearly budget.  Heavy periods are costly things.

I remember being in school, trying to get to the bathroom between classes, trying to hide bulky sanitary towels in your small skirt pocket, from the time you got on the bus to the time for 1st break you had to get through 2.5 hours, sometimes I’d go just before class started at 9 but sometimes you’d forget and realise your mistake once you got up from your seat over an hour later.  You would have to stand still and wait for a minute, because it was like a tap being turned on, and you’d wonder if you’d make it to the bathroom or not.  I was lucky my uniform was a deep wine colour so if you did leak slightly it would have been less noticeable, but I was terrified every time I stood up all the same.   You would hope to God the worst of it would happen over the weekend, but sometimes just for kicks Aunt Jane would come Monday to Friday and you’d spend the week in a permanent sweat.  In college it didn’t get any better.  My schedule was pretty full and some days we had lectures from 11-6 with 10 minutes between each one which was often barely enough time to get across from the library to the 3rd floor of the main building, let alone stop off at the bathroom while there were queues because everyone was on break. I used to wonder was I being paranoid with my constant checking but no, I was right.  After going on a schools visit for our upcoming teaching practice, we were walking back through the reception area when my friend said to me “Do you have your period?” I sort of laughed and said “wow is it that obvious, am I that grumpy today?”, she looked me at me sadly and said “No its obvious on your skirt”.  I hightailed it to the nearest toilet as fast as I could and sure enough on the back of my light grey skirt was a large red stain.  All it took was a small glitch to my planning, the bus was delayed collecting us, traffic was busy and as a result I hadn’t had a chance to use the bathroom in over and hour and a half.  Luckily I had my PE gear with me for a class later that day so I could change but then I made a bad impression at my supervisor meeting that evening by turning up in PE gear.  He passed the comment that he hoped I had made more of an effort when I visited the school.  What could I say?  Sorry sir, I bled out on my skirt this morning, I thought that might make a bad impression? Obviously I kept that thought to myself!

Heavy periods take planning, and calculations and a lot of thought.  If you want to leave the house you need to be organised and then its like filling a baby’s changing bag with a plethora of items.  You need multiple changes, you may need wipes and tissues, it’s always the bathroom you choose that suddenly has an empty paper dispenser.  You may need a change of underwear, and if you were really good you’d bring extra pants! But hey, who wants to go out with all that in your bag??  No one I’ve ever met! And certainly not me.  Though I have had all the above in my handbag on numerous occasions…. save the extra pants, thats a step too far! I choose the colour wisely!

We all have stories of those mortifying moments when it seemed suddenly the whole world knew you were having your period.  In school once I had to go home because by twelve o’ clock I had used everything I had with me and there was still 4 hours of school left.  I stood at the secretary’s desk and said I needed to ring home, my face was pale with a tint of green to it, and I could barely stand up straight.  The principal happened to walk by and asked me what was wrong, I was so flummoxed, I answered quickly “The flu Sir!” and promptly turned a deep shade of red.  Maybe he knew, maybe she said something to him afterwards or maybe the sight of my pale sickly face was enough, but he reappeared from his office and drove me home that day.

It makes me sad to think that any girl, in any country would have to feel the worry and anxiety of not having sanitary protection, as if dealing with your period wasn’t stressful enough.  I’m not saying we should be handing out free tampons on street corners but it would be good if schools had some sort of system in place for girls that did have difficulty accessing these things.  Maybe some do already, but maybe its something we need to look at.  The campaign in New Zealand is buying towels in bulk and so avoiding the tax on it, then charging the girls 50cents at school.  Many schools now have dispensing machines and that’s great, its good to see, but with girls starting earlier, these need to be in primary schools too.  I know it’s not a school’s responsibility to do this, but what happens when even the best prepared girl gets stuck.  Surely a little compassion wouldn’t go astray, that some system could be in place to help a girl out.

But to finish with a positive note, the girls and women who deal with difficult and tiresome periods on monthly basis (and more often for some) you are all brave, you are all strong, even though at times you feel more faint than brave, more lethargic than strong.  You get through it and you carry on! My father used to always say to us if we were dealing with a difficult situation or particularly difficult person, “Keep smiling, never let them know they are getting to you”.  I used to throw my eyes to heaven sometimes and think “yeah, that will really work”  but it does.  Keep smiling and don’t let Aunt Jane get you down!








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