Something happens when my boot catches on the stairs of the apartment my friends are renting during our junior year of college. I tumble into a dark mood and don’t recover until September of the following year, when steady sun and a love supreme overwhelm the feeling for a while. It returns, though, slicing through the relationship, meeting me across the country, then across the Atlantic, and then waiting for me back in New York.
I have depression, with a family history on all sides, and finally, at 33, I’m better than I’ve ever been. Despite the fact that the world is infected, unequal, and inflamed, I have never been more content or more balanced, thanks in no small part to a cellphone app that tracks my menstrual cycle. As everything else began to come together (work, medication, my shoe collection), it became clear that each month, during the luteal phase of my menstrual cycle, when my estrogen drops and progesterone rises, I almost lose my mind.
There are many people who know or have felt how powerful hormones are, and I am one of them. My particular emotional ecosystem is desecrated every month. This may sound stupidly obvious, but until I started following my cycle, using one of several period-tracking apps on the market, I couldn’t fully appreciate what was going on. Even with the medication and the ace therapist, the abiding love, etc., the emotionally distorting effect of my cycle is such that I convince myself each month that the meeting really was that bad, or my partner really has been planning to break up me, that my face is unacceptable, or my headache is cancercancercancer. When this happens now, before I pull WebMD up on my phone, I check the day of the month. Ah, yes, it is day 22—put down the panic button, carry on.
In the days since Roe was overturned, legal experts have suggested that digital period trackers are just one checkpoint in a policing system to be used against people who can become pregnant. After an early panic, it appears there are other and perhaps better data for the government to track to prosecute people who may not have carried a pregnancy to term. However, the enormity of the ruling is not yet clear, the rules will continue to change, and the needles that jumped on June 24 will continue to help us understand this seismic decision. The panic around the period tracker is one of these needles. Even this passing anxiety about trackers has shown me that in addition to everything else, our self-knowledge is in danger.
For three eventful years, I worked with a bright, successful, productive woman with whom I shared an appreciation for a specific tracking app and sometimes a cycle. She had a period and still accomplished more each month than most people do in a year. Might that mean I could do the same? Observe my feelings rather than boil in them? Is that what she was doing?
We began to affirm each other in a way that was even more reassuring than tracking and self-evaluation alone. Did she want to kill all other living creatures on day 23? Did that murderous feeling dissipate when her period began (a time when hell begins for many other menstruating people)? Did she also radiate energy and reach for a snugger skirt during ovulation, finish every task, shine at every party? How confirming. Our particular tracker called this period the “fertile window”—based on the likelihood of ovulation. “FW” then became shorthand for us that could signal volumes in a single text.
We worked in what was once a male-dominated industry. (One could argue that almost every industry was male-dominated, and they are going to get more male-dominated again, domination being perhaps the whole point of this operation—but I digress.) We had occasion in this world to joke with each other that amid the men, we were going to sit and talk about periods. In fact, we did just that. Not ceaselessly—the bleed itself wasn’t terribly interesting to either of us, though she kept tampons for me, and I kept ibuprofen for her. What was compelling was the data points that our cycles added to the difficult equation of being alive, of “What made that conversation so painful?” and “How come my beloved misunderstood me so completely?” and “How come it took an hour to find the right outfit for this date/meeting/Monday?”
We were both cis women who experienced a period, and it taught us so much to track them together. That is another thing that was threatened on Friday, June 24: believing that it wasn’t against the law to understand ourselves.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with my doctors about my hormonal sensitivity. I have tried several things, but mostly I have settled into acceptance. One healthcare provider did mention that for some of her patients, the premenstrual phase is a helpful moment for them to get in touch with the anger to which they don’t usually have access—presumably because it has been socialized out of us. I have never had any problem accessing my anger, but I saw her point. Adrienne Rich, in her classic feminist text Of Woman Born, takes a beat to consider the menstrual taboo, a.k.a. the general stigma around periods, that exists in so many societies. Rich asks, what if women intentionally inspired in men a distaste for menstruation? Though we often assume that a male authority decided the period was “unclean,” she imagines women themselves establishing the taboo to steal a necessary break from men and their attentions. It is a beautiful thought to carry around, that thousands of years ago, canny women and others spread rumors, beliefs, and ideologies that allowed people with otherwise little autonomy to gather and bitch, and bleed, unharassed by men who wanted their bodies for begetting. What if early communities of people with periods established fear and loathing around this deeply routine natural occurrence as the equivalent of a forged doctor’s note, a fake passport to withdraw, to marvel at their bodies, at what their bodies could do—in private?
In the same section, Rich, a celebrated poet, considers how instead of being swept aside as hysterical, people with cycles could celebrate the remarkable monthly change in perspective, in mood, and energy. She cites, as proof that women in some cultures may have understood the benefit of mood shifts guided by hormones, a remark recorded by the German ethnographer (and spy) Leo Frobenius from “an Abyssian woman” offering, of those who don’t cycle: “‘His life and body are always the same.… He knows nothing.’”
In the long game to minimize women, hormonal fluctuations have been a key concern. Men have tried to withhold power and authority from women because our mutability supposedly means volatility. In truth, this is one reason why I resisted acknowledging the impact my cycle had. I didn’t want to be discounted. What I didn’t appreciate was how much more I could learn about myself and the world by accepting and acknowledging these wild fluctuations. Like Frobenius’s woman in North Africa, these changes give me perspective. In the space of 30 days, I am the director riding a crane in a big-budget Hollywood picture, and the actor, and the audience.
So maybe I’ll delete my tracker, though I live in a state where abortion could continue to be legal for some time. For now, I’ll use a paper calendar or some other device of my own. And maybe we can tip power again toward individual bodily autonomy. It will take an understanding of the cycles of power and of our potential.
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