Let me set the stage: I wake up feeling relatively normal. It’s true the night before I was starting to have a few alienating judgmental thoughts about one friend or another but I didn’t trip on it. Today I’ve been busy on the computer and taking care of a few things around the house. I make it through the first half of the day without talking to anyone. Now it’s time to head uptown. On the subway, as people begin to crowd into the train, I notice a few minor character assassinations take place in my head whenever someone stands too close to me. When I switch trains, the walkways fill up with people who have no urgency in their step. I pick up my pace and aggressively snake through the crowd. It isn’t until I descend the stairs to my connecting platform that I spot the source of the pedestrian traffic slowdown. Two people are standing at the foot of the stairs having a conversation during rush hour. I shoulder hard into them on my way down but really what I want to do is grab them and throw them onto the tracks. How can anyone be so selfish and stupid as to block a stairwell in New York City during rush hour? These two clearly deserve to die.
I tell this story because this was a regular occurrence in my life. In fact, it was a monthly occurrence. This is how the first sign of my PMS would announce itself – homicidal fantasies. Like character defects that often only appear when dealing with others, the beginning of PMS would be undetectable until I was out among the human race. This would be my yellow warning light for what was to come. In the hours after my subway rage, I would turn the anger and disgust toward myself. I’d become both judgmental and insecure. Character defects would flare up and I’d act out on resentments with gossip followed by shame and paranoia. In the end I’d be so raw and vulnerable and filled by self-loathing that all I could do was hide or cry. On day two my abdomen would swell and a visible layer of water weight covered my thighs, back and butt. Puffy eyed and dragging with fatigue, the countdown would begin. On the third day my period would start and with it came a sense of relief. It was as if the pressure valve had opened and my emotions were restored to sanity. Hormones are a bitch!
When women get clean and sober, like men, we ride the emotional rollercoaster of early recovery. People tell us what to expect and reassure us with “You’re where you’re supposed to be. This is normal.” What no one tells us is that we are also powerless over our hormones and that they will make us emotionally unmanageable. Usually it isn’t until we have spewed venom and insanity to a female friend or sponsor that we are asked, “Where are you in your menstrual cycle?’ To which we respond with anger. The question sounds belittling and condescending. After all, doesn’t it dismiss the validity of the feelings that have consumed us? There’s nothing like PMS to make a woman want to argue – even if it’s to argue against the very idea of PMS.
Many of us didn’t experience PMS during our using because we were too high to notice. We were always under the influence and intuitively used substances to control our feelings – including those of PMS. I know personally, I was on the Pill from 14 to 28 and my last year using my periods stopped coming so PMS was a non-issue. I decided to remain off the Pill once I got clean because I was single and knew I’d be more apt to use condoms if I had no other birth control. Now that I was single after a monogamous marriage, I didn’t trust myself when it came to practicing safe sex – since I had no experience with it. I figured fear of pregnancy would keep me on the straight and narrow of condom use. So from day one clean, I began experiencing my natural hormonal cycle for the first time since adolescence and I had no idea what to expect.
Newcomers, it is important to pay close attention to what is going on with your body so you can make the connection between emotional unmanageability and your menstrual cycle. All it will take is 4 months of charting the patterns and you will know pretty much what to expect for years to come. The reason this matters is because when you know your period is coming and the general pattern of your rollercoaster, it is much easier to accept “oh these feelings are hormonal and not connected to real life things”. This is damage control. This will stop you from acting out on anger, nitpicky-ness, righteousness, or from damaging friendships. It will put feelings of inadequacy and loneliness in check. When you look in the mirror and hate what you see, you’ll know you are looking through a hormonal veil of distortion and tomorrow the reflection will be much different. This will save you a lot of agony. Recovery is life on life’s terms and hormones are part of life’s terms –so until you have experience riding this out clean, they will trip you up and cause you to suffer.
The easiest way to map it is this: keep track on the calendar of when your period starts and ends. Look back at the days leading up to your period when the rage and vulnerability came, when the distorted body image came, when the bleeding started. Often early signs of PMS will appear 7-10 days before your actual period but it is a window of 3 days prior that we become lunatics (even if we hide this fact from the world). You need to list your bizarre thinking, track your emotions, and note any physical symptoms (from water weight, sore breasts, cramps, constipation, lower back ache). You will notice that your PMS is most severe every other month.
Talk about it. Find women’s meetings where you can say when you feel like blowing your brains out or throwing people under the bus even though you know its PMS insanity. When your head wants to take you down a dark street of the mind, tell yourself – this is PMS and probably not real. This helps you to keep perspective so you don’t have to end relationships, quit jobs, or disappear from the lives of everyone you’ve ever known. Trust me – there is so much comfort in knowing that the insanity is temporary, that nothing real has changed between Monday and Wednesday other than a shift in thinking. We are powerless over our hormones and our thinking has become unmanageable and in a few days, we will be restored to sanity. Our job is to limit the damage we cause until then.
The fantastic thing about staying clean is that we begin to have an awareness of our body and our relationship to it. It begins by observing menstrual cycles but becomes so finely tuned that you will notice when any other area is off as well – when your body is fighting off a virus or flu, when your immune system is weak, when you’re in optimum health. Recovery is a process of moving from your mind (where the disease has held power) back into your body. Without this, it’s impossible to truly experience living in the moment.
I wish every woman in recovery would talk openly with one another about their experiences with menstrual cycles, PMS, safe sex, condom use, STDS, abortions, and sex. It would save us all a lot of suffering. Sadly, these subjects don’t get enough discourse and women continue to struggle to find their way through these uncharted emotional territories – often alone and unsupported. In time, I will do my best to open up these topics in a very public way.