Meet Helena. A women who, as a practicing yoga teacher, focuses on what feels good, from the inside out. With a background in both dance and art, her understanding of the body as well as her ethos for daily life is about celebrating and nourishing the individual. Helena has talked about what she stands for within her life and her yoga practice, sharing her experiences that have led to this way of thinking today.
You can read Helena’s story here
Meet Steph. An Autism Specialist teacher, running a blog and providing training in specialist and mainstream settings on understanding autism. Steph also splits her time by focusing on her music production and DJ around the world.
Steph has been an active participant in the Sassy Events as well contributing with her own story.
Steph was part of the latest Sassy Event, Mentioning Menstruation, where women came together to talk openly about their periods. Here, Steph shares her own history of using contraception and the questions she’s asking herself since hearing other women’s stories.
‘I was on the phone to someone yesterday and they asked me what medication I was taking. So I listed off asthma and allergies. A few minutes later I realised that I’ve become so used to taking contraception that I don’t even think about it as a form of medication. I stopped the conversation and said “Hold up, I’m on the progestogen only pill”.
This led me down the path of thinking how it’s become so normalised for girls to take oral contraception, yet you’re changing the whole chemistry of your body. I’ve been on oral contraception for such a long time and it was talking with other women at the Sassy Event that I’ve suddenly become more aware of this.
So I’m thinking about changing this. I hadn’t heard of the Marina coil before, I’m interested in that because it could be removed myself, but still, do I want to change the hormone levels in my body. I’ve definitely been more prone to spots on my face since taking the progesterone only pill, but changing it could cause other side effects! You just don’t know how you might react, no one can tell you that. Will your boobs get big, will you put on weight?
At the event women spoke of accepting their periods as part of our bodies. My current pill stops my period. Is this my way of saying “I don’t have to deal with that”? I’m quite happy not to have one and avoid all the things that go with having a period, especially the pain and sleepless nights. I’m quite happy to save the money as well! Although I did buy three of my friends and myself a Mooncup for Christmas! But the conversation made me ask “What am I happy about?”.
For me the fact that I don’t have a period so don’t have to deal with it came secondary. I’m not in a point of my life where I want children but I do want to have sex. We all know condoms can break. I want to protect myself.
First I tried different pills, all with various side effects. I then tried the injection and I had the worst migraines which lasted for the whole three months. As a result, I was put on beta blockers and I remember my Dad would say to me I looked really spaced out when I took the medication. It was such a horrible time from about age 13 to 16 trying to sort it out.
After trying many different oral contraceptives, I found Marvelon. It worked so well, the headaches stopped and I stayed on this pill from when I was 16 –22.
Until at 22, I started having these migraines, they are called migraine with auras. My vision would go flashy and then gradually I would loose my sight, the pain was very intense. It was scary. I had three or four before I went to the Doctors. Straight away they said I couldn’t be on the combined pill because it would highly increase my risk of blood clots. I therefore stopped taking the combined pill and I haven’t had a migraine with aura since.
It just shows you the impact it can have on your body. And that is only one part of it.
When I first started going on these pills, I went from being really flat chested to having huge boobs (Bethany! they were out here!). I was so tiny and I had these massive boobs! What is going inside your body to make these things happen, that’s the worrying thing.
Last year, they found three lumps in my breast. They’re not cancerous, they’re fibrocystic lumps. When I researched it a bit, guess what came up…?
Side effect of Oral Contraception. I only found out by doing my own research that apparently quite a few women have these lumps. And here’s the worrying thing; they could be caused by oral contraception but you just don’t know. I went back for a scan this year and one of them has got a bit bigger. So they’ll keep monitoring it. And it’s nothing to worry about but still, the more I read about it, the more it’s pointing towards oral contraception.
I’ve said a lot of physical things that I have experienced potentially from taking the oral contraceptive. Would those changes to my body have happened if I hadn’t been?
You wonder how studies and research is undertaken, how this stuff is recorded. You’d have to do really long studies in order to find out the long term physical and mental risks and effects of all of the different types of contraception for females.’
Told by Steph Reed
Illustrated and edited by Bethany Burgoyne
Meet Ixta Belfrage, a master of food, working as a recipe developer, who feeds us not only with her culinary creations but also with her honest stories. Ixta has discussed her ideas both in person and at Sassy Events, sharing her personal experiences relating to contraception.
For so many women, the main struggle faced with their periods is knowing which contraception to use. This conversation played a key role in the latest Sassy Event, ‘Mentioning Menstruation’, where women shared their own experiences and opinions about how they choose to manage and control their cycles. What appeared was an understanding and respect for each woman’s personal decision, an individual approach that is reflected in their own wants and needs.
Here, Ixta Belfrage retells her story of her scarring experience with the Nuvaring and how it has affected her view on contraception.
‘Previously I had been using the combined pill, Microgynon . Although I didn’t suffer from many of the more serious side effects, I did suffer emotional instability and mood swings, something I think we’ve sadly learned to take for granted on the pill. Admittedly, like countless women I know, I forgot to take it every now and again. Unfortunately I ended up getting pregnant and I realised this just wasn’t the contraception for me. I came off contraception during and after my abortion and I was completely lost as to what to do next. In hospital, I was made to feel stupid for not using anything in this period of uncertainty, but I was in a steady relationship and had no idea what to try next.
I heard really good things about the Nuvaring, (now I think about it, I don’t know who I heard these from!) and one of its appealing factors was that you put it in for 3 weeks, had a week off and then put a new one in. I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting to take the pill, it seemed easy enough. The other advantage was that the hormones are localised to the reproductive area, which means they aren’t spread around the body as much as the oral pill.
Like the combined pill, I was told that you can chose to use the Nuvaring back to back to skip a period. Within the 6/7 months that followed, I did this on two occasions (when I was on holiday), quite near to each other. Both times, instead of missing a period, I ended up bleeding every day for three weeks. It was light enough for it to not be a real problem, I didn’t go to the Doctor and thought it would go away.
Until, for the first time in my life, I started to have panic attacks.
Two or three times a week I’d feel my heart beginning to race uncontrollably, rendering me breathless and terrified. In this time my emotions were also completely uncontrollable. I had no idea what was happening to me in these moments, it was something I had never experienced before. The 4th or 5th time this happened I was at work, at my desk and I started to have another attack for no particular reason that I can pinpoint. I began to cry and couldn’t catch my breath. As hard as I tried to collect myself and breathe deeply and slowly, I couldn’t help or control any of it. I went outside, not wanting my colleagues to notice, and in that moment I thought I was going to collapse. I’m not a hypochondriac, or a melodramatic person but I truly thought I was about to collapse and die. I realise this sounds ridiculous, but it’s the complete truth.
I rang my mum who, being a nutritionist, is often someone I go to when I have health issues. She met me after work at the hospital closest to my work. She took my blood pressure, and asked some general questions about my health and then about my period. I told her of my two, three week long periods over the last few months and her reaction was of complete shock. She told me that I was undoubtedly severely anaemic. She took my blood pressure and it was incredibly low, which is unusual for me; I’ve always had normal blood pressure.
It’s in hind sight that I can recognise how bleeding for so long led to very low blood pressure which led to very low mood and eventually to panic attacks. Quite apart from that, the hormones in any form of contraception severely deplete your body of nutrients.
It was by connecting the dots that I started to question the side effects of the Nuvaring and searched for other women’s experiences. I stumbled on an article about the Nuvaring being connected to cases of pulmonary embolisms and heart attacks. People in high places have paid a lot of money, I’m sure, to keep reports of side effects out of the first few pages of Google. But when I searching this link specifically, I found countless articles. I understand there are side effects to all types of contraception, but this seemed extreme and unfortunately, everything I read made a lot of sense to me.
Apart from the panic attacks, I was a shell of myself emotionally, which had a knock-on effect on my relationship. I was being mean, I was being petty, I was overly emotional for no reason. Sometimes, I had to make excuses for being a person that I wasn’t.
Since coming off the Nuvaring, I haven’t had a single panic attack. I can’t prove the connection, but nothing else in my life has changed. My personal issues remain the same. I still have plenty of things to stress about. But it’s been nearly five months and my mood and my relationship are so much better, emotionally I feel stronger. I feel like me again.
Since my experience with the Nuvaring, I’m now petrified of how contraception will affect me. Admittedly, I haven’t been using any form of contraception. I’m still in a committed relationship and quite bluntly, I’ve been relying on the old pull out. I feel stupid, and have been made to feel stupid for being this risky. I really appreciated and identified when finally a friend I told had a different reaction. She looked at me and said, “I actually don’t think it’s any more stupid than plying your body with hormones that make you feel awful and effect your emotions and health.”
As terrible as having an abortion was, it hasn’t affected me as drastically as my experience with the Nuvaring. I’m really fucking petrified of going back on anything else, I’m scared of getting panic attacks again, of being emotionally unstable and not being me. There doesn’t seem to be a clear solution.’
Told by Ixta Belfrage,
Illustrated by Bethany Burgoyne
With a history of working for women’s health in Auckland, New Zealand, Marjorie discusses her involvement in running a special clinic for premenstrual syndrome (PMS), working to find ways to help each individual woman’s needs.
Can you explain what Premenstrual syndrome is?
Premenstrual syndrome refers to the symptoms you get in the luteal phase (the last part) of the cycle, before the period comes. The experiences of women is hugely varied as are the symptoms. With that in mind, the clinic was set up and run by a multi-disciplinary team; a doctor, a nurse and a psychologist to help those women who struggled.
How did the clinic run?
The initial appointment would involve asking the women to talk about their history; when they started their periods, what their periods were like, any changes over time and what their symptoms were. A focus was on understanding why they thought they had PMS. We would give them a symptom chart to fill out over the course of 3 months so as to see what patterns occurred.
What would you then offer women in terms of support or solutions?
Well, there’s no magic, but there are ways to manage it better.
The psychologist decided it could be beneficial to work in a group so she and I would run sessions one evening a week that mostly focused on group cognitive behaviour therapy. This encourages awareness of how you think about something and trying to approach it more rationally.
If you have quite severe symptoms at this point in your cycle such as feeling depressed, anxious, having low self-esteem and feeling unable to cope then we’d look at specific elements. What can’t you cope with, turn it around and change the thinking behind it. It’s a very helpful tool which a lot of people do subconsciously. By managing it, you’re going to manage your life around that time. For example, you might not want to get married the week before your period starts.
In a room with about ten to twenty women they would all have different things that would help them manage. For some women going on the combined or contraceptive pill worked quite well, or at least gave them the edge to manage better. Other women would get a lot of bloating, feeling heavy and puffy, so the doctor may subscribe a diuretic during that last part of the cycle. St Johns wart works very well for some women, as do anti depressives and vitamin D.
Some women felt better when they didn’t have a bleed, some felt better if they did have a bleed, some people had painful periods and getting good pain control before the period started would help, because they wouldn’t get so anxious about what they were about to go through. My experience from talking with these women proves that it’s very complicated and very individual.
During the time you have worked, have you witnessed a change in the way women understand their PMS
Yes. A good move forward has been to give women more choice, and control over their own bodies, demystifying the experiences we go through. I think there were a few women who had struggled for years, not knowing who to tell and at a loss of what to do.
For example, there was a woman in her late forties, who had started to feel worse and worse pre menstrually. And I asked her how she felt about not having children, and her eyes welled up. There was the truth, that she was getting older and therefore closer to menopause meaning children were becoming less of a possibility. It was a mourning thing. Mourning the loss of her fertility. And I think this happens to quite a few women. I suggested grief counselling, as it’s a grieving process and a big deal. However, once she had realised her situation she could make sense of it, and she was ok again. This highlights for me how interesting and real PMS is.
Therefore, the treatment always has to be acceptable. There’s no point saying your PMS will go away if you cut your right arm off. If you don’t want to do something one way then it is important to find how else can we help find a choice which you find acceptable.
In our hunter gatherer days it was all about survival but now we have leisure time and careers and all these other expectations that could be an added factor. Women’s lives are very complicated, and their roles are multiple, you’re a wife, a mother, a girlfriend, a daughter; you have certain feelings of obligation. It’s complicated, and you may have to negotiate your way through, making certain decisions to make sure people don’t get hurt or complain. That is the complexity of the 21st century. Hence why conversations about how to take care of yourself and people becoming more mindful helps.
Can you expand on the idea of “modern woman”, in what ways have our cycles changed?
What we know about menstrual cycles in homo sapians times (due to the fact there are still hunter gathers in the world today), is that if you live that kind of life style, your periods start later as your development is slower. And you’re likely to become pregnant very quickly after starting your periods. You won’t have periods while you’re pregnant, nor while you’re fully breast feeding, which can be one or two years, maybe longer. Then you have another period or two until you become pregnant again. This means the number of periods in a woman’s life is far less than in a modern woman’s life.
From the experiences you’ve had over the course of so many years, what’s been the most important thing you‘ve learnt or would like to change, raise awareness of?
I think one big thing for me lately, has been what women understand about their bodies, and how to educate them, particularly if they’re from another culture. Cultural beliefs, traditions, family expectations are all wrapped up in how we view our bodies, deeming what would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. And I suppose my awareness of this has come more from my experience of working with women coming for a pre-surgical consultation. Witnessing the number of women who really didn’t understand parts of their body and what was happening to it. You need to be told a number of times to understand, helping to unpack certain beliefs. Using pictures, clear diagrams, seemed to do the trick.
Another important factor was how to establish a rapport with someone. Focusing the attention on creating a good relationship and talking together, as sometimes the problem isn’t what it’s perceived to be, it may be something else but to get there you have to spend the time. If the person is from another culture that can be more difficult, the challenge of talking through a translator can be difficult. Pantomiming can work sometimes, making people laugh and relax a bit more. Because building that rapport can be a therapeutic relationship in itself. And I think it can be the key to a lot of these other situations, of what woman find themselves in to do with their normal physiology.
Marjorie A. in conversation with Bethany Burgoyne
Illustration by Bethany Burgoyne
I first remember getting my period, aged 14, as I approached the front steps of my parent’s house, feeling this liquid slipping out in the weirdest manner. After astonishing yet thrilling confirmation in the bathroom, I lined my underwear with toilet paper and contemplated the brownish blood that I had found there. Finally, menstruation had arrived. I remember feeling ‘ready’, and ‘able’, but for what, I wasn’t exactly sure.
I started to notice that during these times almost anything made me cry. Very quickly, I was doubled up in pain at school in the nurse’s bed or unable to leave the house on a sunny weekend. I was bloated all the time and my attention span was minimal. During these days, a hot water bottle became a best friend and a necessity. I couldn’t really go to parties like this, and wearing heels (which was the other big new thing in my life) made me feel like a giraffe with swollen ankles. Instead, all I wanted to do was to eat popcorn and cheese, preferably together and preferably in bed.
I would feel the pains coming like a hidden dragon, clawing up the back of my body and munching on my spine and organs, sending hot and cold shivers down my legs and feet. It was gradual, growing and persistent. At these times, I was glued to the toilet, and at one point switched medications so much that I didn’t know what was a side effect and what was the actual, horrible pain. My mind, which was normally lucid and agitated, slowly eroded into imbecility each month with the constant, pulsating waves of discomfort. I would fall silent and retreat into whatever warm bed I could find, and lie there, humiliated each time, half fainted and surrounded by frustrated family members.
Slowly, I realised how dependent I became on other people during these times. I had hoped that this ‘moon cycle’ deal would‘ve brought me added female strength and mystical qualities, but instead it was proving to be un-empowering and much more cumbersome than I had expected. Most girls I knew were coping just fine, their monthly distress cured by an early night and some light medication. I envied them as they continued playing tennis, going to the beach and walking around with their functioning bodies. By comparison I felt weak and not cut out for adult existence, envying my brother and the boys in my life who could still run around with un-womanly freedom.
Thanks to my parent’s exasperated efforts, I started taking different medications, going to homeopaths, osteopaths, doctors of different kinds and even therapy to try and understand what was wrong with my lower regions. I was often misdiagnosed or diagnosed with endometriosis, but there was never enough consistent proof to be certain and never a reachable cure. Often (male) doctors would tell me that these pains would surely be solved at my first pregnancy, at which point my 17 year old, school attending self would stare blankly into the void until the idiocy of their statement could ring loud and clear. I didn’t like the subtle nodding towards the idea that by denying my ‘role’ in society as child-bearer I was implicitly making myself sick. There had to be something out there (or in there) that would help me, other than having babies.
At the end of two years filled with worsening problems, on the advice of all my doctors, I started taking the contraceptive pill. This, as they had suggested, magically stopped the monthly pain of my troublesome periods, as if it was all a bad dream being whisked away.
A ‘new me’ had emerged. Reliable, relatively stable, good to travel with, more independent and datable! My breasts were somewhat fuller, my skin homogenous…and I went on like this, constantly modified, subtly numbed, for a while. Black streaks dotted my pads each month, like the faint discharge of a badly oiled motorcycle rather than the usual redness of human blood. My periods became non-existent and unimportant. My life ticking by in timely consumptions of the daily dose of hormones, constantly appeased through the end of school and onto higher education. Like they say, out of sight, out of mind.
Yet something bothered me; a gut feeling, literally, a feeling of staleness in my gut. I remembered those horrible pains from my teens and the way the doctors had told me ‘it was part of life, part of being a woman’ making me feel like I was being attention seeking, causing trouble for mentioning pain at all. But slowly, something grew inside me, a desire to understand what that monster was that slept, sedated somewhere between my stomach and my uterus. I dreamt one day that I needed to wake it up, confront it and make it my friend, or I would never really know myself, of what I was made of.
When I was well into University, I decided my period and I had unresolved business and I summoned it back. I stopped taking hormonal contraception, to the heed of all, and immediately, I felt energised. The first time I got my period post-pill, I woke up alone, late for a class, and realized I had bled all over my clean sheets. It looked like I had killed a small calf in my bed, and I was jolted back into the gruesome and beautiful reality of menstruation. A piercing pain rocked me from the inside out but at least I had felt it, I could feel something.
Taking away the pill was like taking off the lid of a well that had been shut for a long time. As I stared into the long opening, all these feelings began to rise to the surface. The deep fluidity and the self-regulation that periods can bring came out first, and then, close behind, the horrible and confusing tail of the dragon. Pain and headaches, wobbly knees and total exhaustion – but this time I was ready. It took me a few years, but I was determined to look the beast in the eye and to engage it in (friendly) conversation.
Through a combination of herbal and ayurvedic medicines, witch-doctor curing rituals, visits to nutritionists, chiropractors, acupuncture points, meditation, yoga, special diets and a thorough investigation into family history and genetics, I tried to dissect all the different shades of pain within the agglomerated punch that hit me each month. I found out I had excess fluid in my body due to a strangely developed nervous system hampered at birth. I found out I had a perennially inflamed intestine which worsened during periods. I found out that women in my family also suffered from this yet never talked about it. I found out which particular foods to eat or avoid and the exercises that are effective for my conditions. Most importantly, I found out that the overwhelming ‘pain’ for lack of a better word to describe it was in fact a combination of several factors which, when all acting at once, made me go KAPUT.
I am proud to say I am in my late twenties and welcome my period like an old and intense friend, who arrives to re-start me, to flush out whatever is clinging on and needs to be resolved, to re-charge me energetically for the following month. Now, with a hard-earned concoction of herbal remedies and a strict list of things to do before, during and after, (such as bathing my feet in hot water for 30min whilst administrating a damp hot water bottle on my abdomen) I manage to tackle the issues individually and dissolve them before they stack up and knock me out.
During this time I feel the most vulnerable, the most sensitive and also the most ferocious. I have found that one day before my period begins, my mind is clear and far-reaching. I have the organisational energy of all the women in my family put together, and on this day, I can move mountains. The next day, by comparison, I can’t think more than one hour ahead, and even looking at a computer screen is hard work! So, when I can, I take rest and when I have to, I defend my transitional self with sharp teeth and no mercy from others who don’t understand. I give myself the time and safety for transformation to occur, and I can honestly say I don’t need help to survive, although I appreciate it immensely when it is given. I have had to accept that in the end, I do have certain limitations.
When it’s all over, I feel like a woman who has come out of the wilderness of the woods, wiser and sharper for having travelled through the thick of it, each particular pain telling me something different. A testament to my own strength. As I discover and understand myself in deeper, calmer ways, I can also relax and be myself in these turbulent times, with added freedom of spirit.
If I had to say anything to other women who suffer from period pains, in whatever form they may come, I would say: be inquisitive, be investigative, try and learn as much as you can about your body and what it needs for proper functioning, even if it is not immediately encouraged. The path can be tortuous but it doesn’t have to be, and each step is more empowering than the next. You have my best wishes for the year ahead, and I hope it brings you strength and ease in the face of difficulties.
Written by Giulia Mangoni
Illustration by Bethany Burgoyne
I’ve always had problems with my periods. I‘ve had them too often. My cycle would be last for 20 days, sometimes less, between 15 –18 days. Losing a lot of blood would make me more tired. I found having a period annoying, disgusting, making me reject the experience.
But then I questioned the idea of using the blood in my art to change my perspective about my menstrual cycle. To embrace this part of being female by creating something. Normally we will relate all the emotional ups and downs felt during the month as something negative, but we can approach it more positively, thinking ‘Ok, I feel special, different. I might feel like I hate everyone and want to cry but I’m actually sensing something different: emotions!’
It is important for me to create something where I can put all my positive energy and soul into. My work is a way to understand the most simplistic, rudimentary ways of doing things, without chemicals and machines. This is driven by a fascination in the cycle of nature, of birth, life and death.
When I started painting with my period blood I thought to myself ‘This is disgusting’, because it’s not paint, it’s a different textured liquid; thicker, mucussy. But when the colour sits on top of a clean white surface it is so strong and beautiful. Seeing how it moved on the paper made me suddenly observe it as something beautiful. I practiced using it with the materials I usually mix with paint, testing their reactions with period blood, seeing how it became something more interesting.
This work is made using three separate menstrual cycles over the course of a year. It made me observe elements of myself such as how much I was bleeding, the thickness of the blood because it then effected the way I created. The smell changes over time too, the first day it’s fresh, but overtime it doesn’t smell so good! It’s a part of myself so it was initially alive, reflecting the cycle of being born, having periods of living and then dying.
I exhibited some of these pieces in my solo show, but chose to say it was just blood. If I show them again I would like to be confident in embracing my choice and saying they’re made with my period blood and so what?! I think this sense of hiding what is natural for us is encouraged by society. We have contraceptive pills which make our periods disappear, which is rational but discourages a consideration for what we really are.
I really feel we need to change the mentality; I’m starting to feel like it‘s something special. For myself it‘s very important, it would be nice if I could make someone understand that it’s something good. When other’s think of it as something disgusting and negative, it makes me feel shit, it doesn’t make any sense. A menstrual cycle is natural, it is part of reproduction and reproduction is creation, the same creation as a painting is for me. We should be celebrating the beauty of our menstrual cycle.
Written in conversation between Odilia Suanzes and Bethany Burgoyne
Images provided by and copyright of Odilia Suanzes