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How tracking my cycle finally gave me answers

Fri 7th February, 2020

Reviewed by: Dr. Vamsee Thalluri

My family always had a kitchen calendar on the wall. When I was little, I remember seeing Mum’s initials among the various appointments and bill reminders - this was when her period was due.

When my first period arrived just before my 13th birthday, I went into a sort of shock. Incredibly painful periods were accompanied by headaches, nausea, backaches, and severe pain. Each month at school, I’d vomit into a bucket while the Sick Bay nurse topped up my hot water bottle.

My wise mother encouraged me to track my cycles, so I’d have evidence that things were unusual, and a gynaecologist I saw later confirmed it was. I solemnly scribed a deeply unfun little code into a small black notebook: ​PP, V, 2C​ (period pain/vomiting/two clots).

While I spent years attempting to rewire my brain, I almost forgot I had a uterus.

After over a year of this, I was finally referred for a ​laparoscopy​ and diagnosed with endometriosis. Despite attempts to remove the endometriosis by shooting laser beams at it while screaming ​pew pew​ (or at least I think this is how it works), the pain continued. At 15 I became one of the ​176 million people​ worldwide who suffer from this disease.

The treatment options offered were a) grin and bear it or b) take hormones. So I trialled a few versions of the contraceptive pill until I found one that didn’t make me even more of a moody teenager. Eventually, I took The Pill continuously without a break, despite being warned of risks including decreased fertility and "build up​" of blood, which we now know are totally ​false​.

As I moved into my 20s other chronic conditions like depression and anxiety presented themselves. At least I wasn’t in debilitating physical pain... just emotional! So while I spent years attempting to rewire my brain, I almost forgot I had a uterus.

After 13 years of being on the Pill, I decided to take myself off it at the end of 2017. I downloaded Clue – a period tracking app – after hearing my friends discussing it. While my skin almost immediately had a meltdown, I didn’t bleed straight away. On the 8th month of being Pill-free, I felt that familiar sharp pang of pain and had a period. ​Yippee​! I felt. ​I’m in agony, but at least I know my body is working again!

Just like when I was a teenager and dutifully handed over my diary to the doctors, tracking my cycle had once again proven to be incredibly useful.

What I didn’t expect to happen was to feel so surprised.

Along with the standard menstrual cycle, tracking allowed a myriad of symptoms to be documented: energy, mood, sleep quality, and food cravings. Is my skin oily? Spotty? Dry? After two years of thorough reporting, I have learned that my body is not nearly as mysterious as I used to think.

Firstly, it’s become apparent just how closely my cycle and mental health are related. My lowest, darkest days are almost ​always ​the ones directly before a bleed, and it presents as more than just getting teary watching tissue commercials.

Given the intensity, it’s quite possible that alongside my long-term depression I also have ​PMDD​, a relatively recent addition to the DSM. Or, it’s possible my existing conditions just RAMP THE HECK UP during that time. Personally, I feel equipped to deal with these issues on my own now, but highly encourage anyone feeling particularly down or impulsive to see their ​GP​.

My skin and energy levels are at their best during my ovulation, to the point where if I were to plan for new headshots it would absolutely be for around Day 14. Many people might go through these insights during adolescence, so in some ways it feels like I’ve been through a second puberty. Tracking has helped me make sense of these fluctuations and get rid of the am I just... crazy? thoughts that creep in during a particularly weepy, or bloated, moment.

My friends who are on the Pill, or have the IUD, have mentioned experiencing regular symptoms of PMS despite not bleeding. Looking back, I wish I’d recorded my own mental health fluctuations, as there may have been a hormonal contribution I hadn’t even realised.

While I experienced severe pain some months, the pain I have now is not as intense or frequent as when I was younger. For now, I’m just grateful to know why my jeans are starting to get snug (ah yes, it’s Day 25).

There are valid criticisms of the way these various tracker apps ​handle user data​, with reports of information being forwarded to third-party ​companies​ and advertisers. Even our bodily fluids are a commodity, right? Luckily, this is easily avoided. While it’s convenient to have a cute and colourful app, any person who menstruates can track their cycles the good old-fashioned way: with a little black diary or a wall calendar.

I have no plans to stop documenting my symptoms because it helps ​so much​ to know there is a reason behind the occasional bloating or irritability. If we have to live inside these strange, goopy sacks of flesh, we may as well take some of the mystery out of it.