The symptoms were present for at least a week each month: general discomfort, chronic fatigue, proclivity for irritability, and a debilitating sense of doom. The monthly female cycle played havoc with my well‐being. It overshadowed half my life with a malaise, which was both tiresome and most inconvenient. PMDD diagnosis is part of my backstory.
PMDD* ‐ premenstrual dysphoric disorder – a mental health disorder. The classic attributes of this menstrual‐induced depression were all mine. About 5% of menstruating women ( 3 million women) suffer from PMDD. It is best described as PMS on steroids.
Vivienne Haigh-Wood, wife American poet T.S. Eliot was ill her entire adulthood due in part to her menstruation related problems. Her life is poignantly portrayed in the two- time Oscar nominated film, Tom & Viv available on Netflix. Famed poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at age 31, was also plagued with menses induced depression.
The monthly hormone fluctuations have a strong influence on one’s mental health. This meant I had ten good days when I was productive, energetic and involved. My well being for the balance of the month was compromised. Calendars had my cycle blocked out so family outings were scheduled around my “moods”.
It started at age thirteen with cramps of the most extreme kind. For thirty years, translating to over three hundred periods, I have at times been rendered into a fetal position due to both mental and physical pain. It was after the birth of my second child and a year of unbearable postpartum depression, that PMDD truly manifested itself.
I did eventually discover medical professionals specializing in this mental illness. I took antidepressants for more than 15 years which eventually alleviated much of the hormone‐induced angst. Dr. Diana Dell’s book, The PMDD Phenomenon is most insightful regarding treatment.
A Glimpse of the Every Day
Finding the “silver lining”* and hidden truths in life’s experiences is important to me. So what did PMDD teach me through my years of short spurts of compromised well‐being?
My short but vivid monthly encounter with darkness provided me with deep empathy for those who suffer with long term mental or physical illness. Entire lifetimes are marred with depression.
If it were not for my monthly stretch of feeling rotten how could I ever appreciate the challenges of those who endure chronic illness?
The cramps and nausea gave me a brief sense of how it feels to suffer the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
My craving for sleep allowed me to feel the exhaustion of those who yearn for rest, but can’t rest because they are juggling two jobs and a family.
The lethargy affected my productivity so that I empathize with those who are handicapped and frustrated by their limitations.
The irritability, well I’m working on some redemptive virtue.
A Thorn in My Flesh
I often wonder, “What if my weeks of motivated, energized, self‐confidence were not interrupted with my gender‐unique affliction?” I might have been a steamroller with an enormously inflated sense of self-worth and independence. This monthly sojourn kept my eyes opened to the needs around me and hopefully helped me to be more compassionate.
Saint Paul claims he had a “thorn in his flesh” – a condition‐‐ that kept him from being arrogant. I certainly believe PMDD kept me amongst other things, humble. Therein lies my affinity with the Saint. It’s not the strength of character and miracles more often associated with sainthood. But humility is a life lesson that shapes you into a kinder human being. My PMDD stories are hopefully an encouragement to others who have the same “affliction”.
Finding the “silver lining”* in our stories of challenge, failing and shortcoming, is a healthy exercise. It is there; hidden jewels of insight. Wisdom to savor and share with others. Being an inspiration helps ease the journey.
*Idiom: very dark rain clouds have a silver edge, or lining.
** PMDD has been listed since 1987 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders appendix, which catalogs potential disorders “proposed for further study.” In October 1998, a panel of experts evaluated the evidence, and a consensus was reached that PMDD was a distinct clinical entity. Subsequently, in November 1999, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Neuropharmacology Advisory Committee supported this concept.