It’s been at least three years since I last bled monthly, the last year of that was scant and irregular. Although the five years before that were a veritable flood which left me shaky and at odds with my body and its apparent lack of control.
However I have found myself over the last couple of days checking my underwear and toilet paper when going to the toilet to see if I was bleeding. This habit which has been missing from my toilet routine for a longtime, was once more than daily, a kind of reflex borne out of the desire to manage its irregular appearance before it stained my knickers and then my dress or trousers.
I was twelve when I had my first period and it horrified me. I was not prepared in anyway for this by my mother, my all-girls school or my friends. I had no sanitary belt or towels to soak the blood up and I managed for several months by just winding copious amounts of toilet paper around my pants and checking the seat behind me nervously every time I stood up for traces of red. My schoolmates noticed this peculiar pecking and peeking and with the savagery that only girls can muster commented in a way that made me feel ashamed of my inability to deal and control my body the way everyone else seemed to.
I hid the bloodied knickers in a small set of toy drawers (yes drawers in the drawers) on top of my wardrobe and tried very hard not to think about it inbetween periods. I don’t know what I thought would happen but I was so embarrassed and terrified of telling my mum that I just hoped it would go away. It seemed entirely possible that this might happen as no one had told me that I would bleed for almost forty years.
One morning I awoke in my pink frilled nylon pyjamas to the feeling of wetness between my legs and a strange sticky coldness under my bottom. The crotch of the trousers dragged as I got up with the weight of the liquid soaked into it. It had happened in the night, when I couldn’t control or mediate it. I had been caught.
I panicked and ran downstairs crying to my mum who was washing and she responded in her usual way, she called me a “daft apeth”, not a phrase I have ever heard anywhere else and I immediately felt my reaction was wrong, was overly dramatic and out of proportion to the event. She said “it’s just your period”, the implication being that I knew or should know all about this without her telling me, just by dint of being a girl. But I was a girl who didn’t hang around the women, who wouldn’t sit with her and my aunts and girl cousins, and who wanted to be out riding bikes or climbing trees with the boys when she wasn’t reading books about travelling to far and other worlds. Somehow heavy in her words was also the sense that I had got my comeuppance for feeling above my fellow females, for not wanting to look after my two young brothers and never being interested in dolls. If I had wanted to escape my biology and the destiny attached to that in 1970’s working class Britain, here was proof that that attempt was in vain.
During the mortifying five minutes that followed as she showed me the sanitary towel and belt and how to wear them, I felt my days of doing handstands in the garden and scaling walls with my friends melt away as surely as ice on a snowdrop in the sun. This was an imprisonment in a woman’s body and the beginning of a life sentence. I realise why I was so horrified at my period’s appearance that morning. There was no longer a possibility of escape other than by pregnancy or aging. My best years would be spent bleeding.
She asked me if this was the first time and I said no, I knew I shouldn’t have told her but my usual reserve had been breached by the shock. She asked me how I had managed the blood and I told her with toilet paper. Then came “where are your pants?” As she fetched them down she blushed, the embarrassment and anger coming off her in waves. I felt feral, a girl child who had not absorbed the tenets of cleanliness and modesty that were necessary to absolve us of our sinful body, the one that tempted Adam and precipitated the Fall of the whole human race. In that moment I was expelled from the garden of childhood and walked weeping from its arbours and walls.
So I ask myself now, why am I checking my pants for blood? What part of me does not know that I have stopped bleeding? What part of me feels yet again that she needs to check her acceptability? What part of me feels that her body might betray her again?