Bleeding: one woman’s health(s)care story
By Maya Khamala
My period started 2 whole weeks early, which had never happened to me before. I had recently ended a bad relationship, and just as recently completed a Master’s degree while working full time at 2 jobs—one of them “paid activism.” I had been spreading myself too thin. Feminist community organizing work in its many permutations has always been an important reflection of what I feel I stand for, but it can often feel like working day in and out in order to add one drop of goodness to an entire ocean of systemic bullshit. The work can be exhausting and demoralizing, especially when you don’t have multiple health practitioners camped out in the corner of your bedroom, ready to give you the extra loving you will surely need.
So, the bleeding. It started at half time, for the first time. Menstruation as concept, I can handle. But misplaced, mistimed shedding that might actually be closer to bleeding? Fuck no.
I considered all the possibilities. I was spotting; I was having a weird ovulation; I was just getting my period really early due to external factors like abnormal stress, a change in diet, strenuous exercise; I was somehow pregnant even though I’d been safe; I had cancer. None of the above really made sense to me. And as far as stress goes, I am always stressed to some degree, in spite of having worked to decrease my anxiety throughout my entire adult life. What can I say? Some of us were traumatized as children and that shit is in no way separate from our general health as adults, and our reproductive/sexual health in particular. It’s just not.
I hoped it would stop after 4-7 days like a somewhat “normal” period. And when it didn’t—when it got heavier instead of slowing—I began to panic. People have always been fond of blaming my sense of panic/anxiety for any health scare I may be experiencing, and I have tended to go along with them to some degree due in part to the lack of insight I’ve ever been provided with by doctors, and but this was different. This was tangible, because there was blood. Lots of it.
Let me be clear, I’ve never liked doctors. Not because I was born with an innate inability to trust them, no, but because I’d always felt like they resented spending any time on me somehow, and that my healing was the last thing they believed in. I always joked that I would only see a doctor if I happened to be bleeding from the head, but I had overlooked what I might do if blood refused to stop pouring out of my root. I became dizzy, lightheaded, unable to work, and completely terrified at what was happening to me. The thousands upon thousands of online horror stories about women who had been hospitalized while continuing to bleed raced through mind, all of them stumping doctors, who apparently had a thing or ten to learn.
In the end, I bled for 17 days, and in that time, I saw many doctors, during which time my hormones and my fear grew further out of whack; not only was I bleeding all over the city; I was sobbing too. I had never felt so powerless in my life to affect my own very personal circumstances. Of the 3 (white, male, francophone) doctors I saw in clinic, and 1 in an ER, all of their go-to solutions consisted of the birth control pill, simply, dismissing me like a naive girl when I expressed the many issues I had with taking synthetic hormones, and my long history with chronic yeast infections which would likely be exacerbated by the pill.
While I know that most humans trying to access public healthcare in the Western world experience inhumane treatment, ranging from obscene wait times, to incompetent doctors, and lots more (all of which I have experienced, and indeed, did experience this time as well), from a young age I have never been able to shake the feeling that being a brown, anglophone girl/woman specifically, has worked against me in special ways when it comes to Quebec healthcare.
Every doctor I saw acknowledged “mysterious bleeding” of this sort was common among women, but when I asked what actually caused it to occur, not one of them could answer me. I pressed one of them, and he said, and I quote, “Look, you’re right. We don’t know a lot about women’s bodies. But your choices are, take the pill, or bleed out.” The one thing all the doctors disagreed about was which kind of pill to take. They didn’t just disagree; each felt that the last was incompetent for having suggested what they did.
I consulted a wild variety of my natural healer friends from across the country on Facebook during this tumultuous time as well. An herbalist friend of mine said,“Women bleed when they’re depleted,” counselling me to rest, relax, and find a way to recharge. Depletion is a word that continued to ring in my head long after that because it felt so inarguably true.
I held out on taking the pill and finally ended up in the ER, because I could just not rest and relax with blood pouring out of me. I had missed close to 2 weeks of work at this point, which I could not afford, and was a shell of my former self—the seriousness of the situation was something that was impossible to convey to many of my friends. I was not functional. I felt weak, and I dreaded waking up. The bleeding did not slow. They took even more of my blood to run tests. I was showing up anemic at this point, likely due to all the blood loss. But again, the only thing they could suggest was taking birth control for a few months. It may or may not work, they said, counselling me to come back in another week if it did not—at which time they would perform a terrifying-sounding procedure to empty out my uterus—which also may or may not stop the bleeding, they said.
Leaving with the pill in hand, I felt I had no choice, and took it. By the next day, the bleeding had not only grown heavier, but I already had a yeast infection from the hormonal surge. I was inconsolable and did not know what to do. To say my life was on hold was an understatement, and anyone who suggested that I should not take the whole thing so seriously sounded heartless, incapable of empathy, and ended up in my bad books. I have never been able to separate my body from my emotions. My hips, my stomach, my root—the sites of deep-rooted anxiety dating back to my early childhood. On the one hand, I know my emotional trauma as a child has made me a more empathetic adult, and a better friend and listener, as well as an advocate for social justice. But on the other, I find it almost impossible to function when I feel my physical, my basic agency is being undermined. I have been working on this, because I do understand that panic can worsen any situation. But the fact is, my panic comes from somewhere, and that needs to be dealt with too. We all have issues, don’t we?
The next day, bleeding more than ever, and with that yeast infection to boot, I made an impulse decision. I wasn’t sure why it hadn’t occurred to me before. I had been incapable of thinking clearly in the midst of it all. My friend’s mother was an acupuncturist, nurse, and healer who I happened to trust, and who I knew was highly effective at her work. She lived a couple of hours away. I managed to get another friend to drive me. I cried the whole way. Like my body would never run out of fluids to shed. On the way, my friend told me his girlfriend was pregnant. I cried more.
When we got there, she welcomed me, fed me, and told me something no doctor had managed to say thus far: don’t worry, I know how to stop it. I suddenly felt safe. It also wasn’t lost on me that this was the first woman of colour practitioner I had consulted. I was there a while, my friend waiting outside. She did acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, and a series of other procedures that are blurry—because my mind was not clear as they were happening. While lying there, I felt I could have been anywhere in the world, in any time period. Something about the entire experience felt ageless and true to me. I felt like she cared what happened to me and was working to help me. She told me I was deficient in iron and vitamin B, and that this deficiency was likely what caused the bleeding to begin with. No doctor had ever mentioned this possibility. She then injected me with the vitamin and gave me tips on how to better absorb nutrients.
I expected to have to return to see her several times before the bleeding stopped, but she told me it should slow rather quickly, and that by the next day it would stop. She told me to stop taking the pill. She told me to relax, not lift a finger for a few days, and barely even walk around, because I needed to gather my strength again. Depletion, I thought.
Sure enough, but to my shock—because, I, like many of us, have been taught to distrust the efficiency and effectiveness of “alternative” healing methodologies—the bleeding was down to a few drops by the very next morning, which happened to be my birthday. Two separate friends came over, cooked for me, and took care of me. I was thankful.
That very night, after 17 days of heavy bleeding, it stopped, simply.
When I finally saw my regular gynaecologist (I hadn’t been able to get an appointment with him throughout this entire time period due to a backlog of patients), I told him what had happened, and how acupuncture, vitamins, and a talented healer had finally stopped the bleeding.
“It was probably just a coincidence.” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, heading quickly for the door.
What’s not a coincidence is my current involvement with Tiger Lotus Coop and my deep belief that the work the coop does is not just helpful, but absolutely integral. Healing work and feminist advocacy work cannot exist separately from one another and have the far-reaching impact that they need to have. Additionally, it’s time we begin to view the gendered nature of the massive gaps in our healthcare system as a social justice issue in and of itself.