A couple of years ago, I had a series of recurrent bouts of cystitis, gradually worsening until, one Saturday morning, I found myself not so much passing blood as pissing it neat. A veteran in the world of UTIs, even I couldn’t dismiss that one, and since the GPs were shut for another 48 hours (why is it always Saturday morning?) I hobbled off to the walk in centre.
I sat for an hour or so, clammy and feverish and making frequent trips to the Ladies, among the flotsam and jetsam of an early weekend breakfast time. Perhaps the doctor I eventually saw was just worn down by triaging UDIs (unidentified drinking injuries) or perhaps he’d forgotten his Obs&Gynae rotation, but after listening to my symptoms, he asked, with a shy smile, “And you are sure that this is not your period?”
Had I not felt like my body was trying to excrete small shards of glass, my answer might have been more forthright. I might have replied that, at the age of 37, having ten years of marriage and having given birth to three children, my body between my navel and knees was not a shadowy unknown. I could have explained, bluntly, that the bleeding was not vaginal, and that in any case it was entirely the wrong point in my menstrual cycle. Being tired, and shivery and in pain, however, I did none of the above. I simply nodded, meekly, and waited for the precious prescription.
Afterwards, I felt rather angry. It’s not the only time it’s happened, either. Being quizzed if I could be pregnant, when an obvious ear infection was making me nauseous. Having to clarify during pregnancy that it was the piles that were bleeding, not anything more directly baby-related. And so on, and so on.
The thing is, that I know its not the health care professionals’ fault. On one level, of course they have to rule out pregnancy when diagnosing or prescribing a particular medication or course of treatment. On another, though I’d like to dismiss them as patronising, a survey earlier this month showed that a frightening 50% of women between the ages of 26 and 35 can’t identify the vagina when shown a diagram of the female reproductive system. Whether that translates to inability to distinguish their (Aunt) fanny from their elbow in real life, I don’t know: but in a world where music videos show enough of women’s bodies to allow us to have a guess at what they ate for breakfast, and where sexting and online porn form stand a good chance of featuring in a young person’s introduction to intimacy, I’d bloody well hope so. Whichever, no wonder doctors assume a lack of knowledge when addressing a patient’s symptoms which would seem laughable if it related to any other body part. (“And you are sure that it’s not your eyes where you have these tongue ulcers?”)
Thinking back to my own, pre-digital, coming of age, there was the initial “period” talk, of course. There were furtive glimpses at the instructions in my mum’s Tampax box. There was GCSE Biology, which I passed despite the fact that some of the text books still betrayed the jagged edges of missing pages from the school’s previous Convent Grammar incarnation. And there was good old (non-GCSE) fieldwork. I had a good relationship with my lovely mum, and I think I had a fairly good understanding of the basics – but I still bought endless furtive packets of Diflucan and Canesten from the chemist, mortified by the agonised certainty that I had untreatable thrush at the same time every month, not knowing the “symptoms” were related to ovulation, not yeast.
It took me, unbelievably, until after I had my first child to learn properly about how the various bits, which I had, at least, always been able to label on a diagram (that looked nothing like what was actually there) worked together. But, of course, that’s just part of the story.
It was only after stopping breastfeeding, without going back on the pill, after spending hours and hours on parenting forums, that I started to piece together my body’s own dance. I was in my early thirties, but I had never fully realised before that my hormones weren’t some primordial chaotic soup rendering me emotional, unstable or irrational at random, but a functioning part of my physical self. I don’t love them any more than I do my digestive tract and I resent them, at times, just as much, but they are no longer mysterious.
As my own children grow up, I’m trying to make sure that they know the correct name and general purpose for all their various body parts. I’m realising too, though, that there’s much to be said for also teaching young people what I’ll call, for want of a better name, fertility awareness. Not so that they can use it as a form of contraception, but so that they – girls especially – properly respect and accept the mechanisms that control ovulation and menstruation and so that women grow up able to understand how their body functions. More, that they are able to identify (and feel comfortable communicating) when something isn’t as it perhaps should be. That could save more than blushes and unnecessary self-medication. It could save lives.