The other day at work I was startled to find an unflushed used tampon in the toilet of my usual stall. I always use the luxurious room-size stall for people in wheelchairs since there are no people in wheelchairs on my floor. I've come to think of it as mine, so I was surprised that someone had intruded in my territory.
But the bloody spectacle cheered me up: there is at least one good thing about getting older—no more periods. While most of the women around me at work are still wrestling every month with the miserable routine of rags, plugs, cramps, odors and spills, I'm as free as a 10-year-old. Indeed, being in menopause makes me feel younger rather than older.
I still remember my first menstrual period. I was 14, and although I had been informed of the facts of life and had been given a package of Kotex and had friends who had begun menstruating long ago (one in third grade!), I nonetheless panicked and thought I was dying. My mother (not the most sympathetic parent in any case by the time I'd reached my sullen teens) was out of town and our "babysitter" (my brothers were 9 and 17, so we were hardly babies) was a totally useless cranky old lady. Somehow I managed to stick the tails of a pad into the teeth of the belt (remember those precursors to the thong, crone friends?). But it never was easy. I had slippery lumps that slid off the pad, floods that ran through it and around it, and cramps that well prepared me for the horrors of childbirth. Until I lost my virginity, I couldn't wedge in a tampon (a doctor diagnosed an overgrown hymen and prescribed graduated cones to stretch the opening, but it sounded so painful—and weird—that I didn't do it). And even when I finally was able to use tampons (thank you, Joel), they didn't begin to sop the flow. I tried everything that came on the market, including sea sponges (they had to be boiled in vinegar after each use—how convenient is that? and does anyone really want to use those pots for cooking afterward?), little rubbery cups called Tassaways, which held a lot of fluid—until they caved in when you were least expecting it, dumping the full contents into your underpants and down your leg (I see there's a new, reusable version called Diva cups now, but my daughter C thinks they're "creepy") and Rely tampons (which were the only devices that really worked—until they were taken off the market following a rash of toxic-shock syndrome). I cannot count the number of "accidents" I endured and how many clothes I ruined. An additional, one-off humiliation took place when my older brother showed one of my used pads to a friend of his (he's a great brother now, but I still find it hard to forgive him that breach).
My mother didn't believe in mentstrual cramps (how can you not believe in menstrual cramps?), so my horrible pain usually resulted not in loving ministrations but in skepticism and scorn. Finally, in my senior year, the high school nurse called my father to have him pick me up and suggested he take me to the doctor, who prescribed Darvon. It didn't cut the pain, but sometimes it put me to sleep. And I achieved a certain popularity in college from dispensing it to people who were having bad acid trips—it supposedly brought you down gently (I wouldn't know since my acid trips were universally glorious). Warm baths helped a little, but it's not always convenient or appealing to take a, well, bloodbath. Port (fortified wine) helped, but I didn't like the taste then. And so it went for 15 years. Then I had my son J—and my cramps disappeared! The flooding continued till I stopped menstruating five years ago, but for the miracle of a cramp-free life I will always be grateful to my son.
Then there were the bear wars: when I was in my late teens and early twenties, newspaper stories began appearing with some regularity about menstruating women being attacked by bears. This was during my nature-girl period when I spent summers in the Colorado Rockies and Wyoming Grand Tetons. It never failed that a camping trip precipitated the onset of my period—even if I'd just finished one. This triggered crises of mess-management and pain control plus sleepless nights straining my ears for bear sounds.
So when I discovered the bloody waters left by my "secret sharer" a few days ago, I realized that although that there are women who mourn the loss of their "womanhood"—and I try to understand their grief—I am not one of them.