Cycling in and out of the dark

On a recent hike with a friend, we discovered that we have in common the tendency to get weepy and unsure of ourselves as our periods approach, no big surprise there. I have a day where the bottom slips out from beneath me and I find myself staring into a void where any accomplishments are immediately reduced to nothing and I am full of uncertainty for the future, aptly summed up in a phrase that bobs through the carousel of the my thoughts going “what the #*&$ am I doing with my life??” As I’m aware that these thoughts are in some ways not coming from my self, the self that is me, I let myself step back and allow them to pass through, and the less involved I get with them the safer I am. I usually wake up the next day feeling fine, though the weepiness lingers. The smallest things will set me off, and I tend to be especially triggered by stories of harm to children or animals, but really anything sentimental will get me. I’ll also brood, laying in bed unable to fall asleep, turning over and over in my mind an incident or memory, mostly sad. Again, I wake up feeling fine.

For a long time I discounted these feelings, considering them to be “not me,” “not mine,” and certainly irrational. If I cried, I would blame it on my hormones, those raiding Huns. In conversation with my friend, she mentioned that for her, what comes up are those insistent thoughts that otherwise she forgets or ignores. Right before her period, they will insist on being known. I encountered this idea again while reading Debra Rienstra’s beautiful memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, Great With Child, in which she quotes Dr. Joan Borysenko:

Things that may be bothering us, but that we are unwilling to confront, tend to come to light as if they are being flushed from the unconscious to the conscious so that we can attend to them…. This emotional housecleaning is wrongly viewed as bitchiness or complaining, but when seen rightly and heeded, it may be a valuable stress reducer and guide to what we need to change or pay attention to so that our lives will run more smoothly. This is the benefit to feeling down. Additionally, since intuitive capacity, empathy, and interdependent perception are also right-brain functions [which are enhanced in the premenstrual/menstrual part of the cycle], it follows that the premenstrual and menstrual phases of our cycle indeed times of enhanced wisdom.

I recently let myself explore one of my brooding thoughts, and discovered that it was indeed a thorn in my subconscious that I had refused to attend to. Without the brooding, I might never have addressed the issue or have taken the steps necessary to heal the relationship it pointed to. I’m also less judgmental these days about the darkness that comes along with PMS. Rienstra writes: “[W]hat if cycling in and out of dark times is actually the healthiest approach to life? … Can’t my random sadness be a kind of solidarity with [those who suffer]? Can’t it hum, low and quiet, along with the great mourning of all humanity, all creation?” The sadness, the desire to take time away from others, to disengage and refocus, and the empathy with those who are suffering can indeed be healthy. It’s a little like winter, closing off and turning in, not letting myself get carried away by the sensuality of other seasons. I push myself so hard throughout the month, and now welcome the opportunity to be gentle and thoughtful, but also a little more fierce.

As an herbalist, I’m attentive to ways to reduce PMS and help myself and others to have healthy cycles. I tell my clients to get sufficient calcium and magnesium, particularly in the 10 days before their periods, to support the smooth muscles of the uterus. We find ways to address feelings of depression, as fleeting as they may be, and sometimes work to rebalance estrogen and progesterone by doing things like cutting out soy or using herbs such as vitex. At the same time, I think it’s worth allowing ourselves to move through and experience our own cycles, honoring the differences, enjoying them even, and certainly paying attention to what we’re feeling, tracing those thoughts back to the very real places they lead us.

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