I got my first period in the middle of the day, shrouded in shame, like any good entrance into puberty should be. I was in the fifth grade, 10 years old, at choir practice, when I started to feel funny. My guts ached, my stomach protruding more than usual. I went to the bathroom and noticed a new sludge in my underwear, nearly penetrating the velour pants I wore to school that day. I cleaned myself, folded toilet paper and put it in my underwear and sat with my legs twisted around each other in the hopes of making it home without a disaster. I did this for five days before I thought maybe something was amiss and I should tell my mother. She groaned and tossed me a pack of pads. I have not experienced joy since.
By 14, I had been having my period for too long to still be tolerating a pad scratching at my inner thighs. My mom, generally worried about my purity, took me to our family doctor to consult with her about tampons before permitting me to use them. (Our doctor went through her checklist, and when she asked, “Are you sexually active?” my mom whipped her head around to look at me so fast I think she snapped a few tendons.) Once given the completely unnecessary approval of the doctor, my mom bought me a box of tampons with bright yellow applicators. She groaned at having to do this, too, because she was using those little O.B. ones, cotton slugs that I never knew the purpose of until now. She suggested them initially, but that would also mean using my fingers to guide the tampon into my vagina, which would mean touching my vagina. Explaining how to do that sans applicator seemed too much for my mother and too much for me to comprehend. “Such a waste,” she mumbled, pulling out an applicator and demonstrating with her cupped hand how to insert one. I went to the bathroom and struggled to find—to put it gently—any part of my vagina. Is it…is it my butt? Who could know for sure. I called my best friend, and she sat on the phone with me for two hours, explaining the difference between my anus and my vagina.
Even once I found the entrance, or exit, it never seemed to quite work. The tampon always felt like it was hanging out of me, an ever-present threat. It was like this for years, always giving me the sensation of a champagne cork poised to take someone’s eye out. My period typically got me out of most physical activities—exercise, taking the stairs, sex (much to my chagrin). In ninth grade gym class, however, my female gym teacher decided that my self-diagnosis of “literally dying” was not a good enough excuse. I put in a tampon, changed into nylon shorts and a T-shirt, and went out onto the field. We were only playing for 15 minutes before I felt something in my underwear, my anxiety rising, because what fresh hell could it be? While the rest of my classmates chased the ball, I stood near the opposing goal post, extended one leg and shook it. A blood-soaked bullet fell out of my shorts and into the grass. I looked around to see if anyone had caught me and ran so hard and so fast back into the school that I managed to pass gym class that semester.
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