For centuries, enlightened beings have spoken implicitly about the spiritual path and its many hurdles — our thoughts, our desires, distractions, our lingering emotions of anger and covetousness, and so forth. But there is one hurdle, the biggest of them all in my personal experience, that much light hasn’t been shed upon from the perspective of a spiritual seeker.
I’d assume, because the majority of sincere seekers and enlightened beings in the past have been male or it’s been a topic that most people are not exactly comfortable discussing openly.
We all have our fair share of problems in life that we see as hurdles on the spiritual path: other people are a problem, money is a problem; for some people, health is a problem. And if we’re going deep, many of us are simply trying to stay afloat, treading water against the weight of our past traumas, losses, abuse, mental illness, and some unthinkable atrocities that can and have happened.
I am no stranger to any of the above. I am one, just like many of you, who is simply trying to stay afloat. Perhaps, one day in the future, I shall write more about them, but today is not that day.
Today, I wanted to write about this huge, lifelong hurdle that I’ve been dealing with. A struggle that is more debilitating and derailing than anything else I’ve had to deal with.
What can possibly be bigger than anything I’ve listed thus far and yet still not be widely talked about in spirituality?
If you’re a woman, you’re very likely to know what I’m talking about, and if you’re a man who lives in close quarters to a woman or has grown up daughters, then you’re definitely going to be nodding your heads reading this one.
Got it yet? Female Hormones! Periods!
Growing up, most teenagers hit that grumpy stage where their hormones are raging, their once idolised parents have now become the mortal enemy. The ceremonial blurting out of, “I hate you!” to at least one unsuspecting parent who only asked if you wanted cereal for breakfast (Sorry, Mum and Dad!) marks the rite of passage into this special time of ‘kidulthood’. (Not an original phrase. It’s from the title of the 2006 British film, Kidulthood.)
The teen suffers that internal crisis. Self-conscious, self-critical, not quite understanding their place in the world; a barrage of foreign, tumultuous feelings take siege over their once tranquil ship. Weird things are going on in their body, energy levels are all over the place, and a monkey-on-Red-Bull’s tree acrobatics pale in comparison to their mood swings. (I can’t remember exactly where I read it but I think this lovely monkey image is credited to Swami ji). And to top it off, the girl or boy they fancy at school, doesn’t fancy them back, or worse still, embarrassed them in front of the whole class. It feels like the end of the world. An utterly, utterly hopeless state.
Now, imagine this state of mind recurring almost every four weeks, for the rest of your life until around your 50s. Yep, welcome to my world.
Three out of four women are said to suffer from some symptoms of Pre-Menstrual Stress/Tension (PMS/PMT). These would include an emotional state in varying degrees similar to that mentioned above, plus usually some physical symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, and all manner of digestive issues, aches and pains. These symptoms usually alleviate once the period has started, although the cramps can last for a few more days.
If the symptoms are more severe and hinder a woman from carrying out her normal daily activities, it is call Pre-Menstrual Disphoric Disorder (PMDD). There are different statistics about PMDD. It is said that 1 in 20 women of reproductive age are affected by it. I now know that I fall into this category.
As a young teen, I remember that I would feel intense emotions where I’d break down crying for no reason and my poor brother would ask me what was wrong and I’d cry out, “I don’t know!” Or he’d say the wrong thing on the wrong day and I’d suddenly fall to the floor in a heap of tears and scream at him, “Get out!” (Sorry, Mish!)
I’d usually start my period within a day or two of feeling like that and then I’d feel so energised, alive and probably quite annoyingly happy. I’d talk at a million miles an hour, I’d put on music and dance, or I’d sing at the top of my lungs disturbing everyone else’s peace (again, sorry, Mish!). I felt so happy that I couldn’t contain it. Then I’d plateau the next day and go back to my normal, bearable self for the next three weeks or so, until the cycle started all over again.
I didn’t fully understand then what was happening. And most boys in school joked about menstruation casually. If a girl didn’t smile, one would hear, “You on your period or what?!” Periods were shrouded in stigma and mystery. Anyone I did speak to about it told me that it was normal, that it was just PMS, that most women go through it.
I ploughed through the first four years of my kidulthood believing the same. Only for me, it wasn’t the same.
At the age of 15, I was hospitalised after the first of a number of attempts to take my own life. I had suffered some childhood traumas and the emotions I felt every month were so extreme that I couldn’t handle them. I didn’t want to live like that anymore.
In my 20s and 30s, I was diagnosed with different mental illnesses including borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD and different types of depression. To this day, I don’t know if these diagnoses were valid or not, I only know how I felt then and how I feel now.
At the age of 16, I moved out of the only home I’d ever known and away from the only people who loved me.
(I moved home around 20 times after that. I’ve never been able to hold down a job for very long and I’ve never been in a stable relationship. I went back to my studies at the age of 23.)
25 years after first stepping in to the world alone, after finding my Guru, Om Swami ji, after learning how to live a sattvic life, after a couple of thousand hours of meditation, after spending months at a time in solitude, I was finally able to handle my emotions a lot better. I mended my relationship with my family, I moved on from my past traumas, I was genuinely able to forgive my abusers and myself.
After some disastrously failed attempts, I remember my last stint in solitude where I was finally able to revel in a silent mind and take a dip into a state of bliss. Soon afterwards, I mended my relationship with my family. I thought I was finally healed. I thought this feeling would last forever.
Wishful thinking? Well not entirely.
It is true that I no longer experienced the same helpless, suicidal thoughts, mental instability or intense emotions like before but I also noticed that I’d go through phases when I would feel like withdrawing to my room and I had no focus or energy, not even to read or meditate, let alone work outdoors in the ashram.
I used to love scrubbing down the cow shed or cleaning the ashram grounds. Sweeping and mopping floors and making things shiny was a joy! I wasn’t content until I knew that the Lord’s home was squeaky clean for Him.
During the down phases, however, I couldn’t do anything. I could just about maintain my meditative state and my mind was relatively quiet, but physically, my body wouldn’t cooperate. And soon the stretch of the down phases became longer and longer.
I was in pretty good health, I ate well and slept well so I couldn’t understand what was wrong. Realising there was a pattern to my behaviour, I began to keep a diary of my up and down days in relation to my monthly cycle.
Over the course of the last couple of years, I noticed the duration of my PMS/PMDD symptoms began to increase from a few days before my period, to a week before, then up to two weeks before. Plus the intensity, flow and pain of my periods severely increased. I saw a gynecologist. I was very anaemic — weak all the time because of the amount of blood loss. I had to start taking medication every month and increase my iron and supplement intake.
So just when I thought I was handling it, I realised, Mother Nature had thrown Perimenopause at me. (Well, I had been fervently praying to Her for early menopause so I could be free of my hormones. It looks like She heard me. Thanks, Ma!).
As I described it to someone recently,
PMS/PMDD Perimenopause = Kaboom!
It feels like having a mental illness and chronic fatigue syndrome 50-75% of the month and then being free of it only to have it happen again the following month.
However, if I feel like crying now, it usually isn’t in any negative emotion anymore. I cry intensely in gratitude. I am aware that it is hormonal crying and it is just as intense as always, but it is in a deeply positive emotion these days.
Other than that, I simply have to rest it out. Some days, I am so exhausted that I sleep all day or I have such brain fog that I can’t do much more than zone out on YouTube or Netflix (as mindfully as possible, of course).
It is entirely embarrassing for me to admit that I, a resident disciple of Om Swami, behave in this way. It’s an old pattern, I’m yet to break, of binge watching TV to block out how I’m feeling at the time. The guilt of doing this sometimes eats me up and affects me just as much as the hormones. But I guess, I’m no longer subjecting myself to any self-destructive behaviour. This is massive progress.
Writing this post is a big step towards wholly accepting that it is what it is, that no matter how much I wish it, I cannot function at full capacity 100% of the time.
All I can do is my best, remain mindful of my thoughts and speech, and no matter how I am feeling on the inside, I must always, always, always be kind to others.
If I can’t do much in terms of set sadhanas, and I want to continue to walk the spiritual path, I must not veer from these commandments to myself. It might take me longer to purify myself, but I shall not give up.
Over the years, I have tried every remedy, natural and allopathic. I have made all the recommended lifestyle changes. Only with Swami ji’s grace and by following His teachings am I as stable as I am now. And although I am much, much better, I have accepted that perhaps, until I turn into a lovely, ol’ wrinkly lady, this will be my biggest remaining hurdle on the path. (A hysterectomy is not an option for me right now).
The silver lining, before my silver-grey hairs come in, is that every single month on the day after the down phase passes, I get to feel re-born again!
It’s the most incredible feeling.
I appreciate every little thing so much! The sweet tastes so much sweeter after one has just digested the bitter. I taste it every month and today is a sweet, sweet day. I’m super-energised. I meditated, I did some of the work I had to do (I make a modest living as a proof-reader), I performed some acts of kindness, I’ve spring cleaned my room and my refrigerator, and I’ve written this post.
From tomorrow, I’ll be back in the gym and yoga class, I’ll brush the cows, I’ll be responding to emails and comments on my previous posts (sorry for the delay!), I’ll be back to my creative writing, singing and art practice, and my languages (I’m learning French, Italian, Japanese and Hindi). I try to make up for the lost time. I do as much as I can because I know the wheel will turn again, and that’s okay. It is what it is.
So, to my PMS/PMT, PMDD hormonal, menopausal, borderline, bipolar, depressed, trauma survivor sisters and brothers out there, or anyone with similar symptoms, you really are not alone! In fact, to think about it, we make up most of the population.
If you don’t feel okay in yourself:
- Seek help
- Talk about it with people you trust.
- If you’ve been given a diagnosis, learn everything about it and learn everything about yourself. Really get to know yourself.
- Try to spot any patterns or specific triggers.
- It’s okay to take medication if you need it, especially if your symptoms are more psychiatric.
- Most importantly, take care of your physical health and wellbeing, nobody else can do that for you.
- Be grateful for all the things in life that you usually might take for granted. Above all be grateful for every moment of clarity. They will come and go, but don’t dwell on the negatives when God has blessed you with a good day.
- Seriously getting into meditation really helped me. Along with my faith in God and my Guru, maintaining a meditative state at all times is my absolute anchor.
- If you’re serious about managing your emotions, Om Swami ji’s blog posts on os.me, His videos and books have all the information you’ll ever need. They are how I finally learned to manage myself.
It takes work and it takes time. I’m 5 years in on this journey and although I am not quite where I could be, I know I am a totally different person to who I was before I read Swami ji’s works. If I keep working on myself, hormones or no hormones, I can only get better and better. I only wish that, many years ago, I knew what I know now!
And to those of you reading this who live in the same house with people like us, even if you live with someone who has very normal PMS/PMT symptoms, maybe your little daughters are growing up or your partner is just hitting menopause — please do the same — get as much information as possible, so you know how to support them in the way they need it.
Being around people who have not yet learned to manage their emotions can be stressful at the best of times, so understanding your loved one’s emotional/mental state and understanding how to keep yourself calm and healthy are just as important as each other.
Please take care of yourselves and each other.
Jai Sri Hari!