by sibylle preuschat
Journal Entry, October 4, 1989
sibylle, sibylle in the centre, whispers, “leave it all behind.
Sink into your own love.”
Is that what my menstrual blood is?
The outpouring of love?
For most of my menstruating life I managed, in between periods, to block from my mind that I would bleed again. If the fact did cross my mind, I would make sure to think, “It can’t possibly be as bad next time.” Yet it almost always was.
At some point during almost every period, I would, after eating, begin to feel confused. The “confusion” operated at both physical and intellectual levels. My forehead would feel off, as though some gear had fallen out of place. I would suddenly find it difficult to follow a logical argument or to do simple calculations. An intensely uncomfortable sensation in the area just below my left breast always accompanied this confusion, a hardening that would not let up, that seemed to want to repel touch or contact with anything. Before I learned better, I would eat anything I thought might be able to loosen the grip of that hardness, hoping desperately that this time I would find the food that had the power to change my inner situation, to stave off what I knew was inevitably on the way.
Then I would feel the first twinges of pain in my ovaries. Soon the pain would flicker back and forth between my ovaries and a particular spot on my lower spine. As the pain intensified, other symptoms began: loud buzzing in my ears, tingling in my fingers, a flickering screen descending over my vision (the sight of the world would take on the visual equivalent of buzzing), a clammy coldness taking over my feet and hands, and a hard chill centring in to constrict my chest. And some part of me, timid at the best of times, would curl up, tighter and tighter, trying to escape the sensations that were making me feel as though I was hearing chalk that wouldn’t stop screeching across a blackboard, sensations that grew, grew, as I shrunk, until my eardrums were overwhelmed, entry to my head was gained, and I blacked out. The sound of my fall would usually wake me instantly. On regaining consciousness I would have to vomit, again and again. The pain in my belly and back would go on for hours more.
On other periods the tingling and buzzing remained as background noise, while pain in my ovaries and back grew increasingly intense, and I would writhe, rock, move incessantly, even beat my head against the floor in an effort to find relief in the form of distraction. The sensation of hardening in my stomach would spread across my midriff, until I felt only a merciless barrier there. As this feeling approached its apex, uncontrollable nausea would send me running to the bathroom. Food I had eaten two or three hours before would emerge looking untouched by the digestive process. At the same time violent cramps would overtake my bowels and I would have to shit, uncontrollably. This would go on until I was vomiting only clear liquid and had nothing left to pass through my writhing bowels. The vomiting and the shitting were the only things that gave me momentary relief from the pain in my ovaries and back.
My pain usually eased once I managed to pass large clots of blood, generally some four to five hours after the start of these experiences. Exhausted, emptied, I would often function at sub-normal levels for up to a week afterwards. Yet for years I did not even think of everything I have described above as a real illness. I thought of it as my period. As a lifetime of ill health began to improve in my late twenties, however, I began to wake up to the drastic after-effects of these “attacks” – and it dawned on me that I was experiencing a real illness, and that because this was so, I could do something about it!
This writing is an attempt to articulate how I have healed, and continue to heal, my menstrual illness. I have written it in the hope that what I have learned through my healing journey will be helpful to others.
Journal Entry, April 17, 1990
I am having menstrual cramps, accompanied by nausea.
The pain is not as severe as in times past.
I receive an image. The garbage cans outside a motor hotel, the kind filled with Coke cans, empty mickeys, half-eaten wieners clinging to plates smeared with mustard, potato chip bags. The worst garbage I know. The kind where I would rather not even touch the lid of the can.
I come to understand that this image of garbage represents how I perceive myself – no wonder I want to vomit. Suddenly I realize that I feel like garbage because I am sexual. And on my period, so sexual.
I speak out loud, three times:”I am sexual. I am a sexual being. I have sexuality.” What a relief, even to recall and write it again.
For a few blessed moments, all pain subsides, my torso resolves into a three dimensional being, all the organs in place.
A long chain, far longer than my individual life, created my conviction that my bleeding body was garbage. This chain would be growing more of its brutal links every day, expressing itself through my life, if I allowed it. It began to intertwine itself with me in earliest childhood, in my family life and at the church we attended. Later I would find more of its multitudinous, twisted tentacles in my doctor’s office, on the job, in the tampon ads printed in women’s magazines.
It is always difficult to know just what another person is feeling and why. My mother’s mother told her bleeding was “sin,” and my mother often told me, after I began bleeding, how as a young woman she had worn one cotton pad for her entire period, regularly rinsing it in a lake near her home and wearing it like that, cold and wet, so that no one in her family would know about her blood. I know she did not want me to go through what she had endured. I remember that she cried the first day I ever bled – it seemed to me out of a mingling of grief and happiness at my growth, I really wasn’t sure. After the newness of my life-change wore off, less supportive voices emerged in her. To my mother, blood remained a stain. I’ll never forget a morning she searched for bloodstains on my sheet because she knew I was having my period, and despite my protest, angrily found them where I knew were only shadows. She made cloth pads for me and my sister and took control of washing away my blood every month.
My mother taught me that menstruation was something that disgusted men. I was reprimanded when I occasionally forgot a used pad in the washroom my father used, not only for my lack of responsibility, but because my father had had to “see it,” this said in a hushed, pleading, ashamed tone. Naturally then, I was also taught that it was socially improper for girls or women to ever mention to boys or men that they were menstruating. I remember my sister and I, fantasizing about marriage, trying to figure out what we would do should we find ourselves menstruating on the honeymoon! “What would you say! What would you do!” I recall how much courage it took on my part the first few times I decided to break this taboo, and speak matter of factly to men other than my lover (I’d gotten than far!) about my period’s presence. I also discovered, years after leaving home, that one of my own unconscious voices imagined that my bleeding was an insult to men, and that through it I was taking revenge on them for the injustices they had done me in a sexist society: so thoroughly had I internalized the conditioning that my female functions were repellent to men.
From both my parents I learned not to consider my menstrual difficulties to be a real illness. They very much took the outlook, taught them, I’m sure, by their socialization, that “women’s problems” were part of the ordained order of things, painful but inevitable. They ascribed my symptoms to menstruation rather than to some difficulty that was preventing me from menstruating in a healthy way. Despite the extremity of my distress, they made no efforts to find the root cause of the symptoms or to respond effectively. I try to understand this from my current distance from that time in years, space and, I hope, wisdom, and posit that their shame around sexuality prevented them from being able to truly address the situation. Looking back on my own role while I was dependent on my parents, I can see my bleeding self as literally throwing my period into their face and simultaneously doing penance for the presence of my sexuality, my illness fulfilling deeply felt, unspoken agendas for both myself and my parents.
My parents were not unique in their social milieu in their difficulties with coming to terms with their children’s sexuality. Probably the single most important source of harmful attitudes towards sexual reality that I had to deal with during my childhood and adolescence was my familiy’s active membership in a Baptist church. The church taught that some forms of social and/or sexual connection were intrinsically right, others intrinsically wrong, as a means, I believe, of maintaining its power and group identity. Sex outside marriage was especially wrong. That people might be able to make responsible sexual choices for themselves and might also be able to fulfill the demands of love and mutual respect in non-marital sexual relationships were ideas outside the realm of possibility in the minds of church leaders and teachers. While I can look back and appreciate the ideals of commitment these people upheld, the emphasis on the outer form of a relationship as a key mark of virtue left precious little room for individual pathways of intimacy, whether of a sexual nature or not, or for individual responsibility. Agonizing, eternal punishment in hell awaited those who deviated from the prescribed relationship forms and did not repent of their ways.
Thus the “flesh”, “desires of the flesh,” and even music “that moved you below the waist” delineated dangerous territory, the places where sinful connections might be all too easily made, where one felt temptation too overpoweringly to be able to resist. Everything I ever heard and saw in church, especially the bodies of the other women, confirmed that the tension I held constantly throughout my own body was proper and “godly”. I dared not let it go, for fear of the uncontrollable beast below. Tension would save me from sin.
Within this context I heard the preachers of my childhood explain without the least qualification that the phrase “filthy rags” in Isaiah 64:6 (“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags, and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities like the wind, have taken us away.” – KJV) euphemistically refers to a woman’s menstrual rags. (This passage is related to Leviticus 15:19-24.) I checked The New Jerome Biblical Commentary for the purposes of writing this article (Prentice-Hall, 1968); it confirmed this interpretation. The authors of the commentary go on to distinguish ceremonial from moral unfitness, explaining that menstrual rags belong to the first category. Whether or not this is true, if it is a common scholarly interpretation of the passage, its meaning was not communicated to me at my church. I remember learning to believe that Isaiah, prophet of God, meant to equate a natural female bodily function with moral and spiritual degeneracy. And so far as I recall, the validity of Isaiah’s metaphor was not questioned by the spiritual authorities in my life. When I heard this interpretation of the verse expounded from the pulpit by the man my parents taught me to respect above all others. I remember feeling I had better silence any questioning voices.
The world beyond family and church, the two predominant influences of my childhood, offered little to help me come to terms with my femininity. Like many girls, I began menstruating when I was eleven, in grade six. My periods in public school were very heavy. Yet no references to the physical changes accompanying puberty were made in the regular curriculum until I reached grade nine, the high school. Nor were pads or tampons available in the school washroom until then. I was too shy, and too repressed about my body, to approach any of the other girls in my grade six class for information or camaraderie. It came as a surprise to me, through overhearing a conversation in gym class, that I was not the only one menstruating. My isolation astounds me now.
In high school, menstruation was, at least, acknowledged. One could be excused from swimming class during one’s periods. This I appreciated, despite the acute embarrassment I felt over having to face my gym teacher with the excuse.
My first clear memories of my menstrual illness date back to grade nine (my thirteenth year). Doctors could do little to help me. One, faced with the depth of my panic and pain, advised me to breathe deeply, and he was right. But within my familial and social context at the time, the advice was useless. Breathing isn’t conducive to denial of the flesh.
Consulting a doctor about my heavy bleeding also resulted in unnecessary surgery when I was seventeen, performed under general anaesthetic. The operation made no impact on my condition whatsoever; neither could my doctor give me any satisfying explanation as to why it should have. In fact, when I attempted after the operation to find out what had been done to me and why, he told me that the tests supposed to accompany the operation and shed light on the reasons for my difficulties, had, for some obscure reason, not been done. By this point in the conversation he was mumbling, and quickly! Then he attempted to recover some authority in his voice and instructed me to begin keeping a record on my calendar (with a red marker, no less) of which days I bled heavily and which lightly. I walked out of his office knowing I had been used to augment his income.
Not until my late twenties did I encounter information from the naturopathic community, from practitioners of Chinese medicine and from St. Hildegard of Bingen’s medical treatise that proved vital to a better medical understanding of my menstrual problems. But the non-allopathic care-givers, I eventually came to understand, were also missing an important point. Like conventional doctors, most seem to feel that menstrual health is indicated by a woman’s ability to function as usual while menstruating. This task I set for myself in agreement with the doctors (and everyone else). Failing at it perpetually embarrassed me. Now I see my efforts to function as usual as reflective of our societal striving to control and subdue natural processes – a compulsion by which we lose our vital connection to their power.
In my twenties, economically independent for the first time, I also learned that the doctors’ expectation, that a woman be able to carry on as usual, partners an economic demand. Doctors, women and employers are assumed to have a common interest in ending cramps, backache, irritability and fatigue, as these are a significant cause of absenteeism and drops in worker productivity. The demands of the job, and of paying the rent, certainly provided me with further incentive to try and relegate my menstrual experience as far to the background as possible. This is considered a mature and responsible attitude towards work in the society at large. Despite my pain however, I always refused to use drugs to block my symptoms. I envied women who could work without worry throughout their period. In a competitive, individualistic economy, they had an economic edge over me.
My socially based oppression around menstruation continued in the so-called women’s magazines. Here, images of elegant women, so competent that they were able to wear white shorts without fear while menstruating, shamed me. I seemed forever unable to keep my period from erupting in every direction, no matter what brand of “feminine hygiene” product I used!
Eventually I would decide that menstruation-related marketing also echoes the doctors and economists when it pitches products as being desirable because they allow women to continue uninterruptedly with everyday pursuits. Menstrual technologies are hyped as liberating women from a biologically created prison. Consider, for example, the menstrual pad brand names “Stayfree” and “New Freedom.” The message I hear is that our female bodies are something from which we must liberate ourselves in order to find pleasure and fulfillment in life.
Perhaps I wouldn’t feel as confident making the foregoing statement if women themselves had not so frequently given me that very message. I vividly remember a high school girlfriend who calculated how many days of her life she would have to menstruate. Together, we expressed our outrage and sadness over the wasted time! We were young and uninformed, but the theme has not changed as I’ve grown older. A survey of American women cited in the Utne Reader, Number 46, July/August 1991, indicates that given the choice, 69% of women would rather not menstruate. The majority of women I have spoken with about their periods express only feelings of annoyance, discomfort and pain in conjunction with their monthly bleeding.
In my life, our massive society-wide repression and repudiation of menstruation bore painful results. During the years of my menstrual illness, at some point in almost every period I literally could not bleed until my body (or denied self, there are many ways to look at it) had, with the necessary forcefulness, cleared a path through the layers of repression standing between myself and my menstrual flow.
Considering this, I have come to see my menstrual pain, and the menstrual pain of other women, as, paradoxically, a sign of our determination, unconscious though it may be, to experience menstruation. As long as our society requires us to block or hide the natural expression of menstrual processes, we will rebel, our ovaries and wombs will rise up once a month and demand their hearing. The costs, personal and social, of such a relationship to menstruation are grievously high. The rest of this article will describe my arrival at a different relationship to my bleeding than that encouraged by my cultural conditioning.
As my knowledge of feminism and holistically oriented psychology grew as I reached my mid to late twenties, I slowly began to recognize that the cultural constructions surrounding menstruation described thus far were just that – cultural constructions. They could be challenged, rejected, transformed. I came to consciously reject ideas such as that it was dirty to bleed, shameful and embarrassing to accidentally stain one’s clothes in public and improper to mention one’s bleeding to men. But my illness continued, for I had not yet addressed the way I internally replicated those constructs, the way the energy patterns the words can only represent had infected and altered the functioning of my organs, tissues and cells. Nowadays I feel grateful to my illness for not letting me be, for insisting on liberation or else. In the summer of 1989, my 28th year, I could never have dreamed I would ever be able to say such a thing. My attacks continued to arrive with their usual ferocity despite all the energy and effort I was investing into trying to attain greater well-being. But that summer, my desperation, and perhaps, growing strength, drove me to finally grasp for what I previously had thought impossible: I would find a way to get well, no matter what. For the first time, I told myself I simply did not deserve to suffer so much pain. I did not have to take this anymore.
By that point in my life I had already survived a major life-threatening sickness, getting well had consumed my mid-twenties. One of the keys in my healing process had been the changing and manipulating of my diet. So, it seemed sensible to turn to the question of food that summer. No doubt because of the decision I had made on my own behalf, that I would get well, no matter what, I found the clarity, in the middle of a bout of cramps, to crawl into bed, put my hands over my hara centre (a major energy centre, just below the navel), begin breathing into the area my hands were touching, ask myself what to eat, and wait silently, assuring myself I would receive a reply sooner or later. And I did, within a few minutes. It became clear that specific foods I had been eating because certain dietary teachers said I should were helping cause my cramps. My rigid, over-enthusiastic adherence to these teachers’ authority had overruled my inner wisdom; I had been been contributing to my illness by not listening to myself. This theme would come to be central to my healing process.
Over several months after this first small breakthrough, I slowly gained the insight that to a great extent I had been using dietary and other holistic therapies to try to force my body to “behave,” to “be good.” I was channelling potentially helpful healing modalities into oppressive, authoritarian structures my culture had taught me, into an impoverished idea of wellness. Used like this, the world’s best therapies could have given me only limited help at the time.
Changing my diet according to my inner knowledge was a help to my condition, but I still suffered greatly. Next, inspired by the body-centred psychotherapeutic work I had been pursuing for several years, (and perhaps by that doctor I had been brought to many years ago!) I began attempting to continue breathing through each monthly attack, to feel fully everything happening to me. I began to notice improvements in my eyesight and a general feeling of release after vomiting. As I learned to observe my “illness process” more closely, watching what happened and when, I found myself expending a great deal of mental energy on an attempt to discover a fixed set of correlations between specific physical symptoms and specific thoughts and feelings I considered “unhealthy” because they were products of an oppressive culture. As it turned out, this was not a fruitful direction to take. My period, I would soon find out, was trying to teach me about flow, not about a neat and tidy set of correlations.
Christmas, 1989, brought the major turning point in my struggle. I was visiting with my family; the illness came on as I was out shopping with my sister. She managed to get me to my parents’ home in time that I did not vomit in her car. Inside, I staggered back and forth from a couch to the toilet; on my lower back a crab seemed to hang on for dear life with its pincers.
And that day, what needed to die finally did. I finally lay panting and utterly exhausted, emptied of vomit, emptied of shit, but – filled with light, with an overwhelming, ecstatic love. For hours I lay there, bleeding and loving. Family members came in to visit, left again, I was too weak to move, and had no will to move, had no will to do anything but to feel the ecstatic love pouring through me. Finally I knew that a great gift had been hidden from me, had been waiting all those years inside my periods, finally I knew that my sex organs, my organs of love, had been waiting to fill me with an ecstatic light, the light of bleeding. Their pain, my pain, had been the pain of love denied.
I had only ever heard that bleeding was a necessary evil, a problem, an inconvenience, a cause for shame, that it should be hidden, controlled and blocked from entry into both personal and social space. But now, suddenly, finally, my bleeding and I had met, and I knew nothing I had been taught about it was the truth.
After that period, I also knew I would never be able to bleed in the same way again. Intuiting my need, and inspired by my knowledge that many First Nations women had done the same thing, I began, with my next period, going into seclusion, staying in my bedroom without socializing or working. I knew that my task was to open myself to the energy flowing from my ovaries as I menstruated. I decided that at this time of the month everything I did and when I did it, whether eating, sleeping, sounding, dancing or lying quiet, would be dictated by the voice of my belly. I would surrender myself wholly to my bleeding. It was very difficult going for the first eight months.
Journal Entry, February 9, 1990
The referentiality of language is, after all, vital.
Could I ever trust those who said otherwise?
I lay in bed this morning considering the similarities between sexual bondage and spiritual experience.
My spiritual experience a priori is my period, when I give up all to listen to my ovaries. They dictate my eating and sleeping, singing and dancing. They journey me through the realms. I am in their hands.
It looks so close to being bound – until I see that this is only so if “I” am not my ovaries also. If “I” am not my ovaries, “I” am not able to be as “I” wish during my period (if”I” do, the pain becomes unbearable) and “I” think “I” am bound.
Who is “I” ?, I ask.
The answer returns clearly, as a radiance of sensation. “I” begins in that place on my spine just where the neck fans out into the shoulders,and includes my head.
Thus my period is not bondage, but balance.
What is the appeal of bondage?
The reference it makes to this state of spiritual abandonment. The promise it holds of silencing the “I.” . . .
It was very difficult going for the first eight months – I had to learn to do what my illness had previously done, of necessity by force: allow energy from the lower body to move freely through the upper body. When I failed, which was often, I would experience, as before, extreme pain. I had ingested my cultural conditioning well. I experienced my solar plexus as a berserk watchdog standing guard between my upper self and my belly. I found it necessary to lie in bed two or three days at a time, eating very little. Eating was pretty well out of the question, because food re-energized my defence mechanisms against my menstrual energy. Later I also concluded that eating helped catalyze my anger, made me feel invaded, perhaps because I still associated food with the invasive aspects of my mother’s behaviour towards me as a child. My anger in those days was more unconscious and uncontained than today. It tended to take over my whole being, cutting off my openness to everything and everyone, including myself. Then I would find myself ill again. I did not really understand this as I began my work with my menstrual periods. I just knew I had to “let go, let go, let go.”
So I lay, I breathed, I did not eat. Sometimes I drummed and sang; but often I could do no more than lay back again, needing to surrender to the slow opening of heretofore unused channels, to feel my arms and head and facial muscles twitching, unpredictably, sometimes with surprising power. I was learning how to stop interfering with my ovaries, my uterus, my cunt, my blood and my bleeding. I was learning how to let my upper body expose my lower body (rather than try to hide and deny it), so it could share in expressing freely the truth of my whole being. And as I dedicated myself to this work, I came to ecstasy again and again, every period I came to an ecstasy, to a liquid fire burning in my heart.
Experiencing my seclusion from the outside, some of my roommates at the time thought I was sicker than ever and my period must be giving me a incredibly hard time. At least one seemed unable to comprehend my seclusion. After I explained to her what I was doing and why, she told me she hoped I would be feeling better soon. I think she simply didn’t have a category in her mind for what I was trying to do.
Journal Entry, May 18, 1990
It is our ability to choose a heart that gives us our freedom.
Within a few months of beginning to go into seclusion, it became clear to me that the central event in my experience of menstrual ecstasy was the opening of my heart (the chakra in the centre of the chest, between the breasts). Seeing the importance of this, it struck me that it was in the heart that I should focus my efforts to open myself to menstruation. This turned out to be my magic key. By opening my heart (simply by focussing my attention there and intending the opening) I effectively overcame the blockages that had created my vomiting, fainting and pain, energy struggling to be recognized. I went so far as to make notes on my calendar to remind myself to open my heart to myself at menstruation time, as I sometimes would forget when I panicked over signs of possible oncoming pain. As I continued with this practice, I began to be more mobile during my periods and also able to eat. Today, I am able to engage in a wide variety of activities during my period, for which I am thankful, as sometimes there’s just no way around working or socializing. But I stay committed to taking a block of time every period to stay in solitude so I can listen carefully to my body and pay respect and honour to the treasures my bleeding brings me.
As I learned to open my heart to my bleeding I became aware of another function of menstruation I had not previously suspected: the bestowal of information. My sexual organs had (and have!) tremendous amounts of practical and insightful information to share with me! This was a real surprise to me at first, but made sense as soon as I thought about it. Our sex organs, after all, are a major locus of connection between us and the world and a major source through which we are able to find love for ourselves.
The directness with which menstruation can bestow information can be stunning. During my period of June, 1991, I was suffering fairly severe cramps, by then an unusual occurrence. As has now become almost my instinctive response to such a situation, I slowed down; I went and sat in the sun and let myself be. Soon, a series of thoughts about a particular situation in my life, thoughts that represented realizations I had been resisting, flowed into my awareness, just as my blood was flowing into awareness. The instant I accepted those thoughts, my cramps were gone. It was both as simple and profound as that. Sometimes it has been precisely this opening to letting myself know things that I am resisting that has also been the surrender that has brought me to a new experience of menstrual ecstasy. I have come to anticipate my monthly periods as a potent problem-solving period, when I receive guidance that improves my life and provides me with ongoing direction.
As I began to realize the ecstatic/informative/transformative potential of menstruation, I found myself searching for a way of explaining this unexpected course of events to myself. I have found a way that satisfies me. I have learned that my body speaks, all the tissues and cells and structures speak. Holistic thinking translates this speech into verbal metaphors that bridge the gap between two modes of communication. (Whether or not I listen or respond to myself is another matter.)
Within this conceptual framework, the process of menstruation becomes a powerful speaking to me. The content carried by the process depends on my life circumstances at the time.
Blood is the vital tissue that flows through my entire being. The heart and blood are at the centre of what makes my consciousness possible at the same time as they, themselves, are conscious, interwoven into the circle of my consciousness. The blood slowly pulsating out of my self is a vessel of a previous month’s consciousness, a record of a previous month’s heartbeats. It is a revelation, the liquid writing of my soul. To reveal itself, the inner world must also empty itself. This makes way for another heart/blood/consciousness structure to focus itself in the belly. Emptying (or death), revelation and new growth – this is the archetypal transformative cycle that will reverberate monthly, if I allow it, through my whole being. And precisely because the heart and blood are at the centre of life, it is critical for me, whose life has often hung on a thread, to pay as great attention to their transformative messages as possible.
Within the archetypal transformative cycle of menstruation I experience a special case (the “menstrual case!”) of the opportunity to find the point of liquid fire in my heart. I let myself sink down to my cunt, let myself rise to my eyes, let myself meet myself in my heart and be slain by ecstasy.
It is when I am ecstatic that I know why I am alive.
Journal Entry, April 19, 1990
I see in my mind’s eye
a series of poems
Begin with one flower.
From its centre emerges another flower
the way a butterfly
emerges from its pupa
and unfolds its wings
And from its centre emerges
they are all red
red as blood
and from its centre
this eternal flowering
this heart’s blood
I spill upon the earth
my seeds of love
The transformative and ecstatic potentialities of menstruation have been systematically excluded within English-speaking, white, western, historically Judeo-Christian society, the only society of which I have extensive experience. At the present time, this society places overwhelming value on the production of material wealth and this is coupled, in paradoxical logic, with an equally overwhelming refusal to admit that the physical world, including our bodies, is truly valuable. (The environmental crisis, for instance, would not be happening if we truly valued our physical existence.) Except insofar as we can manipulate physicality to aggrandize or enrich ourselves, it is a source of shame to us – the butt of our jokes, the well from which we draw our cursewords, the scapegoat for our pain. We see the body not as an essential tool in our spiritual evolution, but as a barrier to enlightenment. This cultural pattern has created a situation in which menstruation is allowed barely any social place. In my case, this led to a refusal to give myself a place when bleeding, a place to bleed in. It took me enormous effort, will and courage to live out my decision to stop mirroring my culture in my bleeding process.
Thankfully, there are exceptions to this situation, in disciplines and fields of endeavour to which I owe debts of gratitude for supporting me in my search for menstrual health: body-inclusive psychotherapy, for teaching me that I needed to make peace with the fact of my physical existence and for encouraging me to value my unique personhood and experience of life; feminism, for making it possible for me to gain economic independence and thus also needed distance and perspective on my family’s attitudes to menstruation, and for giving me valuable analyses of the structures of social oppression; the growing voices of Wiccan, Goddess and aboriginal religions, which affirm the connection between everyday experience and spirituality and in many cases corroborated my own experience of finding menstruation to be a powerful instigator of growth; and to naturopathic, Chinese and chiropractic doctors and dietary counsellors whose understanding of how the human system functions gave me important insights and “technical” support in my chosen movement from blockage to flow. I hope these movements continue to grow and foster change in our society.
In light of what I have learned since changing my way of being with my period, I can only consider the socially sanctioned suppression of menstruation to be an enormous, untold waste of our own resources as a species. Blood is life, but we behave as though blind to that fact, pretending that a myriad of dangerous and poisonous technologies can sustain us instead. When and if we come to our senses, as I am hoping will happen due to the growing influences of environmentalism, holistic health care modalities, feminism and spiritual movements which honour and value physical reality, I believe we will find ourselves needing to pass through grief, mourning and regret over our attitudes to menstruation. We will never know what insights, what solutions to personal and collective problems have been lost over the millennia of patriarchy because the wisdom gained by women from their bleeding has not been allowed a voice in society. This wisdom has been so rejected that nowadays most women see their periods as a burden, even a shameful burden, rather than as an awesome gift for all.
My challenge to this suppression has been my practice of seclusion during menstruation, when I leave everyday life to a greater or lesser extent, focussing instead on allowing the energies that fuel my bleeding process their free play. This “challenge” has been an inadvertent one. I have no desire to act against anybody, only for my own well-being and authenticity. Paradoxically, it is my seclusion that has gone far in bringing my period into social space, as I explain my absence to friends, co-workers and roommates. To date I have received a generally supportive response. The most common misconception has been that I do what I do because I am ill. (In certain employment situations I have found it necessary to maintain this misconception.) It is, however, a culture that attempts to suppress or distort my healthy relationship to menstruation that I must regard as ill.
My practice of seclusion has undergone changes over the past years due to my increasing health. Nevertheless, I continue to make sacrifices, especially economic sacrifices, in order to pursue this vital self-development. I pray that one day our society will be organized so as to remove such conflicts between doing what is necessary for oneself and doing what is economically necessary. At bottom, these are artificial conflicts, as sound economic systems cannot possibly be maintained by masses of unsound people – people forced by oppressive and exploitive economic structures and social ideologies to forego the fulfillment of their biologically based growth processes. Sound economic systems would value and respect the physical world that we depend on.
Through much suffering, reflection and labour I have discovered that menstruation can renew me, strengthen me and give me insight and ecstasy. Through listening to my bleeding I have become healthier. I assume I cannot be unique.
I wish to encourage all women who have not already done so to begin valuing menstruation as we value our eyes, our hands, our digestion, our lives. The decision to value can guide each one of us to our own methods of establishing a fruitful relationship to menstruation. As we take whatever time and means necessary to create our own space for menstruation, we can create a world in which both our daughters and sons need no longer suffer for the fact that they are whole creatures, body and consciousness in the end inviolately inseparable. Let the “normalization” of ourselves, the hiding of ourselves, even the “liberation” of ourselves – from ourselves! end. Let our lifeblood begin to flow.
sibylle preuschat, 1991
Addendum, February 1994
The night after the performance, I have a dream about filling the wastebasket in my washroom with pads filled with blood – I am menstruating – red, rich blood, ruby red-black, shimmering. The next morning I remember the dream, and the meaning of the image hits me unusually swiftly and directly, like a rock on the head! I see that the wastebasket has been transformed by the blood into a gift basket . “I have to give my blood away. It’s not mine to keep. It is a gift to all.” Contemplating the image later, I realize also that not to treat my blood as a gift is to waste it. Most profoundly, as I remember the dream, I also realize for the first time that there is a part of me that has been resisting giving my blood away. It is my blood after all, my lifeblood. And some part of me has been having a hard time just giving that up, just saying, “here world, it’s yours, have it, use its life energy wherever it is needed.” But as I feel myself crying and surrendering, it is that great bliss again. The blood belongs to all of us. It is not mine to keep.
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