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My Journey to Acceptance Through Eating Disorder Recovery and Amenorrhea

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The two-story marketplace in Karen, just outside of Nairobi, Kenya, had a single bathroom. My family was visiting the beautiful country in June of 2018, following my graduation from Bishop Manogue Catholic High School in Reno, Nevada. After an idyllic morning spent visiting giraffes and baby elephants, I had to go. My thighs, damp from the humidity, relaxed onto the wooden toilet seat. I looked down at a red blot in my underwear and nearly cried out. My stomach fluttered with joy and relief. I exhaled deeply.

“Finally,” I thought. “I am healthy again.”

I had originally gotten my period at 13 when I was in eighth grade. After giddily informing my mom, I FaceTimed my grandma to share the exciting news.

“You’re a woman now!” she exclaimed.

But after my freshman year of high school I started to shed weight at an alarmingly rapid pace. My food intake dropped precipitously, and soon my mind was consumed with thoughts of calories, exercise, and the endless pursuit of making my body smaller.

“I’m getting healthier,” I told myself at the time.

My body begged to differ. My loss of menstruation should have alerted me that something was drastically wrong. But I refused to listen.

My period did not come back throughout high school. Even after I was admitted to the Center for Hope, a residential treatment center for eating disorder patients in Reno during the summer of 2016, and subsequently gained what I felt to be an uncomfortable amount of weight, my period did not return. This was immensely upsetting. I felt fat, was doubling up on my snacks, and eating complete meals. Still, my one glaring symptom, my amenorrhea, could not be
corrected. My medically trained parents would never be able to believe I was fully healed until this very tangible, visible sign of health and security returned. I was doing everything correctly, and yet I felt like a failure.

After emerging from the bathroom in Karen, I could not stop smiling. My years of therapy, treatment, medication, and internal battles finally seemed to have paid off. I eagerly told my parents the news. They seemed happy and relieved. But their emotional reaction was mild, perhaps because they did not want to prematurely get their hopes up. They knew this was not a full period; it was just a blot. In the car ride back to the hotel, my blot of glory was all I could think about.

“I can’t believe I got my period!” I proclaimed.

But I had spoken too soon.

“That’s not a period,” my dad snapped.

He was right. I did not encounter any more spotting throughout the rest of the trip. Still, I prayed that it was the beginning of a fully-healed body, a sign of progress, a positive omen. Four years later, at 21, my period has yet to return.

Many women around me have understandably complained about “that time of month.” But I missed the cramps, the mood swings, the tampons and pads. I daydreamed about cozy afternoons spent on the couch with a cup of tea and a heating pad nestled on my lower abdomen. At night I had vivid dreams in which I discovered my blood-stained underwear when I went to the bathroom. I cried tears of joy before calling my parents in celebration. They were so thrilled, so happy, knowing they no longer had to worry. I lifted their burden.

Then I would wake up. I would realize that this recurring mental scene was only a dream, and would likely remain that way.

It feels like I have tried everything to regain my menses. I reached a “normal” weight, but the number on the scale was not sufficient. I increased my fat intake and reduced my carbohydrates. I religiously consumed avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, sardines, and salmon. I enjoyed the taste of all these foods (even the sardines) but also believed them to be “hormone balancing.” My psychiatrist recommended a “hormone balancing” herb, which I added to my daily smoothie. I ordered organic, pasture-raised chicken liver after learning that it was a “nutrient powerhouse” and supported the female reproductive system. My homemade liver pâté was almost inedible. I tried freezing it into lumps, which resembled the feces of a wild animal with a gastrointestinal infection. When I tried to cut up the frozen lumps into “pills,” they got stuck in my throat, scratched my esophagus, and triggered my gag reflex. I then tried to blend them into smoothies with lots of ginger to mask the unpleasantly gamey flavor. The smoothies tasted like liver and ginger.

I’ve tried acupuncture, meditation and yoga. I’ve eaten wild bison that my Grammie brought back from Wyoming and wild elk that my uncle hunted in Arizona—both of which were far more palatable than the liver. I’ve sipped bone broth and fancy teas, have incorporated more herbs and supplements. I’ve tracked my calories and macronutrients to make sure I was getting enough. The anxiety of scrupulously monitoring my dietary intake yet again was exhausting. I eventually stopped. My period remains missing.

Sometimes I experience the occasional ovarian cramp, or a sudden pain in my breast. In the seven and a half years since my last natural period, these episodes have never been followed by an actual cycle. I know better than to get excited when these things occur. Now I have reached a certain acceptance knowing that I have tried seemingly every possible trick. I trust that my body is where it is supposed to be. Indeed, I have stopped trying to get my period back. Perhaps the stress from the pursuit itself was hampering my efforts.

My resignation of sorts is not equivalent to giving up, but instead reflects a shift in focus. I would rather live fully than constantly have to worry about my ghost of a period, as though I need it to become whole again. My vision for the future, however, nonetheless includes a fully functioning reproductive system with a healthy monthly cycle. I cannot help but feel I am missing out on something most women experience; I cannot partake in this feminine kinship. Sometimes I feel broken. I still have dreams where my vision of regaining my period is in fact fulfilled. Joy surges through my body and my sleeping self feels as if she can relax at last. But then I wake up. My sheets are perfectly white. The spell is inevitably broken.

Image via contributor

Originally published: March 7, 2022
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