I guarantee, if a group of four or more women with fully functioning ovaries are gathered together and the subject of menstrual flooding arises, at least one of them will have a grim story to tell.
Yet some of you reading this now will have no idea what I’m on about. The technical term for menstrual flooding is menorrhagia: the flow of the period is very heavy, clotted and sudden – like turning on a tap.
Even the most ambitious sanitary protection is not enough to prevent leaks, and a woman suffering from menstrual flooding spends the duration of her period in fear of bleeding openly in public.
Periods: a bloody nightmare
You may be upset, revolted – offended, even – by the discussion of menstrual flooding. If that’s the case, I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to write about it. However, I also wish I didn’t have to deal with it. And, above all, I wish that, in 2019, menstruation didn’t have to be a shameful secret.
In a profession where women make up most of the workforce – and half of the student body – we continue to worry that anyone might guess we are on. That’s tricky enough at the best of times. But for flooders it’s a bloody nightmare.
Let me take you through the day of a teacher who floods. She’s exhausted, having been up half the night changing pads and possibly bedding. She had hoped her period would hold off until half-term, when it might be inconvenient but not a source of constant anxiety.
Before she left home this morning, she put on a hot wash with a hefty helping of Vanish, and packed a bag with three changes of clothing: six pairs of knickers, three pairs of tights and three identical dark-coloured skirts or trousers, so no one will notice she’s getting changed during the day.
She may have put a towel down on her car seat on the journey into work, just in case, or chosen to stand on public transport. She dives into the toilets as soon as she arrives at school, to check for leaks, because it’s staff briefing at 8.20am and, even though she’s padded up to the eyeballs (or the gynaecological equivalent), the last thing she wants is to leave a bloody imprint on the pale blue seating in the staffroom in front of all of her colleagues.
She feels safe enough to get through registration without popping into the toilet to replace a pad, but she’s running slightly late to her first lesson.
Just as she arrives at her classroom and a restless queue of Year 7s, she feels the unmistakable sensation of a flood in progress. What to do? Does she risk it and let the class in, gallop off in search of suitable facilities or call for help?
Luckily, her colleague in the class next door knows and understands, and steps in to let the class in and settle them with reading books, while our menstrually challenged hero makes her first costume change of the day. She wraps her bloody clothes in a carrier bag, and shoves them to the bottom of her school bag.
On the way back, she has cramps and is hot and sick and faint: a clear warning that this won’t be the last flood of the day. But she gets through the rest of lesson one and lesson two unscathed.
The smell of blood still
Still, she’s like a rat out of a trap at break: no time for a cup of tea and, anyway, a full bladder is an added complication. Although she knows she’s flooded again, she feels confident she has time to deal with it. Until, that is, a colleague stops her in the corridor: “Do you have moment?” She wants to answer, “Yes, providing you don’t mind if I bleed all over your shoes…” but she simply isn’t bold enough.
The colleague goes all West Wing: “I can see you’re busy – can we walk and talk?” As the unfortunate leaker shifts her bag from one shoulder to another and worries about walking through a crowded corridor where she might accidentally brush up against a white wall, leaving an unsightly smudge, she tries to take in the information being imparted to her.
The colleague stands chatting expansively at the door of the ladies, and it takes a while to escape. Once she does, she’s reminded of Lady Macbeth – “…and here’s the smell of the blood still” – as she mops up hot clots.
She wants the day to be over, but she has a meeting after school. She’s shuffled the chairs in the meeting room so she gets the black plastic one that she can wipe clean afterwards. Still, the meeting never happens because, by the time it gets to 3.30pm, she’s bled through the last of her half-dozen knickers, and she’s simply not prepared to sit for an hour in a pool of her own period.
A bagful of sanitary products
And yes…she’s been to the GP. She’s been told she floods because she’s had twins…or is overweight…or is underweight…or didn’t have children…or has fibroids…or it’s just part of the perimenopause that starts at, ooh, 35 and ends at 55, if you’re lucky. And, no, they don’t do balloon ablation any more and, yes, the mirena coil or the mini pill might work, but they’re not foolproof.
Meanwhile, she can continue to manage it, haul around a bagful of sanitary products, non-crease clothing and shame.
If it’s like this for confident adults, what is it like for the girls in our classrooms? Menorrhagia is most likely to occur at the menarche (when periods start) and the menopause (when periods end), but it can occur at any point in a menstruating woman’s life.
We need to own it. We need to be able to discuss a contingency plan with our workmates. We need to be able to carry a Night Time Ultra towel in full view and say, “I’m having a really heavy period – you’ll have to excuse me.”
We need to be able to phone site management, without embarrassment, and explain there’s an embarrassing mark that needs erasing. We need to talk about it openly, as one of life’s inconveniences that doesn’t need to be hushed up.
Sarah Ledger has been teaching English for 33 years