Three o’clock in the morning. I woke up to the feeling that I was in a puddle of splashing blood. I stood trembling in front of the toilet and looked at a pile of what to the untrained eye could have been red jelly in the toilet.
Did I just lose my uterus?
What had just happened can best be described with the image of a broken dam in the Amazon. Not nice. And absolutely unfamiliar. The small bathroom looked like someone had just killed a pig. Impossible for it to have been my period. I was on day 10 of my cycle. After pondering who I could call for advice — an expert in such blatant forms of gushing menstrual tsunami did not cross my mind — I realized it had to be actual blood from my organs.
Ooh, my copper spiral.
Not wanting to waste any more time (or blood), I called emergency. “Hello! I had the copper spiral inserted a week ago and now I am losing more blood than I’ve ever seen in my life! I’m not sure if my body is rejecting the spiral or if I have internal bleeding, but judging by the amount of blood, something has gone awry. Please send an ambulance! “
Shortly after, two young men wearing bright yellow vests with the words “Berliner Feuerwehr” (Berlin Firefighters) arrived at my door. The two highly-trained professionals who normally kick down doors and rescue kittens from flaming buildings looked at me anxiously and clutched their first-aid bags tight as I introduced them to my situation.
Their faces were overburdened. And scared. They would probably have preferred a burning couch over an emergency patient who is emitting vast amounts of period blood out of her body at unpredictable intervals. Menstruation!, they most likely thought, Ahh! Girl problems! Gross!
As I climbed into the back of the ambulance with one of the men, I noticed how pale he was. He asked me whether sitting or lying is more comfortable, but based on his look it felt like I should be asking him. “When the blood comes, it comes. Either way! “
“I am not in any pain”, I said.
The man swallowed. “But do you have … a pad or something to catch the blood?”
To use a pad for this enormous amount of blood would have been like trying to stop a tsunami with a candy wrapper. I saved the lecture for later.
“I have my menstrual cup inside.”
The paramedic looked at me, big-eyed, like a goldfish.
“You have a …” he cleared his throat. “… cup in there?”
You could see his inner struggle. Was this patient a case for gynacology? Or should she be better be sent to psychiatry right away? His puzzled look suggested that he was putting together the idea that the reason I was bleeding is because I had broken ceramic inside me.
“A menstrual cup… is… is… is a reusable alternative to tampons! It’s made of medical grade silicone!” I explained quickly, gesturing with my fingers the approximate size of the cup. “It works like a small container.”
What an unfortunate series of untimely events that led to this predicament, I thought, because all I want to do is show him my pink menstrual cup. That would have made things a little easier. “You squeeze it together, you insert it and then when in the vagina, it pops back open and then the blood runs in.”
The paramedic fell silent. He had never heard of such obtuse methods. I couldn’t blame him; not only was he not personally affected by periods, but he certainly didn’t really come close to the topic with his job as a firefighter.
After I was able to convince the man that I was a sane person, I ended up in the emergency room. A young doctor received me as a patient. Even with him, the word “menstrual cup” triggered a blank look.
“A what? I have never heard of it.”
Finally, I ended up in gynacology. Unfortunately, it was not much better. The caring nurse, a middle-aged woman in her rustic Berlin style, could not for the life of her understand what a menstrual cup was. As she routinely poked a needle in my arm, I excitedly told her about the benefits.
“It’s recyclable! You just have to boil it to sterilize it. Saves thousands of tons of tampon waste. “
She gave me a look as if I had just told her that I had come here with a flying car. “Crazy things they have nowadays!” was all she could utter.
“The menstrual cup was invented back in the ‘30s,” I told her.
“It’s been on the market since the 1980s. Unfortunately, I also found out about it only a few months ago.”
Inevitably, I continued talking about the cup, while more blood was drawn from my veins. The nurse was glad that I was distracted. Since the conversation started, I felt compelled to continue.
“Did you know that tampons and sanitary napkins in Germany are subject to a 19% tax? On average, a woman pays a four-figure sum in her lifetime just because she has her period! These are costs that are not incurred by men, which is CRAZY because they anyway earn on average 20% more! “
The nurse gave an amused snort as she fixed the needle in my hand with tape.
“Yes, I’ve heard of that already. How unfair! “
“There is something like the menstrual cup, which costs around 25 euros and can be used for many years, but also saves thousands of tons of waste. Did you know that a traditional pad is up to 90 percent plastic? They don’t break down for centuries, they are not biodegradable!”
By then we had already finished the blood collection procedure, but I still needed to make one point.
“We put tampons and pads on the most sensitive part of our body. But what exactly is included — who knows?! Manufacturers are not obliged to mention it on the packaging!”
After informing this innocent caregiver that many girls in the world can miss school due to a lack of access to adequate monthly hygiene, it seems as if I had informed almost the entire emergency room about the pertinent consequences of this taboo.
The first person at the hospital who actually knew what a menstrual cup was, was the noticeably overworked assistant doctor. Unfortunately, she was not very friendly. “You have secondary bleeding caused by the spiral insertion. This is perfectly normal”, she sighed as if to say: “For this, I really had to leave the expectant mother of triplets in the delivery room alone?”
At my request, she assured to me with a quick nod that my uterus was still there and even that the spiral was still sitting where it was supposed to be. While I was still lying on the examination chair like a suckling pig, a bad conscience and a feeling of shame came upon me.
“Sorry …” I tried to explain myself.
“I just lost so much blood that I thought something was wrong …”
Visibly annoyed, the young doctor brought her ultrasound instrument from the depths of my uterus back to the fluorescent tube light. “Your blood pressure is perfectly fine, you couldn’t have lost that much blood.”
With a flippant motion, the latex gloves slipped off her hands. “You can go now.”
The way back to my apartment with the first subway at 5:00 in the morning felt like a walk of shame.
I was terribly embarrassed. Not because I had a vagina out of which sometimes blood comes out. But because now I felt like a whiny attention-seeker and had robbed the hospital and staff of their valuable time.
At the same time, however, I started boiling with anger.
Why is contraception still a “women’s thing”? Why don’t men have to put some creepy, artificial apparatus which costs them a lot of money, pain, risk, secrecy and embarrassment into the most vulnerable parts of their body???
Or why don’t they have to take hormones that turn them into whiny, walking storm clouds that run the risk of losing their libido?
And why, to this day, do so few people — even medical staff — know about the menstrual cup?
Half of the world’s population menstruates!
One thing is for sure: menstruation is not a “women’s thing”. The topic concerns the whole society.
A woman consumes about 11,000 sanitary pads and tampons in her lifetime. By now, every fifth item washed onto the seashores is a monthly product. In order to reduce plastic waste, the EU Parliament had considered putting manufacturers in charge of disposal. But they threatened to raise prices. According to a recent survey by Plan International, one in ten female British students cannot afford tampons or pads. They are forced to resort to undignified, inefficient and unhygienic means or, even worseto stay at home.
In September 2018 the European News Magazine Politico even wrote an article about it.
“Legislators are trying to strike a balance between growing demands to clean up plastic waste and fear that increased costs for sanitary products would hit the poor.”
Guys, are you for real?
If the menstrual cup had been readily available to every gynacologist since its invention in 1937 (!), we would not have these problems.
If one were to seriously consider how to support young women* and give them equal opportunities, one would think that it would be good to start with providing them with their choice of menstrual products on the first day of their period.
Why do we make such a silly secret out of the fact that half of humanity loses a espresso cup of blood from their vagina every month (for half of their lifetime)?!
Apparently the topic is just too embarrassing for us. When Greenpeace and the EU Parliament convened a first debate on menstrual products, the mood was uncomfortable or “awkward”, as deputy Lynn Boylan describes it.
“I had two male assistants who made it very clear that they really felt uncomfortable and wanted to change the subject when I talked to them about it.” -Ariadna Rodrigo, Greenpeace EU.
When my bed was fresh with clean sheets again, I fell asleep with relief. My uterus was still where it should be, and the spiral too. On top of that, now four more people had learned about the benefits of the menstrual cup. I smiled.
But those poor firefighters… I probably traumatized them forever.
*not all people who menstruate are woman and not all women menstruate.
Franka Frei is a blogger, writer and reporter based in Berlin. After her experience of struggling with her university to even be allowed to write her B.A. thesis about the “taboo topic” of menstruation, Franka has become a menstrual activist committed to help eliminate the stigma surrounding periods. She is often seen along side a giant human tampon who tours around with her all over Germany where she holds talks on the menstrual taboo and activism. For more information, please visit frankafrei.com