By Jess Collins, Food Policy Assistant
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with a focus on kindness. Although I will not be primarily talking about a mental health problem, I want to share a story with you about how by being kind to yourself, and paying attention to how you’re feeling, you can reach a better place.
In summer last year, I noticed that something wasn’t right. Each month like clockwork, I was spending the week before my period feeling incredibly low and anxious, and wanting to hide away from everything and everyone.
I would cry until my face was sore. I wasn’t going to work. I was cancelling all my social plans. I often couldn’t even bear to get out of bed. Physically, I’ve never experienced such a lack of energy – I was incredibly fatigued right from the moment I woke up, and my muscles were constantly achey. Some of my other symptoms included feelings of hopelessness, irritability, cravings, difficulty concentrating and bloating.
In March this year, I finally had a long-awaited appointment with an endocrinologist – a doctor who specialises in hormones. During this, I was diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD).
Currently, PMDD is heavily under-researched (as is women’s health more widely, with 80% of health research studies being conducted on men) and is not well understood, including by many GPs. This lack of awareness is the reason I am sharing my story.
If you are a woman, you will know of PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome). PMDD is PMS multiplied by 100. A crippling hormonal condition, manifesting as a variety of emotional and physical symptoms in a woman in the run-up to her period.
For me, the best way to describe PMDD is a complete debilitation of your usual life and self. A week where everything you know feels like it’s falling to pieces. A week that I would spend wishing that I was anyone but myself. I called it my ‘cloud’: it would come, and it would go. Besides this time, I was happy – everything was great.
Hormones and the workplace
It’s important to highlight this disparity between my moods, to show how enormous of an impact hormones can have. There exists a sexist narrative in society, whereby hormones are often seen as non-legitimate, and ‘being hormonal’ is used as a general (and offensive) term to label a woman as moody or sensitive. This has caused me to feel invalidated, judged and dismissed on my journey to getting a diagnosis.
However, hormones are chemical and biological. PMDD is a chemical and biological condition. It is caused by an imbalance in hormones that tends to come from a mix of genetical make-up and sensitivity to hormones. It exists and it is real. It, along with any other hormonal condition, should be acknowledged and respected no differently to any other medical condition.
Fortunately, I feel incredibly lucky to work with understanding colleagues and in a supportive workplace. I’ve consistently been able to have open and honest conversations with my manager who has supported me throughout. I was allowed to work flexibly during my ‘cloud’ weeks, and was offered sick leave when work became too much.
Further, I feel grateful and proud to work for a business that has a strong mental health policy, and has also recently introduced a menopause support policy. The mental health policy and guidance was extremely helpful in helping myself and my manager navigate my experience, as was the support offered by LifeWorks, our Employee Assistance Programme.
Finding the way
Unfortunately, due to its nature, PMDD can’t be fixed by the usual practices of self-care. Whilst these things can help to actually get you through the bad times, they cannot fundamentally change something so rooted inside your biology.
Treatment for PMDD will vary from individual to individual. Recommendations made often include medication: a combined contraceptive pill to balance out your hormones, or an anti-depressant to help to suppress the low feelings caused. There are also more natural approaches, making certain lifestyle changes or taking natural supplements.
I am still trying to navigate my PMDD journey, and looking to find out what works best for me. The feelings I have felt due to my struggles with hormones will always stay with me to an extent, but there are positives and a silver lining to be found.
As a result of my journey, I now have more information and answers than I ever had before. I understand my body better. I appreciate on a new level how it feels to live life freely and without emotional limitation. I am more empowered than ever to share my experience, and what I know about this life-changing condition.
I write this to educate, and in the hope that my story will play a part in sparking future conversation that is open and honest around hormones, and the true impact they can have on girls and women. I hope that with time, PMDD will become increasingly better known, making an experience already so heavy hopefully a little lighter.
Thank you for your time.