(From the So Hormonal anthology)
We need to talk.
Let me preface this by saying: this is not a huge deal. I only want to tell you a story. A story of me one day waking up and realising that the part of my body I’d cursed ever since the first red spot bloodied my clothes – the one that women were biblically punished with – had finally heeded my words and fucked off, only to leave me alone like a repentant lover. But this story is not just my own. It is the story of countless others scattered across the globe.
I had never heard of ‘polycystic ovarian disease’, which is what it was called before it became a syndrome sometime in the past ten years. What a shocker, right, considering the thorough sex education that we receive in schools, whether here in the UK or back in my home country, India? I found out about the condition when a follicle in my ovary swelled up and burst, leading up to hours of the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced – and I say this as someone who’s fractured a foot. There was a lot of doubling over, clutching my abdomen and screaming in pain; a lot of wondering what horrible thing I’d eaten that poisoned my body. Mum thrust home remedy after home remedy into my hands – fennel seeds, cloves, isabgol – when none of the painkillers we had on hand worked. We finally went to hospital, where an ultrasound scan revealed numerous tiny harmless-looking squiggles in my ovaries.
This was in January 2010 in Gurgaon, India. I remember the time because this incident occurred amidst my ‘preboards’ – the practice examinations before the actual twelfth-grade board examinations that Indian children believe will determine the rest of their lives. The searing abdominal pain isn’t a usual symptom of PCOS, or so I was told, and it was brushed aside as a one-off incident. It wasn’t. It happened again in my mid-twenties, and my boss rolled her eyes at it. I wasn’t outright told that I had to continue working, but I clearly had no choice. Heavy pain medication was my only reprieve, apart from resting my head on my desk and groaning in between tasks. It didn’t end up mattering that my manager was a woman. Perhaps because PCOS is so common now, I shouldn’t have expected any preferential treatment? Or maybe because there’s no information online about the links between PCOS and pain, she thought I was exaggerating, making excuses to shirk off work?
I know, I know it’s annoying when I tell stories out of order. Okay, back to 2010. Doctor appointments followed, and since my periods weren’t too infrequent, I wasn’t put on any medication, just told to lose weight by fixing my diet and exercising. Having been overweight since I hit my teens, I was used to hearing this at every visit to the doctor. To an 18-year-old Sonali, none of it sounded too bad, honestly. In fact, it explained away the weight gain, ‘tomboy’ tendencies and excess body hair – did you know I prepare for our dates with an elaborate routine involving bleaching, threading, waxing, shaving? So, I thought: maybe I’m not a freak after all and this illness is to blame for everything. Pregnancy and the issues PCOS could cause for it, as well as the possibility of developing Type-2 diabetes, seemed so far away. And, surely, I would implement all the recommended lifestyle changes by then?
You laugh because you’ve beaten me to the punchline: obviously, as you can see, I did not.
I also wondered: so what if the gaps between each period increased? Cumulatively, I would then have to deal with fewer cramps, mood swings and times I’d have to wash stains off my clothes every year, and that just sounded like a relief. Plus, I had been facing exam-related anxiety, and this gave me a reason not to study or hold myself up to my usual high standards. I even left the three-hour physics exam after just one – unheard of, really – and crashed into my strict teacher in the corridor, who only let me go, red-faced under his striking moustache, once I used the word ‘ovaries’ in my explanation while pointing at my abdomen.
My parents were taking it hard, though. My teddy-bear-of-a-mother’s life revolves around my brother and me, and she takes our health concerns seriously. I now only tell her that I’m ill when it’s serious as, ironically enough, she worries herself sick over it. However, my always-calm-in-the-face-of-emergencies father fretted too. He even bought a lengthy e-book with advice from some fancy American doctor about treating PCOS, since it’s incurable. I never got around to reading it. Exasperated, Dad finally read it himself and gave me the highlights. Ten years later, the only thing I remember from it is that we’re supposed to drink cranberry juice; a lot of it.
I know we’ve only been dating for a few weeks, and I’m not sure if there’s a science to it or whether some instinct helps me pick the right moment to have this conversation. There probably isn’t even a right time. But we’re at that age now when we hope certain relationships will last long-term and we make plans for the future. And we’ve been getting close…so, you deserve to know.
Before I move on, let me clarify: my parents’ primary concern is that PCOS may lead to other health complications, like diabetes, high cholesterol and even cancer. Growing up, I never discussed the subject of romantic relationships with them, but I wonder what crossed their minds when they learnt that I may have trouble conceiving – did they worry about my future or my ‘marriageability’, an aspect that is considered an essential part of a woman’s identity, no matter what background she hails from? I would categorise my parents as progressive, even if our political views don’t always match: once Mum jokingly said that they had enough savings to either throw me a lavish wedding, which is the norm in the Punjabi and North-Indian Hindu community, or pay for my master’s degree tuition fee in Scotland. Dad and I said ‘studies’ in unison. My education, my career, my achievements were never treated as ‘less than’ because I was the daughter or the younger child. In fact, I couldn’t have asked for more supportive parents. But I do believe that my life has been less contentious because my desires align with what society deems appropriate for a woman: get married to someone of the opposite sex and have children.
Don’t freak out. Yes, I’ve dropped the dreaded M- and C-words, but I don’t mean it’s what I’ve planned specifically for you and me. Of course it’s too soon – I don’t even know your favourite ice cream flavour, whether you sleep in bed with your socks on, or what setting you put your thermostat at, let alone when you want kids or if you even want them.
Salted caramel? Okay, more chocolate in the world for me then.
You can read the entire essay, as well as many more, in So Hormonal, edited by Emily Horgan and Zachary Dickson. This excerpt has been reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Monstrous Regiment Publishing. You can buy a copy of the anthology on Monstrous Regiment Publishing’s website, indie bookshops such as Lighthouse Bookshop’s website (and their shop) and Portobello Bookshop’s website (and their shop), as well as Amazon.