“That Day” arrived again.
It arrived, whether I wanted it to or not.
It was 6:10 a.m. on a Thursday morning.
I awoke to intense pain.
I didn’t even have time to lament “Why today?” as I felt an uncontrollable cold sweat running over my body. With horror, I noticed I had no EVE (my usual pain relief medicine) close at hand.
Ever since I was 13 years old, I’ve had a pro boxer living in my uterus. He likes to come for his once-a-month practice sessions only at the most inconvenient of times. I can’t help but feel hesitation in writing about this sort of delicate topic. I feel embarrassment, too. So, I’ll refer to this “boxer” as “Sam.”
When “That Day” comes, Sam fires off forceful punches right into my uterus. While withstanding pain so intense I want to cry out, I essentially crawl my way over to my medicine, take it, and wait intently for Sam’s “practice session” to calm down.
I haven’t shared the pain of Sam’s “punches” with anyone except for those I am very close to. Sam’s fists are so strong, I’ve had to take off work a number of times. I’ve had to turn down invitations from people I care deeply for, had to rush to the school infirmary in the middle of tests, and had to give up on attending looked-forward-to concerts. I’ve had myself examined to see why the pain is so bad, but they found nothing wrong with me.
On the day in question, I took the morning off and then headed to work with my face still white as a sheet. The reason I gave for my late arrival was “poor health.” What a useful phrase. Having that phrase, I need not reveal Sam’s existence to anyone. Feeling that I absolutely did not want my boss to know, I applied not for “period time off” but for “paid time off.”
Little by little the medicine kicked in, and Sam went into rest mode. When I got to work, my boss (male) came over to me, looking concerned.
“Are you okay?”
“Have you been to see a doctor?”
“No, I haven’t. Does my face look that bad?” I replied, with a laugh.
That was the end of the conversation. No matter how much I trusted my boss, I couldn’t talk to him about Sam. I had to try and hide behind a bit of joking. Not being able to tell the truth, I felt that I was betraying my boss, and at the same time felt that I was betraying myself.
A World Which Doesn’t Know about Sam
As I worried about these things, I had a sudden realization. There are lots of women with worries related to their periods, and period-related pain. (By the way, and perhaps it’s late to explain this, but “Sam’s punches” refer to my menstrual pains. And, of course, there are also women who enviably are not troubled by such pains). But among those women, how many have put their pain into words? Even I, who have openly spoken about a variety of things, could not tell my boss about Sam.
Embarrassment is one of the major reasons, but I also did not want to sacrifice my work. I had a fear that just by speaking of Sam’s existence, perhaps not as much work would be left to me to handle. I thought because Sam’s “practice” was only once per month, it was best to put up with it. It was best to simply wait for it to pass. It was best to pretend it hadn’t happened.
It was I who had erased Sam from the world. It wasn’t just my boss’s fault that he didn’t understand the pain of Sam’s “punches.” It was also my fault for not, in good faith, trying to tell my boss about Sam.
My Boss and I, Facing My Period Together
I kept on worrying about Sam’s turbulent “practice sessions,” and finally decided to speak about them to my boss. My boss is not a doctor, so the thing I wanted to consult with him on was my desire for an environment that was easier to do work in. We talked about Sam’s once-a-month practice sessions, and the small changes that could be made to cope with them.
I think it was a difficult thing for him to understand. It was probably also the first time one of his employees had come to discuss this sort of topic with him. (It was a first for me, too!) The result of our discussion was that when Sam’s “practice” begins and working becomes difficult for me, I will have options for how I do my work. I can do remote work (work from home), I can rest, or I can go into a neighboring (relatively unpopulated) room and relax as much as is possible as I work.
It’s not that that discussion with my boss will alleviate Sam’s “punches.” The times when I have to put up with pain will surely continue on. As I’ve said before, my boss is not a doctor, nor is he a wizard. However, I do believe that my life, about 40 of the next years of which I must spend with Sam, will change a great deal now that that discussion has been had.
Just by mitigating a little of my once-a-month pain at the office, I felt much lighter. More than anything, I was happy to see my boss trying so hard to understand. He even told me that he felt ashamed for not knowing about these things, and wrote a post about it on his blog. In that moment, I gained a great ally in my isolated battle with Sam.
I’m sure that every boss in the world is not like my boss, and there are probably even some female bosses who show no understanding with regard to these matters. If that is the case, it is best to talk to a coworker or senior worker you trust. Because I talked to my boss about Sam, one of my female coworkers empathized with me and told me privately that she suffers from menstrual pain. Even when her stomach doesn’t hurt, she gets persistent headaches. When that happens, I make sure to get blankets or heating pads to her, or painkillers if she needs them. So perhaps it is indeed the right thing to do to muster one’s strength and try talking to someone. From your employer’s perspective, it is important that you be in an environment that is as easy to do work in as it can be.
Japanese People and Periods, and Pain
According to a survey conducted cooperatively by the women’s health care app “Clue” and an NGO called the International Women’s Health Coalition, Japan is one of the countries in which people find talking about periods to be the most difficult.
The survey is from 2015, involved about 90,000 people, and targeted women in 190 countries. In answering the question “Can you talk to your female classmates or coworkers about periods?” just 76 percent of respondents said “Yes” (Japan ranked third from last for this question, following Qatar and Russia). In answering the question “Can you talk to your male classmates or coworkers about periods?” only 12 percent answered “Yes” (Japan ranked last among the 190 countries for this question).
Additionally, in a 2011 survey conducted by Rohto Pharmaceutical, “Asking 800 men and women in their 20s-50s about the state of pain for Japanese people,” about 80 percent of respondents replied that “It is in the national character of Japanese people to put up with pain.” The level of awareness of the notion that “Putting up with pain has harmful effects” was a mere 20 percent. In the section on menstrual pain, “Take painkillers” was the top response (56.3 percent) for coping methods, with the second-to-top response being “Put up with it” (52.8 percent).
With all the clamor that goes on about a society of gender equality, I don’t want to imagine one in which about half of the people go about their work while stifling worries about their periods. I wouldn’t want to make anyone talk about these things unless they wish to themselves, but I do feel that just by speaking to my boss my life has become a little more relaxed. Some may say I am exaggerating. But for me, that talk was a life-changing event.
Will Openly Talking about it Change the World?
Even aside from periods, there are still many other taboo topics related to women’s bodies. PMS, sex, pregnancy, childbirth... There are lots of people who don’t want to talk about or don’t want to hear about these things, and at the same time there are many negative consequences to not talking about these things. This is especially true of pain, which can be a sign of illness. Continuing to “put up” with pain may lead to regret further down the line.
I would like us to become as open as possible, and to be a society where we can put all of our minds toward thinking up solutions. As I’ve said before, if half of society is continuing to “put up” with pain, surely there are people out there who are simply overburdened. To counter this, the things I am able to do right now are alleviate my own pain as much as can be, and make it easier to go about my work and my daily life. Talking to my boss about Sam was my first step toward this goal.
This post was part of a new series on HuffPost Japan called “Ladies Be Open,” based on the desire to foster more openness, confidence, and comfort in discussions about women’s bodies.
Translated from the original Japanese on HuffPost Japan.