I was eleven when Aunt Flo first rolled into town. Having grown up on Judy Blume, I expected the occasion to be somewhat momentous, with my mom floating into the bathroom with a box of maxi pads that hook to a special belt after I showed her my bloodstained underpants, while asking tearfully if I was a real woman now.
Instead, I found myself curled up on my bed, wailing and thrashing in agony while my best friend sat uncomfortably wide-eyed across the room, unsure of what to make of the situation. Turns out, the upset stomach I assumed I had was menstrual cramps; little did I know then that my period would turn out to be a literal thorn in my side (and front, back, and sometimes thighs and ass) once a month, every month for the next 20 years.
When I say “cramps,” I don’t mean the kind that you can cure with a hit of Midol and a few hours holed up with a heating pad. I mean the searing, stabbing, someone-knock-me-out-and-please-kill-me pain that’s landed me in the emergency room over a dozen times in the past decade alone, twice by ambulance and once by ambulance after the fire department broke into my house to get me because I’d collapsed, half-naked, onto the floor and couldn’t bear to move. (“Someone get this girl some pants!” one firefighter shouted as I was lifted onto a stretcher. “I don’t have any!” I cried back.) I’ve been on demerol, tramadol, bextra, endocet, dilaudid, zofran, Prozac, Percocet, Vicodin and morphine, the bulk of which are used to treat pain in cancer and end-of-life hospice patients.
At last count, I’ve tried about 13 varieties of birth control pills in an effort to temporarily quash menstruation, but they make me sick and suicidal. (I tried natural progesterone cream once for kicks, and hooboy, that was a trip.) The flow isn’t always problematic, but when it’s a five-tampons-in-two-hours kind of day, my blood pressure and pulse can drop to dangerously low levels. I’ve had acupuncture, and I’ve taken Chinese herbs. I’ve had chiropractic adjustments. I’ve seen fertility specialists -- some of the best in the world, because I live in Boston -- and have had two laparoscopic surgeries to remove endometriosis, a scar-like reproductive disease that affects some 176 million women worldwide, only to miniscule amounts of damaged tissue.
I’ve been tested for PCOS, hormone abnormalities and uterine fibroids -- I’m free and clear. Which means the root cause of my pain, which is officially diagnosed as dysmenorrhea, has largely remained a question mark.
And don’t get me started on the PMS.
Yet even during some of my darkest moments, like when an ER doctor casually suggested I might consider a hysterectomy to put me out of my misery (NB: I was 24), or when I slept on my parents’ kitchen floor because my body felt like it was on fire, I knew I had to hang tight, even though I seemingly didn’t have a solution in sight. And I’ve never shaken the feeling that my body -- our bodies -- aren’t meant to behave like this, even though I was assured that plenty of other women felt the same.
Periods aside, I’ve always been a relatively vain person, not one to pass up an opportunity to check out my reflection in a passing window or obsess over the state of my pores. I became obsessed with skincare sometime around my thirteenth birthday; by my twentieth, I was experimenting with anti-aging products reserved for women in their sixties that caused my cheeks to breakout in angry, rash-like hives. (Turns out, there wasn’t much clock to turn back.)
When nothing else worked, I turned to the teachings of Dr. Perricone, the so-called “father of anti-inflammation”; it was around that time that I became curious about alternative and holistic medicine. As I began to weed things out of my diet -- bye bye, skim milk and two-pots-of-coffee-a-day habit -- to bolster my appearance, I noticed that some of my menstrual cycles had become almost bearable. Not always, but occasionally.
However, my “ah-ha” moment didn’t strike until this past summer when, one day in mid June, I got my period. Except it was a few days late. And because I hadn’t had a single cramp or angry, irrational breakdown, I had almost forgotten it was due to arrive. I chalked it up to a fluke at first -- a phantom egg, if you will -- but the same thing happened again in July. Then, again, in August. And in September. And in October. Those narcotic medications? Barely touched ‘em, if at all.
Where did these magical, Judy Blume-like periods come from, you might be wondering. At first, I wondered the same thing -- and when I looked in my kitchen, where the Breville baby blender I’d plunked $130 down for in May sat on my counter, I put two and two together.
Ladies, please meet the beverage that will change your life.
I became a disciple of Kimberly Snyder, celebrity nutritionist and author who counts Dita Von Teese among her many clients, last fall after a friend with gorgeous skin tipped me off at a baby shower (because that’s what friends do: they get each other hooked on celebrity nutritionists) and after weighing the pros and cons, I decided to invest in a blender (see above) and her second book, Beauty Detox Foods. I committed to trying her signature recipe, the GGS, or Glowing Green Smoothie, for one week; if I hated it, I’d put it all on eBay.
A week of blending spinach, bananas, apples, celery and cilantro every morning turned into two weeks; two weeks became a month. I became fascinated by the garbage-like smell that seeped out of my pores (a sign your body is detoxing). I started to radiate a glow I'd only previously achieved with bronzer. I woke up feeling energized, to the point where I ditched my afternoon coffee. At the two-month mark, I met with a personal trainer to talk about goals, because 31!, and started to add light workouts and Pilates to my morning mix.
I cut out soy milk. I ditched gluten. I added in salads -- the biggest you've ever seen -- for lunch and dinner. I started to take sleep seriously for the first time in my adult life. By the third month, I developed a routine upon waking -- I was never a routine girl! -- that goes something like this: meditation; a spoonful of coconut oil; apple cider vinegar in a glass of water; a cup of hot water with lemon; herbal coffee or yerba matte; Pilates; my GGS; and depositing a numero dos into le porcelain throne, sometimes with the help of a coffee enema hooked up to my bum.
(The pooping, by the way, is an important part of this equation; I’ll get to that in a minute.)
You can see that I didn't just change my diet; I changed my lifestyle. I call it the GGS domino effect: one action item (drinking green smoothies every morning without fail) naturally lead to another (tinkering with Pilates and watching it stick); nothing was forced, and I added and subtracted things not because I felt like I necessarily needed to, but because they felt good to me. I'm not the only green drink evangelist: there are literally thousands of people who've changed their lives by improving digestion -- the cornerstone of good health, it turns out -- whether they were dealing with bad cramps, bad skin, bad migraines, or worse.
Still, detoxing hasn't been all roses. When your body adjusts to a healthier way of living, old habits -- like pulling all nighters, eating certain foods, tipping back on Manhattans and, unfortunately, toxic people -- die off, sometimes painfully. On a recent trip to Paris, I indulged in every form of carbohydrate, animal product and varietal of wine available; while I had fun, I felt sluggish and depressed. If I don't get enough sleep, I'm pretty much useless the next day.
And yes, I’ve slipped up more than once, and getting back on track sucks. It can feel ostracizing at times, especially when I have to duck out of shared appetizers and tequila shots, and being pushed out of my comfort zone has caused me to question my identity. Am I the snarky chick with a backhanded comment for everything, or am I a kind, compassionate soul who wants to help others connect the dots? I’ll think about it while I sip this beet juice.
If there's one thing I know for sure, it's this: each of us has an individual opportunity to take charge of her health. No one will hand it to you. I'm extremely thankful to have access to cutting-edge care, but often, I've had to fight tooth and nail to get things done, like pushing for blood tests to test my hormones and thyroid when I suspected PCOS, and switching gynecologists when I felt they weren't taking my issues seriously (one suggested I might try pregnancy as a solution for my woes -- he wasn't joking). Holistic treatments aren't covered by insurance, and organic produce is damn expensive.
But when you've suffered from chronic pain for as long as I have and you find a source of relief, you'll do anything to keep it. And if any of this resonates with you, I encourage you, too, to start your own journey back to wellness. It’s yours, if you want it.