Jazmin Sawyers during the London Anniversary Games (© Getty Images)
It’s not cute, and it’s not sexy, but we have to talk about periods.
Yep, lads, you too.
Us women, we are your training partners, your teammates, your friends, girlfriends and wives and I don’t want to have to mumble some incoherent nonsense at you next time you ask why I’m doubled over in pain before the session has even started. I want to be able to talk about it, so you’re in on this conversation. It’s a conversation sport has been having all wrong – if at all.
There are teenage girls at your local athletics track who think it’s normal that their period only comes a few times a year. There are grown women that have been told that “it’s fine you’ve only ever had a few periods, you’re so sporty, that can happen”.
Women around the world are being told they’re exaggerating their period pain, and to just “get on with it, everyone else does”.
Am I going to become ‘Period Girl’ because of this? Maybe.
It made national, heck even international news when I tweeted about period pain keeping me out of a competition last year. All I wanted to do was give an explanation why I didn’t jump, that I wasn’t injured.
But of course it wasn’t just that though, was it? I decided to bring up a topic that we just don’t like to speak about. It was always going to cause a bit of a fuss, but maybe some fuss is what we need to sort these issues out before they become such big problems. Career-affecting problems.
Let’s go back.
It’s Rio 2016 and it’s three hours before I need to leave for the qualifying round at my first Olympic Games.
I’m on the doctor’s table in the Olympic village with tears streaming down my face, all but screaming in agony. And I’m trying to tell everyone around me that this is ‘normal’. It was more or less what having my period has become for me. I’d been on medication that was meant to be suppressing my period, or as I like to call it, medication that does absolutely nothing at all.
Eventually – after being given a bunch of different painkillers – I could get up and walk again, and headed for the shuttle bus, trying to ignore the feeling that someone was doing an elaborate interpretive dance routine on my internal organs, wearing cross country spikes and wielding a few javelins.
Why didn’t you sort this out earlier, you ask? Excellent question.
It’s not like I’d done nothing up until then. We’d tried several things, for several years, but I brought it up to doctors far too late because I didn’t want to talk about it. I was embarrassed, because we’ve made it embarrassing.
When I was younger I used to take days off and make excuses, crying in bed on my own rather than talking to my coach about an issue that was affecting my performance, and therefore an issue that was exactly his business. I wouldn’t have hidden an injury from a coach, and I shouldn’t have hidden this, but if I – a relatively outgoing teenage girl – felt I couldn’t talk about my period, I bet there are a lot of other girls and women in the same boat, and it’s our responsibility to create an environment where they can speak up.
This isn’t an easy fix, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. There’s no period pain rehab protocol, and there’s no definitive answer to “why is my period irregular?”
Every single body will react differently to every single treatment. Handy, I know, but it only makes it more important to speak up early and see a doctor.
I have no idea if I could have jumped better in Rio, had I had a handle on my period pain, and I’ll never know. But it should never have come to that. We should have had it sorted months, years prior to this.
I got some great responses to my tweet last year, but also some less-than-great ones. “Just go on the pill like everyone else and quit moaning,” one man cried, as though there’s just one pill, and as though I hadn’t tried. Some people thought that because they know one woman and “she does her job every day of the month” I was lying or lazy.
I believe these type of responses come from misunderstanding, because they’ve never had this chat (it probably also comes from a little voluntary ignorance, but we can look past that for now). Something that is (or should be) happening to women every single month shouldn’t be so hard to talk about.
Women’s performance is suffering all over because they haven’t addressed the problem sooner, they didn’t realise they had a problem, or because sports medicine isn’t dealing with their problem adequately.
As for me, I’ve found a partial solution to my pain. I have a concoction of painkillers and anti-inflammatories that, to be honest, usually work, and sometimes don’t. We still don’t know why the pain is so bad, and we’re still trying to optimise a management plan for it.
Most of us as individuals can’t change medical practices, we can’t find solutions or prescribe different medicines. What we can do is talk. We can talk to our friends, our teammates, our daughters, and make periods a normal thing to discuss. So many teenage girls find it hard enough to speak to someone about anything, let’s not make something so important, so difficult.
Well, that’s it. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Nothing too gross.
If you think about it, most of you have heard, in graphic detail, about the colour, texture and volume of the vomit your training partner ejected onto the grass during a particularly rough hills session, so really, this is nothing.
And for the record, I can handle being ‘Period Girl’, as long as I get to wear a massive, red, billowing cape.