I am lying in the fetal position on a twin bed in an attic somewhere in upstate New York. I've taken one and a half Percocets, chewed not swallowed to hasten the effect, and I'm hot and itchy as a result, slipping in and out of cartoonishly gothic dreams — women in white nightgowns appearing at the top of faraway stairs, their waxy faces melting and sliding. Occasionally, there is a tentative knock at the door, a nervous production assistant offering me tea or letting me know that we're moving on to another shot.
I am technically directing an episode of a television show right now. A crew of almost 100 people fills the lower levels of the house we have rented out for the week. But I'm too sick to move, much less command a small cinematic army. So my creative partner Jenni is downstairs, working off the pages of notes I made when I was privately uncomfortable but not yet bedridden. Jenni pops in a few times to feel my head and present me with half an English muffin or a glass of Gatorade. I say thank you, but it doesn't and can't convey this sickening mix of gratitude and humiliation. Because I've been bleeding from my vagina for almost 30 days now, and it's no longer possible to hide my pain, fear, or fatigue. The relief of the pills is that I don't really care — the crushing guilt of slacking off is replaced with cheap nightmares and a dull, thudding sense I ought to be somewhere. At the end of the day, I crawl into a van back to the Holiday Inn, pale and somber and afraid of who will see me.
From the first time I got my period, it didn't feel right. The stomachaches began quickly and were more severe than the mild-irritant cramps seemed to be for the blonde women in pink-hued Midol commercials. Those might as well have been ads for yogurt or the ocean, that's how little they conveyed my experience of menstruating. During the worst of it, my father brought me to the ER, where they prodded my appendix and suggested it might be food poisoning and that we should go home and wait it out. My mother placed a pillow under my lower back, and I moaned in the guest room, where no one could hear me, my legs spread like a woman in labor.
Throughout high school, I had irregular periods and hideous mood swings, but these were hard to uncouple from the looping thoughts of doom and crippling anxiety that had been a part of my life since early childhood, when I began to struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. It was also hard for me to imagine that the same girl who counted her every breath and blink, who had to masturbate eight times a day or not at all, who was convinced she had leukemia because she was dizzy when she sat up too fast, was now suffering from an entirely separate medical condition. Even my eternally supportive and tolerant parents seemed dubious. And who could blame them? It was impossible for me to take my own pain seriously, so how could anyone else?
When I was 16, the sporty, tan gynecologist asked no more than five questions before putting me on birth control. Easily swayed by warning labels and lists of potential side effects, I swore the pill worsened my anxiety. The stomachaches continued, though I never considered them to be linked to my period but rather separate and distinct viruses of indeterminate origin. I was also on a high dose of antidepressants to combat OCD (cool trivia fact: OCD patients often need much larger amounts of medication than depression sufferers might in order to find relief). This dosage made me so tired that I usually lay down in the nurse's office from noon until she woke me up at four to send me home. Whatever the cause of the pain and fatigue, I missed 62 English classes in tenth grade and was crowned the grade's sickest girl. Lindsay and Sarah both decided not to invite me to their birthday parties on the off chance I wouldn't show. I three-way-called them, sobbing but unable to defend myself beyond repeating the words "I don't lie about being sick."