HT Brunch cover story: Every woman’s most personal problems
She was preparing for her 27th birthday, but a medical emergency landed Shruti Haasan in the hospital instead. Her period cramps had become excruciating.
Every woman understands period cramps. You usually pop a painkiller and curl up with a hot water bag. Shruti has been doing this since she was in school. But this time the pain was unbearable.
At the hospital, a thorough medical check-up revealed that she had PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and other hormonal irregularities. With this, her entire backstory suddenly started to make sense.
A painful existence
From her early teens, period cramps and the remedial painkillers have wreaked havoc on Shruti’s life. “I had debilitating pain from my very first period. I was diagnosed with endometriosis and dysmenorrhoea Sometimes the pain would be so bad that I would have to come back from school midway. From the usual Crocin to stronger painkillers like Meftal Spas, Spasmo-Proxyvon etc., I had tried everything. Nothing worked,” Shruti recalls. “I was even put on homoeopathy for a while. Finally, when I was around 18, I was prescribed birth control as a way to reduce the pain.”
Oral contraceptives are known to effectively manage the symptoms of PCOS, but Shruti wasn’t aware she had the condition. Almost one in three women today suffers from PCOS according to Shruti, but it often goes undiagnosed and is dismissed as regular period cramps. This is alarming, but hardly surprising. In a country where period shaming is an intrinsic part of the culture and even religious beliefs, women’s sexual health, especially with issues related to the period cycle, is not only low priority, but often taboo.
I grew up with the same condition. But unlike Shruti, I was diagnosed with PCOS in my early teens. The gynaecologist was a friend of my doctor grandfather. I was not prescribed any medication, but my mother was told this was a minor problem that would be sorted out once I married and had kids. I was not even 16!
When I had a minor toothache or a regular fever, I’d be hustled from one doctor to another. But my period-cramp days were lonely and hushed. It was not until I was in my late 20s and had added an adequate number of runaway ‘prospective grooms’ on my resume that my mother, propelled by my general aversion to kids, took me to a new doctor who dismissed the baby talk, put me on birth control pills and charted out a meticulous plan of action, complete with a Plan B.
The sex solution
“Thankfully, I always had good doctors,” Shruti says, laughing at how many doctors still suggest ‘get married and have a baby’ as a solution. “I don’t think marriage is a pill for any kind of ailment!” she says. “But marriage, or rather, sexual intercourse, is often a remedy prescribed by doctors. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the worst remedy of all.”
Even birth control pills have various side effects. For Shruti, it was weight gain. “By the time I was 20 or 21, I had put on almost 18-20 kilos because the birth control did not suit me,” she says. “I was never overweight and was always very active and this weight gain really impacted me. At that point, I was at a music school in Los Angeles, and my agility was dropping and impacting my life. And the pain the pills were supposed to reduce may have been a little less, but it was still excruciating.”
But she had to carry on with her life. “It was a constant struggle. Everyone in the family was aware that Shruti is non-functional during her periods,” she recalls. “I had to do multiple things, like school, music school, acting school, stage performances etc. With time, as the pain grew stronger, my ability to withstand it and focus on my tasks through the pain also grew. The pain became part of me. And after shifting from this birth control pill to that, trying different medications for years, I eventually stopped, because their side effects were multiplying.”
Even after being diagnosed with PCOS, Shruti refused to return to birth control pills. Along with PCOS, she had also been diagnosed with various hormonal imbalances.
“People often laugh about women PMSing, but for a person who suffers from hormonal imbalances, it is a very real thing,” says Shruti. “There are many times that my hormones have decided my emotions. So for me, this has been a mental process to be calmer, and instead of forcing myself to feel better, letting my body be.”
Apart from mood swings, the side effects of birth control pills include severe hair loss and severe unwanted hair gain as well as serious weight fluctuations. “I gain weight irrespective of how much I work out,” points out Shruti. “For me, it is important to maintain a strict workout routine as well as a diet. I am on Metformin and I don’t eat processed food, caffeine and alcohol.”
The best way to deal with PCOS, Shruti believes, is to talk about it so the severity of the problem is understood. “In a country when even today sanitary pads are sold surreptitiously, wrapped in newspapers and brown paper bags, it is important that we start talking about periods,” she says. “Women as a sisterhood need to start talking among themselves as well.”
Although it is important that men become more educated about women’s bodies and their issues, Shruti is not very concerned about what men think. “How does it matter what a person without a uterus thinks of my uterus? If they understand, that’s wonderful and an added advantage, in fact I have been always blessed with very understanding partners, but sometimes even women dismiss of the seriousness of it,” she points out. “Periods are different for different women. There have to be forums and groups to discuss PCOS and other period-related ailments, as well as female sexual health in general. Women’s bodies are magical, and I look at it as feminine energy. But as a woman who has gone through this all alone all my life, I know how important it is to start these conversations.”
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From HT Brunch, June 14, 2020
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