By Ronni Robinson
This story is part of our Real Women, Real Stories series, documenting the lived experiences of women along their health journeys. Please always consult your health care professional with personal concerns or questions.
Over the past few years, I've become convinced that tiny hormone cartoon figures have overtaken my body, especially my menstrual cycle.
Well, that's not exactly true, but about six years ago, my period started to change drastically. Now, at 52, I'm in full-swing perimenopause. I've researched hormone depletion and learned that as our ovaries age, they release fewer hormones, meaning poor regulation of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. This depletion has thrown me into menstrual chaos.
For over a decade, my cycles were 22 to 24 days long. Too short, but at least blessedly predictable. Then out of nowhere, in 2014, I started having 16-day to 24-day cycles. I had no idea what was going on and thought it was just bad luck. After some Googling, I realized that menstrual irregularity was a prominent sign of perimenopause. My mother had a hysterectomy when she was in her early 40s, so I had no clue when menopause might hit for me. None of my friends were talking openly about the transition that was impacting my life.
Often I would have two periods in one month. When I gloriously hit a 50-day cycle late in 2019, I was thrilled. With the longer cycle, I believed I was this close to menopause. However, the next two cycles were 16 and 19 days, respectively. I'd had no idea that my cycle lengths could swing so wildly.
Not only has the duration between my cycles changed, but the cramp intensity has as well. Now, in perimenopause, my cramps are so painful I have to take twice as much acetaminophen as before just to make it through the day.
Before perimenopause, I was fortunate to have gone decades with little or no premenstrual breast tenderness. Then out of nowhere, my boobs became really tender and sore before my period, and sometimes the pain continued right through to my next cycle. I never knew breast pain could last so long and still be normal.
Boob pain isn't fun on a non-active day, but I'm a spin instructor. When my breasts are sore and I'm standing up in the pedals, jogging while I teach, the girls are bouncing — and it really hurts. On days like this, I tell my husband not to look at my chest or even THINK about looking at my chest, or I will surely feel it and suffer.
I'd always been fortunate that day two was the only dangerously heavy day of my cycle. But then one day during perimenopause, clots and clumps of blood came out when I was peeing, even though I'd had a super tampon in for about an hour.
The first time I saw the clots, they genuinely scared me, so I called my gynecologist's office to ask about the phenomenon. The nurse spoke calmly and explained the rule of thumb: if you soak through one maxi pad an hour for four hours, you should call the office, where they'd instruct you to go to the emergency room.
But it's been years since I've used maxi pads! And even if I did wear one, who has time to go to the bathroom hourly to check on the situation? On the phone, I asked the nurse what they'd do for me in the emergency room. She said, frankly, "I don't know."
I ran out to get maxi pads and tried my best to check them once an hour. I did not hit the rule of thumb, which comforted me — then and during future unwieldy bleeding incidents. I decided to trust my gut that I would instinctively know if something were wrong.
Luckily I adore my gynecologist, who assures me that all of this is normal, and yes, it sucks. Short cycles, long cycles, breast pain, heavy bleeding and severe cramping are all part of the peri experience. She said the only reason to worry is if the heavy bleeding lasts for days, at which point to contact her for further instruction. The big lesson for me is that this craziness is, in fact, routine.
And hey, if I can't laugh about these things, I'd be crying. All too easily, due to perimenopause hormones. I get aggravated when I have a 14-day cycle, when cramps are super intense, when my boobs are killing me and when clots fall out, but at least I know that I'm typical. I'm just hoping the tiny hormonal minions will retire soon, and I'll finally have the relief of menopause.
Ronni Robinson lives in Pennsylvania. She has two teenage children and is in denial that she's about to become an empty nester. She is a 3-time Ironman finisher and a certified spin instructor. Ronni is finishing a memoir about recovering from 30 years of compulsive overeating. https://www.ronnirobinson.com/