I had a tendency to keep secrets when I was growing up. Not intentionally, but often when something was uncomfortable to talk about, I preferred to stay silent. A good example is the year I got my first period. Because I was a voracious reader, and was always reading above my grade level, I had no problem understanding what was coming up and what events to anticipate. I knew what to expect from teen coming of age stories from all eras, not to mention the Judy Blume books. I even read some non-fiction titles that I had browsed at the library. I figured that was all I needed to be prepared and that when the time came I would know exactly what to do.
Unfortunately, there was a difference between knowing something in theory and the practicality of dealing with it. The day it happened, I “handled” it by rolling up some tissue, praying I seemed normal, visiting the bathroom often, and keeping my mouth shut. There was part of me that expected that someone (my Mom?) would just know; and that if I waited long enough, the problem would magically resolve. The days stretched on and the longer I didn’t say anything about it to anyone, the weirder I felt about speaking aloud the words that would announce my situation. When the period ended, I assured myself that by the next month all the confusion would work itself out. But, it didn’t.
I dealt with the next month, and several afterwards, by surreptitiously searching my friend’s bathrooms for supplies and stashing these under a flap of fabric in my school backpack. I remember being overjoyed when I went to a gym with a friend and they had a whole basket sitting out on a counter. Joy and relief! I carried pocket change and scoured public bathrooms with feminine product vending machines. Office buildings were good targets. I never once thought to ask the school nurse for products, though I must have known that she would have them, along with some good advice. (Tell your mother!) I knew that I should do this. But, after a couple months, I still hadn’t said anything.
There was another problem with my secret. It was too dangerous (in my mind) to use the normal bathroom trash at home. So, I ended up keeping a Ziploc bag in the back of my closet, buried in a shopping bag and hidden under some stuffed animals. At one point, the family dog “discovered” my hiding spot and there was a bit of a mess. But, I cleaned it up before anyone else saw it. Sometime after the dog incident, I am nearly positive that Mom found the stash as well, and threw it away. She didn’t say anything right away, though, and I figured she was still in the dark.
But, let’s give Mom a little credit. More credit that my 13-year old self did. She suspected, then confirmed, that I had begun menstruating. And she was probably befuddled as to what to say to me after finding out that I was hiding it. About a month after the day my trash disappeared, she sat me down and told me that she was buying me some products, in the event that I might need them. Obviously, this was my opening to say something. But I was terrified of talking about it, and just nodded. The supplies showed up in my bathroom and were replenished regularly. We never really talked about it again.
As an adult, when I think back on this, I consider it to be seriously fucked up. What was wrong with me? What was I so afraid of? How could I have been so ashamed of something that no one had actively taught me to feel bad about? And what does it mean that I actively kept secret something that people who loved me knew was inevitable and expected? If I couldn’t deal with this, how the hell would I handle something unexpected? Perhaps the most important thing parents can strive for is for their children to make them uncomfortable. I chose not to, and I live with painful regrets.
I wonder what I my “precocious” child mind stole from me when it convinced me I knew everything I needed to know. Why would I be so stubborn to insist I was an adult when I was so clearly emotionally a child? To insist I was fine on my own, and that I could handle my life in a sort of solitary suffering that was preferable to uncomfortable companionship.? What pattern did I unknowingly establish? I see the remnants of this long ago decision in current conversations that I don’t have.
I also ask what this stubbornness stole from my mother. What conversations did I extinguish before they could spark? What potential for intimacy did I negate by selfishly trying to skip my temporary discomfort. I sold my trust to avoid embarrassment. Later, I read about mothers and daughters finding strength in sharing this transition. I learned of young women around the world going through the same thing, often in places where their challenges are far more acute than mine were. I reflect these days on the challenges of being here in a world that is often still a frightening place to be a female.
And I wish I could go back and set my young self on a different path. Teach myself that the only way forward is through the things that are hard. That avoiding confrontation may save a bit of shame or fear that day, but may be a sacrifice carried for the rest of your life. That you can’t possibly realize at thirteen that here isn’t going to be enough time to go back and fix mistakes. That you can beat shame and fear. And you must.
I realize these are reminders that I will never stop needing to hear.
This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.