By Franny Choi
“Periodic” is a monthly column by poet Franny Choi. Every month, she writes a short column on the first day of her period—a check-in that might cover issues of gender, queerness, writing, health, and/or love. This series is an experiment in occasional writing and an exploration of what it means to write about menstruation with a queer imagination.
For this month’s installment of “Periodic,” I got a chance to interview my friend Nadine Marshall, a writer and organizer of the Allied Media Conference. We talked about their experiences of menstruation, as a Black, queer, gender-conforming person. The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you start by introducing yourself?
Sure. My name is Nadine. I use they/them pronouns. In terms of my gender, I primarily identify as non-binary and gender non-conforming, but have recently been exploring what it means to be a gender non-conforming person that identifies as transmasculine. I work full-time for a great non-profit, and I also write poems sometimes. I’m from Detroit. I live in Detroit, I work in Detroit, I write in Detroit.
What was puberty like for you?
Confusing. [Laughs.] When I was twelve, I had an accident where I tore my ACL and dislocated and fractured my kneecap. And because of the injury that I sustained, I started bleeding. I remember my mom being proud. And it was really confusing because I had just sustained a major injury and had to have surgery.
My sister and I had this game that we used to play, where we would try to model what we saw my dad or other men in our neighborhood do. And I think, in that role-playing, I felt complete. I felt that I belonged in my body. So when menstruation happened, and my body started doing this thing that didn’t really feel true, it was a really confusing time. I didn’t understand the excitement of my mom and grandma. It was a very early departure from myself, and also this shame that started to live inside of me.
What were your periods like as an adolescent?
Terrible. I was always really sick, up until I turned thirty. I would get physically ill—and I don’t just mean cramping really bad. I would be incredibly nauseous, or physically sick to my stomach. There have been a few times when I’ve passed out. There were moments in class where I would break out in an intense cold sweat, then get sick and have to get picked up from school. It was a really painful reminder that I was going to be outside of my body for X amount of days.
It also meant not only being physically sick, but sleeping for over twelve hours a day. Or not being able to eat anything, losing my appetite completely. Or being in intense pain. [When I was eighteen or nineteen], I had a doctor that actually prescribed me Vicodin to deal with the pain that I was experiencing. Then, I went from being prescribed Vicodin for it, to being put on birth control. And once that didn’t work, I was on two different kinds of birth control at the same time. And the thing that was messed up about that was having the most intense mood swings, never being able to place how you feel.
Is that why you got off the birth control?
Yeah. I was really depressed. And I was also fighting with the fact that I had always felt like this shouldn’t be happening to my body. Now, being older, I’m realizing that my parent should have been taking me to an OBGYN, because a family doctor wasn’t enough. Especially given what black folks are up against medically, thinking about uterine fibroids, where your uterus forms cysts that cause you to have really painful periods. It’s a medical condition that’s more common for Black women.
Has the way that you managed this changed since you got off the birth control at 23?
For a while, I didn’t manage it. I just decided I couldn’t take the mood swings anymore, so I stopped taking the birth control, which meant that I was sick a lot. I remember having a partner who kept asking me over and over again if she could take me to the ER. It was so intense that those that I let in, that saw me during that time, were so afraid.
There were just a lot of moments of not being able to manage it, but also feeling like this shouldn’t be happening to my body, on so many different levels. First, nobody should have to deal with periods that feel that way, and if anyone is, they should seek the medical care they need. But when there’s something happening to your body that you feel also isn’t true to your body, it restricts you from being able to seek care.
Can you talk more about that? How did it restrict you from being able to seek care?
I felt like I didn’t have the language to talk about what was happening. I had a small support system, like my mom and my sister, that I could call on to say “I’m sick.” But overall, I felt so… I think shame is the only thing that comes to mind. So I actually couldn’t go to the doctor and have that conversation—to say, “this thing is happening,” while also saying, “I’m struggling with how I identify.” The doctor that I saw for most of my life was the doctor that raised me. So they’re also my mom’s doctor, my sisters’ doctor, my father’s doctor. I was hesitant to be honest in that space. The cost of honesty wasn’t worth it.
You recently started a new birth control, Nexplanon. How has that been?
It’s been… okay. The thing that I was really hoping for was that I wouldn’t have a period again, and I wouldn’t have to explore any other options. But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was just really late. But the good thing about it has been not being sick, not being in a lot of pain. I’m still experiencing some fatigue, but I would take that over being physically sick every day. So in terms of that, I think it’s a win.
If your period kept happening in this way, do you think you would be satisfied?
No. It still feels like something that is not true for my body.
I have a complicated relationship with my body. It’s one thing to get to a point where you feel in your body for moments of pleasure. It’s another thing to come against something that occurs on a cycle that forces you to feel outside of your body. What does it mean to not consent for your own body to do a certain thing? How is that a particular type of violence? Maybe “violence” is too harsh of a way to put it, but I feel like, in some ways, during this time, my own body becomes an intruder to myself.
And you currently use a menstrual cup, is that right?
I do, because it means I have to go to the bathroom less. One, there’s no gender-neutral bathrooms, or maybe there’s one single-stall that’s labeled gender-neutral, but that’s everybody’s place to go poop. I would always cringe being in a public bathroom, or even at someone’s house and having to take care of this thing.
But then, the flip side of using the menstrual cup is having to become intimate with yourself in a way that you’re still deeply uncomfortable with. So yeah, I don’t have to deal with embarrassment at work or in public; I don’t have to deal with the anxiety of having an accident. It also requires me to be intimate with myself in a way that still makes me cringe.
When do you feel most affirmed in your gender, when it comes to menstruation?
When it’s not happening. But also, I think the beautiful thing is to have a partner who doesn’t shame you for those things. Or to be in an intimate space with someone that can just hold you, or who will say, “Let’s talk about this thing and take it slow.” It’s been that space that has shown me I can be affirmed despite this other thing happening, in a way that allows me to feel well-supported but also doesn’t make me feel shitty about my body.
What future do you see for yourself?
Wholeness. The thing that I know is possible is that I can live in my body and identify with my body without worrying about how other folks feel about it.
There are way too many things that I’m faced with, as a Black person that’s born and raised in the city of Detroit—as a Black person that’s also queer as fuck, gay as fuck. And to me, it doesn’t make sense to live this half-truth all the time. Because I’m not saving anyone. And I’m definitely not saving myself. So I envision a future where I can say, I struggled with this thing because I wanted to make everybody else around me happy. But now I know what it means to be whole. I want to feel that wholeness in myself first, before I feel that wholeness with another person.