Invisible Solutions to an Invisible Problem - Using Alternative Medicine to treat PMS
The first time I visited my acupuncturist, she told me to stick out my tongue and subsequently informed me that I had a cold uterus. I couldn't fathom how the two might be connected. We would soon discover that my cold uterus was a direct consequence of “qi,” the Eastern concept of energy, being trapped in my body as a result of repressed sexual trauma that I experienced in my adolescence.
Qi is fundamental to both acupuncture and reiki—the two alternative medicine methods that I’ve been exposed to the most. According to the NHS, acupuncture maintains the belief that qi circulates through the body along channels called meridians. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that disease results from an imbalance in energies within these meridians. Reiki, on the other hand, believes that qi is physiological and can be manipulated to treat conditions.
I can understand why people are hesitant to buy into methods like reiki and acupuncture. The results aren’t instantaneous, and the body work rarely focuses on the source of the pain in the same way as other forms of bodywork and medicine. Qi isn’t quite empirically quantifiable, but neither is my condition. I have suffered from terrible menstrual cramps for years. For a while it felt like someone was using a cheese grater to shred my insides internally, as if I were being eaten alive from the inside. So far, alternative medicine is the only method that made a dent in the pain. I needed an invisible solution to a seemingly invisible problem that neither ultrasounds could detect nor Western pain medication could affect.
What fascinates me the most about alternative medicine is how intuitive it can be. Reiki, for example, insinuated my trauma before it was even on my radar. My best friend’s mom taught herself reiki healing and integrated it with her Buddhist practice, which I don’t think is the norm. She used to practice on me and my friends when we were teenagers. I would lie on a table, and she would hover her hand over each chakra of my body, from root to crown, while muttering Buddhist prayers and using prayer beads to seemingly remove negative energy.
Trust me, I know this sounds like some wook science. I’m definitely one of those people that is hesitant to believe something unless I can see or feel it. But the crazy thing is that I did feel it, and I wasn’t even supposed to. After a session, I mentioned the sensation of pressure on my stomach, and asked her if she had placed her hand there.
“I didn’t touch your stomach,” she said before practically reading my mind.
She informed me that I store my emotions in either my navel or sacral chakra (I don’t remember which). It was perfectly relevant as I was struggling with the profound sadness of leaving my friends and family to go to college during an insidiously fragile time of my life, on top of being less than a year removed from unprocessed trauma and using alcohol to suppress my feelings surrounding it.
There were other times where she would infer that I was having some kind of disagreement with either a male or female based off of where I was experiencing pain in my body. She taught me that we have a masculine and feminine side in our bodies. I believe the left is feminine and the right is masculine. She would always comment that the right side of my face was puffier than the left because I fall on the tomboy side of the spectrum and tend to repress my feminine qualities. She would encourage me to do activities that have a feminine energy (cooking, yoga, even the way you make your eggs) to balance myself out.
Reiki was the first time my trauma was alluded to. After a session, she asked me point-blank if I had been raped. Somehow the trauma wasn’t even on my radar yet, so I denied it, and remember feeling almost insulted by what felt like an accusation. Her Buddhist influence came into play and she insisted that I must have been raped in a past life and that the karma was playing out now. I wish I had made the connection earlier, and I will explain at some point why I think I trivialized and dismissed what happened to me for so long. This "diagnosis" was consistent with the reiki belief that my qi manifested physiologically in the area of the body that was the most affected by the trauma--whether you want to call it a chakra, my core, or just my pelvic region, that area of my body is undeniably linked to sex.
I turned to alcohol and cannabis to cope with the trauma, and it took me about five years to quit the former and to finally treat the latter as a medicine. I definitely abused and was psychologically addicted to cannabis, and I was convinced that I could not fall asleep without it. I decided to seek products specifically designed for menstrual cramps when I visited Colorado for the first time to see Bassnectar. In addition to buying THC/CBD patches and salves, I specifically sought a brand called Foria that made suppositories out of THC and coco butter. So yes, I have stuck marijuana up my vagina to try and cure my menstrual cramps. And I’m disappointed to report that for me at least, it was mostly a placebo effect. The bottom line is that the results were inconsistent, and it wasn’t a financially feasible option for me at $35/4 suppositories anyway. The best brands I came across were Foria for the suppositories and Mary’s Medicinals for patches and salves. I wonder if cannabis was less effective because it was as quotidian for me as brushing my teeth.
Even when I moved to San Francisco, arguably this country’s hub for alternative medicine, I didn’t instinctually seek alternative medicine. I found a gynecologist and let her prescribe me yet another birth control pill and stronger pain medications.
Trial and error with birth control is not fun. On top of our monthly periods, women quietly shoulder the additional burden of birth control’s long list of side effects: depression, acne, and a disappearing libido, among many other things. Like many medications, there’s also a three month trial period while we wait for our bodies to adjust. While many of them gave me effortlessly perfect skin, I became particularly alarmed when the duration of my menstrual cramps doubled from six days to 12. I knew this wasn’t normal.
When Tylenol 3 with codeine didn’t work, my doctor prescribed me 1600 mg of ibuprofen a day, arthritis medication, and muscle relaxers. I was 24. This heady combination did not work either.
“I’ll just prescribe you Vicodin,” my doctor said casually, dismissively.
I know I’m not responsible enough for Vicodin. I’m too much of a fiend, and had already flirted with recreationally abusing benzos. Frustrated with the Vicodin suggestion, I decided to turn to alternative medicine, but wanted to try something more tangible than reiki. I had no idea where to begin.
At first, I scoured reddit forums for how other women treated their menstrual cramps. Acupuncture was a popular suggestion, but I was hesitant to invest. Maybe it’s a millennial thing, but I view self care as a luxury. Whether it’s therapy, bodywork, or acupuncture, I am so hesitant to invest in myself. Instead, I wasted money on essential oils, teas, and tinctures (though I will say that doTerra's clarycalm essential oil blend makes for excellent perfume). When these didn’t work either, I knew it was time to give acupuncture a shot.
I know acupuncture scares people because of the needles, but surprisingly they usually don’t hurt—unless you go when you’re menstruating, which is of course what I had to do. (For clarification, your body is extra sensitive to pain during both PMS and menses, so it’s recommended to avoid things like waxing and acupuncture). What fascinates me about acupuncture is that the needles are rarely inserted directly where the pain is. This is where those meridians that I mentioned earlier come in. According to Wikipedia, there are twelve principal meridians that correspond to a hollow or solid organ. Needles are inserted into acupuncture points along these meridians to assist with the flow of qi.
For the first few months, she treated me twice a month: once before the pain started, and once during its peak. Before the pain began, she would stick needles in my feet, my calf, my stomach, my forearms, five in my right ear, and one in my third eye. When I was experiencing pain, she would insert needles directly into my back where the cramps were (this is an unusual location for menstrual cramps, which confounded my doctors even further). Once we established a relationship, she would straight up twist those needles into my back. This was painful, and sometimes I couldn’t even take it. I got lucky with her because she also had some background in physical therapy, so she would apply a multidisciplinary approach and use an e-stim on my back in addition to the needles.
What fascinated even more was her expertise in Chinese medicine. I still don’t know anything about this beyond the fact that it helped to improve the symptoms (though it did not alleviate them entirely). She prescribed me two tinctures: peony & licorice for the cramps, and a tincture called “Warm the Menses.” At one point she even made me a customized version of Warm the Menses based on my symptoms.
As much as I want to say that acupuncture cured me, my pain was still unmanageable for quite some time. Eventually, after a profound psychedelic experience, my pain began to transform in such a way that was incredibly diagnostic for my acupuncturist. Instead of constantly experiencing pain, the cramps would only appear at night, which was indicative of trapped qi as a result of the sexual trauma.
Nevertheless, before this transformation occurred, I still needed some sort of supplemental pain management strategy. I stumbled upon kratom at the Kava Lounge. I was hoping that kava might alleviate the pain in some capacity, or at least make me too high to notice. But kava doesn’t make you conspicuously high in the way that cannabis does. I wouldn’t even describe it as a sedative because it tends to make me more talkative. I find it really helpful for my social anxiety. Anyway, when I complained to the bartender about my pain, he instead handed me a free shot of a green liquid that tasted even more like dirt than kava does.
“This is kratom,” he said. He provided some context, suggested that I seek a red strain for pain, and recommended some online vendors since it’s not sold in stores and exists in that gray area of legality. You better believe that the government is trying to classify it as a schedule one drug. I left with a generous free sample and tentative suggestions about the dosage.
I should provide a few disclaimers about kratom. I don’t want it to seem like I’m promoting it more than that I’m simply sharing my experience with it. Kratom acts
has opioid properties and acts on your opioid receptors, but I don’t think it is classified as a true opiate, despite the government's best efforts. I find this confusing because opioid addicts have used kratom to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. It gets you high, but it is manageable and enjoyable. In general, kratom improves my mood and makes me more social and talkative. In other words, it’s pretty much perfect for managing PMS. I would conjecture that there is a bit of a come down, and that I might be more irritable once the effects wear off. This does not linger, and I am fine the next day. For the sake of comparison, my comedowns from alcohol were always dramatically worse.
The side effects I experienced were nausea and itchiness—both common side effects of opiates. The nausea is usually only a result of a large dose, which I was taking to alleviate the pain. My partner, on the other hand, takes a much smaller does to improve his undiagnosed leg pain, and rarely experiences nausea.
It’s also relatively easy to build a tolerance to kratom. All of these variables were a more attractive option than being strung out on muscle relaxers or Vicodin all day. I was able to function at work while high on kratom. Kratom has the potential to be addictive, but I never felt the urge, which surprised me because I typically chase highs. I think it’s because of how terrible the taste is. I often found myself enduring the pain to avoid the taste. There are ways to improve the taste—putting it in a smoothie or adding a bit of agave. But I usually just wanted to get it over with, so I would put about a tablespoon into a cup and add a minimal amount of water.
Here are some useful links I found during my research stage:
And here are links to the vendors I have used. I like Gaia best.
Whether consciously or not, I have always been one to disguise both the physical and emotional pain that resulted from the trauma. My coping mechanisms have had many iterations, with the most destructive one being alcohol, and the most transformative ones being my recreational drug use, and particularly entheogens. In fact, the most important lesson that I have learned on this journey is the difference between disguising and transforming the pain, and by extension, the trauma.
The potential for transforming trauma did not reveal itself to me until I took psychedelics outside of a recreational context and unexpectedly integrated the experience later at Lightning in a Bottle. Now that I’ve discussed how to disguise the pain, in a later post I will discuss how I am attempting to use psychedelics and the various therapies associated with them to transform the pain.