The first time I ever heard about PCOS was in 2018 on a group chat that I created for young African women. As I read caveat after caveat of symptoms and how those who shared their stories have resigned to the possibility of never having kids, I shuddered with fear and was internally happy that I didn’t have it. Ironically, a few months later, I started having those same symptoms and my period became irregular. PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
It is important to note that I am also bipolar and I take medications to control my mood swings. In my home country of Nigeria, 2018 was a significant year because I had a lot of manic episodes. It was also the year that my medication was changed to what the doctors felt was more “effective.” I got placed on sodium valproate (Epilim), but then the reverse happened. I started sleeping a lot and found it hard to concentrate on the tasks given at my internship. My period also became irregular and when I resumed school, I was more depressed, sleeping more often, and missing classes due to drowsiness.
The kicker here is that when I went to the university hospital to get checked, the gynecologist confirmed after a series of results, that indeed I had multiple cysts on my ovaries. In addition to that, I also had hyperprolactinemia which left me mornings with milk leaking out of my breasts. Her advice to me however, was that I should simply “lose weight.” She said it flippantly and I didn’t receive any medical advice aside from that. This was confusing to me, because PCOS is known to not just contribute to weight gain, but to also make it very difficult to lose weight. After that statement, I found it hard to go further with my health but had to complete a scan of my ovaries. I was given lots of water to drink and had my abdomen scanned in a very painful way. The results again came back positive for PCOS.
Out of Touch Doctors
For the rest of 2018, I tried managing it on my own, but I didn’t have my period from October until the new year in January 2019. When it came, it lasted for three weeks. That was the start of prolonged periods for me. I tweeted about it randomly and I was urged to go see the gynecologist about it by some of my female followers. I cannot remember when exactly I went back for a new round of medical tests and correspondence in university. But I remember that 2019 was a very depressing year for me. It felt like I was moving in limbo that year and I was missing classes because I felt very tired. This was to the point I received numerous warnings from my departmental heads. That year, I also experienced irregular periods and I was forced to go back to the gynecologist in November 2019. I went back and the way that I was treated by the male gynecologists was very dismissive. Some even slut-shamed me when I asked about birth control methods. I was given an acid which stopped the bleeding temporarily – but upon getting home in December, I bled again for about eight days.
The breaking point for me happened last year during the lockdown. My period was still irregular and I had gone back home from university to observe the stay at home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the end of March, I started bleeding in what seemed like a menstrual period. Only this time, it lasted for more than two months. For those months, it seemed like I was a zombie. I was extremely tired and could not muster the strength to do my final year dissertation even as my virtual graduation drew near. Until I remembered that there were doctors on Nigerian feminist twitter who always said that young women could reach out to them if they had any reproductive issues.
I reached out to Dr. Dami a popular feminist doctor who tweets about reproductive health. Despite my initial shyness, she was very responsive and slowly, we looked over all of my medications together. She gave me helpful pointers and even suggested a list of female doctors in Lagos that I could reach out to.
Feminist Health Matters
Armed with the knowledge that it was my medications causing the irregularity in my periods, I too began my own research into those drugs and realized that there was an angle of medical misogyny in the use of mental health medications. This occurred because most drugs for women’s mental health are not tested properly or well-researched. Women who got pregnant taking such medications often ended up giving birth to children with deformities.
I discussed the possibility of a change of my medications with my psychiatric consultant in school, a woman who is also particular about women’s health. She reduced my dose and from then on, I felt better and more energized and slowly, my period stopped after four months.
Dr. Dami alongside other physicians on Twitter like Dr. Racheal and Dr. Chidinma Nwakanma, are examples of why it is necessary that women doctors who center women are seen in every sphere of human life. We need women doctors who prioritize women, especially on the internet space.
Currently, my periods are stable and normal and I no longer use sodium valproate. Because of discussions with these doctors, I am able to live a healthy life, even with medications for my mental health. I am also able to still speak about my body without shame.