It is dark inside the log cabin, and the stifled giggles of girls bounce off one another’s consciousness. I am one of the bunk-bedded girls, spending a week at Band Camp. I am 15 years old. Boys have already been covered, and we’re moving into more treacherous territory, like the incomprehensibility of sex. I silently pray that no one asks any sort of "first kiss" questions. My inexperience (and lack of desire for any experience) is embarrassing and a little frightening and confusing to me (am I a lesbian?). As Alissa launches into a tirade about how gross retainers smell, I relax, ready to contribute my two cents about dental wax.
“Do you use tampons or pads?” asks Megan.
Kristin scornfully replies that she “never uses pads.”
I mentally will Alissa to segue back into the evils of orthodontics.
Megan concurs with Kristin’s response, saying, “Yeah, I probably used pads like when I first got my period, but I’m totally grossed out by them now. It’s like wearing a diaper!”
Megan’s disdain for the babyishness of sanitary pads makes everyone erupt into a fresh burst of giggles. I hunch deeper into my bed, feeling the springs of the cheap mattress wedge themselves into my ribs.
Then. It happens.
“Sara, why are you so quiet?”
Megan’s voice seems tinged with cruelty. In a three-second, heart-pounding blur of fear and anxiety and uncertainty and humiliation, I weigh my options. I picture myself saying with a flighty carelessness, “Oh I always use tampons. Pads are for little kids.” Instead —
“I’ve never actually had my period.”
As soon as I choke out the words, I regret them. What feels like an eternity of silence and hellish awkwardness passes. Entrenched in misery, I am thankful that at least we are all blanketed in darkness, and no one can see my face. I fight back tears of self-loathing, and for the umpteenth time, I quake at the thought that I am that rare one out of a million kajillion zillion trillion girls who will NEVER get her period. I’m a freak. I must be.
“Kristin, are you taking Algebra II next year? We should take the same session so we can sit together.”
The conversation moves towards the social pros and cons of B-block algebra versus C-block algebra, and I thank the high power of menstruation that no one asked a follow up question, laughed at me, or worse, offered me condolences.
19 years later, I’ve successfully shed my uterine lining hundreds of times, and have gloried in countless conversations with my girlfriends about applicator-free vs. applicator, “period panties,” cups, and of course, shared horror stories about digging around for lost tampons.
The shocking thing about my adolescence is not that it was fraught with angst, or that I felt like- totally -misunderstood for most of it, but that I stumbled through it in silence. I had a tight-knit crew of similarly dorky, theatre/band friends. We talked to each other on our puffy-painted phones until our parents intercepted the calls on the downstairs line and embarrassed us by gloomily announcing, “It’s time for bed, girls.” We played MASH. We commiserated about math. We were best friends.
But despite the fact that we vacationed with each other’s families, applied avocado masks to each other’s faces, and passed notes to each other’s boyfriends, we kept our fears and internal doubts largely to ourselves.
My period’s late arrival was a source of solitary shame for me — I didn’t tell a single friend about it, nor did I confide in my mother (who was totally confide-able by the way — a free-spirited, feminist hippie). I suffered (and I really mean suffered) through the misery of adolescence alone. It would’ve been anathema to even consider sharing my hopelessness about my flat chest and hairless vulva with even my best friend.
When I finally did get my period (while at a sleepover, for the love of god), I stuck my head out of the bathroom door, and oh-so-nonchalantly asked if anyone had an extra pad. Sweating with nerves, I mistook the outer wrapper to be part of the actual pad, so walked around the rest of the day feeling the uncomfortable crunch of the pad packaging rubbing against my inner thighs.
Why? What good were friends if you didn’t feel safe to confess your ignorance about sanitary pad packaging?
My friends and I floated safely on the surface of true intimacy, restricting our confidences to veiled shows of cool. So when I didn’t get into my dream college, or got rejected for the plumb role of Wendy in the community theatre production of Peter Pan, I retreated to my bedroom and journaled furiously. And cried. Alone.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with being introverted, but it saddens me that we girls did so little supporting, so little bolstering up of fragile egos badly in need of bolstering. It disturbs me to think of my own daughter stumbling through the shitshow that is high school completely without mentor or a friend’s shoulder to cry on.
As an adult, I’m the first person to divulge my failures, fears, or insecurities, and it feels a hell of a lot better owning my train-wreck status than hiding from it. As teachers/parents/plain-old-ordinary-adults, we need to promote a culture in which kids feel okay about failure — about fear. It goes beyond leaning in and designating a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. We need to show our girls and boys that failure is necessary for growth, that admitting weakness is necessary to gaining strength, and that a person unable to confront his or her own insecurities or self-doubt is bound to be a bully, a bore, or a fake.
If I could change anything about that moment of truth in the bunk bed, it wouldn’t be my words; it’d be my attitude. “I’ve never actually had my period, and I’m really, really scared.”