I’ll meet my younger self somewhere in space
And weed her fears before they grow too big,
And sing her praises lest she ever doubt herself.
I’ll water the earth with her tears and show her,
That I’d always be by her side in love.
If only I knew -
I would tell her right now that she really had not done anything wrong.
‘Everything’s right about you’ I’d tell her. ‘Everything’s right about you!’
When I was nearly 9 years old I crept into bed with my mum one morning. I think it was a weekend. ‘I have to talk to you about something’, she must have said. Fearing that I may be in trouble, I ducked under the covers and pulled the duvet up to my eyes. How she described it exactly I cannot quite recall but what I do remember is that these very first words I heard about menstruation instilled a sense of fear in me. It must be a very serious thing.
I recognise now that I was an extremely sensitive child and in that conversation, not only did I leave fearing menstruation, but I felt my mum’s inherited pain. That ancestral pain is the one that goes around in circles and circles and is passed on from mother to daughter, from mother to daughter until somebody decides to feel it, and throw it out of the equation. It is the unhealed wound of being a woman in this world that can be infested with a toxic combination of self-denial, guilt, and an unease in one’s very being.
Not very long after this short conversation, I got my period. It was a school morning and I was on the toilet and horrified at this brown-red substance on my underwear. I remember being in shock and telling my mum that ‘the thing you told me about is happening!’
A frantic rush of tears followed, but both fortunately and unfortunately, my story did not end there with a more comprehensive chat about menstruation and its naturalness. My mum rang up both of my Nepali grandmothers here in the U.K and in Nepal to confirm the details of what to do with me.
They both instructed her to put me in the spare bedroom with the curtains closed and lights off and miss five days of school. I was not permitted to see my dad or my younger brother, or any males for that matter. If I wanted to use the toilet, I had to make a mad dash for it across the landing. I also ate my meals in the room. I screamed SO much in the spare room alone at 9 years old! I may have not let out any noise in my screaming but the sense of disassociating from myself in panic is unmistakably clear in my memory of the initiation.
Afterwards I could not speak about the experience - either to my Nepali peers (it is largely a dying tradition that other friends my age did not undergo), let alone white British school friends around whom at the time I was somewhat embarrassed about our cultural-religious practices.
Many moons later I found myself writing a short article about menarche for the now disbanded Waratah project where my task was to interview female family members, my mum’s Nepali friends and those of my own generation about their experiences of menstruation and menarche. As part of this research I discovered that the indigenous inhabitants of Nepal’s Kathmandu (the Newari ethnic group) traditionally carried out the menarche retreat in caves.
Girls would stay in the dark caves for a length of time, and afterwards they would symbolically marry the Sun in ritual. Their time in the cave was presumably to convene with the Moon. The other thing I found out was that in mine and other cultures it is believed that girls can have a vision pertaining to their life with these initiations – one in which a deeper sense of their purpose in this life is revealed.
The experience of talking openly about menstruation for the project with people I knew allowed me to look back on the significance of what had happened to me during menarche in a new way, though I have to say this all happened gradually, and is still slowly unfolding today.
In the last year I have been reconnecting with the experience, and the real resurfacing trauma has meant I can recall my sense at the time that I was being punished. Our tender, young selves can be so impressionable. The only funny thing that happened at the time and it is very funny in hindsight was that a family friend’s son came running up the stairs to knock on the door to see if I was okay. I sat with my back against the door stopping him from opening it to get into the room I was in. ‘Go away’ I said, ‘I am not allowed to talk to you!’
Thirteen years after menarche, menstruation came back to my attention in a really, really, big way. I was spending some time with my family in Nepal and I had become really interested in meditation; I had also begun to both feel, and read about, there being something more to menstruation than this simple biological event. When I was bleeding towards the end of a meditation retreat my entire inner World opened-up. All that had been whirring inside me in the interim years burst out onto the surroundings and reality became alive with previously hidden symbolism.
My neuroses were spilling onto the world around me, but I also felt how I was expressing many different selves at once and it was liberating to do so. There was an ecstatic belonging that can come up with the experience of bleeding. I was wildly alive, and I believe to others, I seemed completely mad, erratic, and perhaps deeply disturbed. I was anxious, though very hopeful about the future of our floating planet.
I was experiencing for the first time what is known as psychosis. With all due respect to Australian Aboriginal culture, I now call it travelling in dream-time. In that first experience of dream-time I discovered that I could not do with Time what I wanted (That yes, as a menstruating woman, I do traverse these obvious cycles). Without a doubt, I saw how the World is one which is mysteriously speaking to us all, but it was a reality that my younger self at menarche had to stamp out and dullen, lest it overwhelm me even more. I recognise that during menarche there had been no place for visioning and loving-belonging at the time, so these aspects came out in a huge way years later in Nepal.
I received a beautiful insight into what my life may be about, that I could not access at aged 9. It is a fascinating blessing that menstruating bodies and minds gift us this capacity each month. It was also the greatest blessing for me to have had family members, particularly my Kaki, who supported and facilitated my dream-time whims and discoveries.
In our society, these crises of the soul are usually tranquilised, medicalised, and hospitalised. If such crises were fully integrated and accepted into a social model of mental health – we could stop robbing more psychotic individuals of deep inner growth because of their experiences, not in spite of them. And we could start facilitating the natural, as far as possible non-medicated, process of healing that such a crisis is a call for.
Somewhere down the line of my ancestral Mother-line there was a great, great, great, great, great, great… grandmother who was not so lucky as I have been. I know of her because I met this great grandmother is a recent vision and her face was a clear as looking at my own in a mirror. This is a woman in whose eyes I can see the sheer terror of being abandoned in the darker sides of psychotic madness. I saw that she was alone in a forest and cut off from her community. But she had been sending her message down the telephone line that is the Mother-line all along.
Last year during my period one month, I happened to be staying at my parents’ house when my maternal grandma was also staying with us. In the trance like state that so often accompanies my day three, I lit seven candles and took each down two at a time to the living room. Over the course of the afternoon my mum and my grandma and I had privately discussed how each of the seven represented each woman in our female ancestry seven generations back. I was the candle at one end, my mum behind me and my grandma behind her and so on…until the big Red candle at the other end of our ensemble who represented the woman I’d seen so vividly in my vision.
We discussed what we knew about our grandmas of the past and drank tea, and watched the candles which all magically burnt out in twos. I burnt out with my great grandmother. My mum burnt out with her great grandmother. When it was time to go to bed that evening I was left with that subtle sense after a ritual that ‘something’ has happened – even though it’s hard to say quite what. But it was when I was drifting to sleep that my great grandmother who’d been alone in the forest came back to me and I felt a sudden heaviness and panic - and then a calm that spoke of the dissolution of blame. If the Mother-line is a telephone line that transmits messages across space-time and generations, I feel as though I have been finally able to pick up the receiver to tell her, ‘Everything’s right about you… Everything’s right about you!’