It seems to me like all my first experiences on different things in life were bad. My first sex was rape. My first travel abroad in search of greener pastures was greeted by all shades of bad, including repatriation. My first menses, to be honest, is something I don’t like to narrate. But today, I am going to narrate a story of a first menses greeted with poor menstrual hygiene management, leaving me with the worst case of vaginal problems ever.
I was 14 and innocent when my first menses started. My mum was not around and I was the biggest girl in the house at the time. I knew a little about menstruation, just a little. At least I knew I was going to have a menstrual flow at some point in my life and of course I knew there were different types things you could use to hold your flow. What I did not know was the deep issues surrounding menstrual hygiene management. Events leading to the arrival of my first flow, I have a feeling, has a direct relationship with the problems that followed. Well, it’s just a feeling.
One week before my first flow, an 18 years old neighbor of ours came to our house to ask me whether we had toilet tissue that I could lend her.
“Nakinti, my menses just started and I don’t have anything to hold it with,” she told me. “Do you people have toilet tissue that you can help me with?”
Unfortunately, we didn’t have. But on hearing the name menses, I remembered my elder sister who had travelled away for over one year, had some reusable white napkins in her box, so I offered to help her with that.
“My sister has some white napkins that she uses and washes after use. They are sparkling white and clean; can I give you those?” I asked her, ignorantly.
She accepted without blink. She asked me to go get it for her. I rushed to the room and came out with 10 white nicely cut and well folded napkins and handed them to her. She thanked me heartily and left with them. I was glad that I was able to offer help to a big sister who had been receiving backlashes for a lifestyle the community tagged promiscuous, but whom, personally, I admired for her beauty and fine level sociability. I was glad she thought of me when she needed such help, little did I know that the big help was wrong on all levels. I wished, at that tender age, someone educated me on the details of menstrual hygiene management. Sadly, no one did. Not even our Domestic Science teacher who thought us two topics on menstruation, which only centered on “What was menstruation?” and “What to use during your menses?” I wish I knew that there were a lot more to menstruation than just it’s definition and sanitary pads. I wish some one told me reusable pads are not shareable.
On the day my first flow dropped, I was cooking in the kitchen when one week after I gave my neighbor those reusable napkins, she came right into our kitchen to hand them back to me. As I took them to put them back into my sister’s box where I took them, I still felt the joy of offering help to someone. But about one hour later, I felt pains around my lower belly and waist, and then I felt some wetness lining down my thigh, through my short skirt, to my feet. I looked down to see what was streaming down, voila, it was my very first menses. I rushed to the bathroom and pulled down my pant and I was completely red down there. I jumped into the shower and took a quick bath and behold, I thanked God for the timely return of those sanitary napkins. I just could not think of what I would have done if she did not bring back those napkins about one hour before my flow. Well, magic happens, I thought.
After my bath, I rushed back to where I packed the sanitary napkins and pulled one of them and padded myself comfortably. At least, there were 9 more from where that was coming from and I had nothing to worry about. So, my first flow felt the comfort of those napkins but later left my vagina in an uncomfortable state for months on end.
A few months after the use of those napkins, what started as light vaginal itches deteriorated to full blown vaginal itches that left me with wounds resulting from the scratches all around my vagina. It was painful, traumatizing and depressing. I did not know where that was coming from. I had not had sex with any man. I was not using public toilets as we had a water system toilet at home. I did not have anyone to talk to. My mum was out of the country with my sick sister. My dad was unapproachable on issues like that – no way. So, I suffered the effect of that infection alone; time and again, falling back on “salt in hot water” treatment that I heard during girls’ discussions in school. My situation moved from bad to worse for several months, until my mum paid us a brief visit, from Nigeria. I opened up to mum, who looked at me and rushed to complain to her husband, my father, who was a Senior Nurse. Dad arranged a lab session for me at the hospital he was serving and then placed me on some injections and other medications that relieved me from the condition and pain that I suffered for several months.
To be candid, if you ask me where that infection was coming from, I cannot say for sure. But all I know is that when I grew older (around university days) and started learning a lot about menstruation, hygiene and infections, I reflected about my predicament and experience with the reusable sanitary napkins and time and again, I try to pin a finger around the relationship between the shared reusable pad and my vaginal itches. Whether I got the infection from the reusable sanitary napkins or from somewhere else, the truth remains that I lacked a very important knowledge on menstrual hygiene management and that was seriously dangerous to my being. The pains I felt, the wounds I had, the pounds I lost, the embarrassments I got in public during itches and the trauma I experienced for close to one year, makes me shiver whenever I think of it.
So, you see, menstrual hygiene matters, matter. If we don’t tell it to the younger generations, who would. If we don’t share our lived experiences with the younger ones to enable them learn from our mistakes, then we are recreating the mistakes of our past. I wouldn’t wish what I suffered to happen to anyone in the world, not even the devil i.e. if the devil exists. Knowledge on menstrual hygiene management is as important as knowledge on how to cook white rice.
If you told me that someone’s first menstrual experience was bad, I would tell you how mine was twice as bad. Good thing is, I survived!!!