When a woman talks about a number its usually in reference to the one from a set of scales. But the number I’m talking about today is the one that’s given to you at the end of highschool. The one you push and punish and stress over for years, the one that determines which university or program you get into after school (or the one you systematically ignore!). There’s a lot of pressure on young people to get a good score so it opens up their education and career opportunities after school, and even competitiveness within a year group to see who gets the best scores, and who is the smartest.
I’ve always been and seen myself as a good student. I was at the top of my classes in my younger years, and in the early years of highschool I was put into the high stream classes in maths and science. I attended a private school and sat an entry exam for a scholarship during year 5, and in the tests I did so well in the English mark I was given early notification (by a whole year) that I would be eligible to start Latin in year 7, when usually that admission is released by the school at the end of year 6. I’m not saying all this to brag, not at all, but just so it is understood that when my periods really kicked in at the end of year 8/start of year 9, you can understand the profound effect it had on me. I was frequently out of school for a week or more at a time, and the times I was in class I struggled to concentrate. My grades slipped, my enthusiasm for learning and my love of reading waned, not just because I struggled to actually concentrate on understanding written word in front of me, but also because something that I’d previously loved, that had come easily, that satisfied me both in my brain and my heart, was now a struggle. Teachers became frustrated with me, and my slipping grades, my inability to concentrate, to stay focussed in their classes. Prior to my diagnosis, this only compounded what I was feeling. Guilt and not being able to do what I’d previously excelled at. Shame, that everyone else in my year group also had a menstrual cycle (my school was an all-girls school), but none of them suffered like I did. Fear of ever speaking about it to anyone else, because it was about my periods, especially not my male teachers.
And it wasn’t just the periods. From the age of 15, I also had a series of violent nose bleeds, which I now know were set off my dry sleeping arrangements. I’d heat the bed with my electric blanket, then turn it down low (but not off) to sleep with – one of the elements of iron deficiency that really gets me is constantly being cold, and with my undiagnosed and completely odd menstrual cycles, I was iron deficient and cold a lot of the time. But the dry air caused by the constant heating of the electric blanket dried out my sinuses so much I’d wake up between 1 and 2 in the morning, flooding out my nose.
And all of that was enough to cope with, I certainly didn’t need my parents divorcing (and handling like the teenagers my brother and I actually were at the time).
So my grades slipped, and the more I tried to catch up, the harder it was on my body and mind, and the worse it became for my VWD symptoms, and on it spiralled. I was finally diagnosed at 16 in the middle of year 11, after weeks of blood tests and double checking by my levels and diagnosis. And for some conditions, a diagnosis is almost the end of the story. Where a condition is well know, well researched, and readily treated and medicated, it may be relatively simple to get it under control. For me though, we had to try different options, different combinations of options and even just allow my body time to adjust to the new therapy and work its way back from the violent, painful bloodloss. At 16, 17 and 18, when your future is riding on your doing well, every day, time isn’t something that seems to be a bountiful resource.
So my final school exam results were less that I was capable of, less that I wanted to admit to myself. I already felt like less, medically and physically, so being less in the one area I thought I was good at was a massive blow. And it has flavoured so much since. I’ve started from a point of doubt when faced with a intellectual task. I’ve not been confident in my abilities or in my physical traits. I continued to suffer from the occasional period problem and more frequent symptoms of my disorder through university, and I continued to doubt my ability to achieve. I had a good run until I was about 14, but I apparently wasn’t destined for greatness after that. I was bound by the limitations of my wild bleeds, and the restrictions they’d place on my ability to engage in traditionally structured education and work. I felt shame that I hadn’t been able to keep up with my school work in the way I knew I could, and even until very recently, I struggled to see that having an undiagnosed or uncontrolled congenital condition was a good enough reason to take more time out. To rest, to take care of myself, to not push so hard.
So now, I’d like to formally apologise to myself for pushing so hard, for not being softer and kinder given the fairly obvious medical situation I was in. I now know that I am not my 63/100 score, that it is just a number and not a reflection on who I am as a person, what I have to contribute, or even my level of intellect. I forgive the other students around me who felt so focussed on that number and know that then, they didn’t know better, and definitely didn’t know my unique situation. And I know, even thought I hate the waiting and indecision, that I will find the thing I love to do and will excel at it. Life doesn’t depend on that one little number, and I now refuse to hold on to that thought.