On Blood

The blood I scrub from the inside of my underwear is not the same as the blood I wipe from my mouth, not the same blood my mother lost when laboring over my birth, not what spilled from my grandmother’s head when her stepfather split it open for scrubbing a floor wrong. Not the same, but close.

Blood is, essentially, sugar, fat, proteins, and salt. The blood cells in your body are made in your bone marrow; maybe your pelvis, your sternum, your radius. The cells mix with the plasma made in your digestive tract and begin to circulate through the rest of your body. The red blood cells in your body last an average of 120 days.

You, born again, three times a year.

The most I ever bleed out at one time, I am a child running up the stairs of my grandmother’s house, a lollipop in my mouth, and I trip and rip out my front tooth. Everywhere: down my chin and neck, on the grey carpeting of the porch. My mother takes me in to the bathroom to asses the damage and does not soak up the blood right away. The stain is still on the porch by the new front steps almost fifteen years later.

I start my period at the age of nine. This is uncommon, but not unheard of, and not particularly rare in my family. It is a rough night of illness — I throw up on the living room floor. I go to the bathroom and find blood in my underwear. I call my mother from the bathroom, repeatedly yelling her name, but she does not hear me. Unsure of what to do, I pull up my underwear and walk back to the living room, scared.

My mother takes me to the nearest grocery store to show me pads and tampons. I am sure that she goes through the descriptions, the pros and cons of with wings or without, but all I remember is shame, feeling deeply exposed standing in the aisle.

The average human body contains 1.5 gallons of blood, which translates into 5678 ml. The average blood lost during menstruation is between 30-40ml. In the past eleven years, I have bled myself out and created again.

In middle school, it was common practice to check that your friends hadn’t bled through their jeans. “Check me?” one friend would ask, before walking a few feet ahead, so the rest of the group could make sure the fabric was stain-free. And if there was a stain, we sprang into action. Sweaters whipped off, fabric thrown around the waist, anything to cover, be clear, before anyone noticed.

I begin to think of menstruation as signing an invisible contract. Things change, whether I am warned of them or not, and I have to accept, because this is the way one moves forward. My body grows and warps in ways I do not understand. I am confronted by the sight of my own blood, again and again, and eventually I stop shying away.

In one week, I stain: the yellow of my pillowcase, the inside of my duvet, the back of my white striped shirt, a page in my notebook, the beige of my underwear, the cap of my pen, the fabric of a chair. I bleed from my shoulder, the top of my lip, my lower back, my gums, between my thighs. Everything around me becomes speckled with red. Some of it, I clean — soak the underwear in cold water, wipe off the pen. I have not been able to get the stain out of the sheets.

My father chastises my mother, a few months after I have begun to menstruate, for not teaching me how to dispose of my pads properly, for not taking them out to the garbage right away. He does not like to stare at the blood when he is shaving.  

The best way to remove blood from cloth, I have found, is hydrogen peroxide. If hydrogen peroxide is unavailable, soak in cold water, immediately, or cover in saliva. Dab with a bar of soap, soak with diluted ammonia, put in the wash. Cola, WD-40, and talcum powder also work well to treat stains in a pinch.

My mother never told me how much womanhood was about spreading yourself out.

My skin, at times, feels ravaged. The cysts come from my father, my mother says. We visit dermatologist after dermatologist, and they hypothesize, but the solutions never last. I am on and off medications, hormones, regulated medicines that cause internal damage. At thirteen, I am prescribed Isotretinoin, a medication to cure severe acne, which dries out every part of my body until I start bleeding when I go to the bathroom, a fissure in my intestinal tract. I stay on the medicine, internal damage a price I’m willing to pay for painless skin, but the course isn’t entirely effective. Still, my skin wounds, and tears, and bleeds.  

At twenty-two, the dentist, leant over my opened and vulnerable body, prodded at my gums as she replaced my front teeth. “This shouldn’t be so hard,” she said, “but you’re a heavy bleeder.”

The summer after I graduate college, I have a series of UTIs that eventually turn into a kidney infection, but the doctor in the rural Maine clinic insists that my pain comes from my ovaries. The ultrasound reveals clusters of scars and cysts, diagnosed as polycystic ovary syndrome, and the gynecologist tells me that this, probably, is the reason for my damaged skin. He prescribes a different type of birth control. Two doses in, I fall into a deep, exhausted sleep, and start the heaviest period of my life. I wake up in a pool of my own blood, the stain embedded into the mattress.

I stop wearing white. I buy dark sheets. I carry Clorox bleach pens.

When the phlebotomist pushes the needle into my skin, I watch. “This doesn’t bother you?” she asks, as the vials begin to fill. I shrug. “I have to watch,” I say. “It makes it easier.” Knowing that with a pinprick, so much of me can be exposed.

It is easy to get used to leaving yourself everywhere. Sometimes, the sight of my own blood is a relief — wiped away in a lover’s bathroom, left on my fingertips from anxiously picking at my skin, unable to keep clean and contained. A collage of myself on rusty tissues, swirled down the drain. To stain myself on a piece of fibre that will last longer than the blood in my body will, a red smear on the carpet of the porch that could last a lifetime.

Kaylie Padgett is an essayist who lives in Chicago, US. Instagram.