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The Punctuation of Life: On Chloe Caldwell’s ‘The Red Zone’

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I was 15, sitting with friends in the schoolyard, having lunch and trading stories—as teenage girls do—about our periods. We griped, we commiserated: Swimming with a tampon in? So annoying! Getting your pubes stuck to a pad’s adhesive? The absolute worst! And what really ground my gears, I said, joining the chorus, was the immobilizing pain, shooting down your legs, radiating up your back, ripping through your abdomen, and then you become a receptacle for all that pain, and no thoughts could form because everything was pain. The other girls fell silent. Finally one spoke: “I don’t think I’ve ever had that.” The rest shook their heads. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound super normal,” another said.

Early in The Red Zone: A Love Story, author Chloe Caldwell has a similar experience. She is 31 and on a beach trip when she gets her period and is beset by severe cramps and diarrhea (both of which, I learned as a 12-year-old, are caused by the hormone prostaglandin’s indiscriminate approach to muscle contraction). “Back at the picnic table, I burst into tears telling my friends how sick I was,” she recalls. “They softened. I asked them if they got this sick on their periods. Not really, they said.” Four years later, her friends still remember the trip: “Something was really wrong,” one says. “I felt bad for you. You were really sick.”

The Red Zone is Caldwell’s attempt to grapple with her disruptive menstrual symptoms and find community through them. From debilitating cramps to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Caldwell’s existence is governed—often tyrannically—by her cycle. Early in the book, she learns she is nowhere near alone. In a series of interviews with loved ones and strangers, she creates a compendium of menstrual experiences. Her interview subjects often say “I wish I’d known” and “If only someone had told me.” “My periods had such pain I didn’t tell anyone about,” her own mother tells her. “I would cry in bed holding my stomach, trying not to let anyone know, even your dad. I thought it was normal ’cause no one talked about it.”

So Caldwell talks about it—all of it. The clotting, the shitting, the crying on the bathroom floor and meltdowns in public places. Asking friends, as a teen, to “check my butt” for blood stains. Taking photos of her blood in the toilet, diffused across the water in the shape of a lotus flower. The night her cramps were so bad that she, delirious, gave each one a name as it passed through her. The prayers to a period god that she “wasn’t sure existed to make it stop, to please make it stop.” The darkness, the dread, the helplessness.

As she reflects on her past, Caldwell also investigates her still-changing body. Her thirties brought with them more painful periods, as well as the onset of PMDD, the more severe form of PMS. As many as eight percent of those who menstruate experience PMDD, yet its symptoms—bouts of extreme irritability, depression, or anxiety in the week leading up to your period—are often characterized as run-of-the-mill mood swings that accompany PMS. After years of struggling to articulate the difference between the two conditions, she finally finds an explanatory image, “a photograph with a split screen: one side reads PMS with a photo of a woman pulling her hair out, and the other side reads PMDD with a woman on the edge of a rooftop.” Online, she discovers a vast community of women with PMDD, who live like she does, in perpetual fear of what they call their “werewolf week.”

She eventually attends a conference centered around PMDD and its treatment. Recommendations from conferencegoers include: yoga, acupuncture, a tryptophan-heavy diet, calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements, vitamin B6 supplements, chasteberry supplements, aromatherapy lamps, light diffusers, weighted blankets, jumping jacks, and Prozac. She is conflicted about going on medication, having been “conditioned to think antidepressants were for weaker people.” She had felt “superior” for not having to take them and suspects even her mother “doesn’t want to have a daughter on Prozac.” But after many conversations—with her doctor, with writer and friend Sheila Heti—she starts taking Prozac and finds it an indispensable addition to the arsenal in her battle against PMDD. “I decided to think of it as a really good vitamin,” she writes.

When I finally sought medication to treat my periods, I felt like I’d failed, like I couldn’t handle one of the most basic aspects of womanhood. (Of menstrual pain, Caldwell’s mother-in-law recalls she simply “sucked it up and carried on.”) At the same time, I could see no way to live a full life while menstruating like I did, incapacitated seven days a month. When my doctor agreed that medication was the best shot at treating my symptoms, I was stunned. “Women are infamously ignored, degraded, and condescended to in doctors offices,” Caldwell writes, “so even when someone believes you, it is hard to believe they believe you.” How many others were experiencing the kind of pain I was but weren’t seeking help for fear they would be exposed as failures or be disbelieved entirely?

On the whole, The Red Zone is an uneven work that never quite lives up to its potential. Caldwell’s prose is unremarkable and often prosaic. Her inquiry into women’s menstrual lives fails to culminate in a meaningful way, as she compiles primary texts (interviews, online forums, advertisements, etc.) without performing any analysis. The book’s subtitular love story, between the author and a mystifyingly tolerant man named Tony, never feels fully integrated into the story. That said, the project of the book—to make literary the body horror and psychological turmoil that are part of so many women’s lives—is an exciting one that, in the hands of a more inquisitive writer, could be culture-shifting.

By the end of The Red Zone, Caldwell finds that Prozac combined with diet, exercise, supplements, and therapy largely “shrunk and healed” the symptoms of her PMDD. But she remains vigilant, constantly monitoring her cycle. Caldwell calls her period “the punctuation of my life” (pun intended?), an apt metaphor for a biological force that imposes temporal structure on our otherwise amorphous existence. It’s an idyllic thought— promulgated by tampon commercials and authors behind self-help books with titles like In the Flo, Period Power, and Beyond the Pill—that women can live in harmony with their periods, but Caldwell recognizes that many women struggle to simply to live with their periods, period.

The medication I went on to manage my menstrual pain had an unexpected side effect: It eliminated my period, and therefore my pain, altogether. I remember some of my friends saying getting rid of my period was unnatural, an affront to physiology; recall Caldwell’s mother bristled at the use of Prozac to manage moods that she saw as the natural product of hormones. “Over time,” Caldwell writes, “you realize you cannot control most of your life, so you do the things you can control.” Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s hospitable to life, and the natural functions—and dysfunctions—of our bodies are largely out of our control. 

The Red Zone tells a story about looking for and finally claiming some control, meager as it may be, over a part of women’s lives that has been historically obscured, devalued, and stigmatized. It’s is an entry in a contemporary canon of menstrual literature that I hope, in the future, will be shaped by more depth, style, and rigor. I am grateful for Caldwell’s book nonetheless.

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