I finally had the life I’d dreamt of after struggling with infertility for years. To make things even more wonderful I wouldn’t have to return to my office job when we got home as I’d just quit so I could write novels full-time. Life was good. So why did I feel nothing?
What I didn’t know then was that I was suffering from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), an extreme form of premenstrual syndrome that was making me feel disconnected and depressed in the lead up to my period.
Now I look back it explains a lot. Detachment and numbness from happy events is one of the major symptoms of PMDD. I remember sitting in my office after that holiday, surrounded by copies of the books I’d written and reading emails from readers thanking me for writing those books.
Yet all I felt was overwhelming numbness. It started to affect my writing. I’d stare at my screen and feel nothing for the words I was producing. Writer’s block dominated my days. To make matters worse, while my mind wouldn’t kick into gear when I needed it to, it went into overdrive when I didn’t want it to.
I suffered from bouts of insomnia and I’d sometimes find myself over-analysing my reactions to day-to-day events. For example I remember being out with friends for dinner one time and they were all laughing about something.
I laughed with them but I wondered if my laugh was too fake, too loud or too quiet. Irritability with those closest to me began to seep into my home life. My husband is wonderful and yet I’d nitpick at things he did, finding excuses for arguments. I’d lose patience too quickly with my little girl and I’d find fault with our wonderful life.
I knew something wasn’t right. I started to wonder if I was depressed. I tried to do what I could: changed my diet, exercised more and took breaks. Yet still the darkness would return. I began to think about escaping.
It feels awful writing that now but during those times I really thought about just running away from it all. In fact this feeling inspired my latest novel The Lost Sister, where one of the characters runs away to live in a cave.
At times writing that novel was a way to channel the darkness, however it wasn’t long before the difficult emotions returned. Then one day I was listening to BBC Radio 5 Live with presenter Emma Barnett. She was talking to Laura Murphy, the co-founder of Vicious Cycle, a group focused on bringing attention to PMDD.
As Laura talked about the symptoms she experienced each month, it was a light bulb moment for me. The symptoms she was describing – the numbness, irritability and the sadness when things were great – exactly matched mine.
I began to track the timing of those symptoms and realised they only occurred in the lead-up to my period. I was suffering from PMDD. I started to do some more research and was shocked at the number of women who are victims of this disorder. The cases vary from the subtle to the extreme.
I can’t tell you the relief I felt at finally being able to pinpoint what was wrong. The problem is there’s no way to test for PMDD. It’s caused by sensitivity to changes in hormone levels but these changes can be so subtle that blood tests won’t pick them up.
This means many medical professionals struggle to understand PMDD. Nonetheless I kept a diary of my symptoms and visited my GP. He confessed that many women visit him with the same symptoms.
Although PMDD as a diagnosis was a bit of a mystery to him, he gave me a sympathetic ear and advised me to try a low dose of antidepressants. There are other treatments available.
Gynaecologist Professor John Studd, one of the experts in this area, recommends a unique form of hormonal therapy. Cognitive therapy can help too. Each case is different but for me antidepressants did the job. Combined with throwing myself into my writing, the difference has been amazing.
I’m not saying all cases can be cured with a few pills and a creative outlet but for me it was what I needed. Fast forward a couple of years and while watching my husband and daughter splash about in a stream during our holiday to Wales, that day in Italy seems a lifetime away. However I will always remember how I once felt and how so many women still feel in those difficult parts of their cycle.
The Lost Sister by Tracy Buchanan, £7.99, published by HarperCollins, is out now.
Visit viciouscyclepmdd. wordpress.com and mind.org.uk for more information and advice on how to cope with PMDD.