Tessa is an amazing friend of mine and fellow doula. She and I have been through pregnancies together, supported each other through our work as doulas and cried as she left me and moved to Texas! She is a talented writer and storyteller, so having her write this and submit it is truly a treat!
The year was 2003. It was Memorial Day weekend, my best friend’s birthday party and the water park’s grand opening.
My first period was the previous month and truthfully, uneventful and handled with maxi pads. Nothing could prepare me for this.
My friend was turning 13. That was a big deal, and to celebrate she had a sleepover at her house with me and a few other girls. Her room was upstairs in this cool space that had angled ceilings and creaky hardwood floors with a half bathroom attached to it. Her bed was a queen sized waterbed that we all somehow fit in. Sleepovers were always more fun at her house. The plan for the next morning was to eat breakfast crepes and hit Raging Waters to kick off summer. All was going swimmingly (ahem pun definitely intended) until I woke up in the AM to blood stained undies. Ahhh frig. Like I mentioned, this was only the second time I’d had a period so I was still navigating with pads! Not one to opt out of a social event, I consulted with the besties about what I could do.
“You can come and just hang out on the deck with a book?”
Yeah while the rest of you slide down Waimea Wave and float the lazy river?? No.
“You could see if wearing an extra pair of board shorts would keep it in?
And commit social suicide being next to you all in your bikini bottoms? Not happening.
“You could try putting in a tampon.”
Hmm. A tampon, you say? That’s kind of crazy. But it looked like my best option.
We had an hour before the water parked opened. Just outside the bathroom my friends older and wiser sister, we’ll call her Chrissy, handed me the box of cardboard applicator tampons with the instructions and a handheld mirror. She said “I’ll be on the other side of the door to help.”
I was 12 years old, grew up in a sheltered and religious home and never once had any discussion about MY female anatomy. I still don’t even realize that the pee and blood are from different holes. Putting a tampon in for the first time proved to be as traumatic as it sounds. I wasn’t even sure if my mother would be okay with this but TIMES WERE DESPERATE. So I got to work, first sitting down on the toilet. Every time I placed the tampon over where I think my vaginal opening is and push the cardboard applicator, nothing happens. I shout this discovery through the door. Chrissy says to use the mirror. I’m scared. I’ve never seen myself and I’m afraid of what I’m going to see. It feels almost sinful to look at my private area and I second guess if what I’m attempting is a good idea. However, I was heavily motivated by the Vanilla Coke and chili cheese fries waiting for me at the snack stand. I so badly wanted to experience the first summer smells of sunscreen (which I never applied to myself), chlorine and teenage angst while Blink 182 blasted over the speakers. I wanted to get the first look at the hottie lifeguards and gosh dang it, I did not want to hear my friends gushing about it next week. Serious 7th grade FOMO, guys.
So I get the mirror and quickly figure out this is a two hand job and the mirror needs to be positioned somewhere flat. Chrissy instructs me to stand with one foot on the toilet. I do as she says and quickly realize my legs have never been this spread apart and it feels incredibly awkward. She tells me through the door that I have to insert the entire applicator before I can push the tampon in. After several attempts, I manage to get the applicator less than halfway in before it just wont go any further. I push on the applicator and pull it out. The tampon falls out immediately. Completely discouraged and almost in tears I admit defeat. Chrissy encourages and tells me there are other tampons I could try that belong to their mom. You know the kind. ob. Applicator-less and more intimidating because it means I’ll actually have to put my own finger inside my vagina.
But I give it a try anyway. Using the mirror on this one, I’m starting to get a little more familiar with seeing myself and figuring out what everything is down there. But honestly, the ob tampon is worse than the cardboard and I ditch that idea.
It’s been a good thirty minutes, and I can hear my friends outside getting impatient with me. None of them have started their periods yet, clearly. Except for Chrissy. She’s in high school and exudes confidence and beauty and smarts. It’s not lost on me how patient and kind she is in that moment coaching me. I don’t want all her time and energy to help me be in vain so with that I’m more motivated than ever to figure this out.
After wiggling and shimmying and using brute force, I finally get the applicator all the way in. I push the tip and then pull it out and to my surprise, I see and feel nothing. Victory, at last. And with just barely enough time to grab my things and get in the car with my friends. I thanked Chrissy and now felt like the coolest girl in the crowd, being the first of my friends to know how to use a tampon. She reminded me that I would most likely need to change my tampon at the pool and not to forget. Got it! (Still feeling so cool).
Hitting “Rage” as we called it, was a day full of fun in the sun and I felt like the girls in the tampon ads who “didn’t even notice it!”
Several hours later I figured it was a good time to change my tampon so into the dark, dank bathroom stall I went. Pulling the cord was not as bad as I envisioned it being. But then I was faced with the application process all over again. I tried to hurry. I didn’t want to spend an hour in the bathroom like I had at my friends house. The lighting was poor inside and I didn’t have a mirror. But I managed to get it in. It felt funny. Not painful, but definitely uncomfortable. Not like the first time. I thought I did everything just like before so I didn’t understand why it felt different now. The feeling was tolerable though so I pulled on my suit and went on my way.
You guys. I LEFT THE APPLICATOR INSIDE OF MY VAGINA.
In my haste and inexperience, I forgot that once the applicator is in and you push the tip, you need to pull the applicator out. Remember these were the nasty cardboard ones where it’s just a cylinder shape applicator. It wasn’t until I got home to my own house a few hours later that I had to go fishing and pull out not just the tampon but the now soggy applicator as well.
I told my mother the entire story. To my surprise, she was beaming with pride that I took the tampon challenge at such an early age. She felt bad about the trauma, but mostly seemed excited that I had figured this out. I wonder now if she was secretly relieved she didn’t have to be the one coaching me.