Arlenna at ChemicalBiLOLogy just posted an excellent reflection on what it means to be in a position of leadership when you know you aren't at your best and that there's nothing you can do about it.
Specifically, for many women this feeling of the inability to be who you actually are corresponds to nearly a quarter of our adult lives...you all know what I mean. She is bringing up a topic that makes me really uncomfortable. So I am blogging about it to try and sort all this out.
Discussing the role of hormonal cycles in the way women lead is as close to a taboo subject as I think we can get. I am squeamish discussing it because even acknowledging that the fundamentals of our female-specific biology can influence our critical thinking skills and our interactions with others opens the door for all that not-lately-dead criticism that women are unpredictable and irrational (if only at certain times of the month) and therefore should not be trusted to leadership positions. If we allow people to believe it is true that women can lose control of their abilities to behave in a rational manner and think clearly due to something as uncontrollable as hormones, then I can understand why we have still not elected a female president of the United States.
It is classical sexist drivel for anyone to suggest that a woman is doing poorly at her job because of her hormones. Any man with a modicum of sense knows better than to suggest that it might be that time of month when a woman has a tough time holding it down emotionally...even if that is precisely the reason that she is having a tough time. Yet, if we publicly acknowledge that this is the case, we are validating this idea that women are somehow weak and sometimes incapable of maintaining their rationality.
It affects us all differently so I would be loathe to imply that because I become hyper-emotional, and I take everything personally, and I feel that I can do nothing right, and I feel so out of control for a week out of every month, that every woman must also endure this same reaction. I would never want to give anyone license to assume that all women experience such a loss of control...perhaps some never do. So I never, ever talk about it.
[Warning: This is about to get personal...if it's too much info, feel free to stop reading here. I am telling this story to illustrate a point, but don't feel compelled to read if you're not interested.]
I've never been regular. I used to go for 6 weeks or 6 months without menstruating. It's idiopathic. No idea why, nor whether it will affect my fertility. My doctor is concerned that I produce insufficient hormones to manage my bone density so I am on contraceptives, essentially as hormone replacement therapy, which makes me very regular. You could set a clock to it. When I am not taking drugs for this, I don't cycle often so I rarely experience the kind of mental and emotional haywire symptoms that we're talking about here.
It's taken some time to find a drug and a dose that does the job, while leaving me with side effects that are at least tolerable. I've been through three different drugs in different doses before settling on one regimen that I can live with.
I was still trying out different doses and meds early in my grad school career. In fact, I cleverly agreed to go on a new regimen three weeks before the oral section of my candidacy exam...which means going through the hormone withdrawal phase of new drug the week of my exam. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The oral section of the exam is extremely stressful. Imagine standing in front of 4-5 faculty members for 2-3 hours attempting to answer any question they decide to ask about your knowledge of your subfield. Theoretically, this exam is supposed to cover what you learn in your course work, plus fundamental concepts in the field that may or may not have been discussed. But since most of the faculty don't teach, they tend to ask questions about their own pet interests as they relate to subfield - in short, they pretty much pull questions out of their asses and you are expected to apply your fundamental knowledge of subfield to answer these questions.
I felt very well-prepared for my exam. I had read and practiced. I consider myself to be pretty good at thinking on my feet. But I was still pretty nervous considering that the three of my cohorts that had already tested received conditional passes on the exam.
Still, I felt ready and confident walking into that room. They started me out with a nice warmup question: describe in detail signaling pathway X, then discuss how it functions in regulation of process Y. I could have done this in my sleep by this point, so away I went.
Then, inexplicably, half-way through my explanation of signaling pathway X...
What's this? Why is my face wet? Are these tears trickling down my face? Am I crying? What the fuck!?!? You've got to be kidding me! OK, help!! What's going on? Pull yourself together AA, you're still talking about the signaling pathway and you're doing fine. Breathe. Don't hyperventialte. Why can't I stop the water works?!?! What's happening to me!?!?
All the while not missing a beat on answering the question...all I can say is that it's a damn good thing I had practiced so well. One of the exam committee members asked if I was OK and all I could say was, "Ummm...I don't know. This has never happened to me before. I think I'm just really nervous. I'm sorry, this is so embarrassing. Let's just continue so we can get this thing over with."
I continued to answer questions on total auto-pilot while the waterworks continued for the next two hours. They passed me, and said they were impressed that I did so well answering their questions when it was clear that I was having a tough time holding it down emotionally - that I must really know my stuff to still be able to pull it out in the midst of all that.
The whole experience was terrifying and mortifying and it took me quite some time to realize just what had happened. I had an anxiety attack in the middle of my exam. Seeing as I had never experienced any such thing before or since, I think it's safe to blame the hormones. (I did not stay on those drugs for much longer.)
This little episode inspired GrAdvisor's "AA has a victim mentality" binge -- he said that he wouldn't have passed me for "playing the pity card" -- and I never felt that I could tell him what really happened. I don't like the fact that he thinks I cried to manipulate my exam committee into "going easy" on me (in truth I don't remember enough of what they asked me to know if they did). But I'm just not comfortable giving him the details of my medical history, especially concerning my sexual and reproductive health. And even if I were, I wouldn't want to give anyone fodder for the "women operate under the tyranny of their hormones" fire. But sometimes it's true. And it sucks.
I hate that I'm sometimes not in control of my thoughts and interactions with people. I have enough discipline to moderate my outward actions - I try to avoid putting myself in situations where I might be tempted to snap when it's that time of the month. I try to carefully censor the words that come out of my mouth. But my internal monologue is coming from someone I don't recognize. It's frustrating and sometimes terrifying to feel so out of control. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that it doesn't last any longer than a few days at a time.
I think we all keep it under wraps so no one knows that we're sometimes not in control and not entirely rational...it's a hard enough thing to admit to ourselves, and downright dangerous to admit to anyone else.