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Genny got her period at 14. And then she tried to kill herself

Talking points

  • One in 20 women have premenstrual dysorphic disorder, which has 150 symptoms.
  • Up to 30 per cent of women with PMDD will attempt suicide at some point.
  • A drug designed specifcally to treat PMDD is about four years away.
  • There is no diagnostic test for PMDD, so doctors rely on women tracking symptoms.

The first time Genny Mathews tried to take her own life, she was 14.

Now 44, the Gold Coast-based teacher has spent 30 years living with a crippling form of premenstrual symptoms that has radically limited her ability to work, live independently and maintain a romantic relationship.

"I can't really remember, it was in my first couple of periods I had my first suicide attempt and my mother had to resuscitate me," Ms Mathews says.

Genny Mathews and her dog Baci at her Gold Coast home.Credit:Paul Harris

The one-time student at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where she studied alongside Hugh Jackman, says she went from being a "normal teenager" to basically declaring her life over at 35 because of her condition, known as Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD).

Ms Mathews believes she may have inherited the condition, which affects up to one in 20 women, from her grandmother, who died from Bex poisoning at age 42. She explains her grandmother "would go to bed for a week and then would get up and bake cakes for the neighbourhood".

"[When you have PMDD] you are dysfunctional, then you get your period and your brain rights itself but you overcompensate because you know you have such a short period of time before it all falls apart again."

Throughout her life, Ms Mathews has tried more than 200 medications to treat her symptoms, which include agoraphobia, panic attacks and migraine. She's had to live near a shopping centre and plan her food and essentials, as well as abstaining from driving in the days before her period because her "brain fog" means she's susceptible to crashes.

"Not only have I had to live in silence, I have had friends ask me not to talk about [PMDD] with them and pretend to be OK. I’ve had men make fun of it. I haven't had a good relationship for 24 years – no one will touch me. I wasn't able to get married or have children.

"Now I am concentrating on doing what I love and being with people who I love. I have had to learn to spend my time wisely because I didn't have a lot of good days."

Ms Mathews' hope is that using Zoladex, a medication usually prescribed to cancer patients, will offer her relief until she has a radical hysterectomy in a few months' time.

"I've seen 18 gynaecologists over 13 years who refused to give me a hysterectomy – they [usually] won't even look at you until you’re 50, no matter how many suicide attempts, no matter how much information you have on your mental health."

I have had to learn to spend my time wisely because I didn't have a lot of good days.

So far, there are other promising signs. Ms Mathews recently took a holiday to Sydney with her mother, and has won parts in two local productions. Longer term, she hopes she can return to regular work.

Ms Mathews' doctor, University of NSW conjoint associate professor John Eden, said about 5 per cent of women aged 40-plus experience such severe premenstrual symptoms that it substantially interferes with their life, work or relationship.

He sees up to three women a week who demonstrate the symptoms of PMDD, which is often left undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years, even in the face of repeated suicide attempts around a women's period.

PMDD is often left undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years, interfering with women’s lives, relationships and work.Credit:Shutterstock

"Often the first thing they want is [their reproductive organs] out – that’s not going to happen straight away but that shows how desperate they are," he said.

Dr Eden said women's symptoms often worsen with age because of bigger fluctuations in estrogen levels during their monthly cycle. While some women with PMDD experience relief from taking the contraceptive pill, which can allow them to "skip" their period, it's not available to all women due to health and lifestyle factors.

The latest treatment options for PMDD include prescription of hormonal therapies known as GNRHs, SSRI drugs also used to treat anxiety and depression, and, increasingly, natural therapies. Dr Eden said a Melbourne researcher is also experimenting with low-dose Prozac, while exercise and diet have anecdotally shown to improve the severity of symptoms.

Ms Mathews says she has found so much comfort in the PMDD community online, where she first heard of Dr Eden, or else she honestly believes she may have taken her life.

"I was at the end of it. I am the best I have been in 30 years. I am learning how to live again … it’s been quite terrifying."

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