Racked with pain? Irritable? Depressed? Barbara Lantin meets two women who believe that PMT can be the first step towards Nirvana
Jane Sassienie used to feel suicidal at least once a month. Sara Boas would be prostrate with pain. For these two thirtysomething women, and many others like them, life is different now. They do not attribute the change to a miracle cure. They have achieved Premenstrual Ecstasy (PMX), converting their premenstrual tension into a force for the good.

PMX is their brainchild. They travelled by different routes to the same conclusion: that monthly pain and suffering are not inevitably a woman's lot. On the contrary, they insist, the premenstrual phase can be one of enormous energy and creativity.

"Every month I would have a week or 10 days when I felt I had done nothing," recalls Jane, a former film editor turned freelance trainer. "I did not want to go out or see anybody. I'd just hide. Life seemed to have no point."

As part of a personal growth course, Jane was asked to try to deal with one area of her life that was causing problems. The project involved close study of other people who would act as "models" for how to handle the problem. Jane decided to advertise for women with positive experiences of the premenstrual phase: increased creativity, enhanced sexuality, better relationships, feelings of well-being. Four replied.

"The idea was to decipher a pattern from your models that could be applied," she says. "Everybody thought I was nuts and I wasn't sure it was possible. I didn't know if this feeling was something you could learn, or whether perhaps it was hereditary. But I had to try.

"It is two years since I felt desperate every month. The premenstrual time is very valuable to me. It's a time when I have most intuition, when I make important decisions, when I experience things most intensely."

Having mastered the skill herself, Jane decided it could and should be communicated to others. After meeting the management consultant Sara Boas, PMX was born. A first one-day workshop was held last year. It was followed by more this year.

Sara's perspective was different. In a previous career as an anthropology lecturer, she had specialised in cultural and social attitudes to life- cycle events, from the menarche to the menopause, and witnessed how these attitudes shaped the way women experienced menstruation. "I had read accounts of women in other societies being regarded as unclean and banished to the menstrual hut," she says. "What these accounts had in common is that they were written by men. When you read what women have said, you see that this can be a time of withdrawing and revitalising. When you look at something from another standpoint like this, it can have a totally different meaning for you."

With this in mind, the first thing Jane and Sara do when entering a workshop is to describe how they feel. Jane talks about how nervous she is; Sara how excited. Jane has butterflies of apprehension in her stomach; Sara is fluttery with anticipation. Participants are then invited to try to convert a negative emotion they have felt into a positive one by renaming it.

"You can't make a whole culture go away," says Sara. "This is not about changing the world, but about changing the way we look at the world. At one workshop a Greek woman described how menstruating women were not allowed to handle milk because they were believed to turn it sour. My response to that is not `How appalling', but `How astonishing that such magical powers can be attributed to us.'

"The phrase premenstrual syndrome (PMS) was liberating and important in its day, but it is no longer helpful. A lot of women probably go to their doctors because there is nowhere else to go. The medical model offers one perspective on menstruation. PMX offers another. We are saying, `You don't have to accept the situation. You can make changes.' If a woman screams abuse at her husband, perhaps she is being honest, but it is easier to blame PMS than to hear the underlying message."

Sara says: "For many women the premenstrual phase is a time of heightened sensitivity. Their needs and preferences may change and it is important to acknowledge these changes. Women do not always make allowances. They put themselves in inappropriate situations. You may need more personal space, even if it's just five minutes' solitude or an hour's extra sleep."

At a PMX workshop, participants investigate their experiences of menstruation, past and present. Ann recalls struggling to make the packet of 12 tampons that her mother gave her each month cope with her prodigious blood loss. Laura describes the embarrassment of staining her skirt in school. Linda, who thought she was bleeding to death when her period started, allows her small daughter to handle her (unused) tampons, much to Grandma's horror.

Constructing a "menstrual map", participants plot their cycle, recalling its high and low points in order to understand what occurs and how to recognise different needs at different times of the month.

Caroline Flexman, a City accountant,took part in a workshop and was able to identify the muscles that were causing her agonising periods. "For the previous two years I had been in pain every month, so that all I wanted to do was to retire to bed with a hot water bottle," she says. "I had been prescribed various things but none helped. Once I had worked out which muscles were causing the pain, I was able to relax them, just as you might unclench a fist. Now I do it unconsciously. It is a year since I felt any pain."

Susi Strang, a general practitioner in Cleveland, says PMX has given her back a quarter of her life by banishing her mood swings. She imparts the gospel to her female patients. "I encourage them to find ways of withdrawing," she says. "That can be difficult when your husband is demanding his meal on the table, but I tell them to take long baths and, if they have childminding arrangements, to use them that week."

They are not advocating that premenstrual and menstruating women withdraw from life. Quite the reverse. Jane says: "By being aware of what is going on for you, you can take note of the early-warning signals. By giving yourself a 10-minute break at the right time, you may avoid passing out or having to take a week off. When you introduce this choice and self- control you can move to the point where the premenstrual phase becomes a useful resource in decision-making. If we are more aware of what matters to us, it becomes a good time to take stock, to assess whether we are doing what we really want to do."

Evidence so far suggests that the theory works. Course participants report progress, from reduced pain to renewed creativity.

Jane and Sara believe the workshops are just the first step on the road to a total rethink of attitudes towards menstruation. "The time has finally come," say Jane and Sara, "to take menstruation out of the closet. So instead of trying to suppress the symptoms, we should go with the flow."

PMX 94c Forest Road, London E8 3BH (0171 249 2620)

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