Once upon a time, I got lost.
It doesn’t matter why or how, I just was.
I have always lived in moderate luxury. The elders teased, “This generation, really, is cursed in fact, to never have experienced adversity. Privilege stunts your world view so much, that instead of worrying about real problems, you worry about imaginary things like depression.”
So I swallowed my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, and hid under the garb of laziness to hide my chronic dysmenorrhea. An invisible illness was not going to handicap me! I had been brought up to be an independent woman, and I sure was going to be one. I just wasn’t sure how. Sure I had logical acumen and sarcastic humour on my side, but I wasn’t good at confrontations. I was only good at conversation. How far would that get me? On an impulse, I left home alone, to explore the world.
I trudged through the forest with searing pain burning my insides, my organs twisting like a giant’s hand was squeezing them. It was that time of the month again. I knew I would be incapacitated soon, unable to move or defend myself. I had to find shelter, fast.
That’s when I saw him. He was meditative, almost morose, as he looked into the distance. I tapped him on the shoulder and immediately collapsed in his arms, gasping, “Help!”. He seemed like a self assured man, not easily spooked, and it helped that he was easy on the eyes. Laid on my back in his carriage, with my eyes half closed, I overheard his conversation with his mother.
“Mother I shall marry soon, please give me some time. I want to find love in the eyes of a true princess. Someone who has immense grace and unparalleled beauty. Would you want to marry me off to some chubby girl who can’t hold a fork!”
I was heartbroken and feeling stupid for crushing on this shallow prince. I reasoned, this is how he must have been brought up. He doesn’t know any better. In a flash, I had an idea and a grin spread on my lips despite the pain in my belly.
I listened eagerly as his mother replied, “Don’t you worry son, I’ve come up with the perfect way to test these so called princesses to find you a real gem. A true princess would not tolerate a smidgen of discomfort, so I’m going to place a pea under all the female guest’s mattresses. A real princess, thin, tall, beautiful, she won’t sleep a wink.”
The carriage stopped abruptly and two women came to help me get to a guest room in the palace. I barely registered the opulence of the palace. My mind was busy planning a route to the Prince’s heart.
The Queen mother visited me at night to ask me how I was feeling. I told her I couldn’t get up but this would subside in a couple of days. And then I started telling my fictitious story. How my parents were rulers of a far off land, how as a princess I usually had plenty of people to help me but I got lost in the woods today. All I needed was a hot bottle and plenty of rest. As she exclaimed about the shocking lack of treatment for “my problem”, she sneered that I’m their time, women were strong enough to bear the pain with a smile. I ignored her chatter. I kept my eyes on her hand that slid in and out from under the mattress. I knew the pea had been placed in my bed as well. My plan had been successful. I was now being considered as a possible match for the prince.
In the morning, the Prince asked how my night was. I told him the truth, “I couldn’t sleep. I was in excruciating pain.” All other female guests politely said they’d slept well.
The Prince promptly dismissed all of them and asked me to accompany him on a horseback ride. I was horrified, ” I cannot ride a horse, I have dysmenorrhea. I bleed heavily. I want to be back in bed.”
He was taken aback that I could talk about periods openly, but he still teased me, “You’re just being lazy. So what if you have periods. You should be productive.”
I tossed a reply immediately, “No uterus no opinion.”
We both burst out laughing and he walked me to my room. My bed had been stacked with 10 mattresses. He helped my climb to the top saying, “To improve your comfort”. Honestly I appreciated the sentiment but climbing a ladder just to get to my bed was not helping. He stayed back for hours chatting with me about all the issues in the world. I was actually having fun. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad person after all. Maybe it was all just sexist conditioning in the monarchy. I was planning to extend my stay there so I could maybe get closer to him and make him understand that his shallow attitude was no good. Perhaps I could even get him to respect my needs as someone with various chronic illnesses.
But the reverie was rudely broken when he said, “No wonder you have a double chin, you spend all day in bed!” He laughed and tried to get me to laugh along. When I withdrew into the blanket and turned away from him, he knew he’d made a mistake. With tears in my eyes I told him, “Just because you can’t see my pain, doesn’t mean it’s not there. I have suffered from insomnia and depression for 15 years. I can tell you, nothing about my dysmenorrhea or depression is about being lazy. It’s about staying alive, fighting every single minute against your own body and mind. It’s exhausting. I’m tired. Please leave me alone.”
I felt like the 10 mattresses below me were stacked up mountain of all the jabs and insults I’d ever endured. As if the fluffy texture was everyone who fooled me with their soft words and fake sympathy. I pushed the Prince away and struck down the ladder.
“I am no princess. But this bed is my tower, my safe space. I shall stay here dear Prince until you vanquish the dragons of your own ignorance. Come back and speak to me when you are ready to understand that being thin or beautiful or a Prince, makes you nothing. If you can’t have compassion towards a fellow human, what good is your wealth? Show me who you really are. Then I shall decide if you are worth my while.”
The Prince stared up at me from the floor. I had been attracted to him and had liked his sense of humour when he spent time with me today but I wasn’t going to let my feelings trap me with an ignorant man.
That was when we were interrupted by a loud knock. The Queen mother walked in, and swooped down to pull out a small green pea from under the mattress. She then reinstated the ladder and as she struggled up, said, “I do not know who you are. You say you are not a Princess and I believe that. But what you are dear, is a teacher. What you told my son today, is what I should have said to the King years ago.”
She heaved herself onto my mattress and held out her arms. With a heavy heart I embraced her. She held me close, cradling the back of my neck in her palm. The intensity of her touch was proof that there was more to her than her misplaced beliefs. She was a mother, after all.
So every month I come sleep on this mattress tower, 4 days a month. And I have a cuddle buddy to keep me company. A curious mother figure who listens to my view of the world and does not make judgemental assumptions. A friend who used to be a Queen, but is now, an ally.
Written by Ishmeet Nagpal
Audio edited by Kriti Banga
*This story was written as part of Rising Flame’s One Billion Rising Campaign where we rise for the rights of women and girls with disabilities.