Am I Tracking My Hormones or Are My Hormone Apps Tracking Me?

The Apple Store in Williamsburg seemed split between people excited to spend money on new toys and desperate people, like me, hoping for the help of an actual genius. After a few hours of milling around with screens I couldn’t afford, the kind employee told me what I already knew: my phone wasn’t salvageable and neither was my data. 

This sent me into a spiral. Pictures from my recently ended relationship? Gone. Numbers of professional contacts I’d made in the city? Gone. Screen shots of since deleted tweets? Gone. But worst of all, my hormone tracking info was now lost, locked on this expensive brick.

I managed to move through my first period, my first shave, and high school without giving much thought to hormones. But in college, my acne was bad enough that my mom paid for birth control and all the hormonal teen tropes caught up with me at 21. Suddenly my cycles felt more out of control than the nights lost to binge drinking. There were two or three days out of the month I felt completely out of body, watching myself move through the world as a foreign, prickly, insecure person. When the feeling disappeared, I was left with damage control. 

My boyfriend felt the brunt of this monthly storm. Forget to pick up milk on his way home? You obviously don’t value me as a person because you never listen to anything I say. Ask me what’s wrong in a tone that sounds accusatory? You will never understand my struggles and I wish you would just give up trying. Kiss me on the neck when I’m holding my head in my hands? How dare you make advances while I’m clearly in the middle of a dark night of the soul?!? 

Our relationship would be impossible for a day or two. Then, like fog dissipating, I would be fine again, issuing a litany of apologies for my erratic behavior and praying he could forget the things I said.

Reeling from this nearly overnight change, I turned to the only thing that made sense: the Apple App Store. I resolved to take control of my body and figure out what the hell was going on. I searched “period hormone” and downloaded a few to try. 

My first was the now defunct InFlow-Mood & Emotion Diary. It asked daily questions about how I was feeling and combined the entries with an overview of my cycle. But this wasn’t satisfying. I put in entry after entry of “ok, I guess,” at a loss for how to describe the melancholy or irritation I felt. And wasn’t that the point of this app, to tell me how I’d feel? I moved on. 

The second had a pared down interface straight out of an iPhone 3 that felt like it might crash on my current IOS. Blackened dead space surrounded the gaudy floral pattern of Mood Horoscope and Period Tracker, but it told me, in horoscope style, how I might be feeling that day. Day 14 might bring a dip in mood or energy, but don’t worry, tomorrow you’ll be back to your normal, fabulous self! It taught me to look out for my day 18, the day that things might seem harder today and that I shouldn’t take things personally. 

But the best, the one I mourned on my tearful bike ride home from the Williamsburg Apple Store, was Hormone Horoscope Lite. This app gave me charts of specific hormones rising and falling as well as detailed descriptions of their effects. 

On day 14 of my cycle, the app warned that I feel a sudden onset of PMS like symptoms due to ovulation. Day 20 promised a rise of progesterone, which could make you feel sleepy or even irritable. Day 25 promised to bring a rise in estrogen and mood. I understood the days that I wanted to stay in bed all day, the days I wanted to rip someone’s head off, the days I couldn’t seem to get things right. I looked forward to the promises of better days. I forgave myself for feeling a little off. I tell myself that’s not me that’s irritable, this is just a wave of hormones I need to ride out.

More than that, if I knew the feeling was coming I could issue warnings. I know I’m a little crazy right, it’s because of my hormones

I don’t remember the first time I became aware of hormones, but I remember the first time some boy in my sixth-grade class responded to a small outburst of frustration from me with an indignant What, are you on your period? I stood in silence, letting my cheeks burn red and armpits gather with sweat. I didn’t know. I could have been. At 12 I didn’t know enough about my cycle to know if I was on my period in the way he meant it or not.

With my apps, I could guard myself from the insult by preventing the outburst in the first place. If I could preempt the swing, then I could lessen it, deny it, suppress it.

The app made me want to white-knuckle my way back to feeling in control. I could do what my boyfriend, the boy from 6th grade, everyone around me seemed to want me to do. The facade of objective information allowed me to silence my messy processing of subjective and unpredictable emotions.

After $300 and 3 hours of waiting and wailing, I was home again with a new phone, a fresh start, and void. The apps are accurate if you know the first day of your period and this first-world nightmare caught me unawares somewhere in the middle. Until my next period, I was app-less.

A few days into the app-less season, I found myself staring down the barrel of an unexplained anxiety I hadn’t felt in ages. I didn’t know what was going on in my body and in my emotions. Of course, I still knew that a few days of the month could be explained by hormones but I didn’t know exactly when they were. It was like I’d suddenly been asked what day of the week it was after emerging from a short coma. I’d outsourced my emotional measure for too long. I watched an episode of Gossip Girl and went the bed early. The next day the feeling had passed. 

Each day after, I was forced to assess my feeling to see if they were legitimate, not based on an outside measure of an app but my internal measure of intuition. The days I felt like staying in bed until noon, I stayed in bed until noon. The days wanted to feel the strength of my body, I worked out. The days I wanted to journal and cry, I journaled and cried. 

I stopped dismissing my emotions for the benefit of those around me. I let them see me cry and panic and need without some preamble about estrogen and progesterone. It turned out, others understood my emotions better than I knew. No one brushed me off or asked if I was emotional because of my period. Instead, they responded by sharing their own untracked emotions. There was no need to be unnaturally compact to make it seem like I didn’t experience emotional change.  

In the month without an app I spent a fair share of long mornings in bed going back and forth between Instagram and Twitter. But I also I got an article published, I went on my first Tinder date, I had a difficult conversation I’d been avoiding with my mom. Somehow embracing the sometimes unpredictable pulse of emotion had made my life lighter, easier.

The thing about these apps and the language around hormones in general is they externalize what is truly an internal cycle. For as much as they explain and affirm the experience of a person with ovaries, they also numb the internal intuition that they intend to encourage. For as much as they can connect a person with their cycle, they can also distance them from it. For as much as they prescribe solutions to emotional changes, they also prescribe the emotions themselves. 

I’ve updated my info in the app but turned off the daily notifications. I like knowing why I might be feeling the way I do, but I am also learning how to trust that I already know the answer.