My College Story: Learning to Live with PMDD


Brett Buchert's College Story: Learning to Live with PMDD

(Brett Buchert)

Brett Buchert grew up in Saint Petersburg, Florida and attended the University of Florida, following a long line of family members. She graduated earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is currently working to develop an app: Me v PMDD.

Q. You went to University of Florida. How did you decide to go there?

With two proud University of Florida grads as parents, four aunts and uncles, six cousins, and my older sister all alumni, applying and likely going to UF was a given since birth. However, I, a solid International Baccalaureate student, got a little caught up in the dream of prestige as I began to apply for schools. I wanted people to know I was smart right when they looked at my résumé or the Ivy League decal on my Honda CR-V. I got into some of my dream schools and I seriously considered ignoring the pull of my legacy spot at UF, but for our family, the outrageous expenses for private education in America just didn’t make sense. So in August 2014, I began classes at UF, a reluctant Gator.

Having now graduated from UF, I’m still not sure it was the best fit for me (too big, too much Greek life, not academic enough) but I now have so many great memories and forever friends whom I can’t imagine not having in my life. I also don’t think any of the schools I dreamt of because they are prestigious would have been right for me either. My priorities have changed so much in the last few years, as have many of my core beliefs. I used to think there was a perfect choice for everything (like where to go to college), but there’s so much more beauty and opportunity in embracing life as it is, with uncertainty. Good enough is a great place to discover who you really are.

Q. You struggled with PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) throughout college. Can you explain what PMDD is and the impact it can have on people?

Virtually, PMDD is like having two weeks of your normal, happy life followed by two weeks from hell, month after month after month.

I didn’t know I had PMDD for most of college, but I for sure knew I was sad a lot. And anxious. And occasionally thinking that none of my friends liked being with me. And uncontrollably crying when nothing was wrong, like in class, or at rowing practice. I’d forget who I was during these times of sadness, what mattered to me, why I was even carrying on... It felt like deep inescapable pain in my core. And then sometimes I’d feel much better. Happy. Bounding to class thinking about my big and wide future. A week later I’d crash.

Repeat.

PMDD is the evil sister of PMS, affecting 1 in 20 women of reproductive age. While many women are no stranger to the symptoms of PMS, like bloating and mild mood swings, PMDD is when the symptoms we experience in the premenstrual time (luteal phase) become so severe that they interfere with our relationships, work or school, and overall quality of life. The most common symptoms of PMDD are sadness or depression, anxiety, extreme mood swings, irritability or rage, and even suicidal thoughts. The thing about PMDD is that these symptoms only appear in the premenstrual time, subside within a few days of starting one’s period, and aren’t present in the week or so after one’s period.

Q. How did PMDD impact your education?

While my final grades didn’t suffer too much because of my mental health battle, making those grades was extremely stressful while dealing with PMDD. One exam week got so packed with finals and papers that I dropped a one-credit class because it was just causing me too much anxiety. I’d also skip classes more than I should have because sometimes I couldn’t stop my thoughts or my tears enough to sit [through] a lecture. The tough days and weeks were just about getting by. There was no energy left at times to pursue some of the great educational and career experiences my college offered, or [no] desire to pursue anything but getting through the days. I even took a semester away from the university as a part-time online student so that I could have the support of my family back home. Luckily, during that semester I received my diagnosis of PMDD and began treatment, my turning page into healing.

Q. What advice do you have for students struggling with their mental health?

1. Talk to someone. I thought I was the only one suffering because everyone else looked so happy. They’ll always look happy. You probably look happy. But other people, maybe even your new friends, could be struggling with their mental health, or have, or will. It took a drunken night and a near panic attack to tell my friends I was hurting, but one of the greatest silver linings came out of breaking down with them. Since then, they’ve been open with me about their own battles and I’ve helped them make it through. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced in my life: helping people who are struggling with their mental health, because I have been there too, and it has pointed me to the current career I have and love.

2. Know that there is help. Most universities will admit that their mental health counseling services need more funding. It’s my hope that they get that funding because college life can unleash a beating on all of our mental health. So if you are experiencing depression, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble focusing, relationship difficulty, eating disorders, stress, or other mental or emotional troubles, know that no, that is not your lot in life, and there are ways to find help and feel better:

  • Check out your university counseling center.
  • If the support there isn’t available or adequate see a counselor or therapist off campus. Check out Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist site.
  • Go online and search for a support group or forum for people experiencing what you’re going through. PMDD support groups have been life-saving for me.
  • Be open to considering supplements and medications to help yourself feel better. Don’t let stigma be the reason you don’t try everything.
  • If you are having suicidal thoughts and feel like you can’t cope, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. There is always someone available who has been there too and will help you climb back up.

3. Practice self-care. Enjoy your college freedom and independence. Try all the things (within reason). Have FUN! But don’t forget that you are still the person that your parents so steadfastly cared for and protected. They made you go to bed early, eat your vegetables, shower once a day, get up off the couch, and brush your teeth. And they told you “I love you” countless times. We never grow out of needing that care in our lives. The person giving the care just becomes you. That’s where self-care comes in. Self-care has two parts:

  • Practicing healthy habits like eating well, exercising, limiting alcohol and caffeine, sleeping eight hours, showering, etc. Do this even when depression or your eager party animal self tells you not to. Your mind and body will thank you.
  • Giving yourself love and giving yourself a break. They say we millennials have gone soft, but I say we’ve just gotten smart. College is hard, life is hard, and we all need to take it easy from time to time and wrap ourselves in the warmth of whatever makes us feel better. Tell your awesome weirdo self “I love you” every day, go shopping or eat a chocolate cake or watch your favorite movie, and then get out there and embrace the world when you’re good and cared for.

Q. Do you find that PMDD still affects your daily life after college? How do you deal with that?

Managing PMDD is still a huge part of my life post-graduation. However, I’m happy to say that following my diagnosis in my senior year, I’ve been able to find treatments that are working well for me. My bad weeks of the month are now much easier to handle. I notice that I’m feeling a bit lower than my usual self and could be more reactive to daily stressors, but I’m able to self-care myself through it most days. I track my cycle and my symptoms daily to get to know myself and my PMDD better, so I can plan for the good days and prepare for the not-so-good days.

Q. How has your college experience helped you start your company to support women with PMDD and raise awareness?

Shortly after graduation, at a doctor’s appointment, I realized that there needed to be an app to track all of the many PMDD symptoms, because the popular period tracking apps just didn’t cut it. My stars must have aligned right then, because that day I decided, along with my mom, that we could be the ones to make that app happen. Thus, the Me v PMDD Symptom Tracker was born.

Now I am the CEO of an international startup that reaches over 60 countries and 47 states. I am in daily contact with the Gia Allemand Foundation for PMDD, a growing nonprofit organization providing support and resources for those affected by PMDD. I am designing an app that already has 1,000+ pre-downloads. I’m writing research articles about PMDD for our support website. I’m pretty sure I started the hashtag #pmddwarrior on social media. I’m doing so many things I never imagined I would do or could do and it is awesome. I’m growing every day.

Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, college did help prepare me for this work. I majored in psychology and have experience writing dozens of psychology research papers, [experience I now draw on to] write for our support site in a near perfect translation of the skills I learned in my major. I’m also thankful for many of the skills I learned beyond the classroom. In college, I was vice president of the crew team and also planned and hosted a large event for our family and alumni weekend. My communication with vendors and parents, something I’d really never done before college, prepared me for the communication with organizations, companies, and users I now do for Me v PMDD.

I joke that I’m doing something I could have never imagined, but my college experience may have prepared me for exactly what I’m doing.

Q. Is this what you had envisioned as a career when you began college?

Absolutely not. My plan post graduation was to prepare for graduate school in clinical psychology (which probably, maybe, I don’t know, will still happen), but I didn’t see Me v PMDD coming. It was a spontaneous moment of courage that I decided to embark on this project to help #pmddwarriors like myself better manage PMDD. Now I can’t imagine not doing this.

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