The Balance Issue: Chloe Caldwell on PMDD and Simplifying Self-Care

BYRDIE︎ 2022
A version of this story first appeared in Byrdie’s “The Balance Issue”on

It's a rainy morning in early April when I hop on a call with writer Chloe Caldwell, and just a few minutes into our chat, she sets a vibrant scene. Picture it: puddles of fake blood on Warren Street in Hudson, New York, a thrifted t-shirt that says "Vagina," and a sartorial re-creation of the cover of Deal With It!: A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life As a Gurl. With the help of friend and photographer JD Urban, Caldwell has orchestrated a photoshoot to convey the themes explored in her riveting memoir, The Red Zone: A Love Story. "We were trying to capture different moods of the menstrual cycle," she explains. "I refer to them in [my] book; I have 'The Golden Week,' 'Ovulation,' 'The Red Zone' ... We also did some shots on the street with fake blood where I'm crouched down and just straight up bleeding."

When Caldwell's (often uncomfortable) periods began noticeably impacting life with her partner (now-husband) Tony and his young daughter Sadie, she recognized a pattern: her volatile mood was in sync with her hormonal cycle. In The Red Zone, Caldwell navigates doctor's offices, family life, the internet, and more to investigate what's happening to her body. Her research culminates in the discovery (and eventual diagnosis) of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), a serious form of PMS, which, according to The International Association for Premenstrual Disorders, "affects an estimated 5.5% of women and AFAB individuals of reproductive age." To that end, Caldwell poetically captures the complexities of living (and loving) with PMDD. As she writes in the book: "In the red zone, my heart beats faster. Emotions are on speed. Whatever is in my line of vision, I have a millisecond fantasy of throwing or smashing it, and am lucky when I don't follow through. My breath is short and full of fire. I turn into a person I recognize as my other."

Flip through The Red Zone, and you'll find many things: Reddit threads and diaristic lists; romantic excursions and heated text messages; questions and (sometimes) answers. But whatever shape its content takes, one thing is clear: The Red Zone is an homage to love—for our bodies, partners, families, and ourselves. Perhaps that's why I was able to see my own first pivotal period experience in a new light after reading. It came back to me in flashes: eyes cast towards the ground, quietly shuffling out of my seventh-grade classroom, the blue tile floor squeaking beneath my feet, my hands shakily tending to the vivid pool of blood in my underwear. Many years have passed since then, but I've just now realized that I was looking down—in shame, fear—for most of that moment. Caldwell's work is a compelling reminder to look up—and pay attention. Our conversation begins there, and throughout, Caldwell also shares thoughts on boundaries, wellness in her family and writing life, and what self-care looks like for her today.


I want to start with a question that addresses a pretty prominent theme throughout The Red Zone: attention—paying attention to yourself and those around you. How would you describe your relationship with attention?
I think I pay attention to things that might seem mundane to other people. It's the mindset of look where others aren't looking. I like to make connections that seem sort of stretched or surprising. I did that a little bit in the book by putting together step-parenting and queerness—something I've never heard people talk about as having things in common. I really like to pay attention, especially to different types of relationships. I feel like many of us are taught to ignore or deny our periods, and once I started paying attention to my period, my mind became blown.

Is there a correlation between writing and wellness for you?
One hundred percent. I like writing, not to say parts aren't hard or depressing, but the actual act of creativity—and waking up, having a coffee or a tea, listening to my Spotify Discover Weekly or Release Radar religiously—I think it's fun. It's very free for me. It does a lot for my mental health.

I've done this with other books as well, but I'll go to an Airbnb or a boring motel (because if you go to a bougie one, you're not going to get writing done!); I'll stay there for about five nights and work on my book. My husband and I share our car, so he'll drop me off with my suitcases, my yoga mat, my Tupperwares of food, and a bunch of books. Afterward, I feel much lighter. I'm better to be around. My relationship is better. So it's definitely something I have to be doing. This isn't to say I don't take stretches of breaks, but that's one of the things that makes me happy: to go isolate and binge-write.

The Red Zone is deeply personal but so universal. In "The Linen Closet" chapter, you beautifully document people's first period experiences. And in addition to each of their responses, you also convey the time, place, and a little background about what was happening in the world. Why did it feel necessary to contextualize each person's story in this way?
I thought it was so interesting to ask people: "What else do you remember? What was going on in your world at that time?" People have become so nostalgic for the '90s. It was interesting to me to think about the '90s in the context of what periods were like versus what they're like now, especially because I have a stepdaughter and seeing the way she's growing up versus how I did.

That chapter originally started with just family because I have so many aunts and cousins; that felt natural because we talk about our periods a lot. I was emailing them and thought it interesting because each of them mentioned this "linen closet." I was like, okay, that's all you remember: their mom or grandmother bringing them to the linen closet and saying, "Here's a [sanitary] belt, good luck."

From there, I created a survey or interview questions asking: How old were you? What was the year? What do you remember going on at that time? Any music? Any movies? Anything political? The chapter kept growing because I realized I wanted it to span this length of time. It begins in 1920, speculating what my grandmother's period would've been like, and then it goes through the decades until 2018.

There was an instance in the book when you recount taking a photograph of your PMDD and Cystic acne diagnosis. You wrote that it "felt like a true selfie" and thought about sending it to others but ultimately kept it yourself. Given that we're in a culture of constant, public sharing, do you have any advice for those looking to set boundaries when discussing how much they share about their health or bodies?
That's such an interesting question. I thought you were going to say advice for those who overshare! [Laughs] It's so funny where our boundaries are. Some people talk to me and ask, "How did you write this personal book?" I'm like, "Look at anybody's TikTok or Instagram; it's way more personal than anything I write!" What I write has been edited and controlled, and it's a choice. I think it's really interesting how, over the years, personal nonfiction is always treated like the black sheep. I share in my books, and it makes me share less on social media. It doesn't feel like the right medium for me... The thing about writing books is there's no instant gratification. You have to really commit. It's a long game, and you have to have patience.

I didn't want anything permanent like that out—I'm not going to post, "Hey, I have PMDD." PMDD didn't become an identity thing for me at all. I don't identify with it, and I kind of grew out of it. I don't even experience it to that level anymore. PMDD is incredibly mysterious. Some months, your mood swings can qualify as PMDD, and other months, they don't. It's not something you just have forever—it ebbs and flows with your hormones. It depends if you get pregnant, on your postpartum, your age, medication, vitamins, and lifestyle. So, I don't feel that it's part of my identity. That said, I'm so happy to have a language for it. I was so happy that day because the doctor I switched to was great. She believed me, agreed with me, and wrote it down. I felt validated, but I didn't need to be validated by the internet.

For people still grappling with how much they want to share information about a bodily change or a diagnosis, what's the line you would recommend drawing?
Everyone's line is different. If it's going to be supportive for someone to share about their diagnosis, then by all means. I think questioning before you post or share something, questioning your motives behind it—what do you want to get out of that share?—and really being honest about that.

Are there any questions that you think we should be asking when it comes to PMDD?
I think asking people who experience it what it's like for them. It's different for each person, even though there's tons of overlap. It's very mysterious, so there's such a layered treatment approach. Just letting each person have their own experience with it and not turn into this kind of trope. People say, "Oh, it's PMS on steroids," which is a little too easy. [Laughs] Then there's the trope of PMS where it's like a Cathy comic, and you want chocolate. All of these things are much more complicated than how they have looked in culture.

Explorations of family and your role as a stepmother are also huge parts of this book. Do you have a definition of wellness in your family? What does that look like when you're together?
That's such a nice question. We used to do reading parties where the three of us would be in bed and read. Calling it that was helpful for some reason; it made it kind of special.

Right now, wellness for my stepdaughter and me—because my husband isn't as obsessed with movies as we are, so he's not really part of this—is watching a movie at night. We plan days in advance. We watch the trailer; we talk about the movie; we look up who's in the movie; we analyze the movie. It's a thing that brings us both a lot of comfort, joy, bonding, and downtime. That, for me, is definitely the wellness of our family.

I really appreciated the moments you shared about your relationship with your stepdaughter. At one point, you write that she "asked what a tampon was and I said women use them for their period when they're older and she asked no more questions. Usually she pushes harder. I wonder if deep down she knows something scary is coming. It's unbelievable for me to remember a time I didn't know this was coming. Sometimes I wonder if that was the best part of my life." Do you still believe that?
Yes and no. I mean, that's such a sacred time. You don't have to worry about bleeding and moods. For me, all of that came with so much: really bad acne, severe mood swings, managing my period. So, part of me does long for a time when things were less complicated.

That said, of course, now that I've learned to manage my period and see the gifts it offers, this is a great part of my life. But it's wild to look at a child—or someone on the cusp—and think about how things will change. It's almost like we're getting periods too young! We have to grow up so quickly by dealing with that. I don't know; it makes me sad for some reason. It's a responsibility you have to take on at such a young age and have anxiety about or worry about.

You include a Resources page at the end of The Red Zone, but can you give Byrdie readers any further reading or listening recommendations?
There's a fantastic podcast—I did an episode—called The Menstruality Podcast. The host, Sophie Jane Hardy, has episodes about how to empower your cycle, infertility, PMS, and how to deal with your period holistically. They're all different, and they're all wonderful, with tons of great guests.

Do you have any go-to beauty or wellness products?
One thing that really helped my acne—that I'm so mad a dermatologist never told me about before—is all of the acids. Why don't dermatologists tell you this? They just dry out your skin and give you Benzoyl peroxide. It makes me so mad that I had to learn this myself on skincare addiction on Reddit. So, based on Reddit, I was able to mostly clear my skin by using lactic acid, glycolic acid, and all the acids.

Product-wise, I recommend Thinx period underwear. They're so flattering, too, it's crazy—and they last for years! I also work at this store Loup. She makes amazing jeans for real bodies and curves. She makes great overalls, coveralls, and jumpsuits. I love her stuff and wear it constantly. They're super inclusive.

Last summer, I worked at the Mara Hoffman pop-up in Hudson, and we sold Tata Harper skincare. I had free samples, and my skin got super bougie, and I got addicted to it! I'm so mad about it because it was so incredibly unaffordable for me. But I will say the Resurfacing Serum keeps my skin clear and glowy. I love it. It's kind of basic, but man, sometimes when something expensive works, it works.

Finally, do you participate in self-care? What does it look like for you?
Now, I really understand self-care on a very deep level. Shout out to my mom, who has had the best self-care [routine] without spending money. She eats well, walks, cooks. She still goes to yoga and reads all the time. That's really helpful and nice to see, especially when I feel that impulse to do self-care as something that correlates with spending money. It's great to be like, "You know what? Self-care is actually taking a nap and just doing nothing."

I think about self-care a lot, and through PMDD, I've learned a lot about it and how to manage life and not overextend myself. I'm very aware of burnout because I'm pretty sensitive and get overstimulated. So, for me, self-care is also saying no—to email requests [and] things like that. Again, going back to the daily movie, that's also a huge part. It's just really looking inward and trying to participate in self-care in a way that doesn't involve having to buy something for myself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.