I feel like menopause thus far has been something of a mystery. And not the good kind of mystery. Not the I-wonder-what-this-beautifully-wrapped-gift-is type of mystery, but more of the why-is-my-toilet-making-that-weird-noise kind of mystery. Not just a mystery to me either.
I honestly think part of the reason why my first husband and I divorced when we did was because he didn’t want to have to go through this stage of life with me. And he’s a doctor! Funny coincidence that his new wife is significantly younger… unintentional or not, it amounts to further postponement of that shared experience.
The irony of my ignorance about menopause is, I am a woman, a healthcare provider myself and I have two older sisters, a mom and friends who have all gone through this stage of life. So why do I feel so ignorant about it??
Well, that’s not entirely true. I did learn, many years ago in school, about the technical changes that occur in the body including which hormones shift at menopause. But who gives a fuck about that? That doesn’t help me understand what this life transition feels like.
And since my own healthcare providers had similar scanty training on the subject and are usually younger than I am these days so devoid of first-hand experience on the matter, none of them have been much help either. They just hand me various pills, tell me to give up gluten or send me off for consultation about having my uterus taken out and be done with it.
The body ills like heavy unpredictable bleeding, disabling pain and sheet-soaking night sweats have been no picnic, but honestly, most of the time I don’t know if I need a doctor, a psychiatrist or a priest! These symptoms are wildly varied and go far beyond the physical plane. For instance, I don’t think there are meds I can take to fix my profound existential angst and I doubt a hysterectomy is going to cut it (every pun intended) when I feel like my metaphorical cheese is sliding off of my cracker.
Neither of my sisters has been much help in shedding light on the subject. One of them says she barely noticed going through the change (I wonder if her immediate family would corroborate this) and the other just takes on a haunted look when the subject arises. My mom was the most up close and personal look I had at the process and it was not pretty. The messages I got from her were that this is a horrible, no-good, awful change to be fought tooth and nail and one must take synthetic hormones to stave off the inevitable for as long as possible. She did not go willingly into that goodnight. Not exactly encouraging.
Well, I don’t want my daughters and sons to be in the dark like I was. I want them to have some idea about what is coming and how to be good to themselves and to their partners during this totally normal, but admittedly challenging stage of life. So here goes, what I have learned about menopause (so far):
Perimenopause is the name for the time period leading up to menopause which is defined as the date one year after the last menstrual period. Colloquially, people call it menopause when they’re really talking about perimenopause (when all of the wacky shit happens). I did it myself at the beginning of this letter, it’s just easier to say.
It can sneak up on you. In retrospect, I’ve probably been in this perimenopausal period for around 10 years! It started very subtly with heavier bleeding, more pain and fewer fucks to give. Incidentally, this transition can last 7–14 years on average, so I gotta be reaching the end soon!
Pain can and should be managed. This may require assertiveness, but it is possible. Don’t accept less. I allowed my pain to be under-treated for far too long until it was impacting my work and general wellbeing. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I finally demanded and received adequate relief. I shouldn’t have suffered that long, physically or emotionally. It wasn’t heroic, I was just hurting myself and further hobbling my ability to roll with the menopause waves. Go ahead and be that squeaky wheel if you have pain that you can’t fix on your own. You matter.
The mood swings are epic. They come on fast and can take me from the highest feelings of joy and confidence to the lowest depths of despair. I have had more suicidal thoughts in the past 3 years than in my whole life. Never with a plan or anything close to completion, but still. It feels highly shameful to admit these dark feelings, but they are real. And thankfully transient.
It is disorienting to lose that predictable menstrual cycle. Imagine having all access to clocks and calendars removed from your life. You don’t know what to expect (physically or emotionally) or when, it is all constant reaction. For planners like me, that sucks! And it is exhausting all by itself.
Plus, all of the other various and sundry body woes: Bloating to an extent I did not think possible. Like, do I have a tumor level. Hugely swollen tits. Ridiculously easy weight gain. Changing shape with a bigger belly. Clothes fit way different. Headaches. Joint pains. Very weird sleep patterns, insomnia, nighttime restlessness, odd dreams. And while some women reportedly lose their hair during this time of life, I find I am sprouting more than I need. On my face and chin in particular. Thank god for tweezers and good lighting.
But…it is not all bad. And here are a few of the good things I want you to know about too:
I am loving my mind. It feels like a race car these days! With benefit of all those years of living, learning and experiencing life I am at the top of my game in the brain department. I can see patterns, reason and intuit things like never before. I may not have the memory power that I used to, but cognitive function is solid.
Orgasms are way more intense. Seriously.
My tolerance for bullshit is way down. I am feeling increasingly comfortable with being direct and saying no without guilt.
I am more focused on me, my wants and needs. Not to the exclusion of others’, but in addition to them. I feel like I matter too and I am pursuing my dreams, not just helping others reach theirs.
I am braver and way better at facing my fears and doing it anyway.
My hair looks great. Silver suits me.
I am healing deep hurts and setting new boundaries as a result. Painful, old shit is welling up, but it feels necessary and healthy to purge it and process it. This is the means through which I am growing into myself and really reaching my potential as a healthy and happy human.
And soon, the biggest boon on the horizon still to come — freewheelin’, birth control free, no kids at home sex! That must be the best gift of menopause; hot sex with the privacy of an empty nest and and no more periods. I can’t wait!
So for my daughters: Be kind to yourselves when your body and mind start to change. Your experience may be different than mine in timing and variety of symptoms, but your family history says you’ll probably be looking at your early 40s for all of this fun to begin!
Call me if you want to talk about it and lean on your friends or find a community to support you. It can be disorienting and weird, but don’t forget to advocate for yourselves and look for the good parts as well.
Journaling has been an indispensable tool for me to process this process. Caring for my physical body with daily yoga, swimming, dog walks and increasing the nutritional value of my diet while cutting back on alcohol and caffeine have also helped. Being nice to myself about my changing body size and shape has been difficult but necessary growth.
Even though a big part of me still has the impulse to make drastic changes to my diet and exercise in an effort to force my way back to my 20-year-old body, I am increasingly aware that this is futile and not good for my mental health. Bodies are meant to change and this is the body I have now for this stage of life.
So I make a big effort to care for it, talk nicely to it (or at least not negatively), feed it well, buy cute and comfortable clothes that fit and be grateful that I am healthy. Instead of focusing on what I don’t like, I spend more time looking for the good (like my hair ;).
For my sons: Be kind with your partner as she goes through this change. It may start around 40 or even earlier (best guess is whenever her mom went through it). She is not going to feel like herself and that is because she is busy morphing into her new, equally amazing self.
Her experience may be much different than mine, for better or worse, but she is going to need you. This is your time to give to her your love, support and understanding. Be patient, give her room and look for the good stuff in the process too. Tell her that she is wonderful and beautiful and that you like her and love her. Acknowledge how hard this must be on her and admire her strength.
You can call Steven to talk about it. He has been a phenomenal partner to me through this. He never once made me feel ashamed of myself or guilty for how the process of my body changing affects him. I liked how he took the attitude of “this is important to you, so it is important to me.” That’s teamwork right there. He has remained unfailingly curious and supportive, which, come to think of it, is a great example for all of us about how to treat ourselves and each other.