I sat at my writing desk, doing what I love – writing. My eyes soaked in the lake’s peaceful beauty, with its mountainous backdrop sprawling just outside my window. Suddenly I began to feel peculiar. An intense surge of anxiety-provoking adrenaline rushed through me just before a fierce, blistering heat. I overheated like the car I drove across the Mojave Desert so many years ago. My heart raced as I feared that something awful was about to happen to me.
The sweltering hot flashes also invaded my nocturnal peace, leaving me exhausted. A rising energy filled my body, and then left me limp as a wet leaf. Hours passed before I could return to sleep. The more tired I became, the greater my daytime caffeine consumption. The greater my caffeine consumption, the more my hot flashes and anxiety worsened.
My workplace recently held its annual safety training. We stood before the fire extinguisher demonstration, and sure enough, my lobster-red face broadcasted to all that I was in the flares of a soaking hot flash. Talk about a telltale sign! Sweat trickled down my back. All I wanted to do was walk into a refrigerated room. The safety manager pointed the fire extinguisher towards me and asked, “Do you need your fire put out?”
My doctor told me that menopause was the reason for my hot flashes – which was the reason for my spontaneous anxiety. She offered to prescribe Neurontin for the hot flashes, explaining that this anti-seizure medication had an off-label use for hot flashes. Its side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea. I would be trading one set of symptoms for another. Getting off the medication later would require a weaning-off period, just as my body was now weaning off the hormones estrogen and progesterone. I declined the medications and continued to sweat it out – for a while.
Menopause is often treated as a medical condition rather than the natural life phase that it is. Many people are inclined to do two things: resist the aging process; and quickly escape any, and all, forms of discomfort. I was no different. I was repelled by my concocted visions of a once beautiful woman, now old and withered with dingy gray hair and long, yellowed fingernails. The nasty appearance of shriveled apple faces made me writhe. Would my youth-focused society take me seriously? Would I have any purpose in life anymore? The thought of being “put to pasture” left me just as uncomfortable as my menopausal symptoms. Nonetheless, my hot flashes heralded it in with a vengeance.
Like my first hot flash, I also remember the day I ‘had’ my first period – just as vividly as I remember my awkward first kiss. My belly cramps worsened as my parents packed the car in preparation for our trip to Connecticut to visit my grandparents. The month was April – the first Saturday of our school vacation. I wore lime green hip-hugger bell-bottoms patterned with red ladybugs scattered all over them. Maybe the red ladybugs could camouflage the stain, but I was still disappointed knowing I had to change out of my favorite outfit before we ventured out on our 6-hour trip. (Please excuse my taste in apparel. After all, the year was 1972!)
At first, I viewed this coming of age with trepidation, but with time, I could see the beauty in being a young woman unfolding before me. I moved from a young woman to a mother – a time blessed with two sons. My responsibility to them superseded everything. I felt vibrant and purposeful, youthful and pretty – for a time.
Thirty years after my first period, a storm of high and low pressures brewed out at sea – empty nest, divorce, and menopause. It landed at my feet, with all of its upheaval. Newly divorced, I stood alone in my empty nest holding my empty egg basket. The physical and emotional confusion overshadowed my purpose in life. I realized that not many women spoke openly about menopause, but every woman had a childbirth, divorce or empty nest story. Mothers shared the grueling accounts of labor pains, episiotomies, and forceps almost as if one was trying to outdo the others’ claims to suffering. However, menopause was kept locked in the closet like a big secret that couldn’t come out. The more I thought about it, I considered the reason women hated to talk about it: admitting to their menopausal symptoms meant that they would have to expose their aging.
My trial by fire convinced me to try different products, in an effort to ward off my symptoms. I inspected many labels in the health food store. I searched, in stealth mode, for that magic bullet that would bring comfort. I walked out with a basketful of expensive hope: everything from soy, Black cohosh, St. John’s wort to Magnolia Bark, wild yam, and evening primrose oil. Unfortunately, none of it helped me.
Eventually, I decided to use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to curb the hormone hell. A veil lifted. I felt great and walked with a spring in my step. The hot flashes and insomnia vanished. Gone were the powerful gushes of sweat that made my hair go limp and flat. My undergarments remained dry. I was well rested and focused. However, HRT only postponed my menopausal symptoms. I began to notice that I spent more time reading food labels for harmful ingredients such as artificial sweeteners and preservatives with names that I could hardly pronounce, but I took hormones. That made a lot of sense! After five years on HRT, I had learned enough to make the decision to stop taking them. There was no escaping the passages through life – it was time to face up to this next phase. Without the HRT onboard, my symptoms raged through my body, creating many changes. I thought, what had taken over my body?
My figure started transforming to my mother’s shape, as my waistline got larger and the fit of my clothes changed – a shape that I always vowed I would never have. Daily exercise assumed a larger role in my life, as my metabolism slowed down to a snail’s pace. My husband, Andy and I went for walks with our dogs as we tried to increase our physical activity. One evening Andy had me belly laughing so hard that I noticed my panties were somewhat wet. The more I tried to hold my urine, the more we roared. Bent over with tightly crossed legs, I tried with all my might to keep my bladder from releasing. Unfortunately, my attempts failed. I walked home with my coat sleeves tied around my waist. Thank goodness I have an understanding, and humorous husband!
We continue our attempt to discover humor through the changes. He furrowed his brow as he watched me climb into bed with a layer of nighttime facial moisturizer. One night, he asked that I not apply it until after having sex. Fair enough. While we are on the topic of sex, I consider the frequency of our intimate encounters. Yes, I have a lower (okay, no) sex drive, and try to deal with the annoyances that interrupt our intimacy: aches and pains, vaginal dryness, and debilitating leg cramps that surface right as I orgasm. How cruel can Mother Nature be?
As my confused hair grows in the wrong places, my befogged memory sent me driving down the wrong road. I suddenly lost my sense of direction as I attempted to navigate towards a place I had driven to many times. I had no idea how to get from where I was to where I wanted to go. The experience left me terrified. I kept asking myself, what was wrong with me? It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I had the courage to tell Andy what had happened to me.
Good Ol’ Father Time invites himself into my house to deliver the package everyone must accept… aging. Somehow, I had to learn to accept this if I plan on living. I consider all of Mother Nature’s injustices: my scalp hair grays and thins while my leg hair grows coarser; my skin loses its tone and elasticity; and gravity’s evil force pulls my features downward, changing my shape from hourglass to pear. Maybe there is a reason our eyesight fades!
Then I have glimpses of grace. I remember taking a hot bath one evening not so long ago. As I soaked in the soothing water, I examined my body: my aging hands, legs, and feet. Suddenly, I viewed my body parts with gratitude for all they have done to serve me over the past 52 years. Every fine line in my face tells its story, like a masterpiece painted on canvas. A wave of loving kindness flowed through me.
The rolling wave smoothed over the negative thoughts I carried about aging. Menopause literally means the “end of monthly cycles” and is not a time intended to pause from life or the man in it. Partners can be a tremendous support – and this time can bring couples closer in a much deeper way. This is not the deteriorating of a woman’s body, but a re-emergence with new purpose. Now when I think of older women, I see graceful and peaceful women sharing their great insight and wisdom; women who have mastered life and follow their instincts; sage women giving back; beautiful women speaking out with love, and creative women cultivating their passions.
As my hormones plummet, my lifestyles choices become my ally. I am kinder to myself, and my body through yoga, meditation, better nutrition, and stress reduction. They have eased some of my symptoms, but my hot flashes are not completely gone. I was told that hot flashes can last anywhere from two to fifteen years.
Menopausal mental fog has taken a bad rap, but it isn’t the only cause for alterations in memory and concentration. Stress hormones, loss of sleep, and vitamin B12 deficiency also play a role in mental fogging. Therefore, I try to get my rest, eat well, and reduce my alcohol and caffeine consumption.
On an even brighter note, it is quite liberating to live a life without a period and no worries about birth control. My freedom and self-confidence in the bedroom leave me feeling sexy and desirable. I won’t allow myself to adopt a “granny panties attitude” – but select intimate lingerie that will ramp up my encounters with my husband. Our communication takes front seat as we navigate together. We found a wonderful lubricant while browsing through a tasteful adult store. We laugh about the leg and feet muscle cramps that sneak in near the Big O moment.
Midlife allowed me to gain creativity and a passion for what I love. I started my own business, write, and maintain balance. The word ‘should’ is almost completely banished from my vocabulary. I have learned to laugh more, and even laugh at myself. Perfection is a fallacy, but true joy and contentment is a reality.
I am still me, but with older skin and a wiser way. The best part of aging is not how it changes me, but how it changes the way I see life. Instead of enduring it, I embrace it. After all, what is the alternative?