I first wrote about menopause four years ago, when I was 49. Just like whenever I hit a new milestone, I thought I knew what I was talking about.
I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that I was wrong. In the history of girlhood, has anyone ever been honest with us about how much certain things in life were going to suck? They never said to us,
“Lots of women have miscarriages, and it makes them sad.”
“Having a baby is painful as fuck, and also frequently fatal.”
“And yet, everyone will think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t get married and have children. But if you do have children, everyone will judge you on how they turn out.”
“Even though you are an individual human being with unique characteristics, people will consistently tell you that you (or your face, body, hair, feet, vagina) should go through various forms of torture in order to look like some ideal that a man came up with — ie frail, or like a child, or like a hooker.”
“Despite what almost every Hollywood movie suggests, sex without foreplay sucks for you.”
“Ditto on how love at first sight is bullshit.”
“Roughly between the ages of 11 and 15, you’re going to start bleeding once a month for 2-7 days, and even though it’s perfectly normal, it’s going to make everyone around you uncomfortable. In some places, they’ll call you unclean and make you sit in a tent out in the desert, in others, they’ll just force you to use euphemisms like “My Aunt Flo is visiting,” and mock you when they see something sticking out of your sleeve that you were hiding there until you could get to the bathroom and unwrap and stick into your vagina so you could go about your day without ruining all the clothes on the lower half of your body. Either way it’s a drag, and it’s going to go on for about 40 years — except for when you’re pregnant, which is going to be its own hell that nobody talks about.”
“Just when you think your society finally perceives you as someone who matters as much as a man, something new will happen proving that it doesn’t.”
And so on, ad infinitum.
When I first started going through hormonal stuff in my 30s, knowing that there could be something a physical cause behind what I was feeling was helpful in figuring out how to cope. Of course, for women, any physical characteristic that’s exclusive to us is a double-edged sword: like having shorter and thinner vocal chords, or less upper-body strength but better fine motor skills, they can help explain why you’re a certain way, but chances are they’ll also be used to portray you as inferior. Realizing hormonal changes may be making you depressed or angry helps you realize that you’re not losing your mind, but if you talk about them, people will say, See? You’re genetically inclined to be irrational. Nevertheless, it was the first real indication in my life that my body was going to start betraying me — well, aside from the knee issues, and the stomach issues, and that one wiry hair on my chin, and all the other stuff that started before that.
Now, I know that menopause is special, in that it’s betraying you in a new way every other day. Huzzah! Take, for instance, the hot flashes. When I started overheating and getting sweaty at 49 — sometimes as a reaction to something that happened, like a change in temperature or an emotional reaction, sometimes not — it didn’t freak me out. In fact, it was oddly familiar, because I had actually experienced practically the same thing in my 20s. (When I told my gynecologist this she said that women often do have hormonal fluctuations in their 20s that could cause this. Again, who knew??) And if it meant no more periods, I said, Hell yeah, bring it on! But then, a month later, the hot flashes stopped, and my period started again — and that on-and-off-edness has continued to this day. Will my body be having a normal reaction to heat today, or will it be going into overdrive? Will Aunt Flo be visiting this month at all, or will it be Great Aunt Flo? Who the fuck knows! Guess I’d better be prepared at all times, or I’ll find myself sidling up to female colleagues like I’m trying to buy drugs, or desperately searching for quarters for a vending machine that spits out tampons in cardboard boxes the likes of which nobody has seen for a decade. It’s like being in junior high, the last portion of my life that I would ever want to relive, all over again!
The same with the moodiness and the trouble sleeping. I finally got okay with the idea that they were going to happen any old time as opposed to a few days once a month — well, not really “Okay,” so much as, “I guess I can survive anything for a year or two with the help of prescription drugs.” But surprise! There are no rules in menopause. It’s going to start and stop for…who the fuck knows how long now? So tonight, you’re going to have crazy dreams and then wake up at 4. Then tomorrow, you’re going to be unbelievably cranky and feel like crying half the day, and sure, it has to do with the not sleeping, and Joe Manchin, but it’s not like how not getting enough sleep used to affect you, it’s slathered with this new layer of crotchetiness that you have to find a way to wall off from the world so that nobody can see what a mess you are. And then next week, you’ll be fine again. Or fine-ish, because, you know, Joe Manchin.
Things I used to at least be able to predict that used to help predict other things now just…happen. Dots that I used to be able to connect — like, I must be thirstier because I’m sweating more, which is why I’m drinking more, which is why I’m peeing more — are now just a Rorschach test of symptoms that add up to tomorrow’s official forecast of Who The Fuck Knows What. It seems like, at this point, the information about what’s going to happen to me next is literally all old wives tales, because nobody has bothered to do the research on women’s health to nail this shit down. There’s a website called menopause.org, and it’s just page after page of non-answers on hot flashes, like “their exact cause isn’t fully understood,” and “There is no reliable way of predicting when they will start — or stop,” and each one ends with links to finding a Menopause Practitioner, who I guess, based on this website, is just a specialist in knowing they know nothing? But everyone pictured on the website looks so happy. Clearly, ignorance is indeed bliss!
Which brings me back to the original lesson that life seems to keeps teaching me over and over again: you know nothing. And just when you think you’ve come up to speed on some new stage in life, something else will come up to slap you back down.
I guess the flip side of this is that we can still be surprised, which maybe is maybe the best way to look at it. As the great sage John Mayer once said, your body is a wonderland. Maybe living like you never know what’s it’s going to do next is just another way to appreciate that.
But seriously, let’s fund some studies on menopause.