I was 50 when I woke in my dark attic bedroom in Brooklyn, my heart speeding and my body incandescent with heat. I did not feel simply hot, no, I was being smothered by an internal fire that seemed to pool inside my body like lava.
At first I thought it was a heart attack.
After more flashes, over my morning bowl of oatmeal, as I rode the subway under the East River and while I taught, I realized it was not a heart attack. It was a hot flash.
I had entered menopause, that fraught transition in every woman’s life, known in an earlier time as The Dangerous Age.
Earlier life stages, going through puberty and giving birth, had opened up new worlds, the excitement of sexuality and motherhood.
But menopause arrived without absorbing directives. Instead of new obsessions and responsibilities, I felt a nothingness.
It’s a void created in part by our oversexed patriarchal culture, a world that has little respect for older women.
Valued most for our sexuality and role as mothers many women feel, once that phase is over, as I did. Marginalized. The message, never stated directly but manifesting in myriad ways, is an overwhelmingly nihilistic one: your usefulness is over. Please step to the sidelines.
…..I searched for books that might help me understand what was happening to me. I read Suzanne Sommers’ The Sexy Years and Gail Sheedy’s Silent Passages.
Both are fear-based.
Both authors are frantic to keep the veneer of a fertile femininity intact.
Both books treat menopause like a disease, something to be cured, not a transition to be celebrated.
Neither offers a sympathetic understanding of what women are going through physically, emotionally or spiritually.
Sommers and Sheehy are so concerned with propping up their femininity with hormones, that they miss the profounder subtleties of the menopausal tradition.
I found trans memoirs, by men and women who were transitioning, better at helping me understand my own hormonal transformation.
In his book The Testosterone Files, Max Wolf Valerio writes about his move from female to male, calling it “a unique intensive fire.” As he moves out from under the veil of estrogen he feels “a bright clarity.”
To Valerio hormonal changes are an “adventure.” He even goes so far as to compare his transition from female to male to menopause. “A woman I know going through menopause reports that she too feels this clarity and that sometimes she feels like a wise old owl, who can see for a very long distance.”
Valerio helped me see hormonal changes as a gain rather than a loss.
…Menopause is not a punch line.
All women will go through this change, and it’s important as a culture that we learn to understand and honor menopause, not make fun of it.
It’s an isolating period, and lame humor makes it worse.
A recent study by Myra Hunter, emeritus professor of clinical health psychology at Kings College London published in the journal Menopause, found that women in the workplace are worried about being made fun of.
“There’s embarrassment and anxiety,” she said, “about being joked about and a big concept is hiding symptoms in fear of being ridiculed.”
Why should women, in the workplace or at home, who are going through a normal female life stage be teased or demeaned?
Beyond this everyday attitude toward menopause that it is funny or gross, there is also the idea pushed by some drug companies that menopause is not mandatory.
Preying on vulnerable women who may feel disoriented by what is happening to their bodies, they argue that the right way to go through the change is not to change at all.
They define menopause, a female life cycle no different than puberty or birth, as a disease, a dangerous condition that can only be cured by hormone treatment.
There is a difference, though, between female health and what will keep us chemically configured as if still fertile.
Menopause does not negate, but dilates what it means to be a woman. No longer defined as a sex object, I am now so much more. Menopause is as much a spiritual transition as a physical one — with every flash I am reminded that my life in this body will not go on forever.
This has been valuable. I want to be more expansive in the decades I have left. Out from under the haze of female hormones, I am a new creature, one closer to my former fierce little girl self.
I feel a return to that essential me I had to leave behind once the huge disruptive force of puberty kicked in. I see now that my breeding years were an aberration rather than the norm. I can no longer reproduce but my body is far from over.
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