What Menopause Taught Me

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Photo: Casarsa/Getty Images

Hot flashes are inner apocalypses, singeing the body and the brain. During my first volcanic night sweat, a chaotic force moved through me. Heat rose, busting through the top of the thermometer, and swept through my body like the special effect I’d once seen on the set of a horror movie. Flames spread through a wire and rose up encircling a cabin. It was horrible, but also exquisite. Finally, I thought, God was going to communicate with me physically. Like a biblical character, I felt overwhelmed, scared, and sublime.

I waited for a voice, a vision, but all I felt was sweaty; heat seemed to be radiating out of my stomach. My bangs stuck to my forehead. I worried. Maybe it wasn’t divinity but a sign I had late-stage brain cancer. My mind raced. I’d spend my last months cultivating flowers, traveling to India, and practicing my electric guitar.

I hadn’t been looking for symptoms because, like every other premenopausal women, I didn’t think I’d suffer much from the change. I ate flaxseed and tofu. I did hot yoga and was always well hydrated. But these precautions did nothing to protect me. I suffered from insomnia, mood swings, and anxiety attacks, as well as heat that ambushed my body every hour of the day and night. I began to feel kinship, not disgust, for the red-faced ladies screaming for someone to open a window. The heat bothered me most, but I also cycled through other odd sensations. At times my tongue felt like it was burning, at other times as if I were getting electric shocks under my skin. The weirdest symptoms were inside the aura just before a hot flash: Inside that spooky, doom-filled space, I once had the acute sensation that my arms were growing out of their sockets like Play-Doh.

Puberty had also been discombobulating. I remember standing at 13 in front of the bathroom window and pulling off my T-shirt to stare, freaked out, at the new puffiness around my nipples. I’d been confused and overwhelmed then, but I also had the time to spend whole Saturdays lying on my bed listening to the same John Denver album, or I could act out with my equally revved-up girlfriends, driving by our male classmates’ split-levels while screaming the lyrics to “Desperado.”

Now, at 50, it was impossible to indulge in hormonally inspired behavior. I had a grown-up life with layers of complicated relationships and work responsibilities. At first I didn’t feel I could hold it all together. I wanted to kill menopause, shut it down completely. I begged my doctor for estrogen. She told me that because my mother had breast cancer it would be dangerous. Besides, she said, its best to go au naturel. If I needed them, she’d prescribe antidepressants.

I’d been on and off medication for years to deal with anxiety. But before my first hot flash I was in a good patch, and I didn’t want to go back on them now. Instead I tried natural remedies. I ate soy-rich foods, like yams. I took herbal supplements with names like “i-cool,” “Hot Flash Freedom,” and, my favorite, “Mellow Pause.” I shelled out cash for expensive estrogen creams that my doctor eventually told me were worthless. I took tinctures of black cohosh and vitamin E. I swam seven days a week for an hour. I cut out wine and sugar. None of this had any effect. The only thing that worked was acupuncture; after a treatment I slept better, felt calmer, flashed less. But the heat always rose up again, as well as the spooky aura before. Within a day or two I was up in the darkest part of the night, feeling as if I was losing my mind.

Often, as I lay in the dark, I thought of my mother in the years our relationship had been at its worst. I was a teenager and she in her late 40s when she stalked our un-air-conditioned Virginia ranch house wearing only a slip, her face pink and sweat-covered. When asked what was wrong, she’d say nothing. I felt more disdain for her than pity. I often found her in the only cool place in our house, the unfinished basement, sobbing so hard she could hardly catch her breath.

If in my mother’s era menopause was rarely spoken of, in my own it’s a comedic premise. Joke websites have sections specifically for change-of-life humor. “If prison guards were all menopausal women, there would be no more crime,” or, “Trusting a menopausal women to control her emotions is like trusting a tornado to mow your lawn.”

Women, too, cast themselves as unstable lunatics. One writer joked that she’d called the police to complain about all the things menopause had stolen from her. Her waist. Her sex drive. Her sanity. Another compared menopause to demonic possession, concluding that she’d be more stable with a demon inside of her. The writer Sandra Tsing Loh called her transition a “wacky hormonal dance.” Her book, The Madwoman in the Volvo, begins with Loh pulling her car over on the freeway because she is crying hysterically over the death of her daughter’s hamster.

Besides lunatic-in-the-midst-of-a-lady breakdown, the only other menopausal icon is the crone. A woman I know encouraged me to perform a “croning” ceremony. We would meet in the forest on the night of a full moon. By candlelight I’d chant, “Come, baby crone, come, butterfly,” then evoke the seven directions before finally kneeling down to kiss the earth.

Call me superficial, but I don’t want to be a crone. If there were a ceremony where I welcomed my new, Bowiesque androgynous self, I might be down, but I don’t want to become a holy hag. Besides, I don’t live in a tribal culture that has a place of honor waiting for older women. I live in the patriarchal, youth-obsessed, porn-drenched USA, where in films 27-year-old women are regularly paired with 50-year-old men, where women inject botulism into their foreheads to look younger, where the message to older women is: You’ve served your purpose, now it’s time to step aside.

Maybe, I reasoned, the problem was that I should be dead. Scientists speculate that the only reason menopause exists is that modern medicine and better diet have pushed women to live beyond their procreative necessity. Newer research has uncovered the “grandmother hypothesis,” in which middle-aged women “give up” their reproductive potential so they can focus on their offspring’s offspring. While raising my daughter I liked this idea, but now that I’m in the older group, caring for grandchildren does not seem enough of a purpose for the next 40 years of life.

I continued casting around, feeling less and less like my old self as the hormones continued to recede. Finally, when I was about to give up hope, I discovered the female killer whale. Beside humans, only two other creatures go through menopause, and one of these is the killer whale. These creatures travel the sea in pods — complex, cohesive family groups. Females procreate from 12 to 40, but they live, like women, 30 to 40 years more.

A recent study in Current Biology found that older females lead their pods, particularly in times when salmon, their main food source, is scarce. The elder females hold crucial ecological knowledge, and all whales, even younger males, prefer to follow the older females. The study goes on to speculate that menopause developed in early human hunter-gatherer societies for the same reasons it did in killer-whale pods: Stopping reproduction gave women the freedom they needed — not to care for grandkids, but so they could lead.

It made so much sense. I felt wild because I was wild — not shaky and insecure, but rattling with a raw and primal energy. I felt an odd kinship to the prepubescent girl I’d been. My breeding years were an aberration of life rather then the norm. I was returning — older, wiser — to my original state. After so many years I was finally slipping out of the haze created by female hormones, a veil that had kept me docile and accommodating. Yes, my breeding period was over, but fertility continued, larger and more mysterious. I was called by God, remade in heat, and about to break into dark and expansive waters. Like the killer whale, I also knew how to find the food.

What Menopause Taught Me