My name’s Harriet and I’m 66 years old. I started going through menopause in my early fifties, so in terms of the menopause cycle, I’m way beyond it.
I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and grew up in the Northeast, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. My favorite toy I had growing up was a doll, and her name was Maddie. I loved her—she was like my baby, warm and cuddly. When I was around 11 years old I wanted to be in theatre or music, some kind of an occupation where I was playing different kinds of roles. I had a fantasy world like that, and singing was the main one. When I was older, around 21, my ambition was to be a backup singer. It was more of a fantasy fulfilled in the shower, or in a car or at choir or parties—singing to myself, basically. I don’t think there’s much I could do, sadly, at my age, to pursue that or make it a meaningful reality. It’s certainly something I enjoy, but the dreams are mostly gone. Over time you let things go, and now I see myself being more of a patron of the arts, and I’d also like to make more three-dimensional art of my own.
There wasn’t anyone I knew when I was growing up who was going through menopause, and nobody told me anything constructive or affirmative about it. My earliest recollections of hearing about menopause were all negative—something to be dreaded—messy, sweaty, uncontrollable, destroys clothes, bedding has to be changed. The efforts and mechanics of it would come up, and then of course the raging moods which, again, would be negative—not humorous, not funny, not outrageous, but embarrassing and fragile and heavy. This information all came from my own family—mother, aunts, cousins, and mostly reflected their experiences of their own mothers.
When I reached menopause I didn’t have much information and made a lot of assumptions. Did anyone hand me a brochure or a book?—no. Did anyone tell me to go on a particular vitamin/mineral regime in peri-menopause?—no. It’s difficult to pinpoint when I was in menopause, because I didn’t suffer some of the symptoms—for example, I didn’t have hot flashes, which seem to be a near-universal experience. I did have a great weight gain, though my awareness of that is distinctly in retrospect. Some of my behaviors or emotions, or the degrees of my energy in expressing myself emotionally, the volatility of it, I chalked up to events in my life rather than events in my body. It never occurred to me to tie the two of them together.
But I looked at my life and wanted to change it, and for whatever reason I had the courage to make it happen. It didn’t come over menopause, it came over a period of ten or fifteen years of trying to take feelings that were negative and make them positive. Failing in attempts at cohesion in a family and marriage, my life reached a point where it made no sense to continue living in the same way. And though it certainly happened during menopause, I’m not so sure that menopause was the game-changer. It may have been, but it’s hard to go back and separate out those kinds of things. It’s the same as when two people raise their children who then leave to start their own lives, and all of a sudden they’re left home alone and feeling the empty-nest syndrome. Is that any different that retiring, when all of our roles change in that dramatic kind of way? One thing about the time of menopause is that we don’t have a lot of opportunities to redo. When you’re 30 years old, you’re rightly encouraged to pursue new opportunities, because you have the luxury to reset if anything fails—there’s time and energy to recoup, and go on and still have a good full life. We don’t have that available to us at this point in our lives. Menopause, which for me was around fifteen years ago, was a period when I realized that there’s very little opportunity to reverse course. But my acceptance level is much more integrated in my daily life now, and that probably has to do with energy. I had a lot of illusory energy in menopause—the hormones were raging, so there was a lot of false energy as intense changes were going on in my body.
I did have some friends around my same age with whom I was able to compare notes, if only slightly. My best friend went through a terrible stage for a couple of years; she had hot flashes and other physical symptoms, and complained about the mechanics of it, but she did not talk about or define anything to do with her mental or sexual aspects, because she’s someone who doesn’t engage at that level. Mine changed, in that I did not have the same amount of interest in sex as I’d previously had. Sex for me used to be fun, but during menopause it became tiring—it wasn’t negative, it wasn’t painful, it was tiring. Looking back, maybe a better word for it would be boring. Hard to know exactly, though it definitely was more mechanical. I can say today—because I’ve been alone for so long without that—that I’m sure the intimacy mattered, but how I spent my other time mattered more. I enjoyed time in my workshop and being more social, I wanted to act-out and play—I wanted to have fun and be silly. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to be youthful silly, rather to have added playtime. And there was room to be that way, insofar as my husband didn’t have any issues with that per se, and I lived in an environment in Key West where it was a twenty-four-hour circus, and if you wanted to buy into that, it was always available.
I became highly conscious and aware of the passage of time. I’d never had any interest in birthdays or the big thinking around the markers of turning 40 or 50—I just don’t view those as big ups or downs. I certainly remember, as a child, being very excited that I was going to turn a double-digit when I went from nine to 10—because I was going to be that for the rest of my life, and I though that was pretty terrific. I remember turning 21—because 21 is 21. And I recall turning 33 and making many jokes that year that I was as old as Jesus. Ridiculous things like that. But I don’t have any memories of having the shock of waking up one day and saying oh, I’m old—nothing like that.
Menopause was far more emotional than my experiences with PMS—more of having emotions out of my own control. Lots of attitudes with regard to standing up for myself, and angers—feeling tremendous angers and rages. This was in my early fifties, when I was looking back on my life over the past twenty-five years and evaluating it, and my reactions were mostly anger, and it wasn’t pretty. It came out in different ways. I was depressed and extremely volatile, reeling from depression to fury to fun and silly to riotous. I challenged my marriage—I think I would have challenged it anyway, but I may not have gone about it acting out the way I did. I would say my marriage was due to be challenged, and I’m certainly grateful for the outcome; but I probably would not have gone about things in the same way if I were at the age I am now.
Most of my important relationships have changed, and they’ve changed even yet again, but that could be patterns in the stages of life, a natural evolution. It all adds up very differently in the final analysis, but the way many of these transitions happened were directly related to how I processed those judgments and felt that pain. My marriage improved for the better, so lucky me; but my friendships ran the gamut from being tempered to ending altogether.
My husband had no reactions; he participated in no way and acknowledged nothing—that’s his personality. And it wasn’t on the public agenda for the majority of my peer group either, even though I certainly hung around with a lot of people my age—it simply was not a topic of conversation. I never referenced events in the lives of my friends to menopause, rather I used them as markers of different phases in life. I have one friend who has chosen to accept being in a difficult relationship, where my choice in the same situation is not to accept it—to work to make changes, but know that if they didn’t happen there would be opportunities to walk away.
As for my health being affected by menopause, I did feel extremely tired, and that was very recognized and apparent to me; but once the condition was clinically diagnosed, it gave me great comfort to know that it was coming from menopause and not my imagination. And I also gained weight.
I definitely felt that I had resolved a lot of old issues—lots of acceptances, lots of changes in expectations. I resolved some of my emotional issues with my mother, some with my husband, and others with members of my immediate family. And that came with a great deal of acceptance, though I’m not totally clear about how much credit I want to give menopause for any of it, even if I believe or know that I might have had different responses ten years ago. Now that I’m on the other side of these life changes, there’s no question that there was something happening to me and my body, but I can’t say it was driven by menopause. I believe it was more that the times I lived in drove it, though menopause might have exacerbated or exaggerated some of my responses. There was no blanket covering up the smoke—the top came off, everything was exposed, and the rawness of it was just what it was. That’s the puzzle—is it internal or external, is it the chicken or the egg?
I didn’t get my period until I was 15, and there were times in high school where I wanted to just drop a nickel in the machine and get a pad because I felt so left out. People were getting their periods when they were in the 6th grade, and I was going all the way to my junior year in high school. I was a late bloomer, and some of my menopausal issues may have been off in the same ways too. For the most part my periods were a non-event. The few occasions I had major cramps or significant bleeding were stunning to me, because I didn’t have those kinds of periods, it wasn’t my physical experience with it. And I saw many women suffer a great deal in the days leading up to their period—and truly suffer—because they didn’t know they had endometriosis at the time. The reality of PMS was not accepted in my house—my family, my mother, would not acknowledge or allow it, so you know what, no one had PMS in my family! But this was a very challenging process for me, and then, when I found out in my twenties that I wasn’t ever going to be pregnant, it was really irritating, it was like—what’s all this for? But the reality was not a monthly going-to-bed-with-hot-water-bottles kind of thing, and that might be consistent with my physical response to menopause.
There’s a big difference in how we’re treated as girls in early school and later when we’re in middle school and suddenly we’re pre-teen young adults. It’s what you see in the different schoolyards. But people have better memories—more distinct memories—counting and remembering by their decades of life. And reactions to women getting their period vary considerably—mothers cry, fathers cry, brothers think you’re gross—that’s what other people share. You become bonded with girls who’ve had their periods, and you feel superior to siblings who haven’t yet had theirs. All these are markers, and that has an influence on how other people around you treat it—who won’t discuss it, who will discuss it. Although my mother was a trained nurse, she basically handed me a box of sanitary napkins and quietly hung things in the bathroom, and it made me uncomfortable. Was she flaunting being a woman? Does anyone care? I don’t know.
I grew up feeling I was a girl for too long. I was in the 6th grade and people were getting their periods, and I still had my dolls all lined up in my bedroom. I wasn’t ready to let them go, and why my parents felt the need to forcibly take them away from me I have no clue. I was pretty old, and I was babysitting for other people’s children, taking care of my brother, walking babies in carriages, all of that—but I still got great comfort from my dolls, because I wasn’t mature physically, and that came from hormones, or the lack thereof.
I’d always had problems sleeping, but during menopause my patterns were the worst. I took Ambien, and then of course I had to get off of it—that was a lot of fun. Menopause is not pretty, so don’t sleep with the lights on! My advice to anybody else going through it would be to be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself, and definitely consult someone about nutrition. And then just hold on tight for the ride.