Anna’s Story: Sisterhood

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One woman's odyssey through the Trump presidency. My focus is centered on the many issues affecting women--but what doesn't? There's a new post every week.

In Anna’s younger days, as in mine, the Pill in it’s little, round dispenser was the real revolution for women.

Here Anna talks about mentoring her sister during menopause and finding her older friends, her other “sisters” to be her own greatest support group.

My name is Anna, and I’m 62 years old.

My mother participated in a project similar to Sanity Papers many years ago, for a book about women making creative choices in midlife called No More Frogs, No More Princes by Joanne Vickers and Barbara Thomas. She told the story of leaving my father and going on to realize further accomplishments in her life, and when she gave copies of this book to my sister and myself we practically had meltdowns, because her version of things was not our perception or memory of what had occurred at the time. My sister focused on our mother saying that she could have had the career she wanted in life if only she hadn’t had any children, which she took somewhat personally. I focused on the fact that while in reality my parent’s divorce had been prompted by an affair my mother had with the man she later married, the way she told her story was that first she left her husband, struck out on her own, started a new career, and then met her future husband. I mention this not to be critical of our mother, but to say that we all tend to re-write and re-remember our own stories. This happened when my mother was around 40 and probably in perimenopause, and as things turned out in the end what she did was the best choice for all of them.

My mother and I both had early onset of our periods and early onset of menopause. My chief memory of my mother’s menopause is her terrible hot flashes– I can recall us all being at the dinner table and my mother quietly getting up and throwing herself into a snow bank—she was always a bit of a drama queen.

I started my period when I was ten and had horrible cramps, and I’d be throwing up and having diarrhea and was totally out of commission for at least a day, and my mother would come to me and say that I didn’t need to be worried, that she’d had the same experience and that my symptoms would stop once I had a baby. Of course I never did have a baby so they never did stop, but ibuprofen was a miracle once it became available in my 20s. At the time, though, there was no knowledge of the fact that cramps were related to prostaglandins, and many male GYNs believed women who did have cramps were being neurotic and not properly managing, or even imagining, their own pain. Fortunately, when I lived in New York later on I had a celebrity GYN, a marvelous Danish guy who was a frequent guest of the Today Show, and he loved women and thought it ridiculous to assume we didn’t have real symptoms associated with our periods that couldn’t be clinically mitigated.

I took the pill for a few years when I first became sexually active. The problem in those days was that the estrogen doses were very high and so it was literally a killer pill. I was also taking tetracycline for acne, and the combination of the two gave me yeast infections all the time, and so I switched to using a diaphragm, which was a pain in the ass but certainly better for my health.

I never had a lot of questions about menopause that were hard for me to find answers to—I’d always had a strong network of women friends since college, and we talked incessantly about everything. I also tended to have, later in my life, significant numbers of older friends who’d already been through menopause and were there for me with guidance and recommendations, although everyone’s experience was different.

In my early 40s I had a female GYN who developed breast cancer, recovered from it, and then retired. She referred me to a very nice male GYN who began testing me for perimenopause at a point where I’d been a thrown back to my earlier days of menses with enormous flooding periods– it was sort of like the last gasp of the womb, and I had terrible cramps and terrible flow like I hadn’t in decades, which I was told was quite normal. By the time I was 45 I was in constant contact with my GYN, and on one particular weekend, while I was playing in a bridge tournament, I started having hot flashes every five minutes. It was unbelievable– I became uncontrollably rageful, I screamed at people, I even had to leave the room a couple of times—and though I knew what it was it still felt so strange to me. So that Monday morning I called the doctor’s office and told them I thought menopause had hit– I explained everything, and the physician’s assistant said “Oh my darling, I know just how you feel– we’ll call in a prescription for Premarin right away.” My doctor didn’t need to see me– he knew immediately what was happening—and he said “You tipped over”.

Eventually I quit seeing a GYN and instead let my internist do routine PAP smears, though I stayed on the hormones for about ten years. And then they came out with all the hormone trials and studies that weren’t very favorable to the idea of staying on them for such sustained periods of time. My mother was still on hormones in her 70s, and when she went off them she started having hot flashes again. I was not particularly interested in having this happen to me, but unfortunately all my female internists at one time or another had come down with breast cancer, and my then-internist insisted that I get off these hormones and wouldn’t prescribe them anymore. And of course at 62 I still occasionally have hot flashes and night sweats—but not nearly what they were and now simply a part of life– and my body temperature is never consistent at night, it’s blankets on, blankets off, blankets on, blankets off.

I measured the end of my menopause by the end of my periods—that’s what it came down to. And of course they stopped very suddenly with the Premarin– that tends to regulate things like a birth control pill does, and it didn’t last much longer than that. So I would say by 45 I was through with my periods even though I still had some heavy hormonal symptoms.

The day my hormones stopped was the happiest day of my life, because they ruled so many of my horrific decisions. My chemistry had always attracted me to the worst kinds of people imaginable, and once that chemistry had left my system I was able to let my intelligence rule and become totally un-attracted to assholes– it was an immense relief. I was pursued and persuaded into one last relationship that sort of woke up the hormones but was completely unsatisfactory– the basic sum of sex continues in masturbation now, and it’s not at all related anymore to a chemical hormonal drive for men. That happened when I was in my mid-40s—it was still possible to think about building a significant portion of life with somebody else—but that’s something I can no longer imagine being enticed into doing. Cohabiting in a small space with another person, giving up access to the remote control, sharing my bed with anything bigger than my fourteen-pound dog? No, just no. My drive for men has always been chiefly chemical, and I know many women in their 70s who are driven again and again to seek male companionship and marriage, because they truly love it, and it comforts them and makes them happy. But I would have to be struck by a barrage of Cupid’s arrows—or should I say errors– for that to be appealable to me.

And not having children has turned out to be an excellent development selection in life as well– truly a blessing, as I discovered recently while trying to “mother” a niece—it’s hard work, and I much prefer aunt-hood. As my sister says I have no ability to discipline and no understanding of the mindset of children, and it’s all too true. Even when my niece was a small child we would play games and I wouldn’t let her win– I’d say “It’s time for you to learn how to win or lose.” Her mother would say “Don’t play cards with your Aunt!” I’m not the mothering type.

I’m a recovering alcoholic, and the intense part of the end of my drinking was through my later 20s. I was working on Wall Street and I had a high-level career. And it was stressful too, though years ago a study was done about the professions that discovered the highest levels of stress weren’t found among doctors and lawyers and airline pilots, but rather among people running customer-return counters at department stores—people who had to deal with the public all the time and had no power and no outlet to express anything but kindness. High-level positions of authority, no matter what their pressures and demands, did not produce the same kinds of pressure and anxiety.  Anyway, I was in a long-term affair with a married man, and drinking like a fish, and when I came out of that it was to change jobs, quit drinking, and terminate the relationship—all of it was a huge change in my lifestyle and personal liberty. I was 30 then and certainly didn’t envision that I’d never have another long-term relationship, but I didn’t seek it out because I devoted so much of my 30s rebuilding my life. I moved to a new place, developed a new group of friendships, and had a very peaceful and contented life without any male input, all of which was tremendously fulfilling. So through no particular intentions—I went out on dates every once in a while—I did without any kind of relationship until my early 40s, until this last one. The liberation that happened from menopause was not all that different than what I went through in my 30s, aside from the physicality.

I stopped smoking when I was 40 and essentially went through menopause at that point, with no sex, no tobacco, and no booze– the only natural outlet for my addiction was food, and the combination of all those factors caused an enormous weight gain that’s still with me. Most people assume that gaining weight has a negative impact on romantic life but in reality it doesn’t. It’s been my observation that anybody can do anything anytime, and one of the liberations for me is being less concerned with my external appearance. When I was a professional in my 20s through 40s I dressed very well, in Chanel suits and Ferragamo shoes– I really put it on, and it was all terribly important to me. My casual clothes never mattered to me, but now I’m all about casual, and it makes no difference.

Carolyn Heilbrun was a Professor of English at Columbia University and a prominent feminist who also wrote mysteries under the name of Amanda Cross. She wrote a wonderful little book called Writing a Woman’s Life. I attended a college reunion where she was a speaker, and she talked about this exact topic—how women age– and her observation was that the first decision we all face is to dye or not to dye—and she meant our hair. That’s one of the first things you decide—how long you’re going to color your hair, and when you decide to stop doing that and go grey. The other fascinating thing she said was that you become invisible when you’re past a certain age—that men, and indeed other women, are not looking at you in the same way they did before, because they’re no longer assessing you as a sexual being. And although one would think that’s a depressing feeling, in fact it’s incredibly liberating, because you just don’t give a shit anymore—no one’s thinking about you that way and no one’s looking at you that way, and it’s really an entirely new era of life. I always feel that this new invisibility—men no longer looking at you as a sexual being, women no longer looking at you as a competitor—it’s emancipating.

I was lucky in menopause because I wasn’t working full time, though afterwards I went through all this with my sister’s menopause while she was working and raising a family. Her moods and rages were even worse than mine, and her family could not handle it, and ultimately her husband and daughter approached me and asked me to talk to her. I took her out for dinner and shared my feelings, and I said, “I know what you’re doing, I know you’re feeling that you don’t need help because we are who we are and we don’t go to doctors, but I’m telling you there’s a magical chemical cure out there for how you’re feeling right now. You can take these chemicals and be through with this.” And she did, and it was a miracle and everyone was grateful. But she went at least a full year through that nightmare without seeking medication, and it made her crazy. We all remember that episode of Pickett Fences where a woman ran over her husband with a gigantic paver roller and pled menopausal rage as a temporary insanity defense, and a lot of us identified with that level of rage. I could distinguish that rage for what it was when it was happening to me, but I couldn’t block it, I couldn’t stop it from coming on. When somebody said to me one day “I think your car needs washing” I nearly took his head off!          The fact that I had people to talk to about menopause was lucky for me. I brought this up with a group of friends last night, and several of them agreed that they not only had good experiences with their own parents, but good experiences with medical personnel. There seems to be increasing coverage of it as our society becomes more culturally progressive. And sisterhood does it– we all make it through. But I truly believe that because I wasn’t living with another person, especially not with another male, and wasn’t working, that the interactive consequences of going through the change were far less intense. Most of the people I was dealing with at the time were women, and that made menopause an easier, less damaging time in my life.

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