My name is Betty and I’m 49. I have my own business that operates from offices in New York, New Jersey and Florida.
According to my gynecologist I’m in peri-menopause, and apparently I also have PMDD, which is the acronym for pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder. I was diagnosed with that about four years ago. Once I got sober, I learned I was dealing with depression that came on for two weeks of each month around my period; half of the month I was fine, and the other half I was so debilitated that I couldn’t get out of bed, so finally I went to my gynecologist, who happens to be my age, and gave her my list of symptoms. One is that if anybody touches me or even comes within a foot of me I hit the ceiling, and in my last few years living in Hell’s Kitchen in New York I was walking out into massive crowds of human beings every morning. She asked if I was in physical pain when anybody brushed against or touched me and I said yes, I am; when you’re on the subway platform do you want to kick somebody onto the tracks? and I said as a matter of fact I do; and that’s how she came to the conclusion that I was pre-menstrual dysphoric. She prescribed birth control pills for me to take along with my antidepressant and it just went away, which was absolutely amazing. I’ve always been out of control the day right before my period, I eat everything in sight, I’m a bottomless pit and it’s pretty revolting; I feel like Mia Farrow in that kitchen-table scene in Rosemary’s Baby where she’s shoving raw meat into her mouth.
I’m also a DES baby; I got my first Pap smear when I was 12 or 13, because my mother took DES while she was pregnant with me; it was an early form of synthetic estrogen that millions of American women were prescribed in the 1960’s to prevent miscarriages and premature labor, before anyone seemed to know better. That puts me at forty-times the average risk for developing cervical cancer, which is nearly one hundred percent curable if you catch it early. So I can’t mess around with that.
My mother had a very hard time with menopause for ten years, and there were all sorts of different drugs available when she was going through it that were not terribly great. She was taking Prempro, which she didn’t have a good experience with. Apparently she had really horrible hot flashes, to the point where she and her husband started sleeping in separate rooms—she would have the air conditioning cranked on polar and he would be so cold he’d get sore throats. Sometimes she would want me to sleep in with her because we would stay up all night and gab–it was a women’s tradition in my family, my mother would lay in bed with my grandmother and talk and we did the same thing, and I would have a down comforter and two throws on top of me and she’d be laying there with the covers off still just totally overheated and gasping for air. I also remember her being irritable, and I suppose there was depression around her menopause too, though she’s only now coming to terms with that aspect of herself. She’s from a generation of women where all of that was stigmatized, who were raised in times where the answer to practically every female psychological problem was to warehouse them in asylums. If anything positive came from shuttering those places it’s that they weren’t simply putting women away anymore for so-called hysteria, they had to start coping with it in mainstream ways that allowed women to remain among, and function and thrive within, the larger society.
The story of Mary Todd Lincoln, which I know is one of the points of departure for Sanity Papers, has strong elements of bipolarity. I had a serious boyfriend who lived in Cincinnati whom I’d been on and off again with for years and years when I was living in New York in my thirties, and he was bipolar which is sadly what kind of ended things for us. But I learned a great deal about one of the classic manifestations of bipolar disorder, being wildcat-like spending sprees followed by deep depressions, and Mary Todd Lincoln was a prime example of that particular rapid cycling behavior. We would talk about it all the time, how people would self-medicate with alcohol or get involved in other kinds of unhealthy or irrational compensations, and after a certain point there’s nothing you can do if it’s been going on for an extended period of time.
I actually don’t have any questions about menopause that I need or want answers to; I want it to come right away and be over with as quickly as possible. It’s not even so much my menstrual period that I care about, rather I’ve gone through so much emotionally over the years–from alcoholism to clinical depression to PMDD, that I can only assume from past experience that menopause is going to be a living hell for me.
I’m not willing to put up with or tolerate a lot of what I used to. Three years ago I moved from Manhattan to New Jersey, because my neighborhood had become so crammed with foreign tourists and chipper 20-somethings that it’s entire character changed; not only was I no longer comfortable there culturally, I needed more space for myself indoors and out. I used to be far more flexible and giving in the broader sense, but now only certain people matter to me, and my priorities have changed in terms of what I care about, and I think all of that comes with turning 50. I won’t jump into projects as willingly or give away as much of my time as I used to. And I love to sleep, I come from a family of marathon sleepers and if I could jump into bed and sleep for a month I’d be totally happy, even more so now than before. I can sleep for forty-eight to seventy-two hours at a stretch–I’m never as happy as when I’m sleeping. When I first got sober and had ninety days, I had a month off and went to Texas to see my mother, and I slept for two weeks. My mother is also in recovery–she stopped drinking in 1989–and she used to be a nurse, and at one point I woke up and said to her I’m so sorry mom, I came to see you and all I do is sleep. She said to me if you had to have an appendix operation tonight the anesthesia wouldn’t be out of your system for a year, and it’s the same with all your drinking over an extended time–it’s not going to be gone in ninety days. I don’t believe in the Ten Commandments, I believe in the Seven Deadly Sins, and I can be the biggest sloth on the face of the planet.
It’s hard to delineate what physical changes have happened that I could pinpoint to my place in the menopause cycle. In the last three years I’ve certainly gained weight, and I’m sure being in peri-menopause doesn’t help, but in 2013 I’d also reached fifteen years of sobriety and decided then to quit smoking cigarettes. Being a total Scorpio I’m either doing something or not doing it, there’s no grey area for me; so I went out and bought a bag of lollipops the size of a small child and three hundred nicotine patches and still haven’t smoked, yet.
Then about two years ago I got mugged. I was going into my apartment building loaded on one arm with a shopping bag with a huge frozen lasagna and on the other arm my purse, so I was definitely top heavy and must have looked like a real target. This guy threw me down on the tile floor of my lobby and I landed hard on my kneecaps and that did some damage, so I’m only now beginning to be able to walk regularly and all the time again. My weight gain was an unfortunate but inevitable combination of depression and lack of mobility and stopping smoking and peri-menopause, just a piling-on of things that came together almost simultaneously.
There are women who are going to ask for help around menopause and there are women who are not. When I have a problem I ask for help, and if I’m not getting the answers I want I keep whacking away until I find somebody to give me an informed and right explanation or not. That’s the way I was educated at Tufts—throw stuff at the wall until something sticks. You keep going and going until there’s an answer that works for you, and sometimes the answer is that there is no answer. I would go to Harvard at night because it was cheaper for credits, and at Harvard there’s a hard-cast set of rules; Harvard’s about Harvard, whereas Tufts is more about innovation and independent thinking. When I was studying Socrates at Harvard I’d have to read twelve different books on Socrates regarding the same subject in Socrates, and I’d be asked to find the differentials between the twelve texts. It was a great exercise in rhetoric, but Tufts would tell me to read those same texts and arrive at the aspects I’d do differently. That’s my own approach to life.