My name is Evelyn Rysdyk and I am 60 years old. I’m an author and Shamanic teacher; prior to that I worked in advertising in New York.
My first ambition in life was to be an artist of one sort or another. I attended art school, and following that I worked in commercial illustration and design. I also freelanced for authors, and was involved in many other kinds of related graphic projects. I was always busy with my hands making two- or three-dimensional artwork.
I would say I entered peri-menopause around the age of 37; my first period was at age nine. Menopause was never articulated in my family, and when I was going through my own menopause I was discussing it with my mother who said hum, I might have had a hot flash once, and I thought, oh dear, this is not going to be much help at all! In retrospect, I think my paternal grandmother must have had a hellacious menopause, because I remember her having awful sweats and getting terribly flushed, but basically she just blew it off. If my grandmother was having a raging case of the bitches, to us it was simply a matter of the way she was—like okay, give her a wide berth!
Prior to experiencing irregular periods I didn’t do any of my own research on menopause. When I was in my mid to late thirties I consulted my gynecologist and she restarted me on birth-control pills, and we went on our merry way for a time. Then, in spite of being on the pill, I started to have highly dysfunctional uterine bleeding—super-heavy periods, and they were excruciating, the way I remember them being in my early teens. By the time I was 40 I was pretty much bleeding a little bit every day, and the osteopath said well, we’ll help you along with extra treatments, and it’s simply your age and it’ll taper off. A couple of years later I had an incredible hemorrhagic episode where I stood up from the toilet and basically the entire lining of my uterus literally dropped out. That involved an ambulance ride to the hospital, and the dawning realization that I wouldn’t need a D & C, as apparently my body has already taken care of that on its own.
I went back to my local gynecologist and she sat me down with my hospital chart and told me I had two enormous ovarian cysts, a huge fibroid, endometriosis, and several related extenuating issues, all of which she said were usually a consequence of a surplus of estrogen. So we went along for a while where I would get a different kind of birth control pill, a protocol which modulated the dosing so that I only had about four periods a year—it was terribly convenient, though I’m sure it wasn’t good for my body. In the meantime, I asked the gynecologist where all this estrogen was coming from, and she believed there were multiple of sources, including the fact that I was overweight and there’s estrogen activity from fat, and there are also elements in the environment that our bodies will interpret as being estrogen.
At that point I read Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanosky and John Peter Meyers, and learned from them about the effects of endocrine disruption on our bodies from the environmental persistence of pesticides and herbicides, and the pervasive industrial use of aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene and its derivatives. So at that point—I was then 42—I went completely organic in all my food, which reduced my symptoms considerably; it made a huge difference, because at least I was getting the xenoestrogens—those mimics of estrogen—flushed out of my system.
But then, as my menopause progressed, I began to gain weight a little bit at a time, and in a steady relentless progression. And during that time I also got really depressed, not in an acute way, but with the experience of an overwhelming kind of heavy darkness. I alternated between being suicidal and homicidal—I just couldn’t decide who needed to die!
At that point, one of my colleagues was doing experiments in functional medicine, which focuses on the interactions between the environment and the endocrine, digestive, and immune systems. She prescribed a wide range of supplements, along with something called EstroFactors, used to promote the excretion of non-beneficial estrogen. Apparently there are three different kinds of estrogen, which she referred to as the good, the bad and the ugly, and EstroFactors helped throw off the latter. She also recommended SAMe for mood, and not only did my disposition improve, but my hot flashes—which had been claustrophobic and tight and a feeling of my body having no way to dissipate heat—went to practically zero. The regimen that she put me on helped a great deal, but the previous ten years had really sucked! I’d suffered with situational depression, and in retrospect I’d probably been despondent my entire life. I tend to be sort of an up-and-down person, that’s the nature of the creative mind, but I’d never before had that oppressive kind of depression. And menopause smacked me upside the head and put me back in a hole, and that felt suffocating– it sort of crushes the life out of you, like being stuffed into a rigid corset.
Menopause is as course-correcting as puberty. It’s like another kind of puberty, and though it’s just as much of an emotional and physiological rollercoaster, no one tells you anything, unless you’re fortunate enough to have had parents who were willing to talk about those kinds of things. I always had the sense that menopause was going to happen to me when I was 50. I didn’t expect to start having symptoms in my late thirties, and my reaction was, what’s all this about peri-menopause– I’d never even heard of that! I simply cannot understand why we don’t give the same kind of attentive care to this issue that we’re so mindful of providing to public-school kids around puberty. It messes with you to such a degree that by the time you’ve reached your late thirties you’re usually in a relationship, you’ve usually got a job to hold together, you’re managing a household and raising kids—you’ve got all these happenings and demands that are far more complicated than what you’ve got to deal with when you’re in school and going through puberty.
My connection to spirit and nature are the only dependable threads in my life, the only unshakeable connections, because even close relationships and the meaningfulness of work are weirdly shaded when you’re in menopause. Being linked to my spiritual dimension is always the lifeline, but I still need tangible practical support to handle the impacts of menopause on the temporal plane. You can have that solid ground of your spirituality to stand on and you’ll still require external communal support as a human being. And that’s probably more vital for women—not to be sexist, but I feel that women use community more in a way than men. And at least having people around who are open and willing to talk about their menopause experiences would be extremely helpful, even though most of us have very different realities in that scenario. There are common experiences, like hot flashes, but by and large you have to learn how your own body reacts—for example how to modulate your adrenaline to avoid having a colossal hot flash. So if you’re going to give a presentation or teach a seminar, deal with it before hand, because you don’t want to have a hormonal surge when you step out onto that stage—it’s not going to work, you’ll be beet red and soaking wet, and that’s not an optimal way to present yourself. Learn how to manage that. And when you’re going out for dinner or to a party, stay away from the wine—don’t have any alcohol because if you do you’re pretty much guaranteed to trigger a hot flash!
As far as my symptoms during PMS and then my symptoms later in menopause, I don’t believe there was a great deal of correlation or overlap. I didn’t have emotional disturbances or lose sleep during PMS, as I did in menopause. There’s no doubt that all of it sucked, but it sucked in different kinds of ways. For instance, I’ve seen women who are incredibly bright and who used to function at high professional levels lose significant memory function in menopause, with aphasia and even global memory loss. And in so many cases that is strictly menopausal, because once they come out the other side of it, once they’ve lived past it, their brains bounce right back.
The other thing that was helpful to me during menopause happened after one of my surgeries, when I began writing down some of my thoughts; my first book actually came out of those early post-operational commentaries. Because I’d always been in the visual arts it felt odd to be writing, but when I was done putting down all my thoughts I had a sizable manuscript, and it was well received. The second house I submitted to published it, and since then that’s become an important part of my creativity—somewhere through that process I actually became a writer. That’s an interesting and critical kind of benefit coming out of my time in menopause, and I think it’s possible to use menopause as another stage of growth and evolution and change.
That said, things would be far easier if we weren’t blundering around in the dark. In that phase I felt like I was working without a net—I had no idea what to expect, I had to be prepared for just about anything, I was always wondering is this going to happen, is that going to happen. It’s like a gelatin over a camera lens, a film over all attempts to maintain your ordinary life, that colors your existence with this uniquely personal process that’s going on about which you’re largely clueless. And because it’s affecting virtually everything you do, there’s a sense of urgency to figure it out, but you’re not resolving or unraveling it as you go along because your body is changing and your symptoms are shifting—protocols that worked six months prior may not work now. I cannot even imagine how people raising children get through it—forget about it!
My partner was very supportive, but her menopause is basically still ongoing, and that’s not terribly encouraging to me as a guidepost. My partner is sixteen years older than I am, and even now she’s repeatedly having hot flashes, and I’m thinking wait a minute, how many years am I going to have to do this? But there’s the example that proves the rule—our menopauses are completely different.
In terms of affecting me at work, I’m sure I was far more short-tempered than usual; I can be fairly abrupt with people when I’m stressed, and menopause was stress, constant stress, so I’m sure that at times I was really a bitch. Looking back, I was probably deeply unpleasant to be around on many occasions, because I can be hell on wheels and I know it!
I genuinely celebrated the last period I had—it was hallelujah, forty years of that is quite enough. But even though I never wished to have children, this meant that my fertility, in a concrete sense of the word, was done with. I wanted to honor the idea that my body had once harbored that capability and design, so I conducted a fire ceremony with a little Peruvian cloth doll and bid good-bye to that aspect of my physical being, and gave thanks for what my body did perceive as its creativity. And it was actually quite powerful—I had saved a little bit of menstrual blood from my last few periods, made that into a powder, sprinkled it on the doll and burned it, and it felt like I had achieved a good piece of closure. To consciously shut the book on the biological use of my uterus felt very right. That entire period from nine to 49 around my periods and reproduction and freaking out about getting pregnant came full circle.
My advice to women would be to talk to other women. When people come to us in our professional capacity we send them to have their hormones screened. When women come to us with emotional or physical duress, frequently what’s going on with them is that their body is changing, so it’s important to have that kind of a baseline evaluation, and then afterwards begin talking to your peers. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that’s skittish about biological and sexual functions, and in a country founded in large measure by patriarchs and puritans, so it can be highly challenging. But women have to keep at it, they have to know they’re not broken, and it shouldn’t have to be an excruciating experience. Women get divorced when they’re in menopause, their partners leave them, they lose their jobs—all this negativity goes on that is preventable to a degree, or at least manageable. On the other hand, no longer having time for things that don’t matter or aren’t working is the positive side of menopause, because you’re down to your last nerve. And it can be a time of enormous creativity, because it’s ultimately a question of how do I take care of me. Myself is what’s getting the attention. Whatever’s going on, this is big—we’re called upon to know what we want the next phase of our lives to be and how we’re going to express that, even though more times than not we’re losing the big picture in just trying to manage the effects. We need a midlife midwife– we have help in being born, and help in dying, but nobody guides us through this dramatic change that happens in menopause. That needs to be addressed and corrected.
In Western culture we tend to be competitive as women, particularly when we’re in our fertile years, and a coordinated community of women open to talking about menopause that included older women would be a laudable development. We don’t tend to be multi-generational in the function of our daily lives: we don’t have grandparents or parents who share our homes any more, most people don’t have friends who are from other generations, and in the absence of that kind of peer grouping women don’t share their stories around fertility and childbirth and menopause. That piece is sorely missing in our culture, and without it we’re all left to muddle through on our own, and often not very gracefully.
Four of Evelyn’s books on the shamanic experience
Four of Evelyn’s books on the shamanic experience