Iva talks about her struggle with depression and her worries about the impact of her lack of interest in sex on her marriage. As a Buddhist, she has a strong sense of the impermanence of her circumstances, but this doesn’t lessen the fact that, for her, facing up to “The Change” has been grueling, disconcerting and saddening.
My name is Iva. I’m 69 and post-menopausal. I entered menopause in my early-40s and was finished with it pretty quickly, probably by my mid- to late-40s.
I didn’t have any kind of family history with menopause, because everyone I knew growing up had had hysterectomies, and there was no history there for me to refer to. I was a hairdresser before I did what I do now, and I remember women in my salon having hot flashes and fanning themselves and ducking out from beneath their hair dryers– that was my first memory of seeing women going through menopause.
I became a therapist after I went back to college for my master’s degree in my late-20s. Right before that—for three years after I was a hairdresser—I taught children with behavioral disorders. Now, as a therapist, I work mostly with adults who have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Around the time I started going through menopause, a whole range of books on natural ways to deal with menopause came out, and some of them were quite helpful to me. Initially I tried hormones, but I didn’t continue taking them because around that time information began to emerge about hormone treatment being carcinogenic. The main problems I experienced were night sweats and incredible depression. In my lifetime I’d had depression, but it was the kind directly related to events, like a death in the family or a divorce. During menopause, though, was the first time I’d ever gotten so depressed I didn’t even want to be around other people, and it reached a point to where I’d gotten tired of being in the predicament of whether or not to share how I was really feeling. And so I tried vitamin B, which helped with the night sweats. And my husband learned from the natural-foods co-op about wild yams for depression, and I tried that and it actually helped, it seemed to be the missing piece among all the other supplements I was taking at the time. But I suffered for almost two years with this profound depression that was just debilitating. I could never understand clients who just stayed in bed all day, but at that time I could easily have done that and not cared. And even though these symptoms didn’t affect me in my ability to work, I believe the experience helped me to better understand people with severe depression.
I haven’t heard many other people say this, but I’d always liked having a period– I felt as if it kept me in rhythm with the earth. I really missed it and felt sort of out of rhythm immediately, and I’m not sure I ever found a way to get back in sync after that, because I don’t seem to have that same identification with things. Other folks talk about the wise women, about post-menopausal women in tribes who are given an elevated status, but it didn’t make me feel any better to know that other people defined things in that way. But I think the worst thing, and the thing I don’t discuss very much with other people because of the stigma associated with it, is that I have no sex drive. It’s common, but people don’t talk about it; and though there are some women who aren’t affected that way, I know of many more who are– I see them in therapy, and they’ll talk about it, and usually with a certain amount of shame. I’ve never gotten my sex drive back—its become a permanent thing. But there are big differences among women around this issue. For example, one of the highest levels of newly infected people with AIDS in Florida are women in nursing homes and retirement communities, and obviously these women are having consensual sex, so they must want to have sex.
My hot flashes were just over and done with by my late-40s, but sex after menopause was definitely painful—certainly there are aids for that that I use, but it’s not the real thing and it’s not the same thing, and you’ve got to have the desire to have sex along with it or it’s just like the feeling of being pre-pubescent. The analogy I always use is, say you’re invited to someone’s house to play a board game, and on the way you stop and have dinner, then you arrive and they’ve made a fabulous meal to have before the board game; and, sure, I know it’s a wonderful meal, but I’m stuffed—I’m just not hungry.
I remember being irritable when I had PMS, but I don’t remember feeling the same way during my menopause unless I don’t recall it because my depression overshadowed everything else. I was also incredibly fatigued– it was horrible, just like hitting a brick wall. I had gone to a certain gynecologist since the birth of my daughter, and when I reached menopause he didn’t know how to handle me at all; he was completely unprepared to work with women in menopause, he didn’t get it, he just looked at me sort of dumbfounded and said, well, sure, just take the hormones and you’ll be fine—it was all very offhand. And it took me three or four switches in gynecologists before I found someone who had any kind of understanding of it. There is a certain lonely feeling associated with it that has mostly to do with the medical community and their level of preparedness. Being a therapist, for some reason, I had expected more from them.
My lack of interest in sex has been very stressful on my husband, very stressful on our marriage; and disquieting for me, because I know he would like to have a different kind of relationship, and it affects his feelings of self-esteem. I think men get a great deal of their self-esteem from sexuality and it’s probably devastated him in that respect. It’s difficult knowing that, and awkward whenever we discuss it. I’ve had clients whose husbands will say to their wives, when they get home, “Give me a blowjob!”, and then that goes on and afterwards the wife pops off and cooks supper. But my husband isn’t that type of guy– he wants fulfillment, and there’s no real compromise for him that I can figure. And the loss of my sexuality is also a loss of that connection to the earth, of being in rhythm—and that’s tangible for me. Sex used to be pretty meaningful, and it was a high motivator in my life; and then to not have that motivation at all was sort of a shock to my system. It’s nice not having the mood swings that go with periods, and I feel more stable mentally, and I think my responses to people are a lot more thoughtful and less reactive. Of course all that may have something to do with my faith in Buddhism, too.
I perceived going into menopause as a negative thing because it began with extremely bad cramping and blood clotting—those were the first signs. I’d had a few awfully painful periods when I first started as a young girl, but after that they reverted to normal discomfort—but in my late-30s and early-40s it got so painful again that I couldn’t even leave the house. And then I acutely felt that loss with the rhythms of the earth, because I love being outdoors, I love being in nature. I’m not someone who complains much if it rains or storms or if we have hurricanes– I think all that’s really neat.
If there’s anything I think I might have learned from the whole process it would be just to persevere—it’s not a profound lesson. And you never know what life is going to offer you, in the sense that you could be one way one day and completely different the next. But we change so much over time and that’s the surprise to me. In the end I’m genuinely glad it’s all over with, though I don’t like the body changes–especially the weight gain, especially that ‘shelf’ on my butt right now—but those kinds of things are going to happen to all of us with age anyway, and I don’t know how to measure exactly how much of it is determined by menopause. But menopause does start setting you apart in the sense that you start ageing a little bit faster.
Because I was so relatively young at the onset, none of my good friends were going through menopause at the same time I was, so there weren’t many people who were peers available to talk to. I did talk with my older friend whom I mentioned earlier, but I can’t remember talking to anyone else, and I’m pretty open so I know I told everybody. Again, I derived most of my support from reading books, which was very helpful—it made me feel not too crazy, and gave me a positive direction to be thinking about.