The Menopause Before Menopause
Technically, I’m not yet going through menopause. But it hardly matters. We are now told that perimenopause can begin at 35 and last for 15 years. In fact, I imagine the time is not far off when the medical community will spring pre-perimenopause on us, which basically begins at 19 and accounts for the obsessive need to buy overpriced eye shadow and worry too much about where the good party is, characteristics common to women in their 20s.
But I digress. (Is losing your train of thought another symptom of perimenopause? I can’t remember.) The point is, I’m thick in the middle of that peculiar time in a woman’s life that the esteemed Susan Love, MD, author and pioneer of the breast cancer advocacy movement, has noted is the inverse of puberty, when the reproductive hormones that took a few years to sputter on are now taking a few years to sputter off. "Basically, menopause is puberty in reverse," Love has said. "The symptoms are similar. Mood swings, sore breasts, PMS to the max, hot flashes. You name it, and some woman has had it."
Recently, I visited a Web site where I learned of perimenopausal horrors that had never occurred to me (the stuff listed by Love is no surprise, after all) like the ominous sounding urinary symptoms, which cleverly include both having the urge to pee all the time as well as not being able to stop from peeing when you laugh, sneeze, cough or contemplate reading the new translation of War and Peace.
The hilarity of this particular site is that after it tells you that your periods might get closer, more irregular and heavier (with midcycle spotting), that sex will become painful because vaginal tissue gets thinner and drier, that you can also have more yeast infections, not to mention urinary tract infections—and did I mention sex will suck?—and that you won’t be able to sleep, that you’ll be bitchy as hell because of changing estrogen levels, coupled with the stress of kids leaving home and parents coming home (to die, most likely), they end on an upbeat, reassuring note: Depression is not a symptom of menopause.
Is this puberty again?
As I recall, depression also isn’t a symptom of puberty, another time when you feel betrayed by your body and want to leap out of your skin. Which got me thinking. Maybe, if perimenopause resembles puberty in so many ways, then perhaps we’ve already got the skills on hand to deal with it. Hop into the Wayback Machine. Remember eighth grade, when in the mirror you saw a blotchy-faced, stringy-haired freak who couldn’t possibly be you? Still, you had to go to school. You had to stand up in class and give that book report on Treasure Island. Even though you wanted to go into your pink and orange room, lock the door and never come out. You just learned to soldier on.
This very essay is a case in point. I really can’t believe I’m writing it. I understand that menopause is a natural part of life and not a horrifying affliction, but I’m no Cybill Shepherd, who says she had the first hot flash on prime time television (on her eponymous sitcom) and wrote a cringe-worthy song called "Menopause Blues," which she performed on Oprah. Bless her heart. Really. Part of me wishes I possessed the oversharing gene so I could croon about vaginal dryness on national television, but I come from a line of cranky, secretive immigrants. To quote my stubborn Polish grandmother, who died in her mid-50s of uterine cancer, which could have been cured by a simple hysterectomy: "That’s why they call them your privates, damn it."
In the same way as a little girl you never imagined you’d wind up as one of those teenagers who made out with boys, as a perimenopausal person you never imagined submitting to middleaged spread, getting smashed and doing the electric boogaloo at your high school reunion, or falling in love at 40 with someone you would have once avoided like roadkill. But things change. And suddenly Aunt Lillian’s hot flash jokes aren’t stupid, but bulletins from the front.