The Reward for Perimenopause? Menopause!

Menopause may sound like a booby prize, but it can be the best time of your life.

By Meredith Maran
woman office hot flash menopause picture
Photograph: istock

Perimenopause: The Storm Before the Calm

What — you think you’re having a hard time with perimenopause? Trust me: It can’t be worse than mine. You wanna talk drenching sweats in the middle of the night, right in the middle of a meeting, or smack-dab in the middle of I-can’t-remember-the-last-time-I-had-sex? You wanna talk pounds appearing mid-body like a busload of unwelcome relatives? You wanna talk hormonal horror stories? Honey, talk to me.

On second thought, don’t. Listen to me instead. Four years after I peeled my last tampon, three years after I earned my Menopause Merit Badge, approximately one million meltdowns since Hurricane Hormone first blew me away, I stand before you on terra firma, exulting: I’m free at last.

Turns out, anthropologist Margaret Mead wasn’t lying many years ago when she said, "There is no more creative force in the world than a menopausal woman with zest." Turns out, perimenopause is to menopause what a job from hell is to a tropical vacation: The only road to the best part is straight through the worst part; but once you’re sipping margaritas on the beach, you can almost forget what drove you there.

I promise you this: However dizzying your progesterone peaks, however difficult your walk through the valley of the shadow of declining estrogen and progesterone, sometime after your final menstrual period, your hormones will settle like sediment in a calm lake. And so, then, will you. I say to you that happiness, not your hypothalamus, will be your shepherd.

Now that my peripsychosis has given way to journalistic curiosity — "What is menopause, and why is it such an improvement over what came before?" — I ask my health gurus for answers.

"Menopause is a mind-body revolution," declares Christiane Northrup, MD, author of The Wisdom of Menopause. "We go back to the way we were before adolescence. Twelve-year-old girls have a very high opinion of what they know and what they want, but they lack wisdom. After menopause, we have both."

I remember myself as a 12-year-old and realize that what Northrup is saying is true. I ask her why menopause is such a positive time. "It’s a combination of hormonal and social factors," she answers. "In postmenopause, levels of follicle stimulating hormone and leutinizing hormone remain at the high levels they reached during ovulation. This makes us feel calm and more receptive to others."

"I am a lot more stable these days," I agree. "But I also find myself thinking about how much I want to do and how little time I have left. The prospect of death puts a damper on those yummy hormones."

"You’re only 56!" Northrup retorts. "Seeing menopause as the end of your life is just a belief system. You can choose a different paradigm. I’m 58, and I feel like I’m just getting started."

Northrup’s menopausal pride proves contagious. I find myself brimming with possibility, imagining the books I want to write, the places I want to see, the grandchildren I have yet to bounce on my knee.

"Menopause is harvest time," Northrup concludes. "We live the first half of our lives gathering the nutrients that come from taking care of others. But in menopause, we come home to ourselves as women. We get to live our lives from the inside out."

High on hormones and hope, greedy for more, I seek a second opinion from another hormone-hero of mine, Susan Love, MD, president of her own medical foundation and clinical professor of surgery at the UCLA Medical School. Sixty-year-old Love tells me, "Menopause is a great time of life. I exercise more, feel better, and have more energy and drive than ever. I find that not having the cycling of hormones is very leveling."

"Compared to … ?" I prompt her.

"At one point during perimenopause, I had very heavy periods," she says. "I saw a gynecologist, who recommended a hysterectomy. I was so busy, I couldn’t schedule it, and then the periods calmed down on their own. It taught me to have patience with hormonal symptoms, which usually don’t last too long. Once in menopause, we’re liberated from those hormones, and we can reclaim our power."

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