When a girl reaches puberty a rite of passage arrives: menstruation a.k.a., menses, or as it will become commonly known as “getting your period.” Who the hell came up with that euphemism? It’s certainly not the end of something but only the beginning of a long, sometimes arduous journey. Must have been a man.
When this event occurs I believe that every girl should be handed a manual where the first statement reads: “Welcome to Womanhood. For the next thirty years or so, you will be traveling on Hormone Hell Highway, hold on to your hiney!” (A rite of passage, huh? Uh… I’ll pass!) The manual continues; “Not only will your hormones wreak havoc with your moods but your body will experience very uncomfortable and painful sensations, i.e., sore boobs, cramps, headaches and bloating, just to mention a few. Blood will flow from a part of your body that logically, you’d think, should not be flowing from. The process will be messy, inconvenient and generally a pain in the ass (well, not the ass.) You will soon learn why it’s called the curse.”
In 1968, when I turned 13 tampons (You want me to put that where?) were on the market but my mom chose pads (or Kotex) as the discomfort of choice, thank God. There were no adhesive pads that easily pressed onto your panties and definitely nothing with wings. There were sanitary belts and sanitary napkins. Again, who was in charge of naming these feminine products? Because these napkins did not exactly resemble the kind that you would want to wipe your face with! In my day, (God, I’m old), the pads were bulky and cumbersome. Wearing them felt like you were straddling a small pony. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I have to discuss the so called “belt”; an odd looking apparatus you wore around your waist. Dangling in the front and back were sort of elastic triangular shaped pieces with garter hooks at the ends. Ah yes, I remember it all too well. My mom retrieved one that she had worn from underneath the bathroom sink. (Note to Mom: you couldn’t buy me a new one?) She then demonstrated on me how to attach the giant-sized napkin to the garter hooks; passing on a mother/daughter tradition that has taken place for years. Was that pride on her face or pity? “You are becoming a woman,” she said. What?!!!! I’m only 13; I still play with Barbie’s! Thus, I was officially initiated into the ‘Sisterhood of the Traveling Pads.’ And this memory was officially cemented in my mind as one of the most embarrassing and humiliating experiences of my life. Thanks, Mom.
So, fully equipped with the tools of the trade, so to speak, I awkwardly walked to school that day not having a clue what becoming a woman meant. But I did soon discover what a horrible idea this elastic belt was. It was constantly twisting and shifting causing me to wonder if the Kotex was still in the right place.Was it leaking through my pants? Oh my God, I’m wearing white! Thus I uttered for the first time a question I would ask my girlfriends for years to come, “Is there something on my butt?” Thank God, not soon afterward more convenient products were designed. Must have been a woman.
Thus begins decades of waiting for “Aunt Flo” or “your friend”,(hardly), to arrive every month, two of the many coded euphemisms used in the company of boys. Also popular was OTR or “on the rag” but that was used mostly by the boys when you were being bitchy as in; “Oh, she must be on the rag.” Depending on your circumstances, when your period does arrive, you’re either annoyed or relieved and when it doesn’t, anxious or ecstatic. (Think about it.)
Then you reach your 40’s or 50’s and experience another rite of passage; menopause, a.k.a. “the change”, although I’m not sure what I’m supposed to change into; if it’s a bitch then I’ve been successful! I’ve read that there are actually 34 symptoms of menopause. 34! Heart palpitations, hot flashes, mood swings, sudden tears, irritability, depression, anxiety, loss of libido, trouble sleeping and fatigue for example. I probably shouldn’t have read the list as I tend to be suggestible and now I can expect to experience every one! This is going to be a bumpy ride. It’s like having PMS 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Thank God I live alone.
If getting my period marked the onset of womanhood, what did menopause mean? Was I no longer a woman? Was I going to morph into a man? Well, in some ways I have. One of the less debilitating but nonetheless disturbing occurrences is increase in facial hair. I spend more time than I care to peering into my 5x magnifying mirror tweezing mustache and chin hairs that seem to grow overnight. But in other areas, my hair is thinning, (If you know what I mean.)
I’ve read that a woman may have a similar menopausal experience as her mother. Oh no, I’m in trouble. If this is true in my case, I can look forward to spending a lot of time in bed in a darkened room wearing a sleep mask and an ice bag with an ample supply of tranquilizers. When my mom was experiencing her own rite of passage, I was around 15 so my own hormones were just coming to life. For the next few years it was the battle of the hormonally challenged. It wasn’t pretty. My poor Dad; living with two crazy women. He spent a lot of time in the garage.
I guess one of the first indicators that I was entering this new phase of life were the hot flashes. They feel like you’re burning up from the inside. I especially feel it in my face and neck which becomes very red and I sweat profusely. And I never know when they will happen. I’ve incorporated a lot of gym wearing apparel and I frequently wear running shoes to give the appearance I just did an hour of aerobics.There’s also the snacking which results in the insidious weight gain and bloating. I crave the very things that exacerbate menopausal symptoms; carbs and sugar. (I’m eating a chocolate chip muffin right now.) I don’t sleepwalk but I do sleep eat. I’ll wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and with eyes half-closed make a bee line for the potato chips. And don’t get me started about the bladder control issue. (Damn, I knew I should have been doing those Kegel exercises!) Anything can cause leakage; sneezing, coughing, laughing, breathing. Great! I thought that one of the benefits of menopause was not having to wear pads ever again!
But I would trade hot flashes and compulsive eating for the mood swings and crying at the drop of a hat, sometimes for no reason. For example: I was in my car at a red light and spotted a “Lost Dog” flyer posted on a telephone pole. I imagined this poor, little creature wandering the streets looking for his family – hungry, confused and lonely. (Crap, now I’m crying again!) I’ve always been sensitive about animals so this issue keeps coming up. But, now my reactions are over the top. If I see anything on TV depicting neglected or abused animals I will change the channel as fast as I can and run for the Oreos. So, I tend to avoid the Animal Planet channel unless it’s a program about people being attacked by animals. On TV, I’m more drawn to the classic movie channel. But even there I have to be careful. One Sunday I watched “An Affair to Remember” followed immediately by “The Way We Were” and ended up in a fetal position clutching a Kleenex box and a pint of Hagen Daz. This heightened sympathy for animals has also caused me to be very vocal about my feelings. (Not always a good thing). My neighbor owns a parrot who is also very vocal. For the most part, it doesn’t bother me. But, one morning the bird was repeatedly saying, “Hi…, Hi…, Hi…,” for a very long time. My neighbor, (who by the way, I believe to have serious mental issues), in turn repeatedly screamed for the poor parrot to shut up, (Hello it’s a talking bird, you idiot.) This battle of wits continued for several minutes until I couldn’t take it any longer and yelled out the window, “Say hi to your damn bird!” Now, I’m sure that my neighbor thinks I’m the one with the mental problem, which ironically can be confused with menopause.
It’s while in my car, as well, that I feel strongly about voicing my opinions. I didn’t used to yell at other drivers or pedestrians. I live in Los Angeles and the fear of being shot is not unrealistic. But now, I seem to be channeling my inner Don Rickles. I was driving on a busy street recently when all traffic stopped because two self-absorbed, witless teenagers idly walked diagonally across the road! As I passed them I yelled out my window, “Use the crosswalk!” Then later that day, I came across a woman who was parked illegally in a school zone. I thought it my duty to let her know although I’m sure that she did. It was just too inconvenient to drive around until she did find a place.So as “kindly” as I could I said, “You know that’s not a parking space, right?” Okay, I didn’t do this but I thought about it!
My hearing may be affected as well. I don’t believe that it is actually one of the symptoms but something odd happened in a recent therapy session, (Been going for years, still neurotic.) My doctor and I were discussing how it seemed that I was receiving signs to take care of an on going health issue.She said, “Maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.” But what I heard, (seriously), was “Maybe the uterus is trying to tell you something.” I remember thinking that this was a strange thing to say, even for a therapist. But also thinking that this was somehow part of her technique I replied, “Are you saying that you’re the uterus?” (Can you say mother issues?)
So far for me, the last 4 or so years haven’t been pleasant but I haven’t taken to my bed for more than a day, (okay, two, at the most.) When I’m feeling really down, I’ll usually call my sister for support. She is ten years older and has been through this and remained sane, for the most part. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not crazy. Plus, my sister always makes me laugh. I also take comfort in my two beautiful grandkids; Hayley, 6 and Ethan who’s 3. When I’m with them, I can’t help but smile. I believe that it’s almost impossible to remain depressed when you’re in the company of children or animals. Enter Marley. The kid’s one-year old, big, rambunctious black Lab. When he’s not jumping or slobbering on me, he’s chasing Eva, their cute, little black and white kitten. She’s so adorable, at least when she’s not in Marley’s mouth. I myself own a mellow, 5 year old cat, Scout, who is probably the only living creature that can stand to live with me right now. He’s pretty much clueless about my moods. When I have a crying spell, he doesn’t ask me what’s wrong. (If he ever does, I’d better change my meds.) He’s just there. And just the act of petting him is soothing and comforting. Animals have a sixth sense for there are moments when he’ll be very affectionate and won’t leave me alone.
So, as women, having to endure menstruation, PMS, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause, did we get the raw end of the deal? In the Garden of Eden when Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, I think God should have rewarded her, not punished her and all womankind for eternity. At least Eve was curious and showed initiative while Adam was content to remain somewhat clueless. Or maybe God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that only a woman had the strength to bear these painful rites of passage. Maybe God also knew that although they might be difficult, the rewards are well worth it. Because what I’ve come to realize is that with each stage of suffering we give birth to something beautiful, literally and figuratively. Menstruation marks the time when we emerge from the cocoon of childhood and into the mysterious, exciting and confusing world of womanhood; the proverbial caterpillar to butterfly metamorphous. Pregnancy and childbirth catapults us into the realm of awe, fear, love and joy of motherhood. And now menopause, well, I’m not sure yet who or what is going to emerge. Although my ovaries are “drying up”, as my doctor so eloquently put it, I am discovering that in other ways I’m blossoming. I’m reaching a new place of self-acceptance and dare I say maturity. Menopause is like a huge exhale; ridding myself of a lifetime of baggage that has weighed me down for so long. I’ve been holding in my stomach for over 40 years, for God’s sake, it’s time to let it out, once and for all. I’m letting go of some beliefs I have because I discovered that they were not my own. My relationships with family and children are being redefined. Although this process is sometimes painful it’s a necessary one. Besides, I don’t have much of a choice. I kind of look forward to seeing what kind of woman rises up from these ashes, left by repeated hot flashes. I hope she has cookies. But, then again, maybe I don’t.