I made an appointment at the women's clinic, but before I got there Gail Sheehy's book, THE SILENT PASSAGE: MENOPAUSE [Random House 1991] dropped into my lap. After hurriedly removing the jacket so no one would see the embarrassing subject matter I was brazenly perusing in the middle of an airport, I read about women who had never experienced a minute of self-recrimination until suddenly, in their 40s, they began to suffer bouts of "the blues." While I couldn't exactly identify with Sheehy's privileged upper-class dynamos as they jetted cross-country for emergency bone-density studies, I could certainly relate to their symptoms.
Hot flashes are only the most well-known on a list that includes irritability, fatigue, depression, insomnia, cold sweats, weight gain, menstrual flooding, urinary problems, loss of bone density (which can lead to osteoporosis), rheumatic pains, migraines, numbness, crawling skin, breast pain, backache, swollen ankles, bowel disorders, heart palpitations, dizzy spells, blind spots, nervousness, vaginal dryness, painful intercourse, decreased libido, forgetfulness, excitability, inability to concentrate, tearfulness, panic attacks, and "mental imbalance." Any or all of these symptoms can go on for 10 to 15 years until the final cessation of menstruation.
... Since no one knows exactly what's menopausal, what's age- related, and what's circumstantial, I was advised to ask my mother about her menopause for clues to mine. Her response was predictably vague -- "I hardly remember. It was nothing." But I suddenly recalled an afternoon when my mother took to her shadowy bedroom while my father and aunt whispered ominously about her "change."
The subject is not likely to remain hidden in shadows. "As the pacesetters among baby boom-generation women discover menopause on their horizon," notes Sheehy, "they will bring it out of the closet." Still, raising the subject is a sure-fire way to empty a room, and some reactions to my blunt questions have been no mroe enlightened than my mother's.
... Most women describe the aftermath of this grueling process as joyful, serene, and productive. I don't know, however, if by taking hormones I'll ever get to the other side. At a recent seminar a male doctor evaded my question while fidgeting with a pen emblazoned with the name of an estrogen supplier. He was, however, happy to oblige the woman who wanted to know which companies manufacture hormones so she could add their stock to her portfolio.
... in Gail Sheehy's rosy world, women's liberation seems to have been universally attained. Although she claims to have interviewed women from all classes and ethnicities, she concentrates on upper-middle-class white women who are all wealthy and wise enough to pursue optimum health care. Nonetheless, THE SILENT PASSAGE is a valuable beginning.
... I began devouring books on the subject between jaunts to the clinic. Maybe the subject of menopause is inherently infuriating, but I found myself enraged, in varying degrees, by most of what I read, finding it inadequate, melodramatic, and cliched. By far the most infuriating, and infuriated, was Germaine Greer's THE CHANGE: WOMEN, AGING, AND MENOPAUSE [Alfred A. Knopf 1992]. It's ironic that, from the perspective of this enfant terrible of 1970s feminism, the women's movement might never have occured. ... she rants and raves, at everyone from the medical profession to Simone de Beauvoir, who, she says, handled aging the same way as would any "empty-headed beauty queen." ... Greer never once acknowledges a changing world and the women who have changed it. She contradicts herself at every turn ...
Not everyone will grieve over the loss of fertility, the central fact of menopause to which women's psychological difficulties during this time have been historically attributed. I myself had a tubal ligation ten years ago ... but I am nonetheless exhibiting menopausal symptoms. There are millions like me ... We still can't escape hormonal upheavals that have absolutely nothing to do with "grief" for our barren wombs.
I had a similarly antagonistic reaction to TRANSFORMATION THROUGH MENOPAUSE, by Marian Van Eyk McCain [Bergin & Garvey 1991], who advises menopausal women to enter a "cocoon" during this period. McCain provides simple kindergarten-type exercises designed to help women attain self-knowledge, exercises that "have the power to change your whole way of being, if you choose to surrender...."
This emphasis on self-reflection runs through most menopausal literature, the presumption being that the reader has never before spent a minute on self-examination. "Who am I? What do I feel?" is a typical chapter heading. Aside from the fact that my generation cut their teeth on a myriad of therapies, anyone old enough to be going through menopause must surely, at some point in her life, have pondered these kinds of questions. McCain enthusiastically promotes cocooning, calling menopause "a rehearsal for death." I'm sorry, but I have no intention of crawling into a cocoon; I refuse to go gentle into that good night -- even if it means taking hormones.
... Sexuality is a major concern for women facing menopause. Mythology haunts us with visions of menopausal women as withered prunes, while medical literature issues warnings about thin, dry vaginal walls. Although we have the stereptype of the insatiable Mrs. Robinson, no one makes a connection between her behavior and her positive pre-menopausal "symptom", namely, enthusiasm for sex. No one told me, and nowhere did I read, that estrogen replacement would alleviate this "symptom" along with the more unpleasant ones. On the contrary, estrogen is touted as a cure for flagging desire; but in mine and some other women's experiences it has sometimes done the opposite. It is likely that no one told be because no one knows.
... The rescue mission has started with WOMEN OF THE 14TH MOON: WRITINGS ON MENOPAUSE [edited by Dena Taylor and Amber Coverdale Sumrall, Crossing Press 1991], an anthology of prose and poetry. Though many of the essays wax poetic about self-reflection and transformation, it is invaluable to hear the first-hand experiences of women both well-known (Ursula Le Guin, Lucille Clifton, Marge Piercy) and unknown; some angry, some hilarious, some poignant.
"The exchange with my cousin during that hour," writes Miki Nilan in "An Indiscreet Thing," "was one of the most meaningful I'd had since the onset of menopause. I wasn't the only one."
I wasn't the only one -- a phrase that never fails to resonate for women. Yes, research is desperately needed ... But we cannot rely on the male bastions of government and mediciine. Women must talk to one another, and not just those of us already flushed and "mentally imbalanced." We need to talk generation to generation, so we don't have to keep re-inventing the goddamn wheel.
... There's an old folk saying that all women from the ages of 40 to 50 are mad. If that's true, and since my contemporaries, not known for their placid temperaments to begin with, will also be undergoing this experience, I suggest we all fasten our seat belts. To paraphrase a great menopausal lady in a great menopausal movie: It's going to be a bumpy decade.