I am afraid.
I fear the mental illness that’s coursed through my blood will surface at last. Thus far, I’ve escaped my mother’s schizophrenia, my aunt’s clinical depression, my sister’s depression, my niece’s trichotillomania, my other niece’s bipolar diagnosis, and my daughter’s anxiety. For women, mental illness appears during hormonal shifts. I thought I was different. I am not. My body has been waiting for the most opportune time.
January 11th: I couldn’t stop crying about all manner of things. I lamented my life’s choices, the latest was taking a job as an assistant professor of education at a community college six years ago. I was just now attaining tenure. Of all the things I’ve done, this has made me feel most like a failure. My brain ran with these thoughts. By traditional calculations, I should’ve stayed at my first academic job and gotten tenure in 2015, like a “normal” person. But I couldn’t because my husband couldn’t find a job in the small racist town we’d agreed to move our family to.
The self-loathing invited me to cozy up in its arms, and even though I tried to writhe free, I couldn’t. It was comfortable, so I stayed a while. I pondered my next bad decision, moving from that small Georgia town back to Florida and commuting two hours and forty-five minutes one way to another academic job. That was stupid. I quit after three years. Maybe if I would’ve moved to that city, I would have tenure by now. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a professor at all. Or maybe I wasn’t good enough to be at a university in the first place.
My mind raced.
I fear change in general and have spent much of my life controlling myself and my surroundings. When I was sixteen years old, I was caught off-guard by my adopted mother’s death, by her not returning home after a routine hospital visit. She’d been ill my entire life, riddled by the consequences of kidney disease; however, I never anticipated she would die. My adopted father’s behavior changed. Years later, one of his best friends said he’d contemplated suicide. She begged him not to, so he didn’t. But our home life grew as erratic as his moods.
From that point on, I attempted to create a life of predictability. I married a man who enjoys routine: Work. Tennis. Movies. I maintained lists on agendas intended to organize my life into a tidy bow. Anything that veered from the lists didn’t happen. It was too much for my anxiety.
This new way of life is like walking blindfolded into a real-time haunted house on a daily basis.
January 13th: I awoke at two o’clock, then four o’clock, then six o’clock. Each time I lie on my side of the bed, listening to my husband’s soft snores, wishing he’d wake up to notice how I’d suffered. There’s no way I can get used to two-hour increments of sleep. Or is there? The root cause of this insomnia is biology, a lack of progesterone, according to the interwebs. Too little disrupts women’s circadian rhythms. No amount of chamomile tea with lavender matters. Every night is like a crapshoot: How long will I remain asleep?
January 14th: I awoke to drenched sheets. The next day, my husband told me he saw my feet by his nose. I thought he was sleep when I’d flipped around in an attempt to find a cool part of the bed. There was none. Every place I was, the heat was too.
I can’t even ease my nerves with a drink, something I’ve been doing since before I was twenty-one. For years, I’ve relied on varied forms of liquor to soothe and bring me down from the bundle of nerves that tie themselves in a knot in my stomach. Mixed drinks and fancy elixirs have helped calm my busy brain from concocting ridiculous thoughts. The most recent fix is red wine in a time of COVID-19. But even that must change.
Experts suggest avoiding alcohol. A glass or two of my favorite red blend signals my body to heat up in an uncomfortable and embarrassing rage. Droplets form at my hairline and flow down the sides of my face into a pool between the wrinkles of my neck.
“Are you okay?” a voice always asks.
No, I answer in my head. All I want is to escape this new body that’s forming. Every shift does not fit into a beautiful cocoon-butterfly metaphor. No. Change is bad. And no magical number of inspirational quotes, pointing toward accepting change or being brand new will help.
“Yes,” I say, while grabbing a napkin and jokingly referring to how frequently sweating now occurs.
When I look in the mirror, I no longer see my once beautiful, big, brown eyes. Instead, I notice black rings forming underneath, one for each hour of sleep I’m missing. My used-to-be bright caramel skin now appears as a dull ash. Sucking in my belly is futile. Though I’ve worked out four times a week, religiously for the past two decades, somehow, I’ve gained ten pounds all in my stomach.
My husband says, “You’re beautiful,” as he has most days of our marriage.
But his words don’t change the way I see myself. Self-esteem and self-love are both inside jobs, after all. And this change of life has quickly stripped me of both.
January 15th: I texted my mother-in-law.
She experienced menopause when I was in my twenties and preparing to marry her son. She’d mentioned it was tied to when a woman began her period.
“I started mine when I was ten,” I said.
“Well, you better start your estrogen shots now,” she advised, half smirking.
I ignored her, thinking I had all the time in the world to worry about old-lady things. I was right and I was wrong.
I’ve learned to communicate with her the same way she does me, sporadically, without warning or too much greeting.
What natural remedies can I use for these night sweats?
She responded with a list:
Natural Remedies for Hot Flashes
Black Cohosh (Actaea racemose, Cimicifuga racemose) This herb has received quite a bit of scientific attention for its possible effects on
Evening Primrose Oil
Use with Caution.
She also advised me to avoid caffeine and refined sugar and to get a fan and ice water.
Drugs seem to be the universal answer; however, this remedy is outside of my nature. In my house, we don’t even take aspirin for headaches. We take a nap or eat a meal.
Twenty-two years ago, when I delivered my first baby, I was hellbent on having a natural birth.
“Are you sure you don’t want an ep-i-duuuur-aaaalllll?” the nurse mocked.
“No,” I panted.
A few centimeters later, the pain was too much to bear.
“Can I get an epidural now?” I begged.
“It’s too late,” the nurse said. “We can give you Demerol.”
I delivered a baby on the slow drip of pain meds. To now consider a daily pill to quell my symptoms for the five to ten years they say menopause may last seems excessive. But my growing depression, sweating at inopportune times, and getting four hours of sleep are far worse.
January 18th: I found a local doctor who creates and sells natural plant-based medications. Something called Natural Balance Cream for Women promises to balance my progesterone levels and Estrofem will help with my estrogen levels. I received both on January 20th.
Now, I wait.