After the Change

On restless nights post-menopause,
as hormones yield to nature’s laws,
dreams disrupted by hot flashes
In their throes, she madly thrashes,
and her sweat-damp nightgown claws
as though its neckline were the cause
bemoaning sleep as once it was
Cool water on her face she splashes
on restless nights
Back to the bedroom she withdraws
to wrestle in insomnia’s
firm grip until, at last, she crashes,
up again as fever rachets
and manly snoring shakes the walls
on restless nights

That’s how it started. I had stopped my birth control pills on the advice of my chiropractor, who suspected they might be causing my migraines. 

“There’s only one way to find out,” he said. “Go off them and see what happens.”     

Within a few months, I was migraine-free. But I also began having hot flashes, which became frequent and bothersome, especially at night. I would be cozy under the blankets one minute, throwing them off the next. And my period, which had always been super-regular, had taken a leave of absence. My doc wasn’t worried. 

“When you stop hormones,” she told me, “it takes your body time to adjust.” 

When I asked about menopause, she laughed. At thirty-eight, it was statistically unlikely, but for my peace of mind, she ordered the blood test. It was sky-high, meaning I was menopausal or about to ovulate. On a repeat test two weeks later (by which time I should have ovulated, if I was going to), it was even higher. 

We had our answer. 

The doctor said, her voice tinged with envy, “You’re so lucky to be done with all that.”

Lucky was maybe too strong a word. Yes, I wouldn’t have to endure fifteen more years of PMS, cramps, bleeding, purchasing feminine products, and scrubbing panties with peroxide. But menopause brings its own set of problems. Hot flashes get a lot of press, so I was expecting them, and my hair was already graying, but I wasn’t prepared for Mother Nature to drop me like a hot potato. 

The diet and exercise regimen that kept me in reasonable shape for years was no longer enough. My fat cells redistributed themselves, thickening my thighs, putting junk in my trunk. Every week, I added something new to the medicine cabinet: Oil of Olay, Os-Cal, Lactaid, Tums, FiberCon, Gas-X, Correctol, Astroglide … I learned on the fly that ten thousand Kegels a day won’t save you if you laugh too hard, why they make deodorants for the “southern hemisphere,” and that Spanx is not all it’s cracked up to be. Anybody who’s ever had a bad case of “muffin-bottom” knows exactly what I’m talking about. All of these things could be staved off with hormone replacement therapy, but I worried it would trigger my migraines. I decided being headache-free was worth the risk of peeing my pants once in a while.

The psychological aspects were harder to deal with. I’m childless. I say by choice, though that isn’t 100% accurate. My husband had been stricken young with a major mental illness and lost job after job. I had just graduated from nursing school when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. My thyroid was removed, and I had four radioactive iodine treatments over the next twelve years. It’s likely the radiation zapped my ovaries, but I was unaware of it because I was on The Pill, trying very hard not to get pregnant. What if I conceived a baby with two heads or three eyes? What if the cancer killed me and left the child in the hands of my impaired husband?

We lived on the edge financially, I had migraines all the time, and I’d lost 50% of my hearing. On the rare occasions I felt my biological clock ticking, I reminded myself how irresponsible it would be to bring a child into such an unstable situation. I knew I had done the right thing, but when the door to motherhood abruptly slammed shut, it cut more deeply than I cared to admit. I’m fifty-two now and watching friends coo over grandchildren is hard. Knowing there’s no one to take care of me in old age or inherit my earthly treasures is hard. Feeling pressure to make a difference in the world because I can’t pass the baton to the next generation is hard. But grief feels self-indulgent.

When the issue arose in therapy, I remember saying, “It’s no use crying over spilled milk.” 

And the therapist, God bless him, held out a box of tissues and offered a cliché of his own, “It’s your party. You can cry if you want to.” 

Permission to mourn my self-imposed loss was a priceless gift.

Menopause is a pause, a time-out, a life stage that invites us to reflect and regroup.

There are upsides, too. Ditching Aunt Flo can be empowering. When you feel your vitality slipping away, you are more motivated to figure out what’s important to you and let go of what’s not. You may feel an urge to do things you’ve been putting off, like writing a will or starting a Bucket List. You might pledge to take better care of yourself, and finally see the wisdom of putting on your own oxygen mask first. Your bullshit meter will become more finely tuned, and you’ll be more apt to call it when you see it. The fear of looking ridiculous will diminish, allowing you to sport a crazy hairstyle, ride an adult tricycle, or take the stage on open mic night. Menopause is a pause, a time-out, a life stage that invites us to reflect and regroup. 

My advice?  Lean into it, cry if you want to, and don’t forget to sign up for a frequent shopper card at the drug store. 

Joan Harris resides in northern Ohio with her husband, dogs, cat, and a 1966 VW Bus named Margarethe.  She is vexed by bathing suits, Alexa, and self check-outs. She blogs when she feels like it (read: erratically) at Just Joan.

“After the Change” is a Rondeau, a French form. Each line has eight to ten syllables that flow in an undulation of upbeats and downbeats. The first line begins with a refrain and ends with a rhyme. The refrain (A) and two rhymes (a and b) are woven through the fifteen-line structure in the order demonstrated above. “After the Change” was originally published on Just Joan’s blog.

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