by Ann Marie Meyer
I know, I know! Isn’t it supposed to be “the good, the bad, and the ugly”? The phrase, made famous from the Clint Eastwood spaghetti western movie almost 60 years ago, is used to explain the positive to the downright negative of a multitude of subjects. Perimenopause is no exception, especially for some people more than others. I lay claim to being one of those women. After a few particularly “ugly” days of perimenopausal symptoms, where I was struggling to make sense of how I was feeling, I needed to find a way to make myself realize this time wasn’t permanent. That it wasn’t all ugly. And that’s how I decided to write down all the ugliness that I experienced, transition through the bad, and ultimately end with the good. That’s how I came to write this piece.
If anyone has any knowledge or expectations of what the menopause transition will be like, the most common symptoms are hot flashes and night sweats, “brain fog,” irritability, and mood swings. There is little preparation for anything worse, but it happens. And it can be scary for some. I’m not even sure where to start with the “ugly,” because doing so reveals the shame and the loneliness I have experienced for over ten years of perimenopausal symptoms. Not to mention the irrational thoughts, and the rage that has taken every ounce of my being to keep under control. I used to look in the mirror wondering who was staring back at me, either feeling I was possessed by something unearthly, other times feeling as though I was stuck inside a goldfish bowl watching the world go by and no one could hear me calling for help. There were several times when I felt tempted to check myself into psychiatric care, feeling as though I was losing my mind. It seemed then as if no one understood what I was going through. This, in turn, fed my anxiety, which turned into full-blown panic attacks and the feeling that I might be dying. More than once, relying upon the paramedics, I was taken to the emergency room only to face the humiliation of an outrageous medical bill for a hyperventilation diagnosis or to find nothing at all. For several months I was afraid to leave my home.
When my mental health wasn’t at a low point, I would occasionally struggle with such intense rage I’m still surprised to this day I have a set of intact dishware in my house, though one or two other items didn’t escape my wrath. These days the rage has mostly gone but has been replaced by crushing fatigue so draining that on the “ugly” days I have no difficulty sleeping a day or two away. Here I can say I am fortunate not to work, dedicating my time to graduate studies, yet it can be demoralizing wanting to achieve so much while having so little energy. When the hormone levels come crashing down, it feels as though my life and the world around it go crashing down with them. Throughout this time, I have sought medical help, treatment, and counseling. It has been necessary.
The bad side of perimenopause for me has been the hot flashes, the night sweats, and the brain fog. The symptoms that have all too often become negatively stereotyped. The humorous image of a woman sticking her head in the fridge or freezing out her family at night. My first-ever hot flash was initially terrifying. Dressed up in winter clothing walking around a warm store, the room began to spin, and I thought I was going to vomit. I raced outside into the near-freezing temperature to cool down. I will admit though that the ensuing hot flash did turn into personal amusement as driving in the car to get lunch, my poor family had to deal with the windows down, and the air conditioning on full, while my top layer of clothing was down to a tank top, and I was hanging my head out of the window reveling in it all. For the most part though, hot flashes and night sweats have been sources of misery. The long hot summers of Texas have kept me almost housebound, and indoor temperatures rather chilly for my family.
And then comes the “brain fog,” which happens at the most inopportune moments. Like walking into that room where food can be cooked, you know the one, where dirty dishes go in the washing machine, fridge, oven, DISHWASHER…I’M IN THE KITCHEN!! I scream internally because perimenopause “brain fog” is real. So very real, but a complete understatement. It downplays the reality of the confusion, the concern that maybe this could be early dementia. Forgetting the simplest of words, losing focus in the middle of a sentence, and even talking incoherently. But the real worry is the forgetfulness that could lead to harm, like leaving something on the stove. I have left the water running in my sink (stopped before it overflowed) and my oven on for more than four hours after cooking dinner. It’s easy to look back at those moments and smile because nothing bad happened, but there are always the “what if” and “what next” moments. I’m not through this perimenopause just yet so what next is coming my way? And that’s where I get to forgive myself and feel self-compassion. What I have isn’t a disease. It’s not looked at with much sympathy either, because the menopause transition is natural. Not every woman struggles. Some women sail through it. But there’s also something else that I have experienced, and that is …
I’m in my early 50s. I have started getting a certain type of mail delivered, from a certain organization, and information on Medicare. When I’m out shopping, I see magazines about how to keep fit and healthy for the-over-50s, how to dress, how to wear make-up, and so on. I’m rather bemused by it all, even a little offended. Is society trying to tell me I’m old because I’m now 50? Not a chance! I’m beginning to feel revitalized. There’s a veil that has been lifted. Where I once lacked the confidence to participate in certain activities, now I’m finding this new confidence to go out and “conquer the world.” This is how I ended up in graduate school. It is how I envision myself wanting to get a doctorate. Start a business. Learn so many new things. When many people at my age might be considering plans for retirement, I’m ready to begin my career. I might just get a small farm where I can raise alpacas and goats. Somewhere in me even wants to go skydiving, a far cry from the person that cries like a baby just waiting in line for the mildest of roller coaster rides. The level of empowerment I feel is unbelievably uplifting. Life has become more exciting, which is rather a peculiar thing to say for someone who once served in the military.
So, in the darkest days, when I questioned my worth and wondered if life for me will ever go back to normal, I chose to write “Perimenopause: The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good” by beginning with the end and ending with the beginning. The purpose was to serve as an encouragement to me during those hormonal slumps, by telling myself that through the ugly times I have good ones to look forward to. For those of you experiencing the same, I hope this piece helps or at least gives you some inspiration to try the same. Best of luck to you all!