The Ugly Thing About Menopause No One Told Me

hormone

I told my friend a couple of days ago, “Dude, I think I’m finally hitting the big M. Let me tell you– this shit is real.”

He responded, “Should I start avoiding you?”

We laughed.

I get it- but we aren’t in sixth grade anymore. There’s no reason to giggle about it and there’s also no reason to think “vaginal dryness” is the most important thing about it. I could not have cared less about how my vag was feeling because I was so damn depressed I wouldn’t be slipping under any sheets with anyone. That whole dryness thing seems like, yet again, it’s more about women’s bodies for men than our bodies…and minds..for us.

I’m fifty four so I’m arriving late, which for anyone who knows me is a punchline, but it’s a pretty serious thing despite the many jokes about menopause. I used to think the word sounded like taking a pause from men. That idea sounded pretty good to me at some point but it’s nothing like a pause and has nothing to do with men or anybody but your own experience. So why am I writing about it? There are some things I wish I had been told. The headline seems to be about irritability, hot flashes,dryness and some vague notion of being less attractive or interesting. But darlin’ that is nothing compared to the deeper and not at all funny other things. Things like the potential for major depression, anxiety, heart racing and insomnia which are not talked about nearly as much but should be.

I felt so much shame about this depression I could not shake that despite my confessional ways I kept it hidden and spent most every night crying and contemplating which way I could just stop living without hurting anybody’s feelings.  I didn’t want to kill myself but I didn’t want to live the way I was. Add to that that I could not sleep for more than two hours at a stretch and felt like I was burning up. It was misery. Not funny misery–just a dirty, rotten all around trick to play on any woman who has made it through proms and swim suits and whatever other horrors lurk.

My racing heart would wake me up. I was bathed in sweat, sometimes also crying. This is from a person who practices serious meditation and breathing techniques, who even teaches this stuff, someone who hikes long distances and feels calm most of the time when I’m acting like me.

This wave rolled over me like a tsunami without any warning. I really thought that the predisposition for major depression and dementia in my family had finally caught me. I stayed under water trying to dog paddle through the day hoping no one would notice I was drowning–trying to will myself to better times. I hoped it was a phase and I clung to the concept of all things being temporary. But after months and months–I had to wonder. I avoided anyone who might be critical and I made a practice of trying to write jokes in a notepad before bed so that when I woke up I could read them and not be terrified.

Then one morning while I anguished in bed not wanting to open my eyes I thought, “Hey wait: what if I’m not crazy? What if this is as a result of some physical thing happening?” I remembered I skipped a period. I began researching menopause and saw that this happens to countless numbers of women and these women are put on Prozac. I could not understand this on two levels: Why had no one told me about this terrible depression, anxiety and insomnia but instead did jokes about hot flashes and made menopausal women sound irritable and goofy-crazy? Why was the solution Prozac?

The answers seem simple to me: Women are still often the stuff of jokes and we go along with it in our long suffering ways and secondly prescribing a pill and shuffling us off is easier than actually caring. Difficult women do not need solutions–they need to be removed and silenced. There’s a long history around that. Not thinking about it is easier for many doctors than working with a woman throughout her life to keep things in balance as she changes and grows older. But we are living longer and we aren’t taking the profound laziness and dismissive ways that have hurt us in the past. I’m most certainly hitting three digits. We as women may need to shorten our fuses and demand answers for real problems. Menopause is not a humorous thing–it’s really, really hard. It needs care and serious research. We also need to level with each other:

Menopause can make you so depressed for so long that you may lose friendships, work opportunities and consider self harm. Nothing about that is to be accepted.

So I decided to consider a different idea. I started thinking about hormone therapy. It’s been blasted as a cancer causer but that’s not true for most women. This is clearly not a medical or science blog but I began checking the risk levels and will keep checking as I go along–there’s some concerns about breast and uterine cancer but other research indicates when taken correctly estrogen with progesterone may help fight some cancers. There has to be a predisposition for breast cancer and evidence you’re a serious candidate for the disease and any woman considering hormone therapy will be screened.

When balanced to replicate what your body does naturally, side effects are limited according to most credible medical sources including the Mayo Clinic. Hormones have come along way.

My doctor told me a horror story when I asked her about the silence around this, “Hormones when administered correctly are much less harmful than antidepressants and don’t leave you as a different person the way antidepressants may. Some people need them, but most don’t. Plus, women are living actively until their eighties and nineties–there’s no reason to assume it’s time to sit on the porch either dulled by medicines or sad from an imbalance of hormones–still many women aren’t getting the information.” When I asked her why antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs are more often prescribed she said, “They are made by powerful guys and they’re expensive and some are habit forming. Plus, this is just my theory, I don’t think everyone minds a more placid female put in her place by aging.”  Thank goodness for feminist doctors, although she said it whispering because that’s strong medicine.

Estrogen when balanced with progesterone can be helpful for many of us. It can add time to your life and make you feel better as you live longer according to the literature provided by independent sources and many of my women friends who got here before me and were smarter about it but didn’t mention it until I brought it up.

I’m not saying this is for everyone. I am saying if you are feeling seriously depressed and cannot get past it despite exercise, healthy habits and typically a good outlook, if you are suffering insomnia too then you can find the strength to take it on. After trying to write and meditate my way through it and feeling ashamed of it I got to the doctor and realized menopause is bigger than my will power. I am grateful I live in a time when help is available and I am sorry for my mom and grandmother that they had to suffer through it stoically. But we don’t–so don’t.

Get on that last spec of a high horse and ride it into your doctor. There are also natural things which can help like soy and Saint John’s but they weren’t enough for me. If hormone therapy isn’t the ticket for me, I’ll keep looking. I’m not giving up on me–not without a big, bad fight.

This blog is really not about which treatment but the idea that major depression as a result of menopause deserves major attention and I don’t see that it’s getting that. I wish I knew about this before I got here. Maybe you already had all this information and I’m fooling myself thinking I’m not alone with a lack of information. But I don’t think so. This needs to be a bigger conversation than wrinkle cream. If you’re researching how a Samurai kills himself with dignity, you’re probably not too worked up about a wrinkle by your mouth. This matters more than how pretty I am or am not or whether I feel sexy. This is real quality of life stuff that’s about each and every woman living in her own skin. I suspect until more women demand the talk publicly and loudly–we’ll just have to speak with each other, so let’s do that.

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Filed under aging, anxiety, depression, menopuase, Mid-life, women

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