Sunday, April 15, 2012

Looking for Alternative Sources of Sustainable Energy? Try a Menopausal Woman

Picture: Retro Adverto
I’m going through it. It’s got me. It seemed as if I’d only just completed my second adolescence when it struck.

It was perimenopause for a while, a long while. Sleeping badly. Thinning skin and other signs of ageing. The onset of tinnitus, rosacea and a worsening of allergy symptoms. Losing more hair than usual with each wash, and constantly finding stray hairs on every household surface. Terrible PMT but longer and longer gaps between periods. Then my cycle seemed to have packed up and called it a day, and instead all the blood went to my head.

I didn’t mind the first set of hot flushes. I just found them weird and disorientating. The flush seemed like some strange form of energy, some odd kind of bodily weather, that started in my chest and literally moved up my body, expelling itself in a facial heat wave. As if I was suffering a kind of automatically induced induced embarrassment. Set and forget.

But then my periods started again, and the PMT was truly awful, starting about nine days before the onset, manifesting in heightened anxiety and reduced sleep, with extreme fatigue just beforehand.

Then the periods stopped and the flushes started again, as if my body couldn’t decide whether or not it wanted to end my child-bearing capacities. This is where I’m at right now. And this time, I don’t like the species of hot flush at all. It engulfs me quickly, fills the upper part of my body with heat, then drops me like a hot potato, going away somewhere to plot its imminent return. I’m left not only wildly throwing my outer garments off in an attempt to cool down (I can deal with that) but uncomfortably sweaty. I wish I could store some of this heat and use it to warm my house in the mornings.

Through all these changes, and starting from perimenopause, an increased level of body- and self-consciousness has manifested. No one warned me that my anxiety, already unmanageable, was going to get worse. That every bodily perception would be heightened and every fear increased. Menopause is like adolescence without the good looks and sexual opportunities.

Sorry to bore you with these details, but I can see why menopause has a bad name. The symptoms become tedious not only to those suffering them but to their partners and families. The awful thing is, you have no idea how long it’s all going to go on for. At least the progress of adolescence is entirely predictable – pimply and pained followed by lissome and love-hungry followed by substance-abusing and driving homicidally followed by reluctantly growing up. But how long will this transition take? And what will the new me look and feel like at the end of it?

Pharmaceutical help?

I have considered HRT, but I foresee many problems with it. 

I’m not worried about the increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease and stroke that was reported in a large and controversial 2002 study on the effects of HRT use. The study has since been discredited because the women who took part in in were older when first put on HRT than the optimum age of commencing, and because of dosage issues. Anyway, I’m on a strict allergy diet, don’t drink or smoke, have low blood pressure and no family history of breast cancer so am probably in a low-risk group.

It’s more the cosmetic side effects of HRT that concern me. As someone with body image issues, I’m not sure I want to risk the facial breakouts that are one possibility (confusingly, HRT can sometimes clear the acne that perimenopause produces). I shouldn't let this put me off, however, as I can always try an alternative medication if the first one isn't right for me. The possible weight gain wouldn’t bother me – I could do with some extra weight.

On the other hand, the protection from osteoporosis that synethetic oestrogen offers could end up being crucial to my future health. A few years ago my mother developed  osteoporosis  in a way that was both sudden and disabling, as well as incredibly unfair – she'd been eating yoghurt regularly for years, and her GP worked in an expensive practice that prided itself on its preventative care. As someone who rarely eats dairy, I need all the protection from brittle bones that I can get.

An upside of menopause?

I know there are women who want to reclaim menopause as a time of personal power, creativity and freedom. Certainly as a feminist I want those going through it to be supported rather than denigrated, and given a range of effective treatment options. And I don’t want to exaggerate its ill effects. I’m no vaguer than usual and while I’m sleeping less, I rarely lie awake trying to get to sleep – it’s waking too early that’s the problem. Also, oddly enough for such a low-energy person, I’m surprised at how much energy I have, during the day at least. I get up as early as 5.30 in the morning and work away at the PC for hours (although I do tend to collapse into a stupor of exhaustion early in the evening). And apparently women who experience hot flashes early on in menopause are actually at lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

But the bodily changes lead to difficult emotional reckonings. Women, it's said, are more grounded than men because our reproductive cycle never lets us forget that we are embodied beings whose lives are at least partly determined by biology. While we can make lifestyle decisions that influence our health, we are to some extent the playthings of an impersonal force that has far larger ends in mind than our individual health and wellbeing. Menopause is a bodily reminder of a specific kind: that reproductive life is at an end, and old age looms. I’m fine with not having had  kids, but in the years to come sex and relationships will be complicated by further bodily changes. And that part of my life is difficult enough for me already. In a way, menopausal women are reaching the pointy end of the life cycle.

But this forced change is part of an even larger story than the end of the possibility of motherhood and challenges to sexual fulfillment. In menopause, whether we like it or not, the force that is ageing our bodies has as its ultimate aim for us that great taboo of Western culture: death. It's an eventuality that  our consumer culture, obsessed with youth and endless novelty, fails to prepare us for.

To make things even more difficult, the timing of menopause means that it frequently coincides with a number of other life crises and losses. I’m currently coming to terms with the facts of parental illness, which I’ll write about in a future post.

Someone once said old age wasn’t for the faint hearted. I think the reckoning comes much earlier. As we face our fifties, we’re forced to jettison the illusions we had about life in our earlier years. We’re also challenged to take control of our health and make decisions about how we can minimise problems in years to come (something I’m signally failing to do at the moment).

It’s not an easy time by any stretch, but it can produce a great deal of strength and resilience. Without illusions, it’s possible to appreciate the present and enjoy life for what it is, rather than what we’d like it to be. It's possible, too, to make lifestyle choices that at least swing the odds into our favour where future mental and physical health is concerned. Accommodation to reality, while not succumbing to negativity – that’s my major challenge now, and it will remain so in the years to come.

If you enjoyed this entry, you might also like Vein Hopes.

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