The Meaning of Menopause
This is a remarkable article from Ode Now by Hanny Roskamp; she evinces a phenom,enal understanding of menopause.
The meaning of menopause
Sometimes a positive experience hits you from left field. The socially and culturally defined pressure to stay young, fertile and vibrant as long as we can is enormous, but what does it do to us?
Hanny Roskamp | March/April 2012 Issue
I’m 48 now. A year and half ago, I could still say I was “approaching menopause.” But a year ago, the first hot flashes presented themselves, in series of 20 or 30 a day. Menopause had come, no doubt about it. Red-faced and covered in sweat, I wrote my book De houdbare vrouw (The Everlasting Woman). Since then, I’ve put a year and a half and countless hot flashes behind me.
To be honest, I’m rather cold-natured, so I don’t have much of a problem being very warm for a few minutes. I finally understand why the cardigan is such an important piece of clothing for women over a certain age. I actually like hot flashes.
As a result of my journalistic and scientific background, I’ve approached menopause primarily from a place of curiosity. My thermostat appears to be somewhat confused. A little research tells me that during a hot flash, blood pressure drops dramatically for a short time. That’s a consequence of blood vessel dilation, which is also what causes facial flushing.
A recent study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle tallied the number of hot flashes experienced by more than 1,400 women with and without breast cancer. The study also explored the women’s risk of developing breast cancer. It turned out that the women with breast cancer experienced far fewer hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. Women aged 50 have an average 2 percent risk of developing breast cancer; during menopause, that number is cut in half. Since reading that, I’ve become even fonder of my hot flashes. I see them as part of my body’s natural defense system. Considering the sweat they engender, you could even call them cleansing.
Sometimes a positive experience hits you from left field: not just hot flashes, but menopause itself, and growing older as a whole. The socially and culturally defined pressure to stay young, fertile and vibrant as long as we can is enormous, but what does it do to us? Don’t we miss out on many things by focusing so much attention on our youthful years, which—let’s be honest—ended some time back? Psychological developments, new insights, spiritual growth—all these are part of growing older. But where do these aspects go while we’re so busy delaying and preventing the physical aspect of aging?
Why is this new phase of our lives characterized by Botox and dates with our plastic surgeons? Why are more and more women embracing hormones that are supposed to keep us young? Of course the media play a role by constantly confirming that we only count if we look young. But most of all, we do it to ourselves, because we’re vain, and we think the package is all that matters. All the while, we’re missing out on an enlightening journey, one that’s vital for anyone who wants to grow as a human being. Let’s talk about this side of the story: getting older as an experience that can be personally valuable to each and every one of us.
The symptoms of menopause are caused by falling levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body. It begins in tiny steps around age 30. Once the ovaries definitively go on strike, somewhere between 45 and 55, things suddenly careen downhill. Hot flashes are one clear symptom, but heart palpitations are also part of the package, as are night sweats, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, loss of libido and vaginal atrophy. Mentally, we undergo significant changes, and these may be accompanied by fear, anger and feelings of depression.
Those mental changes in particular always made me fear menopause. I didn’t fear the physical aging; I come from a family of strong women who look good well into old age. I also try to keep myself healthy through vitamins, walking, strength training and nutrition.
No, I was afraid of my vulnerable moods. When I was on the Pill, I was depressed, and puberty was no walk in the park, either. I suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and after a night’s poor sleep I’m almost ready to throw in the towel. When you’re emotionally fragile, the idea of hormonal transition is absolutely terrifying.
Amazingly enough, my experience has been the opposite. No depression, no fears; rather, a serene equanimity and stability I’ve never known before. Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe it’s still coming. But I honestly don’t think so.
This story has everything to do with my life crisis before menopause began. I was in a destructive relationship, drank a lot and had a partner who drank even more. Amid all the misery we were causing each other, I began to respond differently to alcohol. At first I thought our problems would be over if he were the one to stop drinking. Then I realized I should stop instead. I couldn’t change him; I could only change myself.
Suddenly the light went on: mentally, but also physically. A resistance arose, as if wine no longer tasted at all pleasant. Later, I read that many women end an addiction during their menopausal years. It isn’t illogical. Addiction is linked to dopamine, which is closely tied to the rest of our hormonal makeup.
When I stopped drinking, it was like cutting an umbilical cord. I stepped onto an emotional roller coaster—when you’ve deadened your emotions with alcohol for years and suddenly start experiencing them again, they hit hard. I could feel extremely happy but also extremely angry. The trees were greener than they had been in years. Music suddenly sounded the way it had when I was 17. Gone were the dark clouds that had me blind. I regretted what I had done to myself all those years. How I had convinced myself I was doing fine.
Now I finally, truly, had to mature emotionally. While you’re drinking heavily, you’re postponing that step, no matter how grown up you try to seem. I developed the courage to face my fears. I had always cleverly wiggled out of any invitation to speak in public; even the thought was enough to turn my stomach. Now I do it with pleasure.
But my body was far from finished with menopause. Suddenly I developed a rash and itching, which turned out to be an allergy to several foods, from pork to spinach. Once I removed them from my diet, it freed up an enormous amount of energy and ability to concentrate. I kept peeling back layers of the onion, becoming more aware of my body and of who I really was. I started taking better care of myself; eating well and exercising regularly were no longer just noble goals, but absolute necessities born of a new love for myself.
Now that I no longer had wine to relax me, meditation proved to be the only way to calm my overactive mind. I learned to pay better attention to my mental and physical limits. That provided stability, greater self-confidence and a more intense relationship with a higher power. Beyond all that, I developed an abiding belief in eternal life—not through healthy eating, supergenes or megavitamins, but through the immortality of the soul.
In the meantime, menopause has well and truly begun. All kinds of things are changing once again, mentally and physically. In addition to hot flashes and night sweats, I tire more easily. That in turn means I’m quicker to decide to stay home in the evening. I had barely watched TV in years. I was too restive for that, always on the move. This tranquility is new for me. It feels safe. I can go out if I want to, but I don’t have to. Being alone no longer feels like an emptiness from which I must run.
That brings us to our great friend libido. From pretty much one day to the next, he was gone. Vanished in the night. It should have been incredibly frustrating—but the funny thing is, it’s been marvelous.
I feel like I’ve finally been liberated; free at last, no longer a slave to the hormones that kept my brain in an obsessive love-and-babies mode. I spent years of my life either in bed with men, talking with girlfriends about those nights in bed or heartsick over the lack of a man in my bed. I’ve always been an independent woman, but for the first time I’m independent in terms of both my behavior and my emotions.
Of course, I’ve noticed that my body has lost some of its former beauty. Sometimes that does bother me, but when I was young, I was so incredibly insecure about my appearance that I hadn’t been able to enjoy my “beautiful years” at all. How sad is it to look at old photos of your very pretty self and remember that at the time, all you could think about was how ugly you were? On the other hand, I now enjoy my slightly less lovely appearance 200 percent. You could call it Mother Nature’s sense of justice.
An anti-aging conference I attended for my book blew me away. It had nothing to do with beauty. If your smile can’t crinkle your eyes or turn the corners of your mouth, what’s left of your pretty face? Doesn’t real beauty mean you radiate from within? Being happy has nothing to do with lifting your face and paralyzing your skin into smoothness. It has everything to do with feeling great about yourself and the miracle that is life. Self-acceptance. Which is precisely one of the spiritual lessons you can learn during menopause. Whether you want to or not, you’ll have to become aware of aspects of life outside those emphasized during your fertile years. By postponing or even skipping this step, you rob yourself of a vital spiritual process of growth. By embracing menopause, you open the door to the most beautiful awakening of your life.
That gives you a feeling of invincibility. Sometimes I’m tired, but in exchange I’ve got tons of energy to do the things I really want to do. I’ve never been so productive. The focus I remember from my childhood is back: concentrating intensely on something that makes your heart sing, then suddenly discovering it’s been hours. De houdbare vrouw would never have been written if I hadn’t entered menopause. For years, my ability to concentrate was cut in half because my sex hormones had taken control. That made it easy for me to say no to hormone replacement therapy—bioidentical or otherwise. I want to experience everything menopause has to offer me. I believe that every phase of life is supposed to be exactly the way it is. Menopause is an immense spiritual gift, if you’re willing to unwrap it.
The use of hormones can mean that you unwrap this spiritual gift later or not at all. I think we need those emotional changes as preparation for the last important stage of life, just as a teenager needs his rebelliousness to grow into an adult. If a doctor suggested we give teen-agers hormones to make them less difficult, she’d be blacklisted. Yet it’s okay to suggest women take them. I think we should give this deeper consideration. What effect does it have on a woman to change her hormonal and emotional state artificially from the one in which her body resides?
I can’t help but think she must get frustrated, because she keeps focusing on men, while their attention is primarily on younger women whose bodies can still bear children. The infamous loss of libido serves a protective function we shouldn’t underestimate. But, mostly, she runs the risk of missing all the beautiful things that lie in store for her during menopause.
My reluctance to use hormones certainly doesn’t mean I would dare judge women whose menopause is much more difficult than mine and who choose to use hormone replacement therapy. Nor would I dare advise them against it, as long as they are thoroughly screened and informed by their doctors. However, I think it’s important that women realize that the use of hormones, bioidentical or synthetic, will affect their emotional palette. We now know that taking the Pill affects not only a woman’s libido but her choice of partner. These are matters of great importance, and they can have far-reaching consequences. We’re talking about a woman’s fundamental sense of identity. We’re talking about the rest of her life.
It may be extraordinarily tempting to “skip over” the emotional aspects of menopause, but what does that mean for the growth of your soul, for who you are? Does it get you where you want to go? Or are the notorious “witchy years” a valuable period you need to prepare for what comes afterward? You might also miss out on the enormous “revival” women experience once menopause is over.
I don’t have a partner or children. That means I can choose to make time for myself and take it easy if I feel that’s what I need. I can imagine that hormone replacement therapy is a tremendous boon for women who are being pressured from all sides to keep functioning normally. It is certainly not my intent to judge or alarm these women.
But a menopause hotel, where they could go for some R&R now and then, where they could share their experiences and their emotional growth, where someone takes good care of them, seems to me as if it would be a much healthier alternative. The desire to stay healthy is a wonderful one. The desire to stay eternally young might just be very unhealthy—if not for the body, then for the soul.
Join us in discovering the meaning in menopause.