The Hot Topic
1 HOW IT WAS FOR ME
I say all the symptoms hit me like a ton of bricks. In retrospect—goodness, is hindsight important when understanding menopause—I started having symptoms five, six, maybe even seven years earlier. The night sweats, for example. Now, if you are, like me, the sweaty type (my children are hugely sweaty, while my other half barely sweats at all), it’s not something to panic about, waking up with pruney finger pads and a sopping nightie. So I didn’t pay much attention. Neither to having to pee up to six times a night. Because that’s a psychological thing, right? You think
about it and you have to go—it’s the Investment Pee syndrome to the power of, well, six.
Plus my body had begun to feel different. Not bigger, exactly; more like I had added some extra duvet “cover” to it. For the first time ever, I noticed, I had back fat, with pouches of flesh sprouting around the sides of my bra strap. Meanwhile, when I looked down at myself in the shower all trace of hip bone had disappeared.
But then, perhaps, in my old age, I just was eating more food and drinking more alcohol. And, back in the olden days, where the latter had always been helpful in canceling out the former, now it did to me what it did to everybody else: it made me pig out.
Regular blood tests, which I’d been having ever since getting clear of breast cancer in 2008, confirmed the inevitable. My levels of estrogen, progesterone and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), the troika of female hormones that regulate our reproductive cycles, had been steadily descending. On the other hand, it’s remarkable how dim one can play to oneself if one desires. It was obviously just my body pushing the fuck-it
button after years of being such a career dieter/drunkorexic. Maybe my gut had started to revolt against all the red wine that had been sluiced into it before it got any solids. Maybe my zaftig genes had finally decided to show my brain who was boss. That’s all it was.
And anyway, didn’t two liters of water a day and a mild obsession with hot yoga mean something? Might I belong to a new generation of women who were too fit to go through menopause? The ideation that I was a rare medical anomaly had particular traction, I found, at this point of my life.
Besides, I was still getting my period. Way beyond other people my age. Oh, boy, was I still getting it. Getting technical here, after I hit 50, they became not only regular and closer together but almost Roman candle–like in their heaviness, a gynecological indicator, as it turns out, that everything is gearing up for that one last chance to breed before it is too late. Sometimes my other half would catch me stripping the bed yet again and roll his eyes. Which made me feel guilty on the one hand and cross on the other. It reminded
me of a famous article Gloria Steinem wrote in the October 1978 issue of Ms. magazine called “If Men Could Menstruate.” In it she imagined how it would become an important ritual for the beginning of manhood accompanied by lavish celebratory dinners and presents; that there would be a National Insitute of Dysmenorrhea; medical funds for heart disease would be diverted into research into cramps; and lesbians would be told all they needed was “a good menstruating man.” Brilliant. If only you guys knew what it was like.
And then, whooomph, they stopped. Just like that. The summer before last was the last summer I got my period. From that day on, I never got another (not a natural one, anyway). No more sitting down for a pee, looking at the gusset of my panties and being able to go: aha, that’s why I’ve been such a cow for the past few days. My “woman,” as some phenomenally successful Hollywood stylist I once interviewed insisted on calling it, had gone forever. And, though I should have been grateful that I had made it this far, relieved I didn’t have to play the old wad-of-toilet-paper-in-an-emergency trick anymore, all
I could do was mourn its passing. Its absence every subsequent month and the cartons of unopened Tampax sitting there balefully on my bathroom shelf, gathering dust, were such concrete irrefutable proof I had passed into the “final stage.”
It got worse. Because then came all those symptoms I ludicrously assumed I’d be spared. Hot flashes. Palpitations. Hardcore insomnia, alleviated not one tiny bit by zopiclone. The complete absence of desire, as if it had been snatched, like a rug from beneath my feet. You’d think, in mitigation, the hurty bosoms and the crankiness would go after you stopped menstruating. But in my case they hung around like students who never graduate or unwanted stragglers at the end of a party. Compound that with the fact that my eldest son had suddenly gone from being five foot nothing to over six feet and had developed this habit of picking me up every time he wanted me to stop talking . . . And oh, Christ, was I beginning to fully intuit the meaning of “old” and “helpless.”
The biggest “surprise”? Probably hot flashes, though thankfully they mostly happened in bed, just after turning out my light. There was, however,
one notable exception. A birthday party in a very swanky members’ club in Mayfair, London. Italian waiters in white coats shaving truffles onto the risotto; young women in head-to-toe Chanel, that kind of thing. And suddenly, this heat, out of nowhere, rising, rising from my solar plexus to the roots of my hair, my face pulsating like a sore thumb in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. In a funny, perverse sort of way, it was fascinating that my body was able to do this, without me being able to intervene in any way. But the mortification of having to keep dabbing at my upper lip and eventually having to get up, dripping, in my sleeveless summery dress and go outside, canceled the wonder of it big time.
Remember David Reuben, MD? The forward-thinking guy who wrote the 1972 number one bestseller Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)? Well, this was his description of a menopausal woman: “Not really a man, but no longer a functional woman.” But he was wrong, just like he was wrong about douching with Coca-Cola being an effective contraceptive. A hot flash doesn’t make you feel
more like a man, or at least it didn’t right then. It merely made me feel the way I had done as a new girl at school, forever in fear of getting called upon in class in case I blushed: powerless and increasingly fearful of group situations . . .