Several years ago, Mike and I were sitting in a packed auditorium, waiting for the speaker to arrive. The cooling in the room was inadequate, so I fanned myself with my program like an old lady at a tent revival. Pretty soon, I noticed that the woman next to me was leaning closer to catch some of the breeze, in addition to the one she was generating with her own program. I foolishly made some comment about the heat.
The next thing I knew, I was getting an earful about her hot flashes. We were complete strangers, but that didn’t stop her from regaling me with tales of menopausal woe. When I tired of the topic, the woman leaned across me to discuss her hot flashes with my husband. Her own spouse looked at me, shrugged, then pretended to be engrossed in adjusting his wristwatch.
Call me old fashioned, but I think medical symptoms should be off-limits when chatting up strangers. Except maybe if you need to say, “I think I’m having a heart attack. Dial 9-1-1.” That’s okay.
It’s not that I’m squeamish. My work with hospice patients has provided plenty of firsthand experience with conditions far more gruesome than menopause. I just don’t think we need to tell each other about every twinge, and I was determined not to be one of those women who bitched and moaned her way through midlife. Well, not any more than usual.
I am in my early 50s and I would like my brain back.
Two months ago, the blues landed like a wet wool blanket on my normally pleasant life. Objectively, I have nothing to feel sad about so this weepy nonsense is really annoying. Some days, the blanket lifts and is replaced by worry, worry, worry. Which causes me to be awake at 3 a.m., and the resulting tiredness makes me — how else to say it? — stupid. It’s hard to focus and harder still to learn something new. Then for several days I feel like myself until, for no reason at all, the whole thing starts over.
I have a pretty good brain. I use it all the time and would like to have access to it again without this hormonally-induced haze. In terms of lifestyle, I’ve done all I can do. My weight is appropriate, and my diet is light on animal fat. My alcohol intake is minimal, and the dogs make me exercise every day of my life whether I want to or not. In search of professional advice, I went to see a nurse practitioner who specializes in perimenopause (the phase that leads up to menopause). After the usual undignified examination and some blood work, she declared me healthy, offered up some literature on topical estrogen options and a sample thereof. I left the office feeling downright hopeful.
That optimism might’ve last longer had I not actually read the literature she gave me. All the pamphlets said the same thing.
Estrogens increase the risk of cancer of the uterus.
Using estrogens may increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, breast cancer, blood clots, and dementia.
Both my parents suffered from blood clots, as did my grandmother, who experienced multiple strokes before a fatal one in her early 60s. And you don’t have to be old for a clot to develop. There is no age restriction and no good place in the body for a blood clot to lodge. I have a family history, and even if the risks are low, the possibility of ending up in that small group is unacceptable to me.
I am disappointed that this roulette wheel is the best modern medicine can offer perimenopausal women. You can get relief, but the medication could also cause you to develop a life-altering or fatal condition as a result of the medication. I personally know two women who lost that gamble, one of whom spent months recovering from a pulmonary embolism.
But the dearth of good solutions is also not a huge surprise. Until the second half of the 20th century, a woman’s life expectancy didn’t extend much beyond menopause, so few resources went into researching that phase. “Female troubles” were considered trivial and were often attributed to mental instability. Consequently, we’re a little behind in coming up with ways for women to manage the very real effects of hormonal changes. Until recently, nobody cared.
Back in the 21st century, I perused the internet, googling for alternatives. Vitamin B6 and Omega-3s were mentioned, along with herbs like ginseng, St. John’s wort, black cohosh, and dong quai. None of the articles suggested potencies or dosages, so I guess I’m supposed to wing it. I read about stress management as a way to control my symptoms, but the only stress in my life these days is coming from my symptoms, so that didn’t help much. I am waiting for a call from the nurse practitioner to see if she has any other ideas. I need my brain and I want it back, so I am willing to try just about anything that doesn’t threaten to kill me.