When early menopause and life events strike at the same time

By Nicole Melanson

The first thing people say when I mention I’ve already gone through menopause is: “But you’re young.” I know what they’re thinking after that: “Now you’re old.” For my female peers, this can be a rude awakening. Maybe they’ll be next.

Considering how many women today are childfree by choice, circumstance, or infertility, it seems ridiculous that society still perceives youth and value in relation to procreative potential, and yet, it does. I was forty-three when I had my last period. I don’t have great genes, but let’s be optimistic and say I live to eighty. That means I’m going to spend the entire second half of my life being classified as “old” and ergo redundant, simply because I don’t menstruate anymore. I think it’s this bit that worries my friends—what if my menopause makes them “elderly” by proxy?

I should probably reassure everybody that it’s all right, everything’s the same, I’m still me, guysI don’t feel any different. But I do feel different. I’ve spent the past three decades headstrong and focused, but here I am in my forties, clueless about what lies around the corner—literally.

Last January, we moved interstate with our five children. School started three weeks later. To say this year has been chaotic is an understatement. It’s easy to take for granted the convenience of being settled in a community and knowing your way around, until suddenly, you’re spending great swathes of time getting lost less than three streets from your new home. The light is different in this part of the country: brighter, with more glare. I squint a lot, which seems like a metaphor.

I said goodbye to two decades’ worth of resources and relationships, my entire support network gone in one fell swoop. It seemed perfectly appropriate for my emotions to go haywire. I didn’t even consider hormones until six months had passed without any sense of equilibrium returning.

Being at the mercy of mood swings isn’t fun. Not for me, and not for my family either. I can no longer differentiate between things that should bother me—climate change, child trafficking, female genital mutilation, for instance—and inconsequential matters; my rage is frequent and incandescent, burning bright inside me.

You’d think I’d wear myself out with all this emotion, but menopausal insomnia is in a league of its own. I often stand on our balcony at 2am, looking out at all the lights dotting the hillside and wondering how many belong to other middle-aged women. Come daytime, I’m exhausted. Whether that’s from lack of sleep, chemical imbalance, the local humidity, or just running on empty for months, I feel flattened. My days are a battle between pacing myself and pushing ever onward. Coffee doesn’t touch the sides.

My brain feels overstretched, too. So many new faces. So many names. I introduce myself over and over, I come up with mnemonic devices to keep track of everyone I meet… Still, I make mistakes. I forget who has boys, who has girls, how many, how old. I forget where I stashed the birthday presents. I try to remember when I last had a Pap smear and can’t. Whether this ineptitude is tied to estrogen decline or I’m short-circuiting from information overload, only time will tell.

As a woman with multiple autoimmune diseases, I’m used to some degree of daily discomfort. What I’m not used to is feeling like a foreigner in my own body. The first time I had a hot flash, it hit me like a nuclear wave as I wandered around the local hardware store, my organs seeming to spontaneously combust. It was every bit as bad as a panic attack, only instead of feeling paralyzed, I made it to the carpark and sobbed. Had I recognized it for what it was, it might have been easier to handle, but I was completely blindsided by the experience.

The trouble with menopause is that you don’t know what’s happening until it’s already happened. Your last period comes and goes without warning. It isn’t even considered your last until you’ve gone twelve months without another. Add stress like an interstate move or chronic illness to the mix, and it’s easy to overlook signs that your body is changing until the shift is nearly complete. And this is assuming you even know what those signs are, which I didn’t. I was probably in perimenopause for several years before we moved but never realized it.

I did know about periods though, and I noticed when mine stopped. In thirty years, I could count on one hand the number of periods I missed; even exclusively breastfeeding infants, I was menstruating again by six weeks post-partum every time. I was, if nothing else, “regular”. With a family history of early menopause, I suspected I was following suit when my periods disappeared. I just didn’t anticipate how much the transition would affect me.

Having lost the literal ebb and flow of a monthly bleed, I don’t know how to sync myself anymore. I can no longer pin my moods to a cycle, and this lack of rhythm leaves me unanchored and adrift. I cry easily and often.

Periods have been a big part of my life for decades, from the sense of wonder sparked by the first, to the joy each time their absence confirmed a much-desired pregnancy. I wish I had known that last period a year ago was my reproductive grand finale. I’d have given it more respect.

Our culture loves to celebrate beginnings. Endings? Not so much. Modern menopause lacks ritual. It’s usually a silent discombobulation, completely divorced from its importance as a rite of passage. In contrast, many Pagan traditions honor not only a woman’s transition from Maiden to Mother, but also from Mother to Crone, the final—and wisest—aspect of the Triple Goddess.

My grandmother’s generation called menopause “The Change”, and while such euphemisms offend contemporary sensibilities, there’s something honest and beautiful in acknowledging what is essentially a metamorphosis. When my kids go through a growth spurt and become clumsy, tired, and grouchy, I try to be kind and patient with them until they level out again; menopause is teaching me to be kind and patient with myself as I go through my own “awkward phase”, my own period of growth.

I wish I could say I’m doing menopause so that no one else has to. But it doesn’t work that way. You don’t “get” menopause. You don’t “have” menopause either. You “go through” it.

Menopause isn’t an event but an evolution.

I’m learning to trust the process.

After eighteen years in Sydney, Nicole Melanson recently moved to Brisbane with her husband and their five sons. An award-winning poet and writer, Nicole also edits WordMothers, supporting women’s work in the literary arts. Find her at www.nicolemelanson.com / www.wordmothers.com@wordmothers.

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