Various Unmentionables

I was driving north in a car with a man that clearly I knew, though I couldn’t place him. It was some kind of escape, a getaway. We needed a place to stay for the night and so we stopped with some friends of his, just beyond the border. There was a teenage boy doing his homework at the kitchen table, and upstairs, a very young girl child, asleep. We were given a bed for the night, and as darkness fell, I suddenly realised that I knew how this story ended. It ended with a stranger slipping into the house and knifing all the inhabitants, except for me. How did I avoid the massacre? I wasn’t sure; I thought maybe if I rolled out of bed and hid beneath it, I could pass unnoticed, but then I would have to witness what happened next.

A sane voice spoke to me, saying. I think this is a dream? And if this is a dream, maybe you want to wake up now? Because I really don’t like the road we’re on.

I  came to; darkness in the room, but definitely in my own bed. The clock said 3.15 am. I lay back and started playing Julie Andrews on the soundtrack inside my head, singing ‘My Favourite Things’ as a soothing technique. Mr Litlove was stirring. ‘It was just a nightmare,’ I told him. ‘Do you want to tell me what it was about?’ he asked. I thought about lying in the silent darkness with one anxious brain cell functioning, describing knife-wielding maniacs. ‘It was so bad, I don’t even want to,’ I replied. ‘Uh,’ said Mr Litlove.

I should point out here that Mr Litlove has mastered the art of talking to me in his sleep. In the morning, he has no recollections of what he has said. At that point I realised what else was odd: I didn’t have my mouthguard in. This much-detested contraption came about because I bruised a nerve in my gum one night, an experience I have no desire to repeat so I put up with the mouthguard despite the fact that it is too big for my mouth and hateful. I felt about on my bedside table, but it wasn’t there. So I really wondered what I’d done with it. Had I maybe thrown it across the room? I judged my subconscious was wholly capable of such an act.

‘Now what’s the matter?’ Mr Litlove asked. ‘I’ve taken out my mouthguard and I can’t find it,’ I told him. ‘Well I think you’d know if you’d swallowed it,’ he said, a statement that amused him greatly when I repeated it to him in the morning. I put my hand straight down on the duvet and there it was. This was good news; if this was the kind of night my brain was having, I felt that teeth-grinding might well be a part of it.

I am 46 going on 47 and the perimenopause is a reality. There has been a notable increase in nightmares these past few months, and if my chronic fatigue is worse, I think my hormones have a lot to do with it. Fatigue, anxiety, poor sleep, muscle aches and brain fog are all perimenopausal symptoms, and they are chronic fatigue symptoms too. So I feel like I’m getting a double dose. But what I also notice is that this isn’t something that women are allowed to talk about much. It’s not a cultural story, even though every woman alive will go through this rite of passage. And it’s quite a rocky journey for some of us; even at our luckiest we’ll have four years of being hot, clumsy, forgetful and volatile.

Can anyone name me a novel in which one of the main female characters is going through the perimenopause or menopause and this is a significant part of the story? (The spellchecker on this site doesn’t even register the word ‘perimenopause’.) I’ve been thinking but I can’t come up with any. Even women don’t write about it much, maybe because of some dim historical memory of being considered ‘irrational’ one week in four and therefore denied the vote. It’s just another taboo, too much icky information, and very little in the way of glamour or heroism. They don’t print t-shirts saying ‘I survived the menopause’ (and if they did, they’d be sold for male partners to wear). And yet it’s such a powerful, vivid experience.

I tend to think that menopause is the emotional last-chance saloon. Any issue that you haven’t dealt with up until now is going to rise up front and centre. My reasoning is that hormones magnify; their task is to take the small thing that bothers you and whack the volume up until your internal ears are bleeding. Denial may no longer be an option.

I saw my reiki practitioner last week, and she was describing the experience of working with a hormonal woman – ‘like she had a thousand volts flooding through her system’ – who was then given HRT: ‘and she was perfectly calm and back to normal; I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.’ So biology is to blame, as it is with chronic fatigue, essentially, but all we have is our psychology to deal with it, in the absence of drugs that is. I’d been talking to my practitioner about my ongoing issues with my eyes, the worsened chronic fatigue and the perimenopause kicking in, and her advice was to focus on three things: 1) empty my brain and try to avoid overstimulation, 2) practice grounding and 3) try and be grateful where possible, alongside any frustrations. So I have been doing those things, and the result has been good; it helps. But my dreams have been much more vivid.

And it occurred to me that my nightmare could be analysed very usefully. I think my deepest fear is that I will escape what is intolerable, only to end up in an even worse catastrophe. This can grind me to a halt, unable to move forward. On a more everyday level, I think my problem is I treat even small difficulties with the things I feel disempowered over but emotionally invested in (my son, my health) as if they had the potential to become a multiple homicide. I do struggle to maintain a sense of proportion in situations that worry me. Mr Litlove thinks that things will just come right, if he watches television until the crisis passes. Whereas I think things will only come right if I throw masses of my energy at them. We both seem to have lived the truth of these beliefs, and we both recognise that, at present, we need to become a little more like the other. Maybe I can use those pesky hormones to motivate me.

24 thoughts on “Various Unmentionables

  1. Oh, goodness, you are so right that the menopause is a taboo subject in literature or discussions. It only ever appears as a sort of joke for comedians about moody women or between women themselves as ‘hot flushes’. I think you now have double the reason to let things slide, not take things to heart so much. But of course, it’s easier said than done!

  2. ” I will escape what is intolerable, only to end up in an even worse catastrophe.” Yes, I know that fear a little too well myself.

    This post made me wonder why we don’t, in fact, talk about menopause. It seems to me that surviving it is a feat equal to pregnancy and childbirth, though perhaps we don’t talk about it because we are culturally ingrained to see it as an ending, and many women identify it as the final nail in the coffin of their sexuality, which is just so…sad isn’t quite the word, but it’s maddening the way we hypersexualize young women, and give the message to women over fifty that they are invisible, and even if they are visible, waning fertility somehow equals undesirability.

    Unrelated: You don’t have a custom mouth guard? I don’t know about the UK, but here it’s fairly inexpensive to have one made by taking an impression of your teeth, which sounds nasty but doesn’t last more than thirty seconds. Or if you have a custom guard that doesn’t quite fit, they can be trimmed–my orthodontist had to do some work on mine with what appeared to be a pair of everyday sewing scissors. Needs must, you know.

  3. I’ve gone over two years since my periods stopped and am still suffering all the rest. The recent winter, I mean two day cold snap, was bliss – no overheating in bed leading to reading at 4am with all the covers off, better moods too. Then back to ‘normal’ when it warmed up. HRT might work, but my mum took it for years, then died of breast cancer, so I’m wary and am just putting up with it. It’s funny at school though – there are around six of us comparing symptoms – just as a decade ago, we’d recount all our pregnancy tales to any newly pregnant young colleague at the drop of a hat. I can’t think of a book with a menopausal protagonist either.

  4. Well I’ve seen my wife suffer through this mad hormone plot. I’d like to think I have grown better at adjusting to it from my side, but the difficulty is an obstinate reflex reaction that she is the same omnicompitent person she always was, because so many of the manifestations are easy to see as isolated and the overriding cause forgotten. I can’t offer you any solutions other than those you suggest like mindfulness or meditation to take focus from catastrophising, but you have my sympathies. I have read a fair bit, but I can’t say any glaring or other examples come to mind, although perhaps they may be there mistakenly described as other things, such as illness. It is probably the case that unlike the prominent marriage plot or the mistress/alternative spouse (eg Bertha Rochester) plot, it is probably too difficult to handle in rationalist novelistic terms.

  5. Indeed it is taboo, as are periods and PMS. It’s as if it’s all too messy to deal with so let’s sweep it under the carpet and not talk about it or, as Marina says, make a joke of it. So sorry that it’s making your CFS worse. I’m sure the last thing you need is interrupted sleep.

  6. Menopause is hell. HELL. And the worst part is that it seems to go on forever and ever… Six to twelve months might be bearable, but the thought of enduring this for another three, four, five years makes me want to kill someone. And men wonder why we’re moody. And cranky. (I’m glad to know brain fog is a symptom, as there are moments I think I have early-onset dementia). And good point, why does no one in a book ever suffer from menopausal symptoms?

  7. Thank you for being open and honest discussing this. Periods and peri-menopause and menopause are indeed underdiscussed and missing from our fictional literature and films. They are such a huge part of life. I’m in my late 40s so can certainly relate to your experiences!

    This paragraph you wrote really struck a chord with me:
    “I tend to think that menopause is the emotional last-chance saloon. Any issue that you haven’t dealt with up until now is going to rise up front and centre. My reasoning is that hormones magnify; their task is to take the small thing that bothers you and whack the volume up until your internal ears are bleeding. Denial may no longer be an option.” Spot on! 🙂

  8. Like Annabel I’ve been suffering this for a while despite losing the periods – what with the perimenopause as well it seems to be going on forever. I hadn’t connected the weird dreams I’ve been having with it though, and the general sense of impending catastrophe. Truly it’s a hideous thing and not really surprising it’s hidden away – most things about women still seem to be surprisingly taboo.

  9. You are absolutely right, it is a taboo subject. Older women seem very reluctant to speak of it and those younger dismiss it with embarrassed hilarity. I am 51 and finding it very hard to deal with. I teach and dealing with hot flushes so visibly is very difficult. In addition to the physical symptoms,you are right, it brings up all kinds of emotional buried issues. The only book that has dealt with the impact of the transition is Jane Shilling’s “The Stranger in the Mirror”, but I can think of nothing in fiction. If anyone has any other suggestions, they would be gratefully received.

  10. Dude, my car accident did it to me; so I’m post-menopausal suddenly at 44, but with symptoms of perimenopause. Might I say with forgiveness from some of the more delicate among us: fuck that!

    I’m doing exactly those three things to balance with no drugs, yoga, diet, and notes of at least one awesome thing that happened each day as a refer-back for when I’m raging for no reason, and ready to choke a bitch.

    So far so good! And I’ve dropped four pant sizes.

    Man, I thought the weird dreaming was the pepperoni pizza…well, shit.

  11. I’ve had dreams like that! Where I suddenly know where it’s all going to end. More often than not, it gets me to wake myself up — I can never work out if that’s just my brain’s sensible way of waking me up because there’s something I need to change (temperature? position?), or if it’s a totally random synapse thing.

  12. I’ve talked about this with a group of 7 other women around my age, from all over the U.S., and we think it’s not written about more because it’s so individual. None of us had the same kind of symptoms or time frame for peri- or menopause. We talk about it mostly to establish some kind of range of “normal.”
    Even then, you’re the only person besides me who I’ve heard talking about increased nightmares as associated.

  13. Perimenopause came barreling in for me at the end of this last summer with hot flashes and night sweats and a clockwork cycle that is now completely unpredictable (I have had to become a “boy scout” and always be prepared wherever I am). Minnesota winters have never been so lovely, though I still get unbearably hot at night. We had to get a heated mattress pad so Bookman can be warm on his side of the bed and I can fling off the sheets when I need to. I think I might need to invest in tank tops and sun dresses come May! I can’t imagine coping with perimenopause and chronic fatigue at the same time. hang in there and whenever you need support or encouragement, feel free to email me🙂

  14. After I read your post, I went to my friend’s house and she started talking about her menopause, and then stopped and said, “You probably don’t want to hear about all this.” But thinking about your post, I said I did. We (if we are women!) will all hopefully go through it at some point and it is a very profound physical and emotional experience – why not talk and write about it?

  15. Mrs Couchtrip is reading “The Husband’s Secret” by Liane Moriarty and the main character is starting to experience symptoms of menopause. But I don’t think it gets more than a passing mention. Men also have their own menopausal issues but I guess they don’t talk much about it either. Sorry that the hormones are making your CFS worse. I agree with the strategy of trying to limit over-stimulation and seeking to balance using reiki, yoga, meditation etc.

    That dream has me wondering about those parts of ourselves that we disavow. The angry (and violent) impulses for example.

  16. there is a book…a nonfiction book written by a female comedian here in the States…that addresses a lot of these issues but I cannot for the life of me remember the author OR title – real helpful, I realize. From the reviews it garnered I know it was a pretty honest rendering of menopause. But as for novels? I can’t think of one that addresses these issues!

  17. Lisa Genova should write a book about it! I went through menopause without ever having a symptom. None – other than the obvious. I knew I wasn’t pregnant…must be menopause. My doctor said to ask my mother about her experience and it would probably be identical to mine. When I asked her she said, “I went through menopause without ever knowing it.” There you go. Genetics play such a role in our health. I took hormone replacements for a while and stopped them because they made me gain weight (no matter what my doctor said). No adverse side effects from stopping them other than a bigger balance in my checkbook at the end of every month! Hang in there. The 50s and 60s are wonderful ages to live life in.

  18. Menopause varies so much – the one thing I really listened to was advice from a much older friend who had noted the incidence of breast cancer with those of her friends who had taken HRT. Although this is anecdotal, it frightened me enough that I never considered HRT despite nightmares, waking at 3.00 am and flinging off sheets and so on.

    I also think that menopause can be a convenient put-down in the work environment – questioning decisions made by women on the basis that their hormones are calling the tune. It can be a wretched time. Perhaps one of the reasons it’s not spoken about? Too easy to be criticised for the wrong reasons?

    Some of my friends had no problems; others were totally miserable.

    The advice you were given is good. It all helps and laughter is the very best remedy.

  19. Anne Tyler is good on writing about older women. She never specifically mentions the menopause but I suppose she is a writer who shows rather than tells. Back When We Were Grownups is about a woman in her early fifties and is spoke to me. Good luck!

  20. I started thinking about a novel about a menopausal woman with exactly that in mind, ie what had been neglected emotionally. But then I ended up working on a historical novel instead. Maybe I’ll go back to it when I’m done!

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