You may remember my post from a couple weeks ago, Infinity Mirror. This is the essay it originated from:
As I walked into the exam room, Susan’s smile quickly turned to tears.
“What is going on?” I asked, sitting down on a stool.
She let out a big sigh. “My life is great, I mean, really great. I’ve been dating a man for almost a year and he is terrific. Work is great too – I made partner.” She looked away for a moment, then back at me with her eyes brimming with tears. “See this,” pointing at her eyes, “this happens all the time now.”
I’ve know Susan for years as a patient. I was always impressed, and a little envious, of her nonstop energy. Driven to be top in her field, she gave everything she had to her career — motherhood, or even finding a significant other, were never a high priority. She embraced the challenges, thriving in her male-dominated work world, and found rich rewards in her chosen life.
“I cry at everything these days. I’m in the middle of a meeting, then someone pushes my buttons, which I normally can handle easily, and suddenly tears are welling up in my eyes. My boyfriend asks a simple question and I want to scream at him. It’s so embarrassing! Worse yet, I feel like I can’t control it. You have got to help me!”
“It’s like you are going through a second puberty,” I told her with a smile.
“Exactly! I’m 52 and acting like a teenager! But how do I explain that to a bunch of men??”
Although most of us don’t remember our own hormonal adolescent craziness, we can usually recount our mother “flying off the handle” or perhaps an aunt, older sister, or even ourselves during menopause. What comes to mind for me are infinity mirrors you see at fun houses. It’s the mirror that shows you smaller and smaller reflections of yourself receding into infinity. Those reflections are the mirroring of puberty – hormones starting up – and menopause – hormones shutting down. And in the midst of the turbulence, it feels like it will go on forever!
Recently, I had a mother and daughter see me for check ups. I saw the mother first. As I walked into her room, I found her fanning herself with a pamphlet from the shelf. “Oh my God! These hot flashes are horrible!” she greeted me. Her gown was wet from sweat.
She went on to tell me about her challenging year. “I was in a snowmobile accident last year and had a closed head injury. It affected my frontal cortex and my thinking sometimes gets foggy. I’m in PT, OT, cognitive therapy… basically, I just go from one therapy to the next. I haven’t seen you in a while because I can only drive short distances. I figured though, if I made an appointment with my daughter, she could drive. But then she had her wisdom teeth out 2 days ago and is taking Norco for pain. We both got in the car and looked at each other – who was going to drive?! The one on narcotics or the one with a closed head injury?” I chuckled imagining the scenario – it sounded like a Saturday Night Live skit.
She went on to tell me her periods were erratic, she was irritable and moody. She didn’t sleep well, waking up drenched in sweat throughout the night. “Sometimes I scream at my kids and husband for no reason.” She rattled on about scenarios where she felt out of control or acted impulsively. She truly sounded like a teenager.
As she spoke I realized not only was my patient in the throes of menopausal changes, she was also in the throes of puberty. With her frontal cortex affected by her accident, she had lost some control of her emotions, judgement and problem solving. She was living in the infinity mirror.
The end of a woman’s reproductive years can be an emotional, topsy turvy time. From the “What the heck is going on with my body?” to “I can’t remember where I put my car keys” to “there are days I just want to whack everyone at work.” For some, the hot flushes, night sweats, and interrupted sleep wreaks havoc daily in their life. For others, more subtle changes are bothersome – dryer skin, saggy breasts, decreased energy level. Or it may be harder to take off those few extra pounds after the holidays, memory becomes a little foggy, and sex isn’t the same, possibly even painful. And on a deeper level, there may be joy in not having a period anymore or hell in trying to manage volatile emotions or sadness in the closure of the reproductive years.
On a personal level, I found it a time to reflect about my mother and her transitions. I was finishing high school/starting college when her ovaries were probably shutting down, but true to her style, she didn’t comment or complain about how this affected her. She just went about her days like nothing different was going on with her body. Even though I am different from my mother – more willing to share my emotions – I would guess my children would say the same about me during this time. I didn’t find myself complaining much at home, partly because working in this field gave me access to resources and knowledge to help me navigate my transition.
During Susan’s appointment, we discussed options to help her feel more in control of her body and hormonal changes. For someone who thrives on being in control, as Susan does, the unpredictable changes of menopause can be scary. So for her, acknowledging the changes she was experiencing and respecting her body were empowering to her. In the end, we decided to try include one medical intervention in her plan to ease some of the physical changes for her.
I hoped she came away from her appointment with a renewed sense of self love, self patience and self acceptance. And, ultimately, to honor her wisdom and experience that brought her to this point in her life.