When I was a preteen, my mother gave me a book, Going on Thirteen, that explained sex. Being naive, I definitely needed this literature. Up to then, I thought that intercourse was only for improper people. The book didn't cover everything, but I got the drift, and personal experience made up for the rest as I grew older.
My mother at least tried to inform me about sex, but she didn't really touch on menopause. She's not the only one who bailed on the subject. In the last decade, my friends and I have all bemoaned our ignorance about this tough period in our lives. What I imagined to be a year of hot flashes and moodiness, ended up being a decade of weirdness and discomfort. Yes, we are free of our periods, but who knew losing estrogen would be such a bummer?
Menopause actually has three stages: perimenopause, actual menopause and postmenopause: the three wild ponies of the apocalypse (Menapocalypse?).
Perimenopause is that lovely time before you officially stop menses, and it can last for ages. It typically begins sometime in your 40s but can strike earlier. The average length is four years, but it can last up to a decade. During perimenopause, your periods may be irregular, your vagina dry, your urine leaky and your sex drive weak. To add to the fun, you may be moody, tired and crampy. You may also gain weight, and some women experience thinning hair. I'd like to be positive for a moment, so I'll just say that chocolate helps - followed by a box of wine.
My mother never mentioned perimenopause, but it is not her fault. She had a hysterectomy at a young age and was on hormone replacement that basically prevented these symptoms until she went off her pills in her 70s, which threw her into an unfortunate senior menopause (which she denied).
When my six years of perimenopause had driven me nearly insane, I went to my ob/gyn who prescribed low-dose birth control pills. They helped reduce my symptoms, but I had to stop taking them when I developed breast cancer. In fact, doctors believe that the pills made my non-aggressive cancer behave like a crazed, ax-swinging psychopath. Now, a double-mastectomy later, I wish I had gone the natural route.
Healthy eating and regular exercise may sound boring, but they do help. I walked, sometimes muttering profanities, but it was still better than throwing rocks at my family and friends.
You aren't officially in menopause until you've gone 12 months without having a period. Your doctor can also test your hormone levels to determine if you have officially arrived. My oncologist tested me to determine which estrogen-sucking medication would work best after my mastectomy. Fortunately, most people don't have this particular challenge and can keep their small, post-menopause hormone stores. A little estrogen is better than none.
After you are in menopause, you have an increased chance of certain medical conditions, including osteoporosis, heart disease, incontinence and weight gain. Prescription treatments can include vaginal estrogen, low-dose antidepressants, and osteoporosis medications.
You will not look the same during and after menopause. Your skin loses elasticity, and you lose fat underneath it. Wrinkles result, and you can also gain fat around your midsection. These are not the prime bikini years.
Postmenopause is that light at the end of the tunnel, but you know the joke about oncoming trains. I do feel better, and while my vaginal dryness is still an issue, it's improved, as has my sex drive.
Is the menopause ride all bad? Not at all. My menopause journey has been complicated by cancer, but there are treatments to help with your symptoms. Also, being on the other side of menopause has freed me, not only from messy, painful periods but from constantly thinking about men and sex.
That last one may sound like a negative, but it isn't. In my life, about 85 percent of my poor decisions have in some way involved men. My need for men now is for companionship first and sex second, or third or maybe fifth. I have more time to spend on other things, including my grandkids. Truthfully, postmenopause is more relaxing than some earlier periods (no pun intended) in my life.
Also, I find that I'm less concerned about my appearance and more interested in my soul. Constantly trying to be "pretty" takes up a lot of time. I don't look the same as I did even ten years ago, but I'm still me. In fact, I am often surprised at my reflection since most days I still feel 25, except for my arthritis, of course.
Mom did not prepare me for menopause. She didn't like to talk about physical issues at all. Plus, her hormone therapy insulated her from many of the symptoms. Perimenopause came as a brutal shock to me. During my menopause, I was recovering from breast cancer, so it wasn't pleasant, either. Happily, this postmenopausal period I'm in is pretty nice.
Beth is a breast cancer survivor, with a tremendous about of experience with women's healthcare issues. She has worked as an Issue Manger for several medical publications, including the American Journal of Gynecology. Beth's colorful background also includes stints as a high school English teacher, college composition instructor, radio continuity director, and customer service representative for Blue Cross Blue Shield.