The Gifts of
By Elena Sherman
From Our Spring 1997 Issue
"Of course, you want to lose weight!" he said
enthusiastically as he made a large, dark check mark on his form.
Mildly, I replied, "Not especially. Why do you think I
"He" was the manager of a fitness center. I'm a
fifty-four-year-old short, large woman. Obviously not his usual client
He recovered, more or less gracefully. He put down his clipboard and
pen and looked at me directly for the first time. "Why don't you
just tell me what you hope to get out of joining?" he asked.
Pleased that we might be able to have an intelligent discussion about
toning, strength, and whether the machines would accommodate my five
foot two inch, short-waisted, round body, I continued.
Four years before, I wouldn't have had the courage to walk into a
fitness center. On this day, with confidence, I asked, "Do you know
how to work with me?" and "Is the place clean?"
This brave new "me" that I'm having a great time getting to
know is one of the gifts of menopause.
Innocently, not suspecting how life-altering the process would be, I
made up ground rules as I entered the menopause zone.
- Menopause would be a normal process of life for me. I was not
going to share it with the AMA.
- I was not going to have hot flashes.
- I was going to keep my sense of humor.
Numbers 1 and 2 were easy. I had no trouble staying away from the
AMA. And I didn't have hot flashes. Instead I had heat, lots of it. My
internal thermostat shot up and stayed there for almost three years. In
winter, it was bliss. I curled up comfortably on the couch with a book
while my life partner, three cats, and 80-pound dog jockeyed for
positions around the floor furnace in the hall.
Keeping my sense of humor was the biggest challenge, as each month
brought a new menopausal attraction, starting with PMS. After several
months of a week to ten days of PMS so awful that I longed for a nice,
simple nightmare, I got to reading and thinking. Knowing that my hormone
levels were chaotic, it occurred to me that eliminating extra hormones
might help. I experimented with not eating red meat, chicken, eggs, and
dairy products the last two weeks of my cycle. The PMS disappeared. That
gave me plenty to chuckle about. I made this suggestion to several other
women with the same problem, and all of them experienced some level of
relief from their PMS symptoms. Since then I've found hormone-free
drug-free sources of all those foods.
I wasn't allowed to chuckle long before the arrival of my next
challenge: insomnia. After several months of battling with myself about
sleeping, I gave up worrying and spent my wakeful hours reading and
embroidering. With the insomnia nicely established, I started
experiencing a loss of energy. Encouraged by reading in Menopausal Years
by Susun S.
Weed that both insomnia and energy loss weren't unusual aspects of
menopause, I decided to follow her advice: I decided to ask my body what
she wanted. It had never occurred to me to talk to my body before; the
sleepless nights provided the perfect opportunity. I was delighted with
how easy and productive our conversations were.
"Kid, you want to sleep at night?"
"Of course I do."
"I hate to exercise!"
"I've noticed. Sneak up on it. Start with stretching."
Because I had done a lot of yoga some years before, I thought I'd
start there. Much to my dismay, I discovered that in the past eight
years of dealing with abuse, long ago and present, I had moved
completely out of my body and into my head. Yoga was too difficult for
my body to handle at that point. While browsing in a bookstore I found a
book about a Feldenkrais-based program developed by Thomas Hanna called Somatics.
It is a system of stretching that focuses on interconnections between
muscles and the brain. It was just the thing to get my mind and body
working together again. Learning from the book was easy, and the
movements are gentle and slow. (The book, as well as a catalog including
tapes, is available from Somatics Educational Resources, 1516
Grant Ave., #212, Novato, CA 94945.) Slowly, as I saw how much the
gentle movement helped me to sleep better and keep track of where my
body was in space, I added some yoga to my routine.
Encouraged, my body and I decided to go swimming twice a week, in a
heated YWCA pool. I wasn't sure what I was going to do there, because I
was more of a flailer than a swimmer, but the Y offered a beginning
exercise class, Water Bounce, which was perfect. After finishing the
class, I began to do kicking laps while holding onto water bells, which
look like hand weights with Styrofoam instead of weights. In a little
more than four months, I did my first mile. Everybody applauded and
congratulated me. I felt wonderful. Without realizing it, I was taking
my first steps to the self-acceptance that a couple of years later would
make it safe for me to check out the fitness center.
Moving my body made me aware of the muddy fog that for too long had
been a regular part of my life. Until the physical activity started
lifting it, I hadn't even known it was there. But even though moving
helped me maintain my sense of humor, think better, and feel better, I
still resisted doing it. By never saying my hot-button word, exercise, I
did pretty well until my next challenge came along.
Movement was the first thing to go when tag teams of menopausal
gremlins unleashed their extravagant mood swings. Fortunately, my body
turned out to be amazingly patient about repeating lessons, not
expecting me to be perfect the first, second, or umpteenth time.
The constant unfocused anger that I experienced during my mood swings
took me totally by surprise. If I hadn't had experience dealing with my
childhood flashbacks, I would have been plenty worried. At the very
bottom of each swing, I was filled with undefined, overwhelming
blackness and despair. Because of having worked through past abuse, I
was able to recognize that this wasn't really me, but rather something
more that needed working through. I learned I could mitigate the swings
with extract of wild yam, yerba santa, and sage tea. I mostly limited my
use of these to nights or when I had to interact with people. Alone, I
practiced breathing exercises and listened to meditation tapes, allowing
myself to cry as much as I needed to. Still, this was the hardest part
of the whole process, and, without realizing it, I had gone back into my
protective mode of keeping my body very still while concentrating on my
Once again,my body treated me with patient wisdom.
"Hey there, anyone home?"
"Okay, body, what's going on? I haven't seen my sense of humor
for several weeks now."
"Remember all the cultures that select postmenopausal women to
be wise women? Well, this is it. This is where you make your
"Your mood swings are helping you get to places that need
healing and letting go of. The more you choose to let go, the more of a
wise woman you'll become."
With the help of my body's wisdom, I was finally catching on.
Menopause had brought with it the potential to let loose the exciting,
creative woman that had been locked up inside me. Now I could see that
it was my emotional baggage, not my size, standing in the way.
"And as long as I have your attention, it's time to get back to
"I have too much to do, and not enough energy."
"If you don't move me, I can't give you energy or provide you
with emotional support."
My body, as usual, was right. Having it brought to my attention, I
could feel the stiffening, mentally as much as physically, that was
occurring because I had stopped swimming and stretching. For the first
time in my life, I recognized the clues, the grouchiness and
restlessness that tell me I need to give myself the gift of something
physical to do. This time, it was easier to put my body back into
The opportunity to accept and let go: these are the gifts of
menopause. Protecting myself emotionally had always been my focus while
growing up, and it had become an automatic part of me. To get myself to
let go, even when the need to protect myself was long past, my
menopausal lessons had to be dramatic. At my lowest, I had crashing mood
swings, with, at most, four good hours a day into which to cram a
living, errands and a life.
I was grateful to be working at home: that enabled me to take
advantage of any available energy, day or night. I knew other women who,
because of rigid schedules and demanding jobs, couldn't spend much time
on themselves. I shared information and ideas with these friends on a
take-what-you-like-and-leave-the-rest basis. The results were positive.
My menopausal friends selected techniques that fit into their lives and
that they found helpful. This sharing made me feel valuable and
connected with other women.
To deal with my limited energy, I made lists. I divided my external
world into activities that had to have my four good hours, those that
needed me to just be there, and those that just weren't going to happen.
My careful lists didn't work. I was using most of my energy agonizing
over how to make what I thought should happen happen, in spite of
severely limited energy.
"Listen up, Kid. This lesson won't be easy. Forget the lists and
go with your instincts. Start your day by doing something for yourself
every day. Something you want to do. Don't devote your life to it. Give
yourself twenty minutes of sketching; or ten minutes of sitting in the
sun with a cup of tea, watching the grass grow; or fifteen minutes of
yoga. Satisfying your needs produces energy."
Timidly, I tried it. The first day, I drew a tiny landscape. The
next, I took my tea outside to watch the grass grow. An hour later, I
realized that I had weeded my herb bed. I had satisfied my needs and my
body's needs in one activity. The deep satisfaction I felt was a preview
of where I was headed. And it was those sneak previews that kept me
going when the gremlins came back, again and again.
I began to monitor how I reacted to various activities. For the first
time, I actually saw why I was exhausted by the time I finished
showering and dressing in the morning. My gremlins were the writers and
producers of the constantly angry dramas that filled my head while I
showered; these gremlins picked up ranting where my mother had left off.
Giving the gremlins the boot gave me the energy to start my day without
having to take a nap after I'd finished dressing! Instead, I practiced
mental silence, which, in turn, allowed me to enjoy the sensations of
the shower on my body and left me peacefully ready for the rest of the
We celebrated, my body and I, when I passed the halfway mark. I knew
I was there because my body told me. Little by little, things became
easier. I was following many of the recommendations in The Menopause
Self-Help Book by Susan M. Lark, M.D., including taking her supplement
blend (Menopause I and II produced by Schiff Products Inc., Salt Lake
City, UT 84104, 800-526-6251). The supplements made such a difference in
my equanimity that within two days of running out, my partner would eye
me speculatively and ask if I needed her to stop at the store for more.
She was never wrong.
Slowly, my energy increased and my mood swings began to fade. The
more I moved, the closer my body and I became, until it seemed natural
for my body and me to start taking dance breaks in the living room.
"May I have this dance?"
"Yes, you can! And the next and the next. I never want to stop
dancing with you."
Now I am reaping the gifts of menopause. There is more for me to
learn and let go of, and I still don't learn every lesson on the first
try. But life is good. I know the importance of putting my needs first,
without guilt and without apology. I listen to my body and enjoy the
sensation of our moving together, as a team. Other people are responding
to my increasing self-esteem. New people are coming into my life who see
me as a person they respect and want to be with. I'm having fun, and the
more fun I have, the easier it is to let go of past experiences. Oh, and
the fitness center? I went by there the other day. They had gone out of
My body just said she wants a final word.
"Why don't you just say you're outrageous?"
And so I am. . . .
ELENA SHERMAN is a freelance writer living in Atlanta, Georgia,
with her partner and three cats and happily writing her first
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