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The Gifts of Menopause
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 would?"

"He" was the manager of a fitness center. I'm a fifty-four-year-old short, large woman. Obviously not his usual client profile.

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.

  1. Menopause would be a normal process of life for me. I was not going to share it with the AMA.
  2. I was not going to have hot flashes.
  3. 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."

"Try exercise."

"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 head.

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 choice."

"What choice?"

"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 moving me."

"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 motion.

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 day.

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 business.

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 best-selling mystery.

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