I arrived at menopause having experienced all the symptoms that you read about in women’s magazines: hot flashes, irregular periods, mood swings. But, except for the occasional Advil, I never popped a single pill to alleviate them. Considering I’d experienced countless traumas in my younger life, including an abusive childhood, teenage pregnancies, the death of a spouse, and a few divorces—all before I turned 38—I really thought going through this life change was going to be a breeze.
I had never experienced intense PMS symptoms, so there was no way I could foresee the difficulties menopause would cause. This crazy ride lasted nearly a decade, starting with the first symptom I experienced when I turned 40—nearsighted vision loss.
Symptoms I couldn’t ignore
After than that, other symptoms seemed to show up in layers, one on top of the other. A light headache here, a little cramp there. I couldn’t do without reading glasses when faced with a restaurant menu. I bled heavily, often in public, leaving a red mess in more than one restaurant chair. I’d quickly exit a building to avoid anyone noticing. I started wearing long shirts and carrying large purses in case I needed to hide the bloody evidence on my backside.
My sleep was flooded with night sweats and hot flashes, untempered by any special pillow or pajamas. Nothing cooled me down except for patience. I’d touch my clammy chest and wait for the feeling to pass. Along with the physical changes my body was going through, my mood spiraled downward during this time of transition.
What if you can’t afford menopause?
Despite all of the urgings over and over and over again from girlfriends—get a thyroid test, have your hormones checked, try hormone replacement therapy—I ignored their advice. I just couldn’t afford the cost of health insurance or medical bills—or the pills that would help me through menopause—so none of that advice applied to me. This made me feel terrible about myself, so it was easier for me to ignore their sound recommendations than have to explain my circumstances.
Instead, I navigated it all by instinct, convinced that my body would heal itself of menopause. It was, after all, a natural bodily process. And because I’d been born into a family with a history of addiction, I also clung to my stubborn fear of pharmaceuticals. I didn’t want to take any kind of pill if I thought it might not work or make matters worse. I’d seen plenty of friends see no results from antidepressants see and other friends wind up with breast cancer after trying hormone replacement therapy. Neither sounded like a good plan for me.
Doing my own research
To prove myself, I read books that mirrored my thoughts. I turned to Dr. Andrew Weil’s 8 Weeks to Optimum Health to learn about alternative healthcare options, such as eating whole foods, exercising and deep breathing. I could afford that. I was already riding my bike, jumping on a mini-trampoline and going to yoga classes with my boyfriend.
I was referred to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book Women’s Bodies; Women’s Wisdom for her sound advice on women’s health. Her words led me to try herbal teas and get rid of toxic chemicals in my household cleaning products and toiletries. I rediscovered quantum physics expert Dr. Joe Dispenza from What the Bleep Do We Know? when his book, You are the Placebo, came out in 2014. According to Dr. Dispenza, our bodies are capable of creating a host of biological chemicals that can heal us, protect us from pain, help us sleep more soundly, and enhance our immune systems. I was counting on all of this to work in my favor since my savings account was my main source of income at the time—and it was quickly depleting.
I remember my first hot flash. It happened after a bike ride. I returned home and felt unusually faint. When I felt like I was going to black out, I held myself up against the kitchen wall. Then I felt a strange heat sensation pass across my upper chest. It lasted only seconds. I was 45. Soon after, I experienced a heart palpitation that vibrated in my chest for several days. Then, it, too, was gone, never to return again. Though that was enough to make me want to see a doctor, I decided against that expense after reading that it was yet another possible menopausal symptom.
Things got scarier in the summer of 2012. My son was going through a challenging divorce. Soon to be a single parent of two young girls, he needed my help. I handed over the little bit of savings I had in the bank.
I’m almost certain the worry over his life situation and the stress over mine pushed me into full-blown hormonal chaos. I became lethargic, my hair started falling out in clumps. Weight gain followed, despite a mostly healthy diet, many glasses of water, and almost daily exercise.
Tackling unresolved issues
Honestly, it was the crying jags that threw me for a loop. Once my son’s life settled and I got back to work, I’d be driving to an interview and just suddenly burst into tears. For no apparent reason. Get control of yourself, Jackie, I’d think, and then head to the bathroom to wipe mascara smears off my cheeks. I didn’t realize by stifling those tears I was also stifling the messages they were sending.
Northrup explains in her book, “If you have any unresolved childhood issues, they will surface during this phase of life.” I did. About my mom, with whom I was estranged. Was I seriously still trying to figure that one out? Mood swings were in full effect at this point. I became so emotionally volatile at times that I isolated myself from family and friends so they didn’t have to bear witness to my uncontrollable temper. I wasn’t mad at them. I’d just get easily riled up or want to cry if they said something that sounded even remotely critical. It was best to keep my distance.
Instead, I spent time alone journaling to try to get to the heart of what was disturbing me. Clearly, I had some past anger and fear to resolve. In pretty, lined notebooks, I wrote like crazy, some days as many as ten pages. Nothing but free-flowing whines. Oh, I was miserable. I wanted someone to rescue me. I wanted the mom that I didn’t have and never had.
When I was at my most desperate, I called my therapist—the only medical cost I was willing to expend. I understood my issues were more mental than physical. My body was doing its natural thing; it was my mind I needed to confront. I still needed to heal the little girl inside of me, and no doctor’s diagnosis or prescription could fix that. Like so many women who’ve spent their entire lives caring for others, my body and my mind together were telling me, “It’s time you learn to take care of you now.”
Knowing I could do better
I had spent my life taking care of others. But who had taken care of me? A negligent mother had taught me that I could only rely on myself. In this chaotic time that was making me challenge my own self-worth, that’s what I was continuing to do—under the guise of a lack of finances, and maybe a misunderstanding of how my body could heal itself.
I could do better.
I heard my hormones loud and clear. “Trust. Trust Trust. Have a little faith,” they were saying. Or maybe it was my higher power. I leaned in closer to hear the message.
By the time I decided to splurge on that annual check-up I used to do regularly, I noticed my symptoms had all but disappeared. No more headaches, no more crankiness, no more heavy bleeding. No periods, period. I didn’t feel stuck anymore. Full-blown menopause arrived, and the most worrisome thing I’m stuck with now is an extra 25 pounds, most of it around my belly.
Aside from one visit to my gynecologist, who confirmed I was in menopause, I didn’t seek medical attention. I looked inward and did the hard work of uncovering and dealing with issues that had plagued me my whole life. I’m lucky I survived the roller coaster, and that I came out of it mostly intact. That’s not to say that focusing on the psychological, more than the physical, is the right choice for everyone—each woman, as she goes through menopause, will need to do what is best for her. But let’s not discount the fact that our bodies and our minds hold infinite power and menopause just might be the perfect time to dig deeper into who we are.