Five thousand American women enter it every day. No, it's not a day spa. Nor is it an outpatient clinic for plastic surgery. And it's certainly not optional—although many options exist for dealing with it. It's menopause—often referred to as The Big M. Over the generations it's been called The Change of Life—for more reasons than one.
For many women, menopause comes abruptly, far sooner than 51, the average age of the body's natural cessation of menses—due to the 6,000 hysterectomies performed in the U.S. each year. For the rest of us, this unavoidable rite of passage often sneaks up after a six-month to ten-year hormonal time warp called perimenopause.
I know. I was blindsided by this roller coaster of baffling physical symptoms and emotions when I was in my 40s. If I'd been paying attention, I'd have realized some of my girlfriends already had entered perimenopause in their late 30s. A few even reached menopause—that point of no return where periods stop forever—before they were 40.
Since no physician had yet mentioned The M Word to me, I convinced myself what was going on in my mind and body was "all in my head"—a diagnosis often given to the younger woman who sees her family doctor for the first time with symptoms such as mine: teariness, tingling muscles, aching shoulders, racing heart, insomnia, anxiety, and forgetfulness.
Despite that hallmark forgetfulness, I clearly remember where I was when I finally realized what was happening to me. I'd just made a hasty exit from a Christian bookstore where I'd gone to find a book that might help me self-diagnose. I perused one on depression and promptly burst into tears. Too embarrassed to buy the book, I hurried out of the store before the clerk could see my puffy-red eyes.
"What on earth is wrong with me, Lord?" I wailed as I got in my car and desperately tuned into my favorite Christian radio station, hoping its upbeat music would sooth my jangled nerves.
Instead, a woman's soft, authoritative voice came into my car, systematically describing nearly all the symptoms I'd been asking doctor after doctor about with no results. I heard the one word no physician had yet diagnosed—one that would rock my world and set me free at the same time: menopause.
"What??!!" I wanted to scream back at the radio in denial. "Isn't that for old women? I'm just a kid in my 40s!"
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists assures me I'm not alone. They report fewer than half of the women entering meno-years knows much about them.
As a result, many initially view the onset of perimenopause with that proverbial "deer in the headlights" look. Then, like me, they dig into ways to manage this time so aptly dubbed The Change. As I did, I discovered six steps crucial to adjusting to—and even embracing—The Big M.
Get Meno INFO:
Start with your physician if you're experiencing symptoms such as hot flashes or night sweats (see sidebar for more). She can explain the myriad medical treatments that often help with physical symptoms. But if you feel dismissed by your physician, don't be afraid to find a more sympathetic doctor.
I went to three different gynecologists before I found a care provider who was unflustered by my many questions. While she was more than willing to provide me with prescriptions, she encouraged me to embrace menopause for what it is: a time of change, not an illness.
As a result, I opted out of a complex hormonal regimen. Instead, I did a stint with low-dose birth control pills to alleviate uncontrolled bleeding; used antidepressants for teariness and insomnia; gulped down natural alternatives such as soy, black cohosh (product name Remifemin), and flaxseed to quell nasty hot flashes; took 1,500 mg of calcium a day to combat osteoporosis; and, at my gynecologist's recommendation, used a new product called Slippery Stuff to help with vaginal dryness (order by calling Wal-Med, Inc. at 1-800-759-7883).
Get a Meno MENTOR:
Scripture's clear that older women are to teach younger women (Titus 2:3-5); there's no age cap on this commandment. So find an older woman who's further down the hormonal road to inspire you through this time.
I literally prayed God would lead me to these gems—women full of life despite, or perhaps because of, menopause. One such friend, Cleo, bought herself a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for her 75th birthday as a reward for "living this long"! Another meno-mentor repeatedly encouraged me to override pride and condemnation and take a much-needed sleep aid that saved my sleep and my sanity.
Get Meno COUNSEL:
Now's the time to stare down middle age and face your fears about aging. I chose to do that by getting Christian counseling. I used this venue to explore midlife issues such as: Had I been a good wife/mother? Had my life been worthwhile? Could my marriage reconfigure itself with just the two of us in our emptying nest? Was I still desirable?
My widowed, never-married, childless, or divorced perimenopausal girlfriends shared some of these issues, but also found themselves struggling with another heartwrenching one—the very real fear of loneliness or of never having children.
Ironically, these questions—often more troubling than menopause's actual physical symptoms—are a key part of The Change. The answers this season of life eventually provides can be the pot of gold at the end of the hormonal rainbow. God directed me to a skilled counselor as well as to numerous books by Christian psychologist Dr. Larry Crabb (my favorites during this grueling time were The Pressure's Off and Shattered Dreams) to help me cut through hormonal mumbo-jumbo and discern biblically based truths from falsehoods.
Get a Meno MAKEOVER:
Since I saw a number of my peers wilting at this stage of life, I decided to head full-tilt into it—literally. I followed an older meno-mentor's example and bought a Harley-Davidson. I got a treadmill and began actually using it. I revamped my wardrobe, makeup, and hairstyle, peeling off a few extra years and infusing myself with confidence. And I wasn't shy about telling my husband and family what I was going through—which helped them become more supportive. I purposely deleted energy-robbing (including some church and Bible study) responsibilities from my calendar. I added naps to my to-do list, and bulked up on complex carbs and low-fat proteins, dropping ten pounds in the process. But most importantly, I sought out friends—both old and new—who had youthful, positive attitudes, yet wise spiritual values that helped me remember I still could make an eternal impact for God's Kingdom—whether or not I was perimenopausal!
Get the Meno MINDSET:
Although many women find clues to their hormonal status through blood tests or the newer but more controversial saliva testing (see www.salivatest.com), there's still no definitive test to determine if you're in perimenopause. Since the only proof you're menopausal is the cessation of periods for one year (with no other medical reason for you to stop), you'll need to learn to listen even more to your body. Part of the glory of The Change is that it may force you to avoid stresses you used to enthusiastically wrestle and give you permission to reprioritize your relationships with an awareness you don't have forever to do it. And that can be a very good thing!
Get a Meno LIFE:
Like death and taxes, you can't avoid menopause, so you might as well embrace it. It helped me to accept that the same Creator who gave me the ability to have children and enjoy sex with my husband also ordained this time in a woman's life. I have meno-friends who wrote their first bestseller, finally dragged apathetic husbands off to marriage counseling, went back to college, switched careers or passions—all amazing transformations that may never have taken place had it not been for the biggest and most glorious change of all—The Big M. Now those are hot flashes that can re-ignite any woman's life!
Ronna Snyder, a TCW regular contributor, is finishing her first book, Hot Flashes from Heaven, a collection of hormonally related inspirational stories. For more information, contact Ronna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.Click for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.