The amazing Viola Davis was on Jimmy Kimmel the other day, talking about, among other things, the care-and-tending of an Afro, the dangers of an MRI, and menopause. Jimmy asked her how long menopause lasts, and Viola said—without missing a beat—that someone needed to tell her, because it had been going on for five or six years with no end in sight. Her interview reminded me of a piece I wrote a while back for You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth, edited by Leslie Marinelli, about life on the floodplain: the endless hell known as perimenopause, the swampy induction to the joy of menopause. Here, slightly revised, is my paen to the peri.
God, I hated my period when I was in high school. It seems to me one of Nature’s cruelest jokes that just when my adolescent body was already subject to veritable tsunamis of emotion, ol’ Aunt Flo ushered in monthly waves of agita that left me wracked and sobbing on my bed at least once a month. Adding to my misery were the cramps that sent me to the school nurse, muttering shame-facedly about “that time” and asking to lie down in her dim, antiseptic-smelling office. And let’s not even mention that every month, like clockwork, one perfect zit would bloom on my chin, like Rudolph’s misplaced nose, gleaming like a beacon beyond the capacity of any concealer ever invented.
The moods, the tears, the zits, all functioned like storm clouds, letting me know that a storm was soon to descend – but like weather, Aunt Flo often took her sweet damn time to actually show up. Other girls my age clocked their periods like trains; a menses express that arrived and departed on regular schedule.
Not me. There’d I’d be, sitting in Earth Science, doodling the name of my latest crush in the margin of my notebook, and then I would have to scuttle out of the room to the bathroom, borrow a maxi-pad from the cool girls smoking in the last stall, then waddle back to class. I didn’t use a tampon until I was almost a senior in high school, for reasons I don’t fully understand–maybe my mom didn’t think it was “appropriate” or maybe I wasn’t ready to negotiate the intricacies of my own plumbing until the ripe old age of 17.
Eventually it all settled down and for decades, my lady plumbing has run pretty smoothly.
Until a few years ago.
I’d gone to my midwife, who served as my gynecologist, because I’d gotten worried about the intensity of my periods. Gushers, people. We’re talking entire boxes of super-plus-plus tampons being used up in three days; we’re talking lying awake in bed wondering how long it takes to hemorrhage to death.
“Nope,” said the midwife. “No death, just flooding.” I blinked. Flooding is now a medical term?
Yes, it is: “That’s a sign of perimenopause,” she said. “You might want to buy your tampons in bulk for a while.”
No one told me that something happened before menopause. We had this conversation long before Gywneth decided we needed an “aspirational menopausal woman” (she is, apparently the only candidate in the category).
I figured that menopause would just be a few sweaty months and then voila, I’d emerge on the other side of The Change with gleaming silver hair like Emmylou Harris and extra pocket money from never having to buy tampons again. I’d even thought about putting that tampon money in a jar and saving it up for a little me-splurge, the way people do when they’re trying to quit smoking.
My friends, perimenopause is like Mother Nature ‘s last joke. It’s the swampy marshland of menopause: frequently flooded, difficult to map, and hard to recognize until you’re in the middle of it.
Perimenopause means that your chronological age is maybe circling somewhere around 50ish but your body is behaving like it’s 15 again: hormones carousing through your body like teenagers on a drunken joy ride, causing you to hate husbands, children, careers, even the nice person who ushered you ahead in line at the coffee shop (perhaps afraid of the glower on your face). And it’s not one day of hormonal wackiness, oh no. It’s weeks. Those hormones have developed stamina by this point. They’ve moved in and are hanging out on the sofa of your psyche eating popcorn.
The only good thing is that unlike my teenage self who was sure the world was ending, I know that I should sleep early, go for a walk, and stay away from sharp objects lest I eviscerate my husband because he’s left his socks on the coffee table again. Not that I do these things, I just know that I should.
Perimenopause means you’re not yet a candidate for nicely regulated pharmaceutical hormones (which, probably, you don’t really want anyway because of the whole maybe-they-give-you cancer thing, and I’m not sure you want Goop’s zillion-dollar vitamins) so instead you’re subject to periods as erratic as they were when your body was first figuring it all out.
So there I was a few years ago, in that swampy peri-land, hanging out on the sidelines of my son’s soccer practice, half-watching the scrimmage and half-reading my email, when…yep, there it was. Aunt Flo had come to soccer practice. There were 45 minutes of practice left, I was without tampons, and there was nowhere nearby that I could drive to for supplies and make it back in time. The sidelines were mom-less; there were no cool girls smoking in the bathroom who might bail me out. In fact, there was no bathroom, only a slightly glorified port-a-potty.
And that’s why, just as sometimes happened in high school, I became the woman standing (very still) on the sidelines, a wad of toilet paper in her pants, wondering when the joy of womanhood would stop giving.
Maybe, however, the swamps of perimenopause are designed to make us grateful when we finally reach the stable sweaty ground of menopause. Menopause, I figure, is just our bodies off-gassing what’s left of our youth; perimenopause is nature’s way of reminding you that youth was hell.