Having gone through menopause about five years ago, I consider myself something of a knowledgeable advisor on the subject, at least so far as my own personal experience with it is concerned. Of course, I recognize that my experience is unique to my own particular process, and each of us has our own special conditions and problems and so on.
In retrospect, I think the most difficult time I had was the few years preceding menopause, what is called peri-menopause, since at that time the hormones are absolutely chaotic, and thus, have enormous effects on the emotions and physiology of a woman. When menopause occurs – which is defined as a cessation of menstruation for over 6 months, if I recall correctly – the system has pretty well settled down, and while estrogen may be depleted at that time, there are, thankfully, no longer the huge rushes of progesterone and/or estrogen that occur during peri-menopause, and which caused all the problems during that period. Once menopause does set in permanently, the mind, the emotions, and the body get steady, and deliciously predictable and stable. In this sense, I found menopause to be extremely liberating.
In my own case, it took about three years for menopause to be fully “accomplished”, and contrary to all the books, every spring during those three years, I would get a short, small period, which initially terrified me, because “this was not normal”. I had been told that if a woman goes for six months without a period, and then menstruation begins again, run for the doctor, because there may be a problem! Well, the first year I did run for a doctor; but after that, I recognized the situation, and realized that, more than likely, my pituitary gland was, like the chickadees, simply responding to Maine’s lengthening spring days after a long cold and dark winter.
As for estrogen supplements and the like, I experimented with all sorts of things. I found that an estrogen vaginal cream worked well for everything early on, including flashes and dryness, and could be controlled by me personally, by the amount of cream I used, which was VERY little, and which sufficed. (My MD, who is a woman, found me rather amusing in that I would go through a tube only every three to four months. But she is open-minded and curious, and learned from my experience that each individual body has hormone needs and levels that suit IT, and not necessarily lab personnel.) I was very reluctant to use mainstream ERT, or estrogen replacement therapy, for various reasons. I am not opposed to it, and I recognize that there are some women that cannot get by without it. My “modern” but eccentric grandmother took estrogen AND testosterone from the day they became available in the 1950’s, and never regretted it. However, after menopause arrived, I discovered that I no longer suffered from migraines, and I recalled that in my youth, when I was on contraceptive pills (which, at that time – the mid 1960’s – were LOADED with estrogen) my headaches were severe and debilitating, but when I went off the contraceptive pills, the headaches decreased. So, now, putting two and two together, I concluded that estrogen had a lot to do with my migraine problem, so I was very reluctant to start on that slippery road again. I also used a Hylands homeopathic combination called “Menopause”, and while I am not a great advocate of multiple remedy homeopathic tablets, which this product is, there are only three remedies within it, all in very low potency, and the combination is wonderful for hot flashes, restlessness, and emotional instability. I would take 2 tablets, which would set me up for a couple of weeks or more, depending upon the situation and my needs. (Please remember that, when taking any homeopathic remedy, there is one “no-no”, which is coffee – it will antidote the remedy.)
I also ate lots of soybean foods. Soybeans are a vegetable source of estrogen precursors, but apparently without the dangers of estrogen. I also regulated my diet, ate intelligently, took LOTS of vitamins, in particular Vitamin E, which is supposed to assist hormone production, and drank very little alcohol (which will bring on hot flashes).
As menopause progressed, I slowly found less and less need for assistance in that I took fewer and fewer homeopathic remedies, and used less and less estrogen cream, and even now eat less soybean foodstuffs. My conclusion from this is that it is entirely possible that the body is addicted to estrogen, literally, and all the problems of menopause may be simply explained as a withdrawal process. While this may at first sound wacky, I suppose it is not impossible. We are addictive creatures, and why hormones should be excluded from this propensity is not clear to me. Let’s face it, the body likes the known, and that includes everything it ingests, including those things it manufactures itself. But that is another subject entirely!
[For Nancy’s take on hormone replacement therapy, please click here.]
Flowing with Menopause
[This is part of a letter. Naturally, all personal references have been omitted.]
Thank you for the URL of Helen Redman’s website. I really like it. She is doing good work helping women to come to grips with aging and the many delights that aging brings with it. Her concept of putting it into art is brilliant!
Speaking from my own personal experience, I have found that aging has more benefits than not, particularly in that it has required, indeed demanded, a shift of emphasis from the physical to spirit/mind that is not only extremely liberating, but appropriate.
In my view, the psychic struggle many women associate with aging occurs only when we are confused about the appropriate activities and emphasis that going through life’s stages require. Of course, this is not our fault. We are trained from birth to assume that our appeal is strictly physical, and that our principal contribution to the universe is therefore physical as well. To be sure, there is a place for this. In early life, the emphasis should be on all of that. It guarantees the survival of the species, after all.
But, unfortunately, we are not conditioned to consider along the way that there are other aspects to us that are equally important, if not more important, to our happiness and our spiritual growth. (Part of the reason here may be that “spirit” doesn’t sell stuff as profitably as “body” does!)
All the same, the progress of the psyche, correctly understood, both male AND female, is to transform or transcend this early emphasis on our physical nature, leading toward the recognition that we are more than an isolated individual body. From that expanded perspective, we are better able to understand our proper function in and relationship to the universe. None of that can be fully embraced until the bodily emphasis is put on the shelf, so to speak, and allowed to wither away in preference to the more enlightened vision of who we are and what we are doing here.
The beauty of menopause, then, is that it is a severe shaking of all that we once were, a kind of enforced sifting away of all of that, and a consequent opening of one’s consciousness to the beauty, grace, and greatness of who we truly are. (I believe that men go through a similar state, although no one talks much about it, probably because men have been conditioned to be preoccupied with “career” until it is too late in their lives to attend to these natural inner changes, much less to consider their implications. Much more’s the pity!)
Indeed, if you don’t mind getting a little weird here, one might wonder whether the presence of estrogen in the body is simply a “marker”, if you will, of what we might call the consciousness of motherhood (with a lower case m). Then, the question becomes: Is menopause the result of a natural transformation of consciousness, or does the transformation of consciousness come from menopause! That is, does estrogen production dwindle as our focus expands beyond the physical to the spiritual, or does our focus expand beyond the physical to the spiritual as estrogen production dwindles? I am inclined toward the former, because of my own spiritual bent. But, of course, the universe is both “as above, so below,” and “so below, as above”, so it is hard to say. The interesting point here is that every one of us will inevitably reach a menopause, even in spite of ourselves, whether we are spiritual seekers or not! God stacks all the cards!
So, as I see it and experience it, one can either struggle against this inevitable, progressive shift toward spiritual growth, this kind of grace that automatically flows at menopause (if not before) or, instead, one can gracefully accept, welcome, and work with the change, and use it to enhance one’s life now, and ultimately, forever.
The ease with which any of us goes through this process depends primarily upon the degree of one’s understanding of one’s reason for living. Thus, it is particularly unfortunate that in our culture there is not much available to tell us what that reason is, besides consumption. But if we look for it - seek it - we will find that, too.
Well, I hope this finds you happily progressing into and beyond menopause and all the discoveries that flow from it!
Menopause: Crisis or Opportunity
[This is in response to a letter. Naturally, all personal references have been omitted.]
From your message, it is not altogether clear whether your problems are physical or emotional or mental; although, of course, all three are always interconnected! And often, if you fix one, the others line up beside it in obedience.
There are things that can be done from a physical standpoint, which might help to alleviate the problem. The first and foremost is to have your estrogen and progesterone levels tested. Contrary to popular belief, often the problem, just prior to the complete cessation of menstruation is an excess of estrogen, not a depletion; and that can be the cause of ups and downs in moods. Testing these levels will indicate if you should be taking additional or supplemental estrogen, or, indeed, not taking any at all! In my own personal situation, there were a number of years where my estrogen was very high, and this caused weeping, and all the rest of it, similar indeed, to the mental state of being pregnant, but not pregnant. One of my doctors suggested I take supplemental estrogen; had I done so, I probably would have jumped off a cliff!
Taking progesterone can counterbalance high estrogen. You can take progesterone without prescription by means of creams that contain it and that are purchasable at health food stores. The book What Your Doctor May NOT Tell You About Menopause by John R. Lee, MD (available in paperback) lists creams that have the real progesterone in them. It also explains the intricate balance within the human body of progesterone and estrogen, and how they work together, or against one another. Progesterone is frequently low in women with pre-menstrual syndrome; and if this is your condition, then, when menopause begins, there is bound to be an aggravation of the symptoms, until such time as menstruation ceases altogether. If you happen to be prone to migraine headaches, that could well be a sign of excess estrogen within your body. (Incidentally, if you do suffer from migraines, take comfort in knowing that “migraine-pause”, to coin a term, sometimes accompanies menopause. The reason for that is that estrogen in the body plays a role in the expansion of blood vessels, and expanding blood vessels play a role in migraines; so diminishing estrogen levels can diminish the number and severity of migraines.)
There are homeopathic medicines which do wonders for the mood swings, flushes, and shakiness that sometimes occurs. Hylands puts out one called Menopause. It costs a mere $5.00 at health food stores. Homeopathic remedies, while debunked by many allopathic practitioners, work, and, generally speaking, they are extremely benign. They can be particularly helpful with flushes and headaches associated with menopause, and I have had very good results with this Hylands product. Finally, there is always regular allopathic medicine, including tranquilizers, and estrogen and progesterone. Tranquilizers, if used judiciously, are a wonderful method of calming anxiety. Many physicians are afraid of tranquilizers; but these need not be fearsome medications if used carefully, in minimal dosage, and under a doctor’s oversight. If you prefer, there is an herbal extract called Kava Kava, available in various forms, which works just about as well as prescription drugs for anxiety. This too can be purchased at a health food store. Finally, diet can contribute much in this effort. If you cut out caffeine — and remember, caffeine exists in many soft drinks as well as coffee (tea seems to be okay) — and improve your diet to include vitamins and minerals (both in supplements and healthy, preferably organic, food), you will experience a calming of the mind and the body.
I think perhaps the major problem encountered by women experiencing peri-menopause, which is the period just prior to actual total cessation of menstruation, is that they do not understand that the feelings and physical manifestations are a natural process, and not something to be feared. Often, their fear is aggravated by the sense that they cannot control the process, and the concern that their emotional ups and downs are an indication of “losing one’s mind”. Yes, in some sense, in the process of menopause, women do “lose their minds”. But in retrospect, I am convinced that the part of the mind we lose is probably best lost at this point in our lives! In my own case, if I recall correctly, I was feeling outraged and enormously sad at the same time. I believe now that was a reaction to the new feelings of freedom and power, or better, the reaction to the inevitable sense of transition that the shift in the hormone levels brings about. (Or is it that the hormone levels are an indicator of the shift in consciousness that takes place at this age? It is hard to know which comes first in these kinds of situations.)
In any event, the loss of estrogen at menopause, indicates a the shift from being under estrogen’s control and sway most of one’s life, and at the mercy of the consequent effects estrogen has on one’s emotions, needs, and bodily functions, both physical and mental. Estrogen is, in the final analysis, the “marker” or evidence of, the capacity to procreate. Without it, a woman will not conceive. If a woman’s purpose is simply and only that, to bear children, then when we are young, the huge effect that estrogen has on our bodies and minds is proper and natural. My belief is that women, as well as men, are MORE than procreators, despite nature’s “opinion” to the contrary, and the discovery of that fact is made by most women primarily at menopause, and appropriately so. Prior to that time, because of biology and nature, our bodies are our primary motivators, and everything is designed to serve their imperative. It is this discovery, either consciously or subtly, that our early life and energy were driven and controlled by this enormous impulse to nurture and procreate, that is, to many women, devastating and frightening when that very same impulse begins to wane. (Our generation may be the last to suffer this effect. Those following us may not find this to be so, in part because of our own legacy of honesty and introspection that we have had to go through as a kind of new frontier. In other words, I guess I am hopeful our opening to this experience will have a filtering down effect on all women’s consciousness of self.)
In any event, it is difficult to accept change, in whatever shape it appears, and menopause brings us face to face with ourselves and our impulses and our assumptions, and essentially forces a change in those perceptions. Indeed, for some, it may be hard to admit that perhaps there is more to our lives than simply being mothers, and that, many of us at least, have spent the better part of our lives being mothers and little else. (By using the term “mother” here, I mean it in all its aspects, not just as regards a mother with a child. The maternal instinct manifests in all areas of life, including friendships, marriages, employment, and other relationships. It is how women act or behave, by virtue of being a woman, and by virtue of the presence of estrogen which makes them soft, womanly, and maternal. Although, here too, whether estrogen determines our nature, or our nature determines estrogen, remains an open question!)
Please understand that none of the foregoing is intended to say, or even to suggest, that being simply, or primarily, a mother is any way wrong or inadequate, or of little or no value. Quite the contrary! A good mother is an essential role we can play, and an enormous benefit to the human race. There is very little else that is of greater worth within human activity than being a good mother and a nourishing individual toward all other individuals, be they our own children or otherwise. However, the very value of the role renders it all the more difficult for a woman to accept the natural change imposed at menopause by which she realizes she will never be able to “procreate” again for as long as she lives. Of course, this difficulty depends upon our buying into the cultural belief that a woman is primarily and only worthwhile as a mother with all the feminine attributes that mothering suggests, and so, when she becomes no longer capable of procreation, she is perceived somehow less of a woman. It cuts both ways, you see. In fact, it may well be the presence of estrogen within the body of a woman that creates the urgency and value attached to the maternal instinct and many of the feminine characteristics. The issue, of course, is whether we believe that is all are, just a collection of feminine characteristics? Or, are we, instead, considerably more than those characteristics?
As I see it, within each motherly person, there is also a genderless creative consciousness, or soul, if you prefer. Initially, driven by (or as evidenced by) the flow of estrogen within the body, this consciousness manifests itself through re-creating other bodies, or procreating in a physical or outer way. Then, when it has the time, leisure, and freedom afforded by (or evidenced by!) the absence of estrogen, it can begin to acknowledge itself within, and discover the ways in which its creative process can manifest subtly. Unfortunately, without preparation or guidance, this transformation can be a frightening and bewildering prospect. And at menopause, and shortly prior to it, there are times when estrogen fluctuates greatly, and it is at those times that I believe the mind has its moment to contemplate its own soul, if you will. The confusion and anger and grieving, and all the rest of it, come into play because this moment is so strange and so new to us, that we do not recognize it for the magnificent opportunity it is. Instead, we fear it, or recoil from it because of its strangeness. And in recoiling, we set up a self-defeating feedback system, creating additional anxiety building upon existing anxiety. We become fearful of the effects, and then fearful of the process, and then fearful of our fear, and so on, ad infinitum.
If you will allow yourself the freedom to feel grief, fear, anger and all the rest of it, when it arises, you will begin to allow yourself the freedom to discover, accept, and be who you are, whoever that is, at whatever moment in time. It is the recoil, the repression, the guilt at being or behaving “strange” or “unreasonable”, the belief that somehow, because we are not in control, there is something wrong with us, that causes the building of more fear, more anger, and more anxiety and confusion.
If you will allow yourself to be a woman without prospects of procreating, or even of attracting a mate in order to procreate, you will begin to discover that there is more to you than a body that needs to be young, attractive, and fertile. You will begin to discover that there is a consciousness, without gender, which was always there, but was submerged beneath an estrogenic facade of femininity, if you will. Of course, our spouses and lovers may find that disturbing, because it is evidence of a change, and, again, nobody likes change. But our spouses and lovers and friends need to acknowledge that we ALL change, including them, and that is okay, and that acceptance of change is evidence of continuing love. Indeed, even as we are addressing women’s menopause here, we need to recognize that there is also a men’s menopause, which creates similar changes, and in some respects, in the opposite direction, which nobody anywhere seems to be addressing, but from which men suffer just as much, and with just as much anxiety. Perhaps we hear little about it because men are not predisposed to reveal themselves with as much candor as women; nonetheless, they suffer their own transition as well.
From a higher perspective, I think that what is at work here, with both the sexes, is the natural progression of the soul through an individual life, and it is our rejection of that progression that creates the havoc, the pain, the bewilderment. Most, perhaps even all, of that is unnecessary. Thus, it is my opinion that the physical manifestation of menopause is an expression of the next step of the soul, both in women and men, and therefore it is not only inevitable, but wonderful.
Admittedly, to perceive menopause in this light requires a huge re-evaluation of one’s attitudes, belief structure, and finally, state of consciousness. It also requires courage. The ability to thumb one’s nose at society’s beliefs requires huge effort and strength. It is not dissimilar to a second adolescence. If you can remember your own adolescence, there was great struggle to break away from one’s childhood and all its beliefs and comforts. But the reward of going through adolescence effectively, despite its upheavals, was the transition to a new state of consciousness - in that instance, one of physical prowess and sexuality. This transition of menopause is no different in intensity and struggle, and no less profound in its transformative nature and promise.
In sum, there are two paths a woman can take when she reaches her 50’s: She can regress back to youth, and try to maintain the familiar structure and belief system, or she can embrace a more transcendent attitude toward life, which accepts age and its infirmities (physical, and in some cases, mental), as well as its powers and advantages, with understanding and joy. This sounds odd, but it is how the system works, and it is right and appropriate that it should do so. If, as we age, we recognize that we are becoming more spiritual and less physical, the physical infirmities, however they may manifest, are actually indications of a dropping away of one’s physical preoccupation. (I am not talking about outright disease, but I am talking of a comfort with age, both physically and mentally. The ability to accept a less physical approach to life is indicative of the focus of attention toward more spiritual and transcendent things, no?)
Thus, at least mentally, despite the physical sensations that occur, the struggle one feels at this time is more indicative of one’s focus of attention than anything else. If we are attached to youth, and to all the benefits of youth - swiftness, sex, physical prowess, and so on - we will fight, and feel the effects of fighting, against the natural aging process and the changes that age brings. With that fight will come struggle, suffering and all the rest of it, including fear. Incidentally, if recognized and accepted properly, age brings considerably more power than all the youthful vigor in the world, though it is not physical power, but it is power of consciousness which is of a considerably greater strength. But that power cannot be grasped until we allow ourselves to transform to that more sublime level of consciousness, which is normally natural and progressive. It is this stage to which the menopause points, I think, in both men and women, and in some cultures is honored and anticipated with great enthusiasm. It is principally because we live in a youth-obsessed culture that we in the West feel apprehensive about this transition, and thus the transition, which is a kind of upheaval, becomes more than a transition, but a struggle. In other words, as with all change, menopause can be either a crisis or an opportunity.