You know how obsessions grow on you and into you, like fungal hyphae bursting through carpenter ants’ heads and disseminating spore? I’m currently fixated on fungi, but a few years ago I developed a more explicable obsession with perimenopause and its sequel. Like puberty, this process has major effects on mind and body. I know post-menopausal people who say it wasn’t a big event, but it was huge for me, and I had a hard time finding information about it, much less encouragement. My novel, Unbecoming, imagines the so-called change of life as a positive time: the main character develops weird powers. I wrote the book I needed to read, and meanwhile developed the magic power of novel-writing. It was mainly as I neared a final draft that I started finding other literature about menopause, beyond crappy self-help books. I list some below and would love to hear of others.
I wish I’d known earlier what Darcey Steinke reports, that many women experience something like auras before hot flashes, occasionally accompanied by a sense of doom. I used to wake with a jolt in the middle of the night, have no idea why, then feel the heat rumble up. Instead of soaking through my clothes, I got to throw off the covers preemptively. During the day, this early-warning system gives me time to yell at anyone trying to cuddle, “GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW!”
What Beth Kanter says in her McSweeney’s bingo card about hoarding super-plus tampons: again, I wish I’d known. I attended an AWP Conference without a sufficient supply and ended up bleeding through everything, everywhere, way more gruesomely than the archetypal middle-schooler surprised in white pants. (Fortunately, muscle atrophy and metabolic slowdown, by which I mean weight gain, result in an all-black wardrobe). I bled for 7 weeks, went to the doctor, discovered I was seriously anemic, and was rushed in for an emergency ablation–basically having my uterine lining fire-blasted. Afterwards, my enthusiastic gynecologist gave me before-and-after pictures of my uterus and encouraged me to put them on Facebook.
Most scary for me was the mental health upheaval. Midlife crisis is a cliche, as is empty-nest syndrome; hormones aside, a lot of 50ish people have trouble adjusting their ambitions and mustering optimism about the next phase. For a few, according to the medical literature I eventually found, these recalibrations coincide with brain-chemistry apocalypse. I’ve always been prone to depression and anxiety, but in spring 2019–when I was 51–therapies that had kept me sane for years stopped working. I was as messed-up as I’ve ever been, not suicidal but not wanting to live, increasingly sure this shift was permanent. I tend to maintain an appearance of control, so most people I confided in didn’t seem to believe me (or maybe didn’t know how to talk about it, which is common with illness and grief). I finally hit a new equilibrium in winter 2020–very lucky, considering what was ahead. I’m okay now, except for the standard 2020 stew of sadness and frustration.
Of course, mental health crisis doesn’t happen to most menopausal people, but women should know in advance that changes are coming, and as Mary Ruefle says, hot flashes are the least of it. In the essay I link to below, Ruefle also writes, “This was not depression, this was menopause,” somehow making it droll that she wanted to kill herself with a steam-iron. While I admire Ruefle’s writing enormously, I don’t find that joke helpful. When Sarah Manguso writes about rage, likewise, I’m skeptical of it as a symptom, except of women’s rational midlife appraisals of the world.
Here’s my pitch: menopause is relevant to everyone, whether or not it’s on your list of past or future rings of fire. More poets, journalists, novelists, and scientists need to write about it, storming past the editors who think it’s icky. We read about lots of crises we may not personally experience, right? Learning about others helps us be kind and wise. Further, like adolescent coming of age stories, menopause is full of dark passages but it’s also wild, weird, and often really funny (as Moira Egan makes clear). Menopause has been social kryptonite, but it should be literary gold.
Poems and a bingo card (thesis: ALL poems are hot flashes):
- Moira Egan, Hot Flash Sonnets
- Beth Kanter, “Perimenopause Bingo”
- Kashaf Ghumman, “Menopause”
- V. Penelope Pelizzon, “Elegy for Estrogen”
- Lots of Lorine Niedecker–see Savage’s article below for specifics
Prose nonfiction (literary, scholarly, journalistic):
- Mary Ruefle, “Pause”
- Laura Lippman, “Whole 60”
- Darcey Steinke, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life
- Elizabeth Savage, “‘a few cool years after these’: Midlife at Midcentury in Niedecker’s Lyrics”
- Sarah Manguso, “Where Are All the Books About Menopause?”
- Liza Mundy, “The Secret Power of Menopause”
- Susan Mattern, The Slow Moon Climbs
- Gayle Sheehy, The Silent Passage
- Germaine Greer, The Change
Fiction (not just about midlife generally, but about menopause–there must be others)
- Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon
- Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark
- Samantha Bryant, Menopausal Superheroes (3 book series!)
Bonus: my rondeau from The State She’s In, written more or less synchronously with Unbecoming and originally published in Cherry Tree. Extra bonus: I can’t find those pictures of my uterus to include in this post, so count yourself lucky.
Perimenopause Unstoppered. Uncorked. The spilt mess of the body’s plan puddles in the john, useless now. Recurrence gone wrong. Broken verses and a bloody chorus. Who could have predicted red excess, unspeakable clots of denouement? My mouths are unjammed, endless mess of me congealing at the bottom of the john. Ready now to lose the losing: night sweats, palpitations, insomnia, floods of gore, done. Dried up, a long fluent speech in crimson. Dissolved and flushed. Yet the song carries on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.