How do you start talking about something people don’t talk about? Whether it’s feeling uncomfortable with church traditions or the changes a woman’s body goes through as she ages, there are certain subjects our society has deemed inappropriate for polite society.
I call bullshit. (Ooh, the use of profanity! There’s another one.)
It may lose me some folks who feel that my next topic is indelicate or icky, but I beg you to hear me out. If we aren’t willing to hear other people’s uncomfortable stories, we are missing an opportunity to love them. It’s really as simple as that. If I can’t even share something that is making my life miserable right now, you can’t know about it. You can’t very well encourage me in it. You can’t even tell me, “Hey, I went through that, and you can do it.” If I’m not allowed to talk about what I’m experiencing, I’m left to try to struggle through alone as best I can.
Right now, I am smack dab in the middle of perimenopause. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s the time when a woman’s menstrual cycle starts to change as she ages. You, like me, may have thought that was called “menopause,” but before I go any further, let me clarify a couple of terms.
Menopause is the time when a woman stops menstruating entirely. Women are considered menopausal when they have not experienced a menstrual cycle for a full 12 months.
Perimenopause, then, is everything that changes before that.
I was officially diagnosed as perimenopausal at my last check-up. I was hardly surprised. While my cycles have never been terribly regular, the last several months have been especially strange, varying in length, frequency, and intensity. Light bleeding for a few days, constant bleeding for two weeks (or more), spotting throughout the month, sudden unexpected heavy flow, all these things have become unexceptional for me.
As an added bonus to the physical symptoms, I have been treated to a host of emotional vagaries, too. Mood swings and irritability and depression and anxiety. Oh, my. Of course, I can’t say for sure how much of the emotional component has been related to hormonal changes and how much is simply life stress. Because I don’t have enough of that right now. (Increased sarcasm is another symptom I’ve noticed, though it’s a little hard to tell because I’ve always leaned a bit, or a lot, in that direction anyway.)
Last night, I went to bed bleeding. This morning I woke up about 4:00 am, feeling like I needed to hurry up into the bathroom. As I sat down and did my business, I could feel my heart racing and pounding. While I’ve experienced heart palpitations on and off for years, this felt a bit more intense than usual. Staying seated and focusing on my breathing helped to even things out, but moving back from the bathroom to bed kicked my heart rate into high gear again. It was bothering me enough that I woke Adam up. He asked if I needed to head in to the ER. I told him I didn’t want to, but I was nervous that maybe I should. I certainly didn’t want to be sitting here on the side of the bed having a heart attack!
Still, I started some searching online, pretty certain I’d read something once about heart palpitations and anemia. I pulled up a WebMD article on heart palpitations. Sure enough, low iron can trigger palpitations. So can hypothyroid conditions, check, hormonal changes, check, and anxiety, check, check, checkity-check! Reading some more about iron-deficient anemia (with which I’d also been diagnosed at my last check-up), I discovered I’ve been taking my iron supplements wrong. I had been told to take iron with vitamin C to boost absorption, but I had no idea that calcium can interfere with iron supplements. This Mayo Clinic article on iron supplementation recommends spacing iron and calcium at least an hour apart. Apparently, taking pills in the same mouthful like I have been is not as helpful.
Why can’t I ever seem to have these little fits of insight at noon on a Tuesday? Like unexpected phone calls, learning new and interesting things about your body is significantly scarier in the middle of the night. Especially over the weekend, when medical options are pretty much limited to the emergency room and Dr. Google.
It makes me wonder whether our growing lack of community is having greater effects on our health than we care to admit. Not just our mental health, but our physical health as well. We all know, for instance, that not getting enough sleep increases everything from stress levels to immune dysfunction to car accidents. But when you wake up at 3:00 in the morning with your heart pounding, who do you call? Maybe you have a spouse you can wake up, but maybe you don’t. Or maybe he or she is working. Plus, if you’re like me, you hesitate to interrupt anyone else’s sleep, because it was probably just a bad dream and you’ll be fine. It’s a really hard balance between hypochondria, on the one hand, and worrying that I’ll be a bother to people if I wake someone up over these piddly little, extremely frightening symptoms.
And, frankly, while I’m talking all about the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about already, the fact that women’s healthcare has frequently lagged behind the care offered to men is insulting and dangerous. Here is an interesting and terrifying fact for the last day of Women’s History Month.
Did you know that clinical trials for new medications were not required to enroll women or control for gender differences in outcomes until 1993? That was less than three decades ago! Historically, “when studying diseases prevalent in both sexes . . . males, frequently of the Caucasian race, were considered to be the ‘norm’ study population.” Women were viewed “as confounding and more expensive test subjects because of their fluctuating hormone levels” (source). Yikes.
So, what does all this mean for you and me? What exactly am I trying to accomplish in talking about these taboo issues? I’ve laid all this out here because, in the words of Charlie Peacock, “We’re a whole lot different/We’re a whole lot the same.”
In a lot of ways, as humans, we all have so much more in common than we often realize. At the same time, as we each live our own lives, we encounter different experiences that affect us in distinct ways. And how can we know about those similarities and differences unless we share our lives with one another? How can we learn from each other unless we talk, honestly, forthrightly, and listen to each other’s stories? Even, perhaps especially, the ones that make us uncomfortable?
We are so afraid that we won’t look good. We fear the judgement of others or God or both. We don’t want to admit that we’re the only ones, since, if nobody else is talking about this, maybe it really is just me. But in keeping these secrets, in holding in our pain and our fears and our failures, we’re keeping out other people. We’re holding off the opportunity to give and receive true compassion (literally, “suffering together”).
I’m done. I’m broken. I’m hurting. I’m scared. I’m not even strong enough to hold my pretty polished mask up to my face anymore. I hope you’re still there tracking with me. I hope you have suffered through this post with me and we can see each other better, with more compassion, at the end than we did at the beginning.
Please, let me encourage you: take the time, invest the effort to really, honestly be involved in your relationships. Make new friends. Listen to the life experiences of people who look like you and people who don’t. Visit places you don’t live and learn from the folks who find themselves at home there. I, for one, am tired of being lonely and afraid. And I bet you are, too. I’m learning, it’s not really any scarier to be honest than it is to be alone. And, most of the time, we’re a whole lot better together.