This month we are delighted to welcome Joan Potter as our guest blogger as part of our Aging Gracefully series. Joan is the author of Sweet Dreams, a fun midlife romance that debuted in August 2015. But here she relates a true story with us about her journey through menopause.
My husband, Bob, takes a blood thinner called Plavix, which causes him to feel cold at room temperature. I’m entering menopause. I suffer hot flashes. The hallway of our home (where the thermostat is located) has become a war zone, with each of us the general in our own army of one.
As in battles between nations, our skirmishes often take place at night. Under the cover of darkness I wake, awash in sweat. I immediately realize my body’s internal regulators have once again gone haywire and let me tell you, it’s surprising how quickly spontaneous combustion can erode one’s sanity. This is the fog of war.
My body heaves as I take frantic breaths and I attempt to disentangle myself from my bedding. I thrash about in a manner that brings to mind an electric chair after the executioner flips the switch.
As my consciousness rises, I realize that I am literally in bed with the enemy. I stop my flailing and suppress a cry of anguish — I cannot awaken the opposing force. I am dog-tired, yet I command myself to focus and stay silent. Through sheer force of will I am able to locate my glasses and my composure, and I covertly rise.
I perform a crafty tiptoe maneuver as I make my way to the pantry. I open my freezer and take Cheryl Sandburg’s advice – I lean in. I lift my pajama top and let the cold vapors cool my chest. A body in the freezer says a lot about a person, but this is war, after all, and I will survive by whatever means necessary.
Suddenly, I feel it. Life altering cotton-mouth. Despite being damp everywhere else, my body is screaming for a drink. I must. Find. Water.
I scurry to the kitchen, turn on and “shush” the faucet as life-saving cold water pours forth. I drink my fill and vow that if I live to see tomorrow, I will go back to my gynecologist. When I was in her office last month, I’d opted out of hormone treatment, worrying about flimsy risks like cancer, thin bones, and blood clots. Now, in the heat of this night, I realize my tactical error.
There is one last stop before my reconnaissance mission gets fully underway. The bathroom. It seems that menopause has shrunk my kidneys to the size of lentils, so I am here often. I close the door and catch my reflection in the vanity mirror. Thank God there is not a news correspondent with a camera nearby. Looking back at me is a wild-eyed, crazed woman with a manic expression. I think her scalp may have detonated—her frosted hair has clumped into spikes like small snow-capped mountains. Any photo could be the next iconic “War is Hell” image that can’t be erased from the mind after seeing it.
After the pantry, kitchen, and bathroom exercises are complete, I am finally ready.
I tiptoe, more stealthily now, out into the hall. One glance at the thermostat and I realize: Bob got here before me! Good Lord. He carried out his mission, went to bed, and is sleeping like a baby. The temp has been set for 76 degrees Fahrenheit!
Seventy-six degrees might not sound like much to the non-menopausal, but understand that in the throes of a heat flash, each degree above normal room temperature increases the “real feel” effect exponentially. If I had a yeast infection, I would rise to the ceiling.
Twelve times, I punch the thermostat button that displays the down arrow. Sixty-four degrees. Ha ha! Take that, my For-Better-Or-Worse climatory foe.
I climb back into bed. The sheets feel cool and comfortable now. I kiss Bob on the forehead; he smiles slightly while still asleep. The war will begin again when the house has chilled, but for the moment we are at peace.
Some Curious Menopause Facts
I hope you’ve enjoyed my light-hearted look at menopause. The nurse in me (the part that pays the bills) would also like to share a few solid facts about the subject.
- Women are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have – about 2 million of them. However, about 11,000 die every month before puberty. By the time a woman reaches puberty, she only has around 300,000 left. After the onset of puberty, the death rate slows, but still about 1,000 will die every month. By the time a woman is 37 years old, on average, she’s down to 25,000 eggs. At this point — when she has 25,000 eggs left — the biological clock really starts ticking. It is much more difficult for a woman to become pregnant. Also at the 25,000-eggs mark, with surprising consistency across all populations, it will be 13 years later that she will experience menopause. So, you may ask, what is the single biggest factor that seems to cause a woman to deviate from age 50 being the start of menopause? It seems that it is simply the number of eggs she was endowed with at birth.
- The average age of menopause for women in every population studied has remained constant at age 50. This is despite a doubling of life expectancy in the last couple of centuries. In 1850, life expectancy was 42; it’s now 84 for women in the Western world. Also, the age of 50 for the start of menopause has held constant, despite the fact that the age of start of menarche (start of menstruation) has gone from age 14 to age 10. So, life expectancy nor the average age of menarche seems to have any influence on the average age of menopause.
- Whenever a woman runs out of eggs, her ovaries stop making estrogen, and she goes through menopause. Without sufficient estrogen, the uterus and breasts begin to atrophy, the vagina becomes dry, hot flashes ensue, and bones and skin become thin. At one time, doctors prescribed low-dose estrogen supplements to combat these symptoms. This seemed like a great idea until July 9, 2002. It was at this time that the Women’s Health Initiative abruptly halted a clinical trial of 16,000 women. The trial had half the women in the study taking hormone replacements, and the other half taking placebos. Those taking hormone replacements were found to have a 51% increase of heart disease (already the #1 killer of women in the U.S.), a 24% increase in invasive breast cancer, a 31% increase of stroke, and double the chance of dementia. The backlash of this is still spreading throughout doctors’ offices and has dampened enthusiasm for hormone replacements in both the medical community and post-menopausal women.
- Asian women don’t experience the symptoms of menopause to the same degree that Western women do. While 55% of American women report experiencing hot flashes, only about 7% of Asian women have similar experiences. This is believed to be the result of the Asian diet, which is high in calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, and soy.
Besides being a part-time writer, Joan also works full-time as a CRNA—a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. She and her husband share their time in Nebraska and Illinois. Joan, an avid reader and animal lover, grew up in rural South Dakota. She attended undergrad at USD and received her MSN in anesthesia from Mount Marty College in Yankton, South Dakota. She and her husband have two grown sons and an adorable granddaughter. You can get connected with Joan over at JoanPotter.com.
Do you have any anecdotes and stories from this tricky phase we all go through? If you do we’d love for you to share your story with us in the comments below.