Note: This post contains a discussion about female menstruation.
When I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s, I didn’t have the kind of relationship with an older woman or five that would have given me a heads’ up about what was about to happen to my body in the years leading up to menopause. I read a few articles about the years leading up to complete cessation of menses, like this one from WebMD, that included lots of bullet-pointed lists of possible perimenopause symptoms (back to this word in a moment) including:
- Hot flashes
- Breast tenderness
- Worse premenstrual syndrome
- Lower sex drive
- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness; discomfort during sex
- Urine leakage when coughing or sneezing
- Urinary urgency (an urgent need to urinate more frequently)
- Mood swings
- Trouble sleeping
The lists were moderately useful in terms of orienting me to what was happening to my body. But they didn’t really prepare me for what it was like to live – or, say, go used car shopping on a busy summer evening wearing light-colored shorts – as these changes were occurring.
I could read the words “irregular periods” on a list, but that didn’t prepare me for what it was like to subtly shift from a reliable 28-30 day menstrual cycle through my teens, twenties, and thirties to periods that began appearing early, staying late, and sometimes behaving as if my hormones were randomly yelling “Supersize that one!” when it was time to drop another unexpected period bomb.
Which is how I found myself one warm, breeze-free summer evening strolling through a busy used car lot with my husband in those light-colored shorts, blissfully unaware one of those bombs had dropped. We walked the aisles, looking for our new ride, when a sudden stirring of air alerted me to a strange dampness in my crotch region. I looked down, horrified to discover that I was covered in bright red blood, and it had dripped nearly to my knees. Thankfully, I was carrying a ginormous purse, which I immediately placed in a strategic position over the main stage area. I told my husband we had to get out of there pronto.
When I recounted the incident to a friend, she told me I could have gotten some mileage from it if I yelled, “I’ve been shot!” She wasn’t making light of gun violence. She was trying to add a bit of levity to what was a very humiliating experience. I wonder how many people noticed my spontaneous flood before I did.
Not long ago, I was with a group of younger women, many of whom were in or nearing perimenopause. The topic came up, and I shared my spontaneous combustion story with them. One of them said, “Why don’t we talk about this kind of stuff more? I had no idea how physically-, emotionally-, and spiritually-challenging this…pardon the pun…period of my life could be.”
Some sail through perimenopause without a hiccup. (I wonder if they are the same the ones that go through labor and delivery in less than three hours.) But many of us experience physical changes and challenges as we move through perimenopause that serve to gradually shift us from the first half of our lives and into the next chapter. There’s no tidy bullet-point checklist for this process. It is as individual as our masterfully-created bodies are.
We older women would serve our younger friends well by staying alert to their challenges and struggles. Few will lead in a conversation with “My period came a week late, and it was weirdly light this month”, but they may note they’re not sleeping well, or they’re dealing with depression. Or they may not say anything at all. But those who are older can be alert and willing in honest and gracious ways to share our own experiences. Simply learning that I am not the only one who discovered that the two-dimensional bullet point of “irregular periods” can mean some unexpected and embarrassing three-dimensional moments brought solace and courage to me. Sharing our stories with other women can help orient them to what may be normal, and may also help them form better questions they may bring with them when they visit a doctor.
Scripture tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator and Redeemer. There is no fine print to this truth; that marvelous design includes a cessation of our periods as we move toward and into menopause. So much of this shift in our lives can feel like loss as we reach the end of our childbearing years and our bodies undergo dramatic changes that often function as a kind of an upside-down puberty. We in the Church talk often about mentoring ministry. I discovered during perimenopause that the kind of mentoring I needed included someone who could tell me to ditch the white shorts for black ones during this season of my life.
Perennials, what conversations or friendships have been most helpful to you as you navigated (or are currently navigating) the physical changes of perimenopause?