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?
Loved this Michelle. some of us did not have a big issue with some of the physical things – and thought we got off easy. i have learned it affects everyone is some way or another. Great article as was the article on Valerie Harper. I have met Caleb Wilde. Went to seminary with my son. Do you know he wrote a book. gotta get it.
I had never had any major problems with periods until perimenopause. I was in choir practice one day, and when we stood up to run through our song, suddenly it felt like everything in my body came flooding out. I put down my book and inched my way out and to the restroom. I never saw so many and such big clots. Thankfully I was not wearing white. But I wasn’t sure what to say when the choir director asked me later if I was ok. I told my dr., of course, who assured me everything was all right. I didn’t quite believe him and checked around on the Internet to make sure. He gave me a couple of things to help (we tried a larger than usual dose of ibuprofen, which didn’t help much, and then a drug called Ponstel, which did help a bit). But I was still anemic those years and had to take iron til my periods finally stopped all together. Menopause was a relief after having that experience a few more times.
I also wondered why I had never heard of this. My mom had some kind of trouble and ended up with a hysterectomy in her 40s, but I didn’t know the details, and she had passed away by the time I faced this. I was the oldest of five sisters, so I was the first to deal with this. I don’t know why we don’t talk about it more. Embarrassment, I guess–not so much ours, but we’re afraid others will think we’re going too far if we go into these kinds of details. So thank you for sharing!
Thanks for sharing your experience, Barbara! I suspect a few may think this is all TMI, but I believe most are hungry for information. You gave our readers a gift today by telling your story and naming the meds you tried. (And you gave me a gift today because sharing this story in print was a little uncomfortable, even though I KNOW many women deal with physical issues like this.) – Michelle
Thanks for sharing your story, Michelle . I wish physicians, especially ob/gyn docs, were more proactive in educating us on the coming changes of perimenopause, and then initiating conversations about any issues being experienced and offering interventions if needed. Perhaps this is changing, but 15 years ago when I was in the midst of the “hormonal hell” of flooding periods and uncharacteristic anxiety and depression, no medical professional was proactively connecting the dots for me. Thankfully I found Dr. who tried some hormone therapy and it made a difference in my quality of life. In talking with friends now in their 40’s, many are clueless about perimenopause and have had little warning or input from their doctors other than, “those symptoms will disappear with menopause”. So yes, it’s so important that we talk about perimenopause with our friends who are entering that stage of life!
AGREE, Karen. Lists and “this too shall pass” from doctors are a very passive approach to what can be a very disruptive 5-10 years of our lives. We need medical professionals to be more proactive in terms of education, and we non-doctors also need to be sharing our stories with younger women.
Thank you for sharing this.
The woman who thought she had just finished her worst period since she was a teenager, only to have it start back up again less than 48 hours after she thought it was finally over.
Solidarity, Sherry! – Michelle
Hahaha! I remember sharing the, “I’ve been shot!” idea. 🙂 Except for a year of feeling like I wanted to run down the street screaming and pulling out my hair, plus about 5 hot flashes, I sort of sailed through. My deepest sympathies to those who have tremendous struggles during this time.
I’M SO GLAD YOU SAW THIS! Yes, it was you who came up with that priceless line!
And I have remembered it all this time! – Michelle
…and does anyone ever talk about what can happen to intimacy during this time? Nooooooo…
A worthy and important topic of discussion! Irregular periods, unpredictable hormones that lead to hot flashes, lousy sleep patterns, mental health challenges and more can do a number on intimacy – compounded by the fact that perimenopause can go on for years, and that men and women alike are woefully underinformed about it. – Michelle
The heavy-periods time was the worst — I became anemic from the blood loss and am still taking iron and B12 supplements to shore things up. I purchased and used more sanitary protection in the last 5 years of having periods than I did in the previous 10, I’m sure. And I have easy access to supplies because I have money and available stores and a a doctor to order my blood work and prescribe supplements; I shudder to think of women in more challenging circumstances, who lack these basics and just suffer through the bleeding and all the side effects. It’s something we should be talking about a lot more. Thanks for opening up this topic, Michelle.
When I got to this phase, I missed my dearly departed grandmother who was my source on all things female. My mother handed me a book. All of this was there in black and white, ironically written by men who would never experience it. This is why I see only women doctors. I have a female body. I need a woman doctor who will give it to me straight, like Grandma, who lost a sanitary pad when this happened to her in perimenopause. She looked down, and there it was on the floor between her feet. What’s a woman to do? Kick it under the counter out of sight and walk home doing the quick step, glad she was wearing a skirt that day.
Thanks so much for sharing this. The most important discovery for me is knowing the role perimenopause is playing in my sudden battle with anxiety, anemia and exaggerated PMS symptoms. The more I am learning via the Internet, the bigger my disappointment in doctors who have failed miserably in helping me connect the dots between these issues and midlife perimenopausal norms (my doctors are male but I am looking to change this dynamic very soon). I haven’t had the publicly humiliating red flood but the marathon monthly hasn’t been a cake walk either. That definitely hinders physical intimacy. When I first realized I was experiencing perimenopause symptoms in my 40s I became angry that so little information had been shared with me to prepare me during my youthful years. A friend gave me a book after noticing my struggle. One thing that stood out was a statement that a young woman’s diet in her 20s can make a difference in how well she transitions into menopause. Learning that in my 40s is a bit late! So yes, getting the information out to young women is very important. Hopefully some can be spared the awful experience this natural part of life has been for so many of us. Thanks again for this very open and honest post!
Desiree, thank you for these comments. The silence around the perimenopausal process is not helping women at all, and we do need that information well before we get to that point of our lives. – Michelle