Life in the 50's: The PMS no one talks about

Everything - cooking meal, making an appointment, writing an article - felt like a chore.

Menopause. Does the word embarrass you? Even in the age of post-feminism and Oprah, many women will not discuss this critical, mysterious phase of life. The silence enhances the mystery and adds to the lack of understanding, leaving many women to suffer alone. In the US, circles of women have been forming to discuss their midlife experiences. Alas, Israel isn't quite there yet. Not all women have a bad experience during menopause. Some even breeze through it. Others, especially those of us who tend toward moodiness, may feel like a wrung-out mop and wonder if the nightmare will ever end. I felt battered and beaten, thrown on the floor and drained physically, emotionally, spiritually. If your experience is anything like mine, you might even feel like you're going crazy. Let me assure you: You are perfectly normal, just at the mercy of fluctuating hormones. "Hormones" is a word we toss around a lot but we may not understand what a critical function they play. Hormones regulate almost all of our bodily systems affecting mood, body temperature, growth, metabolism, sexuality and more. Doctors say menopause lasts up to a year and a half but for far longer than that after my last period, I sometimes felt unmotivated, unfocused and flat. I had a hard time communicating anything of depth or significance. Everything - writing an article, cooking a meal, phoning to make an appointment - felt like a chore. I snapped at my kids and focused on their faults. I was in a hormonal slump, incommunicado with the world and with myself. "Lo mehuberet" (unconnected) a nurse said to me when I went for a consult at Hadassah-University Medical Center's menopause clinic. Exactly. Those of you who experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) know the symptoms. "The smallest tasks become major undertakings," my friend Dafna once said. "I move slowly as if under water… I'm in a fog. One of the kids knocks the juice over and under ordinary circumstances, I roll my eyes and get them a rag. If I have PMS, I'll go, 'What, you knocked the juice over again? You're always doing that! I just washed the floor!'" I was spared PMS all my life, but when I stopped menstruating, I got slapped with it - and not for just one week or a month. People told me there was light at the end of the tunnel but I couldn't even catch a glimmer. I dubbed what was happening to me "post-menstrual syndrome." Having a label helped me deal with the shame. When a friend called and I found I had nothing to say because I was slightly depressed, I was loath to admit it. The thought was I shouldn't be depressed. But if I could say, "I have really bad PMS today," suddenly my mood, my difficulties became acceptable. While menopause itself is just coming out of the closet, PMS has been a hot topic since it was coined by Dr. Katharina Dalton, a British physician, in 1953. Women who have experienced menopause have known for years that there is a link between menopause and depression. That link is just beginning to be scientifically validated by studies. One place I got support and insight was from the book, Women of the Fourteenth Moon, edited by Dena Taylor and Amber Covedale Sumrall. Unlike other books about menopause, this one was written by women with first-hand experience. In a chapter called, "Opening Pandora's Box," Geeta Dardick writes: "On good days, I return to my office to continue working at my writing career. On others, the monumental task of eating three meals a day and doing some exercise fills all my waking hours." Or in the chapter, "What it was, was menopause" Vickie Posey writes: "I felt low, had no appetite, cried much of the time, and felt disoriented… During my journey through menopause, I went through a period of self-questioning and self-revelation." I was so glad to hear I wasn't the only one who was overwhelmed by routine tasks and cut off. I felt lost in a vast, gray sea, not an island in sight. Alone out there, I made valiant efforts to do what I needed to do. Going to the bank, washing a dish, felt so much more effortful - as if my neurotransmitters were firing through cotton candy. Another blow: I found nothing interesting. I had discovered a community of gypsies living in the Old City and had landed an assignment to write about them. I thought it would be cool to get to know them - but it wasn't cool at all. I couldn't get into it. "It's probably menopause," I thought to myself and when I told a friend, she half-joked, "Everything is menopause." Perhaps the greatest blow was the complete lack of creativity. I felt pregnant, as if some hidden process - perhaps a birth of some kind - was taking up all my energy. The thought that as with labor pains, the suffering could lead to something new and wonderful, gave me hope. Margaret Mead coined the term "post menopausal zest." In my research and readings, I began to see glimmers of a better life after menopause. During that bleak period, friends managed to get through once in a great while. A good friend called several times and I didn't call back. Finally, I sent a message in a cyberspace bottle. The answer she sent made me feel less alone, understood. "It's really, really hard," she emailed me, having been through menopause. "You feel completely cut off, alone - because women don't talk about it! They feel ashamed. It passes. I promise you." Her words felt like a beacon of light in a dark sea, a life raft on which I could climb and be pulled to shore. There she was, tiny, far away on the shore, but she was waving to me. I saw her in a red sweater and sunglasses, a band holding back her curly hair, which she had decided to stop dying and grow long. "I see you," she was saying. "I made it back. You will too." The next column will be about life after menopause and the renewed energy and creativity that often await us there.