Books October 2011

The Bitch Is Back

Are menopausal women mad, bad, and dangerous? Yes—but they’re really just returning to normal.

It’s intriguing to ponder this suggested reversal of what has traditionally been thought to be the woman’s hormonal cloud. A sudden influx of hormones is not what causes 50-year-old Aunt Carol to throw the leg of lamb out the window. Improperly balanced hormones were probably the culprit. Fertility’s amped-up reproductive hormones helped Aunt Carol 30 years ago to begin her mysterious automatic weekly ritual of roasting lamb just so and laying out 12 settings of silverware with an OCD-like attention to detail while cheerfully washing and folding and ironing the family laundry. No normal person would do that—look at the rest of the family: they are reading the paper and lazing about like rational, sensible people. And now that Aunt Carol’s hormonal cloud is finally wearing off, it’s not a tragedy, or an abnormality, or her going crazy—it just means she can rejoin the rest of the human race: she can be the same selfish, non-nurturing, non-bonding type of person everyone else is. (And so what if get-well casseroles won’t get baked, PTAs will collapse, and in-laws will go for decades without being sent a single greeting card? Paging Aunt Carol! The old Aunt Carol!)

One could further argue that all of these menopausal women, in fact, represent a major evolutionary shift. Owing to women’s greatly lengthened lifespan (from about 40 in 1900 to 80 in 2000 in the U.S.), even the notion of what a woman’s so-called normal state is can be questioned: Northrup notes that before this time in history, most women never reached menopause—they died before it could arrive. If, in an 80-year life span, a female is fertile for about 25 years (let’s call it ages 15 to 40), it is not menopause that triggers the mind-altering and hormone-altering variation; the hormonal “disturbance” is actually fertility. Fertility is The Change. It is during fertility that a female loses herself, and enters that cloud overly rich in estrogen. And of course, simply chronologically speaking, over the whole span of her life, the self-abnegation that fertility induces is not the norm—the more standard state of selfishness is.

Which is to say, if it comes at the right time, menopause is wisdom. For Northrup—whose own passage through menopause included a traumatic divorce, a narrative she relates with regret, but little apology—this seemed to be so. Menopause’s liberating narrative dovetails elegantly with a typical Baby Boomer female’s biological and chronological clock. When a woman gets married in her 20s, has children in her late 20s or early 30s, and begins to detach in her 40s, look where her nuclear family is by the time she reaches her menopausal wanderlust-filled 50s: her grown-up (say 18-year-old) children are leaving the nest; her perhaps slightly older (say 60-ish) husband is transitioning into gardening and fishing; her aged parents have conveniently died (let’s say back—and wouldn’t it be lovely?—when they slipped and injured a hip at, oh, 78).

Compare that time line, however, with the clock of my own generation of late-Boomer/Gen X women. Putting our careers and our Selves first, we adventured and traveled in our 20s, settled down and got married in our 30s, got pregnant (or tried to—fertility problems being the first surprising biological wall we hit) in our late 30s or even early 40s … and now what scenario will we face when we hit menopause?

In my case, when it arrived at 49, perimenopause was terrifying, and like nothing I had ever before physically experienced. It was not just the hot flashes, it was the mood swings, although the phrase mood swings sounds far too cartoon-like and teen-girlish. I would describe it as the sudden onset of a crippling, unreasoning gloom. It is like resting one’s hand on the familiar wall of one’s day—helping kids with homework, some grocery shopping, hurtling along on a favorite freeway, listening to Miles Davis—and then feeling the hand suddenly push through the wall, through foam spongy as the flesh of a drowned corpse, into … nothingness.

You experience anxiety at the notion of being face-to-face with your loved ones, because they will immediately read from your dull eyes that which you can no longer hide—that you don’t love them, never will again. (And note that I had already divorced my husband of several decades and had run off with my demon gypsy lover … Now I felt repulsion upon hearing the squeaky wheels of the recycling bin he was dutifully rolling out to the curb.) At one time, the sweet smell of your baby’s head was your whole world; now you can feel the clanging chime of her 10-year-old voice, note by note, draining your will to live. Where once you coordinated 70 volunteers and thousands of dollars of fund-raising with four- and fivefold Excel spreadsheets at your kids’ school, now the mere thought of trying to figure out how to pay the United Visa bill online makes you so depressed, you can’t get out of bed. Your chemistry has changed—and that is no small thing.

Even more unsettling is how, at night, the depression and anxiety are so much stranger and more intense than the minor quotidian irritants that seem to be tipping you off into hopelessness (the overflowing laundry basket, the $530 car-repair bill, the fact that the scale says you’re up—what is it?—eight pounds). The other night, I was awake at 3:24 a.m. as usual (melatonin, Tylenol PM, Ambien, forget it—I could take them all at once, paired with a bottle of wine, and still drive an 18-wheeler). As I lay in the darkness, all at once, the name Brian Hong surfaced in my consciousness and I experienced not a passing wave of despair, but despair simply moving in as a cold, straight tide.

I have no idea who Brian Hong is—I was filled with gloom simply because of the name. Perhaps there is, in fact, a lone forgotten yellow Post-it, somewhere on my rolltop desk with its gas bills and Discover-card solicitations and Blue Cross health-insurance forms, that reads Brian Hong. Perhaps Brian Hong is the head of a small Asian nonprofit who several months ago earnestly if a bit keeningly e-mailed me, citing as a referral the name of a mutual friend, to ask if I would drive an hour down to San Pedro to give a free speech at a fund-raising benefit for a flailing youth center for depressed gay minority teens at 10 a.m. three months from now on a cloudy Wednesday.

On the one hand, as a longtime veteran of the nonprofit world, I can no longer afford to humor the endless requests to do everything for free, particularly because no one treats you worse than the penniless. On the other hand, though, for me to categorically say no seems like a kick in the teeth to all the kids in the world who are already down; the result of this discomfiting indecision being that I NEVER REPLIED TO BRIAN HONG AT ALL, and so now, like that forgotten spongy corpse, he has come after me in the middle of the night to gently (because that is Brian Hong’s passive-aggressive way) but persistently (because that is also Brian Hong’s passive-aggressive way) haunt me. Brian Hong! Brian Hong! Brian Hong!

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is the author, most recently, of Mother on Fire.

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