I am in menopause. Unlike my other "I Did It" columns, this is not a description of a personal health challenge, as menopause occurred on its own. This is a coming out story about a life transition that has remained nearly unmentionable, even in queer circles. After successfully separating sex from reproduction, our community seems to still carry residual fear and aversion to the end of fecundity.
I always had a conflicted relationship with my period. At first I longed for it. I was the last among my peers to get her period, causing many years of secret worry that I wasn't a real girl, exacerbated by being skinny and flat-chested. The long-awaited drip finally arrived the month before I turned 15. When I announced it to my mother she too expressed relief. Womanhood, here I (finally) come.
It was downhill from there, as I never mastered control over the leaking blood. It descended without warning after an unpredictable number of days. The flow would start and stop and, just when I was sure I was done for the month, I'd drip again. I experienced my period as a mopping failure. In a total of approximately 350 lifetime periods, I don't think I made it through one of them without a leak or stain.
Biologically, the point of it all is reproduction, and I had to remember that in my occasional dalliances with men. Living as a lesbian most of the time, I was encouraged to embrace my period as a womanly connection to the cycles of the moon. But, instead, my irregular cycles made the lunar identification impossible and later confounded my insemination attempts when I struggled for more than a year to get pregnant.
In my twenties, as a good second-wave feminist and environmentalist, I tried the menstrual sponge. Yes, it was an authentic, reusable, irregularly shaped blob of sea sponge. I purchased it at a health food store. It sounded promising but I didn't foresee the humiliations of dealing with the sponge in a public bathroom. In the stall I had to reach inside myself to remove the bloody sponge. Holding it in one hand, I had to pull up my pants and flush with the other. Next, I carried the sponge out of the stall and washed it in the public sink (rinse and squeeze, rinse and squeeze, until the water went from red to clear). I could feel the horrified stares from the other women, followed by their disbelief when I carried the sponge back into the stall to re-insert it. By this point my stores of feminist bravery were completely depleted. The menstrual sponge was a short-lived phase.
Perimenopause is the term for the years before actual menopause; when the hormones that regulate our periods and moods get kind of wonky, before they conk out for good in menopause. Then, in addition to the unpredictable and unmanageable periods, I was assaulted with insomnia, night sweats and loss of my short-term memory. Word retrieval was an epic challenge. Perimenopause was a hellish phase, but it eventually passed, and my memory, vocabulary and sleep returned to normal.
One would think that, after all this, I would have noticed the arrival of menopause but I didn't. I only realized the horror was behind me when asked by a doctor for the date of my last period. "Hmmm..." I answered, "Now that I think about it, I haven't had a period once since my mother died and she died... a year ago." Had I noticed, I would have celebrated. Twelve months without a period is the official definition of menopause.
What's it like? Menopause is freedom. It's been 10 years now and I have never looked back. I face forward with a confidence that every day will be the same; that my mood will be stable and nothing will ruin my pants or my plans. And, despite the myths of a withered life on the other side of the period, I still care about how I look, I still have sex, and I still have a fairly good body. My shape has changed in ways I find baffling but it is absolutely worth it. I am free.
I have shared much of this information with queer women in my age bracket, but have hesitated to speak of it with younger women and gay men. My silence can be traced to two powerful social forces: ageism and the "ew" factor associated with women's bodily fluids. Perhaps, our community carries a leftover heterosexual shame about no longer being of reproductive age and, therefore, feeling less desirable to others as a sexual partner. The silence on the subject is dangerous and contributes to an unnecessary fear of menopause. In my case, menopause has been nothing short of liberation.