True confession: I watch an hour-long soap opera once a week.
Viewing episodes of Victoria, a télénovela filmed in Bogotá, is part of my homework at Philadelphia's Spanish Language School. Since my comprehension lags behind my speaking ability, it helps to hear skeins of outraged, tearful, flirtatious and worried Spanish in the voices of Victoria and the members of her dramatically dysfunctional family.
The storyline touches all the bases of Modern Misery: infidelity, divorce, eating disorders (Victoria's youngest daughter), unplanned pregnancy (her oldest daughter), teen drinking (the middle child, a son), intergenerational conflict and general family strife.
But a recent episode hit below the gut, so to speak. The topic: menopause. In the show, Victoria -- who, at 50, is separated from her husband, a humorless attorney with (of course) a nubile and free-spirited young lover -- is falling in love with a charming radio talk show host at least 15 years her junior.
But just as they finally (after 26 episodes, mind you), lean in for a soulful kiss, Victoria pulls away. Later, she tells her besties that she became suddenly, excruciatingly aware of her age, her body with its sags and celulitis and her shaky sexual self-esteem. One friend nods sympathetically. The other, the show's vixen, quips: "Turn off the lights. In the dark, imperfections disappear."
Victoria decides to see her doctor. He ticks off the symptoms she can expect as la menopausia arrives: mood swings, hot flashes, depression, insomnia. Victoria's expressive face droops at the very thought. But then the good doctor delivers unexpected news: Women in menopause can still enjoy rich and satisfying relaciónes sexuales. It's not an illness, he reminds her, but a developmental stage -- for some women, the best period (no pun intended) of their lives. For Victoria, a midlife woman teetering on the verge of re-invention, that's just what she wanted -- and, I think, feared -- to hear. The scene closes with her shy, sly smile.
All good, I think. Except: Do we really need a melodrama to remind us that the female developmental script -- puberty, pregnancy (for some) and menopause (no exception, gals) -- is natural design, not a medical condition? Are we so deeply in denial of our aging that a stunning woman in her 50s needs pep talks from her friends and her physician to help her know she still has value?
You don't have to answer that.
But I do. I'm 51, the average age for menopause in the Western world. For a decade, my doc has been advising me to accept "all kinds of oddness" in my cycle: light periods, heavier ones, ones that haven't learned to count to 28. Menopause isn't a moment, she reminds me, but more of a marathon, with all of a marathon's tedium, energy bursts and dragged-out stretches.
I'm not planning to "treat" my menopause, no more than I would medicate my daughter's volatile pubescent moods (though a nice anti-anxiety drug for the moms might be in order). Whether we're 13 or 53, a shifting emotional topography and a raft of physical changes -- both welcome and distressing- - are simply the land we live in.
I have a midlife pal who says that, 10 years ago, she would look in the mirror and think, Yeah! Now she peeks at the glass and thinks, Eh. That makes me sad; it's the same grim self-assessment that made the lovely Victoria peel away from her paramour.
What I see when I wipe away the shower steam is a face like a well-loved map, softly crinkled in the places it's been most used. I see honest hair, more salt these days than pepper. I see thighs muscled from running, hips softer than they used to be, the thick calves I've had all my life. ("Peasant legs," joked my college roommate, who came from the same Eastern European shtetl stock.)
It's hard to embrace these changes when society is urging me otherwise: from the ads for hormone replacements that pop up on my computer (Does it know how old I am? Of course it does) to the routine lies women tell with hair dye, collagen injections and plastic surgery to lift breasts, eyelids and bellies. I'm certain that's not what Wicked's Elphaba meant when she sang about "Defying Gravity."
Maybe what really makes us crazy in menopause is the ever-shifting, often-conflicting advice of experts: Take hormone replacements. Nope, better not, if you want to save your heart. Swallow soy isoflavones, but not if you've had breast cancer. Try black cohosh, but be careful of your liver. Or maybe Amberen, advertised to "relieve frustrating menopause symptoms."
Really? Could the drug get rid of all the 40-something magazine models who are digitally enhanced to look like they're 25? That alone would probably relieve a lot of night sweats.
But, really, I shouldn't be surprised. More and more, we see pathology -- and, subsequently, a call for medical treatment -- in aspects of human existence that used to be... well, aspects of human existence. Still sad three months after your uncle died? Pop some Prozac. Got a 6-year-old who can't sit still? Put the kid on pills. Even aging itself, the inevitability we share (if we're lucky and don't die young) with every living thing from zinnias to zebras, is ripe for manipulation: Retin-A to iron out your wrinkles; laser treatments to banish cellulite. So much energy and money expended to tame the wild ride of a human life.
The place I'd like to hit the "pause" button is not on my menses, which I've never minded much and will miss when the egg factory closes down for good, but on our society's terror of human aging, fragility and change.
Sometimes I talk back to Victoria, in my imperfect, grammar-busting Spanish: Oh, honey. Oh, all of us. Your kid is rambunctious. Your unmarried daughter is pregnant. You're sad. But growing older doesn't call for a prescription. Do some Kegels. Eat some kale. Look out the window; look in the mirror. Learn to love what you see in both places. Keep the lights on, toss the magazines under the bed, and kiss the one who wants to kiss you back.