When I was in the sixth grade, in 1982, everything at Kettering Elementary School came to a grinding halt for a few days so that the boys and girls could be separated from each other for a few hours and get a couple of hours of education about the big P. Puberty.
It was sex ed day.
By the time my youngest daughter was in elementary school, just a few years ago, she had to spend some time every year from the third grade on getting more and more advanced education about puberty and all that comes along with it.
I never knew what the boys were taught in 1982.
Ruby came home in the fifth grade scandalized by what she’d learned from the guys in her class after they’d had their turn through the puberty class that year.
I bring all this up to say — we do a pretty good job of at least trying to educate kids on puberty and the changes that they can expect their bodies to go through as they grow up.
Which is why I’m more than a little scandalized to find myself, on the eve of my 48th birthday, completely caught by surprised (in the worst possible way) by the fact that puberty is actually one end of a spectrum and the other end of that spectrum is just as difficult to navigate and just as shocking to find myself thrust into.
Just like I really didn’t know what was going on with the boys in 1982, I don’t know much about what happens to men when they get to the 50-ish zone beyond ha-ha Male Menopause. (Is that even a ha-ha thing? Is andropause a thing? Does the fact that my spell check recognizes it as a word mean it’s a thing. Jesus. This is ridiculous.)
But at least I had Judy Blume when I was ten.
And my mom and world’s most awkward school counselor to let me know that I was going to get boobs and my period, and I should use a condom when the time came (but, you know, I should really wait until I got married), and all kinds of things that made me feel a little gross and a little tantalized at the same time.
There’s no equivalent of that little network of learning at the other end of the spectrum.
I mean, obviously I’ve been aware of menopause. Like — the word. I know what it means. I know that women stop getting their periods at some point. I had some vague idea of hot flashes and, maybe, a slowed metabolism? Probably sometime in my 50s. Maybe mid-50s? It feels like a grandma thing.
I know that it’s caused by hormonal changes.
It’s something that I kind of blithely wished would hurry the hell up, when my periods were terrible and I thought I might need a hysterectomy.
It never registered with me that I’ve never, not once, had a conversation with another woman (or, for that matter, another human being) about menopause until last month when I suddenly found myself run over by some kind of internal train.
I mean, one day I felt fine. Just like I’ve felt every healthy day of my adult life.
And the next I felt like every single one of my systems went on strike at the same time.
You know Stephen King’s Carrie?
The scene where the poor girl cowers in the gym shower absolutely terrified because she’s fucking hemorrhaging from her vag and has literally no idea what’s happening to her.
She thinks she’s dying — which is a reasonable response to blood suddenly pouring out of one of your orifices.
I mean, when you think about it, periods are extremely weird on their surface. They require a lot of preparation ahead of time.
That scene is iconic because it’s so visceral. The teacher who helps her is less than kind — mostly because it’s so utterly absurd that a girl could get to high school and remain completely oblivious to menstruation.
Carrie had probably heard about periods before. I mean, she’s in a high school girl’s gym when she starts hers. And she’s old enough to likely be the last girl at her school to start hers. Maybe by a year or two. But if her mother never told her what exactly ‘period’ meant, and no one else did either, then yeah — you end up with a horror movie.
Okay. Got all that?
Good. Now let me tell you this: no one talks about menopause. I mean it. They don’t.
I feel like any woman older than 40 knows that there’s a weird phenomenon where we just sort of start going invisible at a certain point. It gets harder and harder to be seen and heard.
But this . . . this major event just doesn’t even get brought up. If it’s ever given any cultural mention it’s a joke — some crone dripping with sweat during a hot flash. But mostly, not even not. At least periods are made of fun off.
Like…ooh, she’s upset? She must be on her period. Haha.
Talking about menopause though? Making sure that women aren’t broadsided by it? Yeah. That doesn’t happen.
I mean, maybe my mom would have given me some info. Or at least I would been able to observe her experiences. But she died when she was young.
A girl who doesn’t have a mother could reasonably expect to reach puberty and still be aware of what to expect via their sisters, other adult women, her friends telling her what their mothers and older sisters have told them, those puberty classes in the sixth grade, etc. Plus books, movies, television shows.
But there isn’t any kind of network like that on the other end.
I mean, even when I Google it, instead of getting some cool bloggers giving me the 4–1–1, I get weird, stilted medical sites with canned content-mill posts.
It’s not that there aren’t any women over the age of 45 writing out there. They just aren’t writing about this.
This kind of cracked me up. When I went to choose a picture for this post, I entered the word ‘menopause’ into the search bar.
As I looked for a photograph, I kept thinking…no, too young. Too young. Oh, wait. Too old. Too old. WTH? I didn’t even know what to look for.
The thing is — menopause isn’t a thing that only older women need to think about. In fact, older women have probably already gone through it. Perimenopause generally happens in your 40s. (That’s why it’s often so difficult to get pregnant in your 40s.)
Is it ridiculous that I didn’t even know what perimenopause really was until the last few weeks? I think so. I really do.
(Perimenopause is the years leading up to menopause — which means that you haven’t had a period for twelve consecutive months. You’re welcome.)
No one talks about menopause.
I was so confused by the onset of menopause (or . . . maybe perimenopause?) in the last several weeks that I went to the emergency room. Twice. I’ve been to several doctors. I thought I was dying.
Go ahead. Laugh at me. I don’t even blame you. I think I’m having a particularly difficult go of it. Seriously, though, I’m not sure how I would know. Could be that everyone feels like they’ve been hit by a truck.
I really wouldn’t know. Because no one talks about menopause. Not privately. Not in pop culture. Not even medically.
I mean, my mother died young of breast cancer and her mother died of ovarian cancer — I’ve had every scheduled screening all of my adult life even when I didn’t have health insurance. That means I’ve been in a gynecologist’s office at least annually since I turned thirty. Plus, I’ve had three children and a uterine ablation.
And any number of regular check-ups and doctors visits for other reasons.
And not one of those doctors, at any point between the ages of 20 and 47, said one single word to me about menopause.
Since I’ve been talking about it the last few weeks, a few of my friends have piped up a little bit, but never more than a sentence or two.
There really is no culture of sharing, though.
Of the doctors I’ve spoken to specifically about menopause in the last couple of weeks, all but one have been men.
It’s been a kind of crazy number of them. Because I was so sure there was something really wrong with me that I kept pushing until an ER doctor finally gave me a CT scan. He found a tumor on my adrenal gland and cyst of my ovary.
Those are both things I need to take care of — but also both things that are incidental to menopause and often found when CT scans are given for other reasons.
The best I can do in trying to explain how I feel is this: I feel like I’m in day just before your period starts. The very, very worst hours of PMS — when everything feels gross and wrong and disgusting and yucky and every other not okay word you can conjure up.
I’m not sleeping. My joints and muscles and bones and head and pretty much everything between ache. My brain feels like it’s on vacation. My emotions are right on the surface. I’m exhausted. I’m bloated.
Except instead of lasting half a day, it’s been like eight weeks.
And if this is menopause and it’s going to go on for some unknown length of time, it’s an emergency situation.
I feel like Carrie White standing in the shower screaming that I’m dying — you don’t understand, I can’t feel like this forever — and these doctors are looking at me like that teacher who can’t believe that a 16-year-old girl doesn’t know what her period is.
The men just kind of nod and make that little humming noise that, interestingly, I identify with poetry readings. The sound that usually means that everyone is understanding something that I don’t. Except this time I’m pretty sure it means that they’re about to tell me to eat less carbs and get more exercise.
The female doctor at least had the grace to blanch. She knew that feeling and exactly what being stuck there for weeks would feel like.
I didn’t have a choice about going through puberty. And I don’t have a choice about going through menopause. That’s a spectrum — a timeline — that no one has any control over.
But I’m increasingly aware of how woefully unprepared I am for getting older. Far, far less than I was for growing up. And I feel like I’m not the only one.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.