Off the Rag: Lesbians Writing About Menopause
My menopause book club with Kate Haas is about as regular as a perimenopausal woman's period, since we're on our fourth book since February. This mostly non-fiction anthology is my favorite entry so far. I liked one of the novels quite a bit, but Off the Rag is the first to get into what menopause is like, which is what drove Kate and me to start our club.
I quickly gathered that whether or not to take hormones is a central issue and that hot flashes can continue for the rest of your life. I'm still unclear about a few things, though, like how long you take hormones for and whether they prolong your menstruation. There was talk of a menstruating 92 year old, so you can understand why I'm wondering.
I also got to thinking about how menstruation and menopause, which for most cisgender women are somewhere on a spectrum from annoying to incapacitating, make us better people. Once a month in our reproductive years and for however long at the end of them, we have to listen to our bodies and our haywire emotions. We can't pretend we're machines like we do the rest of the time.
This book is authored by lesbians, who have some different perspectives on menopause that mainstream heterosexual women do. There are some complaints about appearance and one or maybe two "I'll never have kids" laments, but most of the focus is on the self, the brain and the body. Oh, and on relationships. Many of the contributors go through the experience with a similar-age partner. Judith E. Beckett marvels at her lover Paij Wadley-Bailey's reaction to hot flashes:
...she tells me "Hush! I want to enjoy this, to stay in the moment. I want to immerse myself in it. This is what it must feel like inside the womb. It's like immersing myself in a tub of warm water."
Wha?!? I admire that reaction so much, that instead of fighting the hot flash, Paij goes with it, like it's a gift. And maybe it is. I'm pretty sure I'll be psyched to not be cold all the time.
There are a lot more passages I want to share and comment on, so here goes.
"We're not talking about a 'little spat,'" I replied. "We're talking about one of us was going to be dead." I was glad the real extent of my fury hadn't come across. But it made me realize how far my emotions were from what was really going on, and how difficult it can be to make that real to someone who hasn't experienced it.
I know the feeling. And later on someone wrote about knowing they were being irrational but being unable to stop.
I did the first thing any sane person does when faced with an illness--I went to the bookstore."
I love that, but in case you're wondering, the book was published in 1996.
There's a lot in the book about medical ignorance about menopause and doctors being dismissive about it. From Sarah Dreher (along with the two previous quotes):
And the smart-ass psychologists, in all their male-identified arrogance, declared middle-aged women were grieving because they'd no longer be attractive sexual partners for men, no longer able to bear children, which is all women were really meant to do, anyway. It was a perfect no-win situation. "We can't help you, so we'll declare there's nothing wrong with you, it's all in your mind. You're just vain and neurotic."
One of the most radical chapters was written by an M.D., Barbara Bennett, where she outlines her typical treatment plans for women going through the change. Doctors don't usually do that sort of thing. She also shares statistics that might help people who think they're outliers feel more normal, like that "a fourth of all women stop menstruating before forty-two." Really? I honestly had no idea.
Speaking of outliers, it's helpful to see the range of symptoms, like Merrill Mushroom complaining that her scalp hurts. I mean, that doesn't make me excited about going through it, but it's nice to know that wacky is normal.
This being a book by middle-aged lesbians, there is plenty of woo--women offering alternative treatments like weeds, flax seeds and nettles. (I say "woo" lovingly.)
I miss being a fertile woman about as much as I miss my wisdom teeth.
As a feminist I couldn't accept that I was a chemically-driven being!
It is my belief that a woman my weight (a little under two hundred pounds) could go into an emergency room with a bleeding stump and her detached leg in her arms and the doctor on call would prescribe a diet.