March 07, 2012

Women MY age

That's right, women MY age. You know... menopausal. You heard me right, but I'll pause to say it again. Menopausal. Age 28 and menopausal. Clinically proven by blood tests, and verified by my doctor, menopausal. Actually, peri-menopausal. Now there's a word I didn't know before being launched into this stage of life (20+ years ahead of my time). It turns out that there are stages to menopause (who knew?). And from what I have read, peri-menopause is the more unpleasant of the three stages. Perhaps other women would refute that statement from their own experience.

So why am I there? Why do I keep repeating this word over and over again (probably making you cringe in your seat)? Because I still find it so hard to believe, and because I am living daily with a considerably less comfortable existence. Fourteen months of chemotherapy have left me with a few not-so-great byproducts. My body's reaction (among others) has been to start premature menopause.

In case you hadn't guessed, I feel a slight repulsion to this idea. I'm not overly devastated at the idea of not having any more babies. James and I had already determined that we were done with that before we went to China. I am more than happy with the two boys I already have. I'm also not terribly concerned about "losing femininity." (yet)

I have, on a side not, noticed a definite slowing of my metabolism. For the second half of my chemotherapy regimen, getting drinks at Starbucks was my main source of caloric intake. It was easier for me to down a drink then to eat a meal that I had no appetite for and made me feel sick, regardless of how much I needed it. However, there has been a swift reprisal for keeping my energy up that way, in the form of some unwanted weight gain. Its been a rollar coaster. After months of steroidal weight gain during my radiation treatments, followed by chemotherapy induced weight loss, and now menopausal weight gain, I'm left feeling quite uncertain about what my weight "should" be. Needless to say, with the warmer weather, I am VERY happy to be biking to work again. Now that my appetite is back we are also trying to get back to a the vegetarian based diet we had pre-diagnosis.

Back to the main topic. I don't really know how to explain why I have a sort of disturbed feeling when I think about menopause. I've never had any reason to consider at any great length what it must be like for the older women in my life to experience this change. Part of my young attitude was to roll my eyes a little at the drama that is attached societally to menopause. Maybe I secretly thought that hot flashes were silly and that women just needed to "get over it". Go ahead and laugh at my naivety! But you have to admit, some of the headlines on women's magazines (touting it as some kind of Sexual Renaissance) do make you want to roll your eyes and say, "Gross! Just keep it to yourself would you!" Assuming that many of you still feel that way, I'll spare you the details.

But in a way, its like being told that I have to experience the hormonal roller coaster of reverse puberty, except that this time I am old enough to understand things a little better. Old enough to understand, but still too young to be legitimate (like a pregnant preteen!). Frankly, its a little embarrassing.

I've known about this new development since early last summer, but it took me awhile to put two an two together and go see my doctor about it. The connection happened sometime in June when, in the middle of a sudden onset of sweating bullets, heavy panting and an inability to think beyond the overwhelming sensation of HOT!!!, I thought to myself, "Maybe this is what a hot flash feels like." When I began having these episodes several times an hour, I decided to get it checked out.

Let me just describe this to you. As a person not prone to exaggeration (well, sometimes) and not particularly inclined to draw attention to myself (especially my body), let me assure you that hot flashes are not overrated!!!

Picture this: Comfortably reclining in your pleasantly air conditioned home (even a little chilly, perhaps), you find yourself, in a time span of 0-5 seconds, encased in an astronaut suit of pure heat that radiates from your body in waves that leave you gasping for air! Your sweat glands open, and out comes Niagara Falls! You quickly stand up, in a desperate attempt to minimize your skin contact with anything that will either reflect or intensify your heat. If your child was on your lap, you roughly shove them off (this is a moment of self-preservation after all). If you were having a conversation 5 seconds ago, you can forget about it now! The most important thing to concentrate on right now is breathing (gasping really) and exclaiming (possibly swearing). Chances are you'll try to apologize to whoever you were talking to, but it will likely come out sounding non sequitur and crazy. It feels as though you've been working hard in the hot sun in high humidity all day and and some idiot just zipped you into a heavy wool sleeping bag! You feel certain that for three minutes time you could probably single handedly power New York City.

Then comes the slow decline, which leaves you in cold sweat and shivering. For several weeks near the beginning, it was my pleasure to have this experience several times an hour. When I asked others such as my Mom (aka. my new comrade-at-arms), how often it happened to them, I discovered that it isn't especially common to have them THAT often. But from what I have read, medically induced menopause is often more intense and quick than nature intended. Thankfully, things have slowed down a little, and I don't have to endure it quite like that any more.

Nevertheless, many of the other joys of this change remain my daily companions, which brings us to our next item on the agenda - hormonal mood swings! This is where I really feel like an adolescent. Again, the very quickness itself of the mood change is maybe the most alarming part. Jessica may be very happy one moment, and five minutes later is found going to James for a hug and saying, "I feel like crying!"

It feels like the floor just dropped out from under me. The house feels too small. The boys are too loud. Suddenly the world feels like a very insecure place. Strangely enough, the default emotion to this state is to feel guilty. Just generically guilty. This is not the time for me to go to my Bible and glean some comfort, because whatever I read will make me feel like I'm not measuring up. Words of love suddenly sound like words of judgement.

I have never been this way. I've never had crazy PMS. And although James claims that I can be a little more cranky at a certain time of the month, I'm usually still rational.

Actually, one of the best things for me to do has been to learn about the science behind menopause. A wonderful book for this is called The Female Brain. Being a lover of science and human anatomy and physiology, it has been a life saver to find out what is happening in my brain, which hormones are dipping and dropping, and what parts of my brain that affects. It helps to know that I haven't ACTUALLY become a terrible human being in the last five minutes. What HAS happened is that I'm going through estrogen withdrawal (and other responsive hormones such as oxytocin, progesterone, and even testosterone).

Four years of science courses taught me to think like a scientist, and I can't describe what a relief it was to see that this book was a conglomeration of years of scientifically legitimate studies, fMRI's to watch brain activity in response to hormones, blood tests and much more. However, if on my recommendation, you go out and look for this book, be forewarned that the author attempts to explain the evolution behind these hormonal responses, leading to far flung conclusions from the caveman era! Very over the top in some sections. My appreciation for the book is purely limited to the proven science, and not the theories that develop from the data.

In practice, I am trying to figure out ways to minimize the effect of my altered state on my family. When I quickly become sullen, it is usually better for me to withdraw to my room. Before all this, I used to take comfort from the sound of the boys playing, or the closeness of family. But now I'm quicker to snap at the boys, or to feel irritation at the people around me. A better practice for me is often "Least said, soonest mended". (I may have just stumbled upon another reason for why I am more introverted these days!) In a sense, I am fundamentally more selfish than I used to be.

All that being said about hormones, what I don't want to do is blame everything on my brain. The tendency to blame hormones and relinquish all responsibility for one's actions is another reason I find Women's magazines annoying. I don't want to use being on a hormonal roller coaster as a trump card for every situation. I don't want to be selfish. I don't want to be short tempered. I want to enjoy the people around me. When I see myself failing in these areas, that's when the guilt sets in. This is also when I feel a little annoyed at God for creating me with these basic flaws. When the basic instincts to be selfish, angry, and irrational already exist in me, and I am constantly subject to an ebb and flow of hormones that I can't control, it's almost irrelevant whether I make the choice to do wrong in the other areas of my life. At my core, before I even wake up in the morning, I have already failed to be the person that I want to be.

I know that sounds harsh and self-condemning, but in reality it is in recognizing my weakness that I can accept redemption. Blaming my hormones for everything would provide ample justification for lying in bed and doing nothing except feeling sorry for myself. If I truly have no control over my hormones, I might as well submit to them. But there is a Truth that exists outside the realm of my emotions. Truth is not subject to my hormones, even if my perception of Truth changes.

I suppose I am talking in circles which is probably a good example of the whirlpool of emotions. Thankfully it is not my ability to hold on to Jesus (aka Truth) that saves me. It is that He reaches into my whirlpool and holds on to Me. Even if I can't see Jesus clearly when I am in my whirlpool, I can still thank him for holding on to me.

So I thank him. I thank him that having a dirty house means that I have an active family. I thank him that having loud children means they are entertaining themselves instead of being planted in front of the TV. I thank him that my boys WANT to talk to me and ask questions because they want to learn. I thank him that James is here with me instead of being in Bali. I thank him that there is so much food available that I need to watch my intake. I thank him for the fact that HE IS, and that he remains unchanged by my changing world.

Strangely enough, in being thankful, the storm usually passes, and I can see the sun coming out again.


Sherise said...

So, I literally laughed out loud when I read your description of a typical hot flash. I am NOT looking forward to experiencing that.

Humour aside, I love that you're letting God prove His steadfastness in the light of your roller coaster. It's so hard not to judge our walk with Him on our own emotions, but it sounds like going through menopause is proving a real-time lesson on His unchangingness.

You're so lovely. :)

Joanne said...

Jessica, we don't know each other. I'm one of those who have been following your journey quietly by reading your blog which I discovered on a mutual friends' blog. I hope that's ok.
I must say that I've been so touched by your openness and honesty regarding your cancer experience. And I love that it drew you closer to God and didn't pull you further from Him. It's been inspiring.
But I finally just had to comment here because I was so touched by how you phrased the experience of being in a "whirlpool of emotions" and that Jesus is always holding on to you in that, even when you can't see Him. I relate to that totally - and my whirlpool of emotions has nothing to do with anything medical, and most often not even with natural hormonal changes that occur monthly. It's just my pure selfishness that puts me there a lot of the time and, like you say, it's at the core of me even before I wake up. It's ugly and can only be redeemed by Jesus' sacrifice. Your message about being thankful for those things that seem to aggravate or stir up the whirlpool is exactly what I needed to hear.
Thank you. It's always nice to know that we're not alone. Praying for you and your family.