You’re bopping around feeling great — a vibrant woman in the prime of your life. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you fly into a boiling rage. Your partner puts the moves on you, but the thought of having sex makes you want to sew your lady parts shut. You run into a dear friend, and you can’t remember her name. You can’t sleep. At all. Ever. It feels like there’s a demon inside you, yanking at your organs and trying to escape. What is going on?
If any of this sounds familiar, you have very likely entered the secretly seismic time of life known as perimenopause. Wait, what? Menopause? You’re not even in your 40s yet!
Perimenopause is the transition between regular menstruation and complete menopause, and it can start as early as the mid-30s — there’s the surprise. Ready or not, the ovaries are starting to close up shop, and the hormone roller coaster can bring on hot flashes, mood swings, irregular periods, heavy bleeding, vaginal dryness, memory lapses, low sex drive, night sweats and insomnia — as well as a few more symptoms — just for fun! It can really stick your life in a blender, and it can last for years. Why didn’t anyone warn you about this?
It’s a crying shame
Your perimenopausal experience can be pretty reliably predicted by your mother’s. Unfortunately, for reasons including stigma, sadness over losing fertility and “femaleness,” as well as the shame of being inside an aging female body, women don’t often talk to anyone, much less their daughters. So many women have no idea what to expect and are gobsmacked by the sudden changes.
“My mom is definitely not one to talk about what’s going on with her body,” says Beth, 48. “She just kind of suffered through menopause silently. Do I have to wait for Gwyneth Paltrow to go through this to learn about it?”
Doctor, doctor, can’t you see I’m burnin’, burnin’?
It can be hard to find a doctor that takes perimenopause seriously. “My doctor told me that I was too young to be starting menopause,” says Stacy, 46. “She suggested I was being ‘hormone bombed’ because I worked in an all-female workplace.”
“I told my doctor, ‘I don’t understand it. Suddenly I have no desire for sex,’” says Jane, 44. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t see what the problem is. You have all the equipment.’ ”
If your doctor is dismissive or unhelpful, go elsewhere. A good doctor needs to listen to your symptoms and talk to you about options.
“A lot of people think that a doctor is going to immediately offer hormone replacement therapy [HRT],” says Veronica Ades, an ob-gyn. “But that is not the only treatment option. Very low doses of antidepressants can help with mood swings and can be almost as effective as HRT in reducing hot flashes. Birth control can regulate the hormones and even eliminate the period entirely. Why suffer?” She adds, laughing: “I don’t know any ob-gyns who get a period!”
There are even menopause specialists if you can afford them. Many report that acupuncture is effective at reducing symptoms. Stacy went to an acupuncturist who mixed up some Chinese herbs that have “eliminated the night sweats, with no side effects,” she says. Jane fired her doctor and found a nurse practitioner from a woman’s health center who “changed my life.” There are options out there, but it takes diligent research to find the informed practitioner you deserve.
Get ready, ’cause here you come
Master yogini Yamuna Zake says, “It is important to begin preparing physically for menopause in the late 30s.”
Late 30s!? Who knew?
Exercise is essential, but it’s important to incorporate restorative workouts into your routine, Zake says. Regular exercise mitigates bone loss and keeps up energy and mood up. Cut back or eliminate alcohol, caffeine, sugar and spicy foods — this can help stabilize your moods and minimize insomnia and night sweats. Supplements such as black cohosh, dong quai and maca are often used to treat hot flashes, and primrose oil can help with hormone balance. Popsicles also help with hot flashes and, well, everything.
Let’s talk about sex
“My vagina is dry, and I’m wearing these cheap, ugly granny panties because my period is so unpredictable. I don’t want to ruin a nice pair,” Beth says. “I don’t want sex at all.”
With your tender tissues as parched as fallen oak leaves, sex can also be very painful — which can make you want to put a padlock on your parts. You don’t have to — there are hormone creams and suppositories. Vagifem and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) vaginal creams are an option. They can help keep your peach juicy — and a tube of lube in the nightstand can keep the action rolling. But if you’re just not in the mood, take a break!
Tell her (and her and her) about it
The most important step you can take to smooth out perimenopause is to talk about it. Talk to your mom, your daughter, your sister, your partner, your friends. There are also support networks online, not to mention Facebook groups with names like Perimenopause Hell and Power-Surge.
Why not throw a peri party? Everyone can check their shame at the door, talk about their symptoms and share tips. Then, pass around the popsicles and fire up The Exorcist!
Amanda Duarte is a writer and a performer.