Menopause Journal: Is it a hot flash or global warming?

Hold on! I was a Beatles fan in the '60s. Later, wearing overalls, my hair in braids, I was in a demonstration with a placard proclaiming: "Farmers for Peas." I wasn't exactly a farmer. Then I got married, became pregnant twice and gave birth to two children. I remember my friend and I were nursing our babies and she said, "Who ever thought we'd be lactating mothers?"

And who ever thought I'd be divorced? Who thought I'd be a working, single mom? I didn't think children would grow up so fast. I never thought I'd gain 30 pounds in 30 years or turn 50 or learn to sail or need glasses. Most certainly I never thought about menopause.

I've ridden the waves of change and managed to survive the ones that crashed. And here we are, baby boomers bouncing into menopause of all things. I invite you to join me on this trip. Perhaps you or someone you know is about to take the menopausal journey or is already midstream. We may travel different ways, but we can compare notes. I'll be writing every couple of weeks. So join me as I try to determine whether menopause is misery, mystery or myth.

So far, it's a mystery to me. I might have had a hot flash. I was eating lunch with a friend and suddenly I got dizzy, as if I might faint, and my face felt hot and flushed. I felt a little queasy, but it went away. That was almost a year ago. Nothing like that has happened since. So, was it a hot flash or did I eat a jalapeño pepper? They (the anonymous "they") warn of night sweats.

I don't sweat at night, but I do seem more sensitive to temperature change. It's not only darkest, but coldest just before dawn. I've noticed that I prefer a lighter nightgown, whereas I used to freeze without flannel. But it could be an increase in body fat, not hot flashes, protecting me from cold Maine nights.

I wonder if these things would occur to me if I weren't at the age for "the change." The heating in my house has always been temperamental and uneven. I'm surprised the thermostat still works, it's been so frequently adjusted. And what about the impact of global warming and El Niño and La Niña? The hot flash is the hallmark of menopause, but there are many other possibilities. In fact, the advertised symptoms ? hot flashes, depression, mood swings, insomnia, confusion and weight gain ? can all be caused by something else. How can you tell which it is?

In my family we've blamed a number of our frailties on what we've dubbed the "Allen Gene." That gene causes tardiness, addiction to sweets, tooth decay, weight gain, cluttered environment, aimless wandering and repeated searches for misplaced keys, glasses, hairbrushes, important papers, numbers and parked cars. In some cases this has caused depression. So, when I'm searching for my car keys or my car, how do I know whether it's the "Allen Gene" or menopause? Am I totally dependent on my date book because I'm perimenopausal or because I have too much to remember? Have I gained weight because I'm at the age of "the change" or do I eat too much?

Menopause Symptoms and Causes

Identifying the symptoms and causes may be easier for well-organized, down-to-earth sorts, but that's not the only mystery of menopause. Maybe because it's talked about in whispers or not well researched. Maybe because it's a relatively new phenomenon ? until the last few generations most women died before they reached the cessation of the menses. So measurements and documentation are fuzzy. For instance, how long before the last period does menopause begin or is it perimenopausal until then? Does it end with that last period or is that the beginning? What's the difference between menopausal and postmenopausal? And how do you know? I think I'm confused.

I haven't researched the subject. I've been too busy. My mother never talked about it. My work as a mediator doesn't lend itself to such discussion, and conversations with friends center on work or real life. My friends are busy being teachers, accountants, real-estate agents, counselors or running businesses - an antique shop, a beauty parlor, a dog-grooming service.

Most of us still tend to family in some way: husbands, children at home or in college or moved back in, grandbabies and elderly relatives. Kate is getting married next month. Terry's looking for the right man. She dances every weekend and pilots a plane. Jane gardens and does abstract paintings. And I sail.

Are we so busy that we don't have time to notice what's happening with our bodies or could it be denial? Menopause doesn't have a great reputation. It's not like the budding of breasts or the growing bulge of a belly filled with child, those prized symbols of fertility for which women have been valued.

I remember one Mother's Day my children decorated the house with ancient potatoes that had been buried in the cupboard. They had sprouted a number of 5- to 8-inch "eyes," but the potatoes themselves were totally shriveled, used up. The kids explained that these potatoes were like mothers giving of themselves for the sake of their children. At the time, I thought my children insightful and grateful. But I don't want to be a shriveled potato.

It's not just vanity. It's the fear of being used up, of being discarded. So, it's tempting to try to hide menopause or treat it as an illness to be conquered. For now, however, in the spirit of adventure rather than embarrassment, I'll try to figure out where I am on this menopausal journey. If perimenopause leads up to the final menstrual period, I've been there for a while and it's not that bad. But, sometimes, at night I awaken and throw off all the covers.

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