Women in my family experience severe anxiety in menopause. I didn’t really know what that meant until it started happening to me.
It happened at the worst time, several months after my 50th birthday. I had a new job, enough money, the house and my husband John to myself, all I’d ever wanted. After many years of shame in my body, I was just starting to feel alive, free, and fairly secure in my self-image. For two months, I was euphoric. I took some self portraits with a really old iPhone and was happy with what I saw, stretch marks, menopot (that belly fat that develops where you’ve never had it before) and all.
Then my body tried to send me through the final stages of menopause, and it felt like all I’d built up in reserve for this time of life fell away; it turned out the euphoria had been evidence of a severe serotonin deficiency and of the kind of “mood swing” you hear about. Now I understand what people mean when they say they feel they are going crazy. I know what it’s like to battle “unwanted interfering thoughts” which is the sweet term used for compulsive thinking.
I suffered working on the solution for four months and in the meantime tested the confidence I had gathered as my body deteriorated with the mental illness and menopause symptoms: loss of appetite, tremor. I mean, hey, I got rid of the menopot, but my acne returned, my breasts sagged, my hair started falling out. Try hiding that at a new job. The crash was sudden and frightening, and I had no idea what was happening to me. It plunged me back into a shame spiral I’d been living with previously, that had its roots in adolescence.
I grew up feeling embarrassed of my developing body, its acne, its freckles, its fatty thighs already full of stretch marks, its glasses and braces. I looked to other people for validation about my looks and everything else. I heard I was smart, I heard I was nice, I heard I was empathetic and sometimes people said I was funny. Some boys seemed interested, and I looked to them for proof that I was worth noticing. Not many noticed. Now I realize people see what you show them. I was showing them someone who didn’t believe she was worth noticing.
Like many women of my generation, I got mixed messages about the place of sexuality in life. I had an old-school Catholic upbringing that was strong on shame and guilt, and didn’t have much experience prior to getting married in my early 20s. I had a couple clumsy, drunk, groping experiences with people who genuinely seemed to like me, and I liked them. Somewhere underneath it all, though, I was looking for validation, for that person who could make me sure of my value.
“Thanks for the really bad sex.”
In order for that validation to count, it would need to come from a really smart person, so I fell for a guy who was really smart—and emotionally incompetent. One time he asked me to leave through a bathroom window so his landlord wouldn’t know I had slept over. Later, after an episode where he ended sex abruptly, he broke up with me via an essay (not even a letter), the 80’s nerd version of breaking up via text. I figured I wasn’t worth his time, that I wasn’t smart enough and that there was something repulsive about my body. The thing that hurts most in retrospect was that I believed him, that I crawled out that bathroom window. I wish I’d walked out the front door, yelling, “Thanks for the really bad sex.”
So imagine the sweet delight of finding—and marrying—someone whose attention not only made me feel beautiful and smart and funny, but loved. I had met John before Essay Guy. When I was with him, instead of looking outside myself for validation, I saw what I really was, mirrored in my husband’s eyes. After a lot of work and therapy, we had a pretty decent sex life for 10 years, and I started to feel the freedom and confidence of someone who has proven her worth to herself by raising two amazing kids in a healthy home using her intelligence, empathy, and humor. I got a new job, we got the house to ourselves, and things progressed like we both wanted.
I’m still angry about what menopause did to all that, and what it’s done to other women in my family. While my anxiety was particularly acute, it was not unique. My mom has struggled with it, and complicating my decision about how to deal with it was that she underwent hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to ease the anxiety and other menopause “symptoms,” only to be diagnosed with breast cancer, which some researchers say is triggered by HRT. There have been several cases of breast cancer in my family.
My dilemma: take the hormones or not. My GP let me know I didn’t have to take hormones. I was already on a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, and she said increasing the dose would restore my emotional balance. But the amount I needed would take three months to build up in my system. In the meantime, she said, I could use an antianxiety drug to cope with the compulsive thoughts and get some behavior modification therapy to learn how to manage those.
Was I feeling competitive with my daughter?
Yeah, I never got that therapy. The wait for an appointment was 10 weeks, so by the time I was seen, I had already developed such a severe case of anxiety there was no real helping me. Not only that, but the therapist wasn’t qualified for true behavior modification and tried psychotherapy instead. We talked a little about my sexual history, and I told her my loss feelings about just having gotten to a place of confidence and happy sex. I was asked to consider how my role in life was changing. Was I ready for becoming a grandparent and an elder? Was I feeling competitive with my daughter? What would happen if I no longer felt sexy? All great questions for someone who is actually lucid and ready to take up the battle of women versus our culture’s equation of menopause with sexual death. But I felt shamed and judged instead of supported.
So I learned to cope with the pain through yoga – spent a lot of time in child pose releasing those punishing thoughts to the earth. Muscle started to build up again during water tai chi where I learned to let the interfering messages pass by with mindfulness. My church had just started a support group for bereavement of all kinds. This group of women grieved permanent loss of health and death of loved ones; they took me in with loving arms and didn’t dismiss my feelings even though we could all see I would eventually recover. Most of these women were on a path to accepting the transformative power of permanent loss and they prepared me to do that with humor and grace.
In the end, I took the hormones.
A whole lot of people have loved and supported me throughout all this, including the amazing John, who just continued to respond to me as beautiful and sexy. I’m on the other side now, and want to share another set of photos to remind me of the strength and resilience I gained going through that process. – Maureen
-Bri Luginbill is a regional photographer for A Beautiful Body Project in Michigan. To book her for a shoot and see her work: http://www.thepeoplepicturecompany.com/