The trickle arrives at 11am. A plum-colored stain on the toilet paper. A scarlet cloud that heralds the end of my melancholy misery.
“It came! It came!” I rush to the door and call down the hall to my husband, who is doing the dishes.
“Congratulations!” he calls back and I feel a bit of anger because he really congratulates himself on surviving my tyrannical depression for the past two days. How dare my husband say that about him? Then I realize that the madness hasn’t completely subsided.
The perimenopause is the time when the female body moves from its fertile phase into menopause. Many people don’t realize that there is a period in life between your last “normal” period and your last period because people rarely talk about something meaningful and complicated that happens in the lives of women. I accepted that a long time ago, but my amazement at how little we value the complexities of women’s experiences was revived at the beginning of my own perimenopause.
How can I explain perimenopause to a woman in her thirties? Well, it goes something like this: One day you will experience something close to psychosis. You will switch from joy to anger several times a day. You will crave the meanest TV villains, fantasies that will make your old fantasies blush. You will experience manic pleasure. You will plunge to terrible lows and imagine yourself trapped in the kind of tar that trapped Ice Age mammals and drove them to extinction. You develop aphasia. Or ataxia. Or both.
On the other hand, perimenopause may seldom be discussed because it lingers uniquely within each woman’s interior, thwarting classification and, of course, sanity.
I am not a fan of the summer. I don’t like the relentless heat and sun. I love autumn – chestnut scents, shortened days, crispy leaves, shade. But I’ve learned to perceive summer in a kind of delightful misery. The blinding sunshine intensifies my longing for September, and that brings me perverse but deep happiness.
I’ve had PMS almost all of my life, but now I’m developing perimenopausal psychotic depression. I’ve learned to ride the intense heartache of this depression the way I ride the summer – I rejoice in my own misery because it foretells its own end. The worse the summer, the more delightful the first day of autumn, crisp and clear.
Yet this expectant pleasure, laden with damp pathology and fear, is nothing but the sheer roar of happiness when estrogen returns. But one thing has to do with the ecstasy of the bleeding: it is reliable, in some ways happiness can never be. Happiness is fleeting, but pain you can count on. Pain, you can set your watch on. Pain won’t leave you
Perimenopause is utter madness.
After my period, I’m in a hot shower. How wonderfully physical are my cramps! How easy and tangible! I hum and notice that I suddenly have the ability to be executive again – I make lists! I listen to the radio while making lists and also while lathering my body! See all the illuminated paths of my brain! Where there used to be only psychological pain, there are now holistic plans and dreams, like plump roast chickens ready to jump out of the oven.
Everything the radio announcer says is interesting and new. I have to remember to write everything down. And dust the house. And make more lists. Clarity! Vitality! It’s back I’m back. Whoever i am
Someone should warn women that at the onset of perimenopause, they will love napping just as much as they used to love a new pair of boots or the arrival of a love letter. I love naps so much now. I can’t believe there ever was a time when I wouldn’t – when I couldn’t – take a nap. My computer keyboard has become Dorothy’s poppy field. Should I write a novel or take a nap? Take a nap. Eat chocolate or take a nap? Take a nap. Every time.
It could be hormonal fog, but it could also be blood loss because perimenopause is biblical. I am no longer getting “my period”. Now it looks like I’m beheading chickens in my toilet. I can’t get to the tampon drawer from the shower without the room looking like a crime scene. I pee blood. Buckets of it. Perhaps the nap is perimenopause-induced anemia.
The cramps have changed too. In my 20s and 30s, convulsions controlled three days of my life every month. I took four ibuprofen every six hours and was on a heating pad for three days when my period came. Now the cramps are mild. But I get them sometimes when I never got them. After sex. After orgasm. And they’re intense for a good fifteen minutes. My uterus is irritated. It doesn’t like to be disturbed. Maybe the sex wakes it up from a nap.
Ernest Becker wrote, “To live fully, one must be aware of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” He must have written about perimenopause.
My god, the fear. All my life people have said that anxiety is the downside of depression, and I have replied that it was not in my case. Depression I know The blues? All the time. I was even hospitalized once. But no doctor ever thought I was worried.
Then I turned 44 and fear came into my life and made up for lost time. Fear doesn’t follow a cycle. Hormonal depression, I can set my clock to: First day: I’m bleeding, I feel elated. I have energy. I am free, unencumbered, joyful. Day 11: I feel pretty good. Day 14: I have a lot of hormones. I let go of the cervical discharge and vacuum the carpet at a right angle. Day 16: Uh-oh. Day 18: I want to die. I crawl through the darkness until day 28.
Fear, on the other hand, flows in and out without a pattern. The calendar is ignored. It makes me wired. It makes me sleepy. It makes me forgetful. All of this makes me afraid.
The day I get my period, I take our dog Albert to the park. The current is light at first, but still uncomfortable. In 32 years I’ve never got used to how miserable it is to be wet and sticky for six days.
My vaginal skin burns when I bleed, raw and hot. I don’t use tampons a lot because they hurt. They scrub the cervix. I’m stuck with pads that only work if you’re wearing very tight underwear. If your underwear is old and stretched out, the pad will surf and fidget in the air below you, all you hope is that the oozing blood lands on it.
Albert and I are sitting on the rocks at Turtle Pond. I secretly put my heel under my skirt in my crotch so that the pressure relieves the tingling nerves in my pelvic floor. This misery is not due to perimenopause, just simple old menstruation.
The thing about perimenopause is that it doesn’t excuse you from menstruating. This is menopause. The perimenopause is the past ten years, the buckets of blood and the longing to limp to the nearest fire hydrant. The mood changes so suddenly and violently that it’s like a carnival ride with the ground falling below you.
All of this should make me long for menopause. But it doesn’t. All my life, hormones have given me something that isn’t all bad: the awareness of the terror that underlies everything. After menopause, will anything have the power to wake me up?
If there is no depth, can there be a high? How will I see when it’s light all the time? What will the sensation be like after my last storm?
Is perimenopause the last time, as ambivalent and unpredictable as I may be, I am mature? Is the next level rotting?
The coolness of the morning gives way to the summer heat. The rocks are hot, even in the shade. There is no wind, nothing to reduce the thickness of the air. I get up. Albert looks at me desperately. Do we have to go home here?
No warning rumbles, just a sharp clap of thunder and the sky tears open. It’s on! Albert and I race through the rain. Cold, wet, trembling. The glue on my pad sticks painfully to my pubic hair. My cervix pounds with every sprint step, every blood pump from my fast beating heart. My skin is smooth from the rain; inside and out, I perceive the salty mixture of flesh and liquid that defines a living being as if life were one long baptism. I no longer have the feeling of running home, but rushing towards the future and the rain washes the landscape away from everything that has passed.
With or without a monthly menstrual flow, a current will always flow through me, the elements keep getting softer and harder and watering me. We are both broken and saved by them. Our life is not a straight line from maturity to putrefaction, but a loop, from vital to tired and back. In other words, we rot so that we can mature again.
Leslie Kendall Dye is a New York City actress and writer. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, SELF, Longreads, Electric Literature, and many others. She is working on a treatise on mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business. https://www.lesliekendalldye.net