Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Menopause and Euphoria

No one ever told me it would be like this. 

I started experiencing peri-menopausal symptoms in November 2012. I missed a period and had a bunch of hot flashes. I asked my doctor and she said that I should take a pregnancy test and if I wasn't pregnant, I was probably going into menopause.

She was very nonchalant, which was fine by me. I don't want my doctor going all hysterical on me just because I'm entering an inevitable next stage of my life.

Anyway, I wasn't pregnant, so it seemed likely that I was entering into The Change. I was 41, which is a little early, but still considered "within the 'normal' age range".

The Mythology of the DREADED change

I had heard a lot of things about menopause before I arrived here. I think many women do. I have witnessed some other women's experiences with Hormone Replacement Therapy and menopause-related emotional meltdowns. I have seen menopause be a mostly empowering experience for some women and a mostly disempowering experience for others.

Certainly, there are generational factors at play. Many women have pioneered greater openness and empowerment for women coming after them. I remember having tea with my grandmother and a dear friend of hers about twenty years ago. My grandmother's friend fanned herself enthusiastically during a hot flash and said to me, "I'm doing this, Alex, so that when you get here, you can fan yourself without feeling embarrassed." I do, and I always think of her.

The Reality

There have been some harsh things about menopause for me. My periods, which were pretty easy when I was a young woman, have been getting progressively worse since I hit 35 or so. At this point, they are way too many days of agony and ibuprophen. And my PMS is bad. Some days I feel so cranky and crazy that I prefer not to be in contact with other human beings. When I am, I try to stay conscious and not get too mean. But it's not always easy.

The Secret Awesomeness

The first time it happened, I was taken by surprise.

I experienced a couple of days of absolute euphoria.

I mean, high-as-a-kite, grinning-like-a-hyena euphoria.

Everything felt awesome, delightful, blissful.

Being someone who hasn't experimented with drug use or long-distance running, I couldn't remember ever having felt like that before. But it's what I can imagine a really good high might feel like and it gives me some insight into why people might chase that experience.

When it first happened, I didn't know what was going on. I mean, I often feel happy, but not like that. I began to wonder if it might be a menopause thing.

I googled and found this blog post from Barbara Younger, along with some other accounts of menopausal euphoria. I also read the Wikipedia article about euphoria, and saw how heavily pathologized it is in Western medicine.

Personally, I look at it as a gift. It's been happening to me a couple of times a year for a couple of days at a time. While euphoric spells are not a good time to make major life decisions, they are an excellent time to let go and be. Enjoy the ride, some hormonal compensation for all of the crankiness and misery.

Euphoria and depression

I've been struggling with depression for quite a few months now and last week, just in the middle of wondering if I was ever going to stop feeling depressed, I hit a bout of euphoria. Suddenly, I felt wonderful. Nothing had changed in my external world, but my brain chemistry had suddenly shifted and everything felt different.

It had the effect of hitting the reset button, reminding me that so much of our experience is due to our brain state. I followed that euphoric spell with two days of listening to inspirational TED Talks, like this one. I could feel my neurons firing as I learned and digested new information about the world. I've begun to feel better. I'm smiling more often and feeling better about myself.

Knowing the relapsing-remitting nature of the depression I've experienced so far, I'm probably not out of the woods yet. However, I am feeling more connected to the present moment and more skeptical about my brain states. There is difficult and there is easy and there is everything in between. And really, nothing is very different from anything else, but for the meaning we grant it in the present moment.

Thanks, Menopause. I needed that.

Editor's note: technically, in many places where I wrote "menopause" above, I should have written "peri-menopause", but that just sounds too pedantic. I'm sure you knew what I meant.

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