The first period comes suddenly, but the last period lasts a while, writes Niki Bezzant.
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Original illustration by Ruby Jones.
Maybe I had my last period.
It’s a thought I now have every time I have my period — which is becoming an increasingly rare and unpredictable occurrence as I near 52nd Birthday.
Fifty-two is the average age at which a woman in Aotearoa goes through menopause. However, I won’t know if I’m there until I can look back and say it’s been a year since my last period. Menopause is really just a day diagnosed in hindsight.
So I’m technically in late perimenopause; a stage characterized in part by increasingly irregular menstruation. When I look at my period tracker app, I can see the crazy ride my hormones have taken me on, in graphical form: Here’s a cycle of 46 days, then 25, then 15, then 23. Then, in the summer, a cycle of 134 days; four and a half months without bleeding. That’s when I thought I might be heading towards the magic one-year mark. But then the bumpy road came again: 26 days; 22; 65. The app doesn’t know what to do with me.
I was more prepared for the start of my period than for the end. My first period was in 1983 and I knew, thanks to my mom, to expect it and the basics of how to deal with it. I was lucky because I would have been lost if I had to rely on advertising or the media. The word “period” should still appear in an ad. The television and magazines of my youth were full of mysterious blue liquids, white pants and lyrics about feeling confident and avoiding embarrassment without ever mentioning it why.
However, awkwardness was the theme of my period as a teenager. I spent long hours in class worrying that my napkin would seep through to the skirt of my school uniform. It also happened more than once. Our pads were massive, but they didn’t have high-tech absorption or fancy wings. There was a regular need to soak the knickers in cold water in the wash.
COf course, Razy Cycles are just a manifestation of what’s going on in my body right now. But until I started researching my menopause book, like many women, I was ignorant about my hormones going beyond the basics. I probably knew more about testosterone than I did about estrogen, the main female hormone. If you had asked me a few years ago, I could not have described what estrogen does.
Now I know that estrogen drives me. It is involved in almost every function of our body if we are an ovarian human; We have estrogen receptors everywhere. Our brain, our muscles, our bones, our gut: estrogen exerts an influence there like a master of ceremonies. Although not a master. Master is the wrong word. I want to call estrogen a you. She is powerful. She’s in control. she is my lover
As we age, estrogen goes into a natural decline. It’s a transition like puberty, but in reverse; When we come out the other side, our hormone levels are the same as before menstruation began. (That we’re not as comfortable with and not accepting of this transition and knowing so little compared to what we know about puberty is a whole different conversation.)
The drop in estrogen isn’t easy and gentle like it’s the case with men and their testosterone (worth pointing out to guys who insist they’re having a similar experience to menopause. No. You really haven’t ). During perimenopause, estrogen takes a bit of a rollercoaster ride. She ascends to levels higher than ever before, and she plummets to levels far below. And she goes everywhere in between.
These ups and downs not only cause the irregular periods, but also most of the other symptoms we know and hate about perimenopause. the douches; the night sweats; the unpredictable moods; the fury. Not to mention all the other weird things that can happen. The list published in my book contains 44 symptoms; I see more and more lists of more horrific things on social media and I have no doubt that they are true too. All these receptors; all of those places – estrogen wreaks some havoc in our bodies in midlife, to the point where almost everything out of the ordinary is happening to my body now; any weird pain or grumbling I think: probably perimenopause. Yes mistress.
It’s weird not knowing if I’ll have another period. Part of me wants to hold on to them for as long as possible to feel the benefits of still having estrogen to fuel me enough to ride a bike. My period is almost comforting to me now. I envision estrogen flowing through me, rising and falling, lubricating my joints and untangling my brain.
On the other hand, not menstruating is quite relaxing. no more cramps; no more period diarrhea; no more monthly headaches. And I won’t miss the cost. I feel so cheated that I’ve lived most of my menstrual life without the benefits of reusable period products! I’ve had, I estimate, 468 periods and spent enough money cautiously to buy a small car for what was until recently known as the “feminine care” line. That pisses me off.
Some women experience a real sense of sadness at the end of their period. The thought of the end of her reproductive life fills her with sadness; the idea of not having any more babies, even if they didn’t want any more. This part of our life is finally over in the menopause. We are no longer able to reproduce. Of course, that means something else that women are judged for: we’re not young anymore.
I’m fine with that most of the time. I feel like I’ll reach the peak of my power at 51 (just like a man). To me, I’m like one of those fabulous French women who get fancier and more beautiful as they get older, retaining the grace of their youth while acquiring a sexy level of wisdom and experience. That’s how it is in my imagination.
In fact, sometimes I feel sad about aging. I like and enjoy my body but I can also see it changing as estrogen makes its erratic retreat and I don’t always love it. When I look at pictures from five years ago I can see the difference. I do not mind being older, really. You can’t be known as someone out there talking about menopause without embracing your fifties. But I do not want to appear old.
The reason I think that probably has to do with a whole mess of internalized misogyny. We’ve come a long way from the days when menopausal women were diagnosed with hysteria or mania and thrown into institutions. Still, “menopause” is a pejorative term for many. And yet, at least in Pākehā culture, an older woman is not always valued as much as an older man. which is bullshit.
That’s why it’s important to me that the menopause conversation that’s starting now (which is great) doesn’t get too bogged down in the negative. Surely, this can be a really crappy time for a lot of women. We have to acknowledge that and not hide from it. And helping these women has become a big part of my chewing dad. Everyone – all ages and genders – needs to better understand and support this transition, and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen.
But it’s also important to know that menopause is on in the interim. And once estrogen settles down, she leaves us with some parting gifts.
When I interviewed women for the book, one of the questions I asked was the positive side of menopause. “No more periods” was at the top of the list, something I had a vague idea of. It feels free.
“I have found a new level of maturity and understood how I have changed through this process; what I value and what value I bring,” wrote one woman. “I’m looking forward to new beginnings and I can feel the new power,” said another.
That sounds pretty great. It makes me hopeful for the next season of my life. Hearing that and knowing what I know now about how this transition works, I’m no longer scared. I’m excited. I can’t wait to feel the power.