Meno-Blog (Part 1): An Extreme Lesson in Self Care

Peri-menopause.  The wonderful time in a woman’s life which transitions her into menopause (the cessation of menstruation for one year).  Every woman experiences it differently.  Some have little to no symptoms (grrrrr) and some woman have extreme symptoms requiring hormone replacement therapy (HRT) (awwwwwe) and me, I think I fall somewhere in the middle.

Mostly inability to sleep because at 2 and 4 and other intervals during the night, hot flashes wake me up with a pounding heart and racing mind as adrenaline tries to restart my ovaries.  I am not sure why my body wants to fight this but I imagine it has something to do with long-ago coded survival of the species in my ancestors.  I go to bed and my external body temperature = inferno so I’m hot & cold all at the same time.  My husband installed a wifi capable thermostat so I can switch from heat to air conditioning in the matter of moments.  Thank god for thoughtful husbands and technology.

Once I have a spike, I’m ready to run a race.  After working with my OB/GYN, I’ve only been able to use Zquil which at least helps me go back to sleep after the spikes.  It is not a medication you are supposed to take long-term but my choice is falling asleep driving to work and getting into an accident where I kill myself or someone else or taking my chances with an OTC medication.  Yes, it’s that bad, the sleep deprivation.  Yes, I’ve tried about everything else.  This is what works the best so far.  I am hoping once into menopause, I can sleep without the medication even if I wake up a few times a night and then fall back asleep immediately.   I don’t think I will ever sleep like the dead again until I am actually dead.

The mood swings are particularly annoying.  I liken this to aliens (hormones) taking over your body and you have such little control over being happy one moment and ready to kill someone the next.  I have to work very hard in recognizing what is a mood swing and an actual true emotion.  My family and close friends have learned when I warn them I am feeling off or moody that they don’t poke the bear.  I’m trying, people, I really am but someone else has control of my emotions and moods at times and there is so little I can do outside of HRT which ups my chance of cancer (which you read mixed studies on this evidence but there are estrogen-fed breast cancers so I am erring on the side of caution).

I spend more time alone especially when I’m feeling like this.  I’ve realized that I have to let the fiery anger, deep sadness, etc. just settle for a bit because it feels like I have issues and problems in my life I need to fix when really it’s just a hormone shift.  It is hard to tell at times , you can have nothing negative going on in your life and suddenly it feels like the world is ending for no reason at all except the emotions you experience seem legit and very real.  It is why teenagers seem so irrational at times.  Some of it is immaturity and some of it is their hormones.  People don’t understand how swiftly and strongly a hormone shift can affect you.  Perimenopause is essentially backwards puberty except we can’t usually dress all in back with dark makeup and hide in our bedrooms to muse about life’s indignities.

I’ve made a discovery about this lovely time in my life, you have to really push self-care.  Perimenopause forces you to start taking better care of yourself and your body.  After years of taking care of everything and everybody, a woman has to stop and start focusing on her own needs more.  I’m tired much of the time right now.  My life has changed somewhat because I just can’t (I hope temporarily) do all that I once did.  I was beating myself up because I fell short of my yearly cycling mileage goal by 200 miles.

Then I realized that I was just too exhausted to spend all the time it requires getting ready to ride my bike, even from my own driveway.  I have to gear up: helmet, padded diaper shorts, cycling shoes, gloves, sweat band, jersey, fills water bottles, snack for longer rides, sunscreen, dog spray, pump up my tires, check bike mechanical, grease chain, and check weather to see the wind direction to determine my route.  A year ago, all this preparation  didn’t phase me.  Today, though, by the time I get ready to ride, I just want to go crawl into bed. I’m too tired to really care about riding more than ten miles.

So I focused more on walking which requires maybe some sunscreen and my running shoes.  A water bottle if it’s hot and I’m going on a longer walk.  It’s easy, it’s simple and it takes much less preparation and gear.  Exercise is really essential for this time because at least for me, it seems to keep the moodiness at bay, plus it helps keep your healthy.  You just have to give yourself some slack and do what you feel you can.  I walk 3-4 miles rather than ride 30-50 miles.  It’s a big difference but I don’t have the energy to ride much over 20 miles.

Eating better.  I can tell when I eat crap because my hot flashes get worse.  Alcohol makes them worse as well (dammit!).  Resting when I am tired.  My family is used to seeing me up and going all the time as something always has to be done.  At first they thought I was sick but I told them no, I’m tired, I’m going to rest for a bit.  No, I’m not suddenly lazy, I am freaking exhausted.  When my oldest two daughters move out, I am taking one of their bedrooms for my office which will include a day bed for naps where I am out of everyone’s way.

Saying no to things you don’t want to do and don’t have to do.  Giving yourself a break, treating yourself like you would your best friend if she was going through the same thing.  Taking vitamins, eating more fruits and veggies, drink more water.  It all seems elementary but I have noticed it does help.  The better you care for yourself, at least in my case, the better I feel.  Just not pushing myself so hard has been a big help because I don’t get as frustrated.  I just keep telling myself this is a phase and it will pass.  My mom went through raging hot flashes but eventually she quit having them and she slept better after menopause came.  Her moods settled back down.

Perimenopause is a natural event in a woman’s life.  For me it has been tough at times but it has also pushed me to take better care of myself.   As in most things in life, this too shall pass.  Be kind to yourself.

Sick of Starting Over (Fitness)…

We all have something that we struggle with throughout our life.  For awhile we may overcome it but maybe it creeps back into our day-to-day life.  For me, since I was around 11, it’s been weight and dieting.  I spent my childhood not worrying about weight or looks but out playing, exploring and riding my bike.  The only time I was ever on a scale was at the doctor’s office and that number was simply something the nurse noted down or told my mom and that was that.  Weight wasn’t a focus in my life.

Then I spent one summer with my weight-obsessed maternal grandmother who was always on a diet of some sort.  She worshipped the scale as if it had some magic power to make her into the person she always wanted to be.  At the time, I lived in Missouri near my paternal grandparents and that grandmother was too busy doing chores, feeding livestock and milking cows to even care about weight.  She was a bit on the heavy side but I never once heard her talk about a diet or not having a cookie or being upset she couldn’t fit into a pair of slacks.  But in 1981, my parents shipped my sister and I from mid-Missouri to eastern Ohio to spend the summer with my mom’s parents.

My maternal grandparents lived in a small two-bedroom, one bath ranch house built in the 1940’s which was crammed full of antiques and furniture they collected.  In the small hall that connected the bath and two small bedrooms was a dry sink and one day my grandmother led me into the hallway and pulled out a digital scale which was very new-fangled back in 1981.  I was simply fascinated with the red LED numbers that would show up.  She would step on the scale but I was not allowed to look at the number.  I really didn’t know why but she was my grandmother so I obeyed her wishes.  Then I stood on the scale and looked down at the number that didn’t mean a thing to me.  I couldn’t even tell you what it was any more if it even stuck in my mind then.

After that, every day the weighing ritual began.  I didn’t really pay much attention to it, just did as she asked.  The scale just seemed like a toy to me.  Things changed though after a few weeks.  My grandmother had been feeding my sister and I like we were starving kids in China.  I always only ate until I was just full, well except around holidays when the tables were full of so many delectable foods, I would stuff myself until I was sick.  Then my cousins and I would go run around the yard whether it be in shorts or snow suits.  Since it didn’t feel good to stuff myself like that, I only did it around holidays.

Except now, my grandmother was getting upset if I didn’t eat more.  So to please her I was eating beyond my comfort zone.  It was like a holiday at almost every meal.  Then the number on the scale started creeping up.  My clothes started to get tighter and tighter.  Soon they had to take me and buy me new clothes, except now I had to shop in the women’s department rather than the girls department.  I remember feeling sad I had outgrown my regular size which was toward the high-end of kids’ sizes anyway but I wasn’t quite ready to jump into grown up clothes.

When the daily weigh-in came now, I started to dread it and sometimes tried to get out of it.  My grandmother would look at the number and cluck sadly that I was gaining weight.  I felt like I had let her down or I was doing something wrong.  She would then send me out to run laps around the house or ride her old Schwinn bike up and down the street while she watched that no one abducted me.  Like some forced exercise program.   Then she started talking about diets not only in relationship to her since she was always on some diet, but in regards to me. In the midst of this summer, my parents sprang on me that we were moving from Missouri to the other side of Ohio.   I remember crying with body-wracking sobs on the phone to my mom that I didn’t want to move, to leave my other grandparents and the few friends I had to go to some strange town on the other side of Ohio.  I sank into more despair and turned to food for comfort.  Why not?  My grandmother was already feeding me like I was a line backer for the nearby Pittsburgh Steelers.  I already had a much larger wardrobe of adult sized clothes.

Looking back now, of course, I see I was gaining weight because she was literally force feeding me more than I wanted to eat.  It was this entire shaming cycle that to this day, I know my grandmother loved me very much and was a good person, but I do not understand why she did it other than misery loves company.  From that summer on, weight became an issue for me and I was never quite the carefree kid I had been before that summer.  I was creeping closer to middle school age and all the peer pressure, plus I was starting a new school where no one really accepted me.

I have dealt with eating disorders in my 20’s.  I had given up in my mid-30’s while suffering from a bad marriage and depression until I was almost 300 lbs.  At 38, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and trust me, the weight doesn’t magically come off when you start treatment.  At least not for me and most of the people I know who also have this issue. I’ve grown to accept my larger-sized body, stop beating myself up for it.  I’ve donated several scales and quit weighing myself altogether.  It took me awhile but I finally quit beating myself up, started loving myself and appreciating what my body could do even if I wasn’t thin or petite.  I was at least curvy and strong.  I could ride my bike 50 miles in a day or hike as much as I wanted.  I wasn’t running marathons, but I was athletic.

Then late fall, I read an article that documented a study that said exercise was not important that it was the calories that you ate.  I don’t even remember where I saw it, probably something linked to a Facebook post.  However, as I was starting my last semester of college with a full-time class load as well as working, this gave me permission to not worry about working out.  We had moved to the country and I wasn’t joining a gym again so I literally took from November-last week off of exercise.  I spent more time on my backside, lying on the couch and just immobile than I had in years.  At first my clothes fit fine.  Then after my birthday in February I noticed that my jeans were getting tighter.  Then I had a few yearly check up appointments where the scale came into play.  I was shocked at the number.  I had gained a good thirty pounds and since my jeans had been a little big to start with, I had room to grow.

When you spend so much of your time not active, it’s very hard to get back into that flow again.  The first few road cycling rides I took were a very stark testament to how out of shape I had become.  Though 30 pounds may not sound like much, on a bike it makes an enormous difference.  Not only are you having to move that much more weight on two wheels, you also have more pressure on your butt and hands which makes cycling even more uncomfortable.  Last year at this time, I actually weighed less than I had in years because of a medical condition that finally resolved itself in last July.  Riding last spring felt like I had wings, I was fast and could ride much further without as much training.  This spring, I feel like a sloth who can barely turn the crank.  That is why serious cyclists are obsessed with weight not only on their bodies but their bikes.  The more weight, the slower you are (unless you are going downhill) and the less miles you ride.  It is just simple physics.

The first few rides this year, I wanted to give up.  We have moved out to an area that is much more hillier than my previous routes when I rode from my house in town.  The kicker is that my house sits on one of the highest elevations in our county and no matter which way I ride from my driveway, east or west, I have to ride back up a big hill.  Hills are not the friend of the heavy cyclist.  I’ve had to drop out of my normal gear range I rode last year, into the lowest gears I have just to spin up this hill at a paltry 7-9 mph.  That feels like defeat to me though I tell myself, just ride it, you’re training, you’ll get back into shape.  But part of me wants to get off the bike, throw it in the ditch and stomp back home in a fit.  I have yet to do that as my bike cost quite a bit of money and my husband would never let me buy another one.  And that would be me acting like a baby, but I have a moment or two or three where I want to quit.

I wasn’t going to set a mileage goal this year and I’ve changed my mind.  I need the motivation to get out there and ride.  Minimum of 45 with the desired goal of 60 miles a week for me to reach the top range of my 2016 mileage goal since I haven’t ridden but 138 miles this year so far and it’s already late May.  Being mid-life, this is not the time to give up your exercise program.  If nothing else I need it more than ever.  I have a lazy thyroid and I’m moving into the menopausal years or perimenopause where the hot flashes are starting, my estrogen level is very low.  Now it is even more important that I take good care of myself because my body is slowing down.

This winter I noticed my desire and motivation to get out and do things had waned greatly and that I had little energy.  This spring I realized, I have to quit reading these stupid studies and trust what I know about myself.  Exercise makes me feel stronger, better and gives me a ton more energy.  It also boosts my self-esteem and self-image.  Plus my clothes look better on me.  At my recent college graduation, all my dresses went back in the closet after I realized that my weight gain made me look like lumpasaurus in them.  I want to buy some new spring or summer clothes to wear to work, but I am going to wait a month or so.  Otherwise I will be in the fitting room crying.  Know thyself.

So now that school is done, and most of my life goals except for publishing a novel have been met, I think now is a good time to focus on overcoming this lifelong struggle of mine with food, though I don’t overeat like I once did and getting into the kind of shape I want to be.  This isn’t about losing weight but about being able to do all the things I love without the fight and struggle of fighting my own body mass.  Following Geneen Roth’s advice of eat only when you are hungry, eat exactly what you want and stop before you are too full.  Essentially going back to how I ate before my summer at my grandmothers except I get to pick and cook the meals.

The second part is to keep activity and exercise forefront in my day. Push myself to new athletic heights.  The good thing is that I love to bike, hike and do yoga or even swim when I can.  I don’t dread exercise as many people do.  Just being active in general as well whether it be get off the couch and go pull some weeds or take a walk down my country road.  Expand my yoga practice to asanas that I haven’t yet tackled that look too hard.  You get the idea.

This week I have paid attention, consciously became more active and I feel so much better already.  I have more energy, I feel less like a fat sloth, it is amazing what exercise can do for you.  I will not diet, this always backfires as I rebel and end up gaining weight.  It is all about changing my lifestyle and staying active.  I have no weight or clothing size goal.  Just a mileage goal for my cycling this year.  To exercise most days of the week.  To not read some stupid article and give up on all my hard work.  Because when you are in your mid-40’s, you slide back pretty fast and it’s even harder to regain your former fitness level.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Well I don’t want to be slow but you know what I mean.

My goal is simply to make my weight and fitness (or lack of) a non-issue in my life after 35 years.  To be the best I can be without diets or craziness.  I am tired of struggling and I do not want to come back to the point again unless there is something out of my control.  It is time to resolve this once and for all so I can enjoy my life to the fullest.

Emotions vs. Chemistry…

Being a woman can really suck at times, hormones are usually my main culprit and as I am aging words like ‘perimenopause’ and ‘menopause’ keep cropping up more often.  Men don’t quite get the prison that hormones can be.  Post-partum depression, hormones shifts, etc. just throw one on this wild up and down roller coaster and you’re sitting there thinking what in the hell is going on with me?  Why do I feel like this?  Why am I sad when I should be happy?  We reason it away.  “I have so many wonderful things in my life, why do I feel so rotten?”

Depression can do this as well, which is brain chemistry rather than hormones.  Mix the two together and it’s like, well a hellish ride on a rollercoaster without any brakes.  It just keeps running up and down, around, loops and back, repeat.  Not to mention it is all unpredictable, there is little you can do other than wait it out sometimes.  To fight depression, I ride my bike, a lot, because the medications just turn me into an utter and complete zombie complete with drool (do zombies drool?).  Eating better and trying to get enough sleep (which can be erratic when one is depressed) helps as well.

Therapy can also help depending on what is going on with me at the time.  Usually it is just one session, which I think of as a ‘checkup’ in which my therapist listens and nods, makes a few suggestions but both of us know I already know what is going on with me and it’s not as bad as I thought it was.  The second opinion always makes me feel better though.

Hormones however, at age 45, with hot flashes striking in the middle of the night is another story. It just signals that everything is going haywire.  Hormones to me are like prison.  You’re just stuck behind the bars of swaying estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.  I’ve talked to my gynecologist about it and just get told if it gets so bad that I can’t function, then they will look at doing something.  I guess hormone replacement isn’t the magic bullet.  It’s just a fact of life that I have to bear through.   This is also something men find incredibly funny, that is until I give them the death stare and then they quietly step away.  If they had to bear through this, there would be some magic cure I am sure but since I am a woman, it’s like buck it up honey and don’t complain too much, it’s not acceptable.  Sigh….

Then throw in genetic tendencies of being highly sensitive and highly emotional.  After many years of being estranged from my male cousin on my dad’s side, we’ve reconnected through FaceBook and usually have a running commentary of texts between us.  Like me, he grew up with his mom and my dad (siblings) being quite dysfunctional and alcoholic.  Except when my parents divorced when I was 13, I was separated from my dad (he moved back to Missouri and I didn’t see him again until I was an adult) but my cousin, he remained with his mother.  We’ve both struggled with relationships, overcoming the fallout from our childhood, probably read dozens of books, sought different therapies, etc.  We’ve worked hard to overcome our upbringing because though separate, we had both decided we would not carry on the family tradition and be abusive.

As we catch up on each other’s lives, we find eerie similarities both in our struggles and our personalities.  I’ve found myself several times saying, wow, we are so alike, know it makes sense why I feel, do, think this way.  He will say things to me and I’m like “Aha!  That makes sense, that’s why I am this way” and this knowledge takes away the mystery of some of my feelings and actions.  I think he feels the same way.  We can reflect different things back and forth and give different viewpoints that help both of us make sense of ourselves.  The other day, my cousin was having a rough patch and we both tend to blame ourselves, or come down on ourselves for our feelings.  I was driving to work and thought with all we have talked about, I think we fight more with our body chemistry (and hormones in my case) than anything.

The crazy thing about my hormones is one day I can be perfectly content and the next day, I am completely restless and unsettled.  Nothing has changed, my life is exactly as it was the day prior.  Then the next morning, I wake up and everything is sunny again.  I’ve started tracking my monthly cycle on an app and sure enough, a lot of my swings seem to happen around the same times each month.  Well duh, that makes sense.  Depression is genetic as is other mental illnesses.  My dad was diagnosed schizophrenic later in life (I don’t know if he was always this way or his alcoholism brought it on) so I’m always watching myself for anything that would even remotely resemble this but mostly it’s just a little depression and hormone shifts.  It’s amazing though how this affects my thinking.  And when it does, you take this as gospel. “My life sucks, I’m a failure, I’ve done nothing with my life.”  Logically I know this isn’t true but whatever is swirling around in my endocrine system makes me feel this is gospel truth.

People don’t understand sometimes why people commit suicide.  “Oh they had it all, a wonderful family, job, house.  Why would they kill themselves?”  Well when you are severely depressed, none of this matters.  Sometimes suicide is brought on by a deep depression, a chemical imbalance in the body or a medication can cause suicidal thoughts.  I’m not a suicide expert, I’m sure there are many more reasons but in my research and reading on depression, etc. I’ve come across this many times.  In some of my deepest depressions, I was made aware of how easy one could feel like ending their life when on the outside it appears they “have it all”.  You don’t just “snap out of it”.  It’s not so simple.  Just like when you are diagnosed hypothyroid, getting medication doesn’t help you lose weight.  Your body has been altered and the medication just stems the tide of the symptoms, it doesn’t ‘fix’ the problem.

My lesson learned over all this is when I have those mood swings, I have to just take a deep breath and do the best to take care of myself.  That I have to remember this day will pass and most likely tomorrow or the next day, I will feel better.  And to exercise, eat well, get as much sleep as I possibly can as well as just be patient and not come down on myself.  Being kind to myself, having an understanding of what is going on with me helps tremendously as well.  I’m hoping once I reach menopause, this hormonal prison will abate.  From what I have read, it does, so menopause really isn’t something to dread and it doesn’t make you ‘old’ it’s just backwards puberty.  We all know we felt better before puberty hit with its crazy mood swings and other lovely effects.

In closing, I know my emotions may run high for no reason but really it’s just my body chemistry playing havoc with me.  Just take a deep breath and go on with the day.  It will pass.