They crept up on me. I’d be talking to friends or students or strangers, and a blast of heat would hit me full in the face. My cheeks would swell, my skin turn slippery, and I’d find myself suddenly annoyed with whoever I was with at the time. I gradually figured out that my mind-body flare-ups were hot flashes.
...that’s what it felt like: ants, the red biting kind, sneaking under my blouse and marching across my chest, taking bites out of me at each step.
Then came what doctors call “formication.” This sounds like fornication but couldn’t be mistaken for it. The noun formicary means ant nest. And that’s what it felt like: ants, the red biting kind, sneaking under my blouse and marching across my chest, taking bites out of me at each step.
My mother died too young to share her menopause stories or to show me how to cope with “change of life” realities when they came my way. The only model I had was that of Edith Bunker on "All in the Family." As her body temperature fluctuated, she’d rush to open and close (and then open again) every window in the house, and she’d lash out at her befuddled husband, Archie.
Women’s magazines would occasionally mention menopause, usually with an attitude similar to the Vanity Fair article that quoted an executive who describes hermother hitting the age of 50: “Her whole face died.” The same article cites doctors who advise women to take hormones — this was before studies revealed their harmful side effects — so they won’t wrinkle “as badly.” Wrinkles, it’s assumed, are bad. No mention of the beautiful, and yes, deeply lined, faces of Georgia O’Keefe, Jessica Tandy or Isak Dinesen.
When I looked up my home health encyclopedia’s menopause information, I found a list called “diagnosis and treatment,” as if the phenomenon were a disease necessitating strenuous medical intervention. The feminist health Bible, “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” was not much better: “Many of us find hot flashes less burdensome after we share them with other women,” the authors tell us, as if menopause is something women must endure with gritted teeth.
I was teaching a co-ed journalism class at a local college at the time. I planned my coping strategies as best I could. For my first class, I dressed in loose-fitting, “breathable” cotton slacks and a blouse several sizes too big. I carried a jacket for cool-down interludes. I steeled myself for quick changes and rationalized that maybe my students wouldn’t notice.
But this was a journalism class, and my students did notice. On the first day, I introduced myself and the course syllabus with smooth professionalism. And when my first hot flash struck, both I and my students were too busy to notice. The second volley, however, hit me full blast. I whisked off my jacket with as much casual speed as I could muster, tried to stay focused on the academic tasks at hand.
'This is a hot flash,' I declared, pointing to my cheeks. 'I’m not angry. I’m not sick. I’m not drunk. And I’m not about to cry.'
As students took turns calling out story ideas they’d like to explore while I assessed their marketability, my face turned wet and glossy. The red ants had begun their march. My students, I feared, would interpret the sweat trickling down either side of my nose as evidence of my fluster. They would pity me, perhaps doubt my teaching ability, possibly drop the class.
So I came out with it: “This is a hot flash,” I declared, pointing to my cheeks. “I’m not angry. I’m not sick. I’m not drunk. And I’m not about to cry.” They were watching me intently, each speculating about the possible causes of my crimson mien. “Menopause,” I said, “is a subject few people talk about, but half the population experiences. Which makes it an ideal topic for a magazine article. Any takers? I’m available for an interview. Or just watch me, and take notes.”
An article about menopause. Now that would sell.