AS TOLD TO MELISSA GIANNINI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JEREMY COHEN
Revolutions start when stories come out of the shadows—and one that rarely comes to light is the experience of menopause. “The change” has been happening to uterus owners of a certain age—or as a side effect of some medical treatments—since the beginning of human existence, which makes it somewhat baffling how little the general population knows about the process outside of Menopause the Musical–style hot flash jokes.
In fact, when we met up with eight peri-, mid-, and post-menopausal folks and asked them how they felt about the whole thing, the biggest commonality turned out to be a frustration with the lack of information out there on this most common of life experiences. Why is this? Don’t we deserve better? Considering the long history of medical research ignoring uteruses and their owners, maybe it isn’t so much of a surprise, but nevertheless, it’s time for bleeders and non-bleeders everywhere to stand up, tell their stories, and demand answers.
“I identify as butch, or masculine, so to be going into menopause all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Holy shit, I’m a woman,’ although it’s not just about gender or sexuality or identity. When your vigor and muscularity start falling away, it’s really about mortality and it’s a big wakeup call, like, ‘Hello, you have a human body that is going to become ill and die, much like everyone else around you.’ I have this joke with a friend, like, ‘Do you sometimes feel tired and then other times feel energetic? Do you sometimes feel hungry and then that feeling goes away after you eat? You have perimenopause.’ It’s just so elusive. My [most recent] girlfriend was eight years younger, which is not so significant an age difference, but at this point it is. All of these things that I’m griping about or just being shocked and horrified by, like, my skin changing or losing muscle tone, and she’s just like, ‘You look fine.’ But to me and my friends who are also experiencing this, it’s significant. Not like the world is ending, but things that you thought of as integral to who you are, those things go away, or they change.”
“I had breast cancer about five years ago. The chemotherapy put me into medical menopause, and I didn't get my period for over a year. My mom is 60 and she has not gone through menopause. We would joke about it, that I beat her. Anger is the primary emotion I remember feeling about the whole ordeal. My friends were all getting married and starting their careers, and I was sleeping in my childhood bed for 15 hours a day, eating all my meals with plastic utensils because everything tasted like metal. I had my levels tested afterward and I am fertile now, but I have to take medication that will affect my hormone levels for 10 years. I have one of those pill organizers that old ladies have. I was mad about it, and I continue to be mad that I will have to go through menopause again. But I’m also grateful. I’d rather do it twice than to have missed out on all of my fertile years.”
“I’ve been on testosterone hormone replacement therapy for four years. I experienced a cessation to my menstrual process about three to four months in. Now I’m at a point where I have a beard, my voice has dropped. I have my hormone levels checked every six months, but at this point there still aren’t a lot of long-term studies on the effects of testosterone on a uterus and ovaries. Generally, it’s recommended to get a hysterectomy in five years, which I haven’t had because I can’t afford it. But, overall, I’m glad I get to live the life that I get to live. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have felt as possible. And it feels even more possible now than when I started four years ago. Now I have a ton of trans friends, and any time I have a medical problem I’m just texting them about it. But when I started T, I didn’t. I would make cartoons and post them on Tumblr. That was my way of saying, ‘Well, this is happening. Let’s see if anyone thinks it’s weird.’ ”
“I started running when I was 44 or 45 and did my first marathon at 49. I run so much that my cycle is messed up, but I’m going on eight months without a period. It speeds up your thinking of what you need to accomplish. I thought when I got to this point I would get more into my career. But no, at five o’clock I have to go running, and I don’t work on weekends anymore. My grandmother lived to 96 and was dancing the week before. I think people hype it up, like, 'You’re going to go through the flashes, you’re going to get fat and old and wrinkled.' So when it comes on, it’s like, ‘Am I really there?’ But I just did the Chicago marathon and Iceland before that. I’ve done New York three times. I want to do London, in April, and San Francisco. I have five planned for next year already. I’m 51. I’m happy to be living. Menopause is going to happen. You’re going to get hot. You’ve got to figure it out and just go live your life.”
“I was in a PTA meeting at my older child’s school, and there was this very well-dressed woman in a purple outfit with this big purple fan. I think I said, ‘I like your fan,’ and she leaned in and told me, ‘When you go through the change, go to Pearl River. Buy fans in every color.’ So I did. I have 10 fans all over the house—in the drawer next to my spot at the dining room table, next to my bed, and I have gold and silver fans for dress-up nights. I'm never without a fan. I had a hysterectomy last year after finding out I had uterine and ovarian cancer. Menopause kicked in two weeks later. My skin started to shrivel up, I was crying all the time, and the sweats were every half hour and debilitating. V-neck sweaters were invented for menopausal women. When I see women in V-necks and scarves, I’m like, ‘I totally know what you’re doing there.’ I was like, ‘Ugh, I want my uterus back just so that I don’t have hot flashes.’ But then I was like, ‘I don’t want my fucking uterus back. All it’s good for is babies and cancer. And I’m done with both of those things.’ Now I’m totally into getting old and being a crazy crone or non-gendered. The great thing about menopause is that it’s not like you’re losing femininity; it’s like you’re gaining masculinity.”
“You don’t realize until you’re no longer fertile what a huge burden it’s been. Even when people stop finally asking you if you’re going to have children, the social expectation is always present. You still get asked whether you have children, but when you’re younger, it’s always followed up with, ‘Are you going to have children?’ It’s really wonderful to finally be free of the question, the expectation, and the demand. It’s very liberating to just not have that be an issue anymore, and to have that psychic energy available to go elsewhere.”
“Until you go through it, I don’t think you realize what a hot flash is. It’s like an iron, steam just coming out. I’ll be in a meeting and have to speak, and all of a sudden I get a flash, so I’m profusely sweating and people think it has something to do with the meeting. It’s an awkward moment. I don’t want people to think I’m weak or nervous— I’m just hot. When I was a little girl at church, my grandmother was Spanish and had one of those fans that she would flip out and fan herself with. In hindsight, she was probably having a hot flash, but back then you didn’t talk about it. Now I'll tell my daughter, I'll tell anybody. When my daughter had her period, we went out to dinner. I tried to make it a happy thing. When I was her age, I didn’t even know how to put a tampon in. I was at the beach with a girlfriend, and she was trying to tell me what to do. I was using a Playtex and I just thought the whole thing went in. I didn’t know it had, like, an injector. I was like, ‘Why does it keep slipping out?’ It was terrible.”
“I had a son in 2011 who died at birth. I went through that whole pregnancy and an emergency C-section, and nearly died. And then I found myself in my 40s trying to get pregnant again. I went through fertility treatments for many years, a crazy hormonal experience, just up and down and up and down. After we had our son three and a half years ago, it took a year for the hormones to fully exit my system. A year later, perimenopause started up. I haven’t gone 12 months without my period yet. It feels like I’m living in perpetual premenstrual syndrome, grouchy and bloated. It’s very random now when it decides to come. It’s a shocking, sometimes weirdly pleasant surprise that it’s still happening. All the moms I hang out with are like, ‘I can’t wait to get pregnant again.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, is it hot in here, or is it just me?’ ”
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
MELISSA GIANNINI is Damn Joan's editor at large.
JEREMY COHEN is a Brooklyn based photographer that lances freely.