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I dreaded menopause but learned to bask in the heat

This is a First Person column by Ummni Khan, who lives in Victoria. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, see the FAQ. 

The arrival of my first period was an eagerly awaited sign of adolescence. I wanted it all. Boobs. Pubes. Even breakouts seemed to carry a kind of angsty cool. 

Four decades later, my first skipped period marked the dreaded onset of perimenopause. Not only was I embarking on the last hormonal transition of my life (next stop, death) but the impending changes were all doom, gloom and hot flashes. 

The internet warned that in addition to the perspiration stains I’d have to eco-bleach, menopause could bring brain fog, bone loss, weight fluctuation and anxiety as well as hair disappearing where you want it but sprouting where you don’t. And to top it all off, I could expect dry skin, nails, eyes, mouth and (ahem) intimate places. 

In the past few years, I’ve dealt with some of these issues. 

WATCH | When perimenopause might begin: 

Not ‘just’ hot flashes: how menopause symptoms can start earlier than you think

Insomnia, anxiety and mood swings are all symptoms people can experience when going through perimenopause — the process of change that leads up to menopause. Experts say people don’t realize it can start as early as your late 30s.

I used to be the chick who was always cold. But once the menses began to taper, I would get sporadically, hellishly hot. When this occurred in the privacy of my home, I could at least shed layers and stand in front of a fan. But getting sweaty and flushed while giving a talk on alternative sexualities — my area of scholarly research — turned my lecture into awkward performance art. 

Then there was bedtime. I’ve had occasional bouts of insomnia throughout my life, but in my late 40s, I became a hyper-alert nocturnal animal. Even when I could fall asleep, I would frequently wake in the middle of the night with the sheets sticking to me like wet papier mâché. 

The lack of shut-eye probably contributed to my scattered attention. Yes, I embody the trope of the absent-minded professor, but it amped during this time. I’d start a sentence, get distracted, start another one, get distracted again until numerous trains of thought were zigzagging in my brain without ever arriving at the station. 

Other physical and cognitive issues popped up, but the hardest part was psychological.

My partner and I are happily and purposefully child-free. Instead of offspring, we adopt fur babies from the humane society and enjoy being auntie and uncle to loved ones’ kids. 

However, when my ovulation ceased, I ruminated over the missed experience of pregnancy and what could have been. What would our child have been like? Or looked like? I’d never know.    

Even when it’s intentional, there’s still something sad about a door being closed forever. 

My first menopausal symptom also stood as a harbinger of old age. That always seemed fine for other people, but me? I’m the baby of the family. I wear colourful tights and barrettes in my hair. Entering the autumn stage of life seemed out of sync with my felt identity as a spring chicken.    

A smiling woman wearing multicoloured tights and a blue sweater sits on a yellow outdoor chaise.
Khan enjoys wearing bright colours that she associates with youth. That’s why entering the autumn stage of life seemed out of sync with her identity as a spring chicken. (Submitted by Ummni Khan)

It was important to give space to these complicated feelings. But as an unapologetic Pollyanna, I was also determined to put a positive spin on the hormonal chaos. 

I told myself that night sweats meant I was detoxing without having to waste time in the sauna. In the middle of Ottawa’s frigid winter, I had the privilege of experiencing tropical temperatures. 

I was fall-on-my-knees grateful for no longer having to host Aunt Flo’s monthly visits. No more cramps or weeping through emotionally manipulative commercials. So long Diva cup. And once my cycles stopped for good, white lacy lingerie could safely go into my undie drawer.

The shiniest silver lining of the whole ordeal? Bye-bye birth control, hello spontaneous sex with the hubby. ‘Nuff said.

The other bright side came from the coping methods I cultivated.

I discovered a masochistic love of cold-water swimming during a sojourn in Victoria. Twenty minutes in the icy Pacific not only soothed my sweltering skin but also boosted my mood and confidence. I became one with the infinite ocean. Plus, I finally earned bragging rights about something quasi-athletic. 

A smiling woman in a yellow bikini stands half-submerged in a grey-coloured water body.
Khan enjoys the bragging rights of doing cold plunges in the Pacific Ocean. (Submitted by Ummni Khan)

Probably the best thing I did for my physical and mental health was to connect with others who were in the same estrogen-depleting boat. We commiserated, bonded and shared tips, such as having a spray bottle handy to mist ourselves when a “power surge” hit.  

Now that I’ve arrived at the other side of menopause, I relish the new freedoms and friendships I’ve formed on the way. And I realize I can be an old lady without having to suppress my girly girl style or exhibitionist tendencies.  

Passing this midlife milestone has also inspired me to be more brazen about the experience. I’m thus determined to spread menopositivity to anyone who can take the heat.

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