by Mary Ruefle
I recently came across an old cryalog that I kept during the month of April in 1998. “C” stands for the fact I cried, the number of Cs represents the number of times I cried, and “NC” indicates that I did not cry on that day.
The saddest thing is, I now find the cryalog very funny, and laugh when I look at it.
But when I kept it, I wanted to die. Literally, to kill myself–with an iron, a steaming-hot turned-on iron.
This was not depression, this was menopause.
Reading this, or any other thing ever written about menopause, will not help you in any way, for how you respond to menopause is not up to you, it is up to your body, and though you believe now that you can control your body (such is your strength after all that yoga) you cannot.
Of course, you may be lucky: I know a woman who experienced menopause in no way whatsoever except that one day she realized it had been a couple of years since her last period, which was indeed her last.
You hear a lot about hot flashes, but hot flashes are the least of it, totally inconsequential in every way: you get as hot as a steam iron at odd moments–so what? The media would have you believe that hot flashes are the single most significant symptom toward which you should direct your attention and their products, but when I think of menopause I don’t think of hot flashes; I am not here to talk about hot flashes.
Except to tell you that they do not cease even after you have completely gone through menopause; they become a part of your life the way your periods were, they are periodic and, after a while, you stop talking about them.
No, I am here to tell you that one woman, a woman who is the most undepressed, optimistic, upbeat person I know, awoke one morning and walked straight into her kitchen and grabbed a butcher’s knife (she is a world-class cook) with the intent of driving it through her heart. That was menopause.
If you take the time to peruse the annals of any nineteenth-century asylum, as I have, you will discover that the “cause of admittance” for all women over forty is listed as cessation of menses. Sometimes I saw the words change of life, which sounds like a euphemism but isn’t.
In other words, you go crazy. When you go crazy, you don’t have the slightest inclination to read anything Foucault ever wrote about culture and madness.
It may be that you recall your thirteenth year on earth. Menopause is adolescence all over again, only you are an adult and have to go out into the world every day in ways you did not have to when you were in school, where you were surrounded by other adolescents, safe, or relatively so, in the asylum of junior high.
You are a thirteen-year-old with the experience and daily life of a forty-five-year-old.
You have on some days the desire to fuck a tree, or a dog, whichever is closest.
You have the desire to leave your husband or lover or partner, whatever.
No matter how stable or loving the arrangement, you want out.
You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause. You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.
This, and other behaviors, will horrify you. You will seek medical help because you are intelligent, and none of the help will help.
You will feel as if your life is over and you will be absolutely right about that, it is over.
No matter how attractive or unattractive you are, you have been used to having others look you over when you stood at the bus stop or at the chemist’s to buy tampons. They have looked you over to access how attractive or unattractive you are, so no matter what the case, you were looked at. Those days are over; now others look straight through you, you are completely invisible to them, you have become a ghost.
You no longer exist.
Because you no longer exist, you will do anything for attention. You may shave your head or dye your hair or wear striped stockings or scream at complete strangers. You’ve seen them, haven’t you, the middle-aged women screaming at the attendant in the convenience store?
You are a depressed adolescent who sweats through her clothing and says terrible things to everyone, especially the people she loves.
You begin to lie. You have the urge to shoplift, and if you drive an automobile you have the urge to ram your car into the car in front of you.
Nothing can prepare you for this.
The one thing no one will tell you is that these feelings and this behavior will last ten years. That is, a decade of your life. Ask your doctor if this is true and she will deny it.
Then comes a day when you see a “woman” who is buying tampons and you think of her as a girl. And she is; anyone who has period is a girl. You know this is true and it is very funny to you.
You are a woman, the ten years have passed, you love your children, you love your lover, but there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself–you have put your parents in the earth, you have buried the past. Of course in the meantime you have destroyed your life and it has to be completely remade and there is a great deal of grief and regret and nostalgia and all of that, but even so you are free, free to sit on the bank and throw stones and feel thankful for the few years or one or two decades left to you in which you can be yourself, even if a great many other women ended their lives, even if the reason they ended their lives is reported as having been for reasons having nothing to do with menopause, which is thankfully behind you as you would never want to be a girl again for any reason at all, you have discovered that being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift anyone could ever have given you.
If you are young and you are reading this, perhaps you will understand the gleam in the eye of any woman who is sixty, seventy, eighty, or ninety: she cannot take you seriously (sorry) for you are but a girl to her, despite your babies and shoes and lovemaking and all of that. You are just a girl playing at life.
You are just a girl on the edge of a great forest. You should be frightened but instead you are eating a lovely meal, or you are cooking one, or you are running to the florist or you are opening a box of flowers that has just arrived at your door–and none of these things is done in the great spirit that they will later be done in.
You haven’t even begun. You must pause first, the way one must always pause before a great spirit, if only to take a good breath.
Happy old age is coming on bare feet, bringing with it grace and gentle words, and ways that grim youth has never known.
“Pause” is one of the essays in Mary Ruefle’s new book of prose, My Private Property, to be published by Wave Books in September of 2016. The book may be ordered by contacting wavepoetry.com. This article originally appeared in the Mothers & Grandmothers issue. For more inspiring stories about dealing with mothers and grandmothers, check out The Late Birth of Birth Control and Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle.