My first thoughts were that I was going crazy. I was sure of it. I remember tearfully asking a close friend and neighbor if she would look out for my children in the event that I had a total nervous breakdown. After all, what else could possibly be causing the sudden and unexpected onset of memory lapses, anxiety, depression, night sweats, and phobia attacks that had completely turned my life upside down?
My initial visits with my internist had turned up nothing, further convincing me that I was losing my mind. Knowing that I was under a great deal of stress, this internist wrote me a prescription for Klonopin and referred me to a psychiatrist. Thankfully, a friend intervened and reminded me of her own difficult passage through menopause. And since my mother had been attributing my nervousness to hormones, I agreed to see the endocrinologist that my friend had recommended. Still, I was sure that at 36 I was much too young to be going through the change. Much to my surprise, however, both my estrogen and progesterone levels came back extremely low -- I was in menopause.
Is it Panic Disorder or Menopause?
Angered by my internist's misdiagnosis of panic disorder, I armed myself with every manual I could find on this mysterious mid-life passage, and there were plenty. On the shelves of every library and bookstore were a dozen or so books with the word menopause in their title. The anatomical texts, most of which were written by well-meaning health care professionals, offered advice on lessening the physical and emotional ailments that accompany the inevitable hormonal decline. Whether to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or to "tough it out naturally" seemed to be the question of the day for transitioning women.
Although the advice and expertise of the healing community was certainly educational (more than 50 million women would be going through menopause in the year 2005), the information still wasn't enough to satisfy my need to understand what was happening to me. I kept reading and searching, wanting to find out more. Yes, I knew what it meant to be in perimenopause. I knew that estrogen loss increased the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. I knew also, from personal experience, that it brought on mood swings and a whole host of other emotional and physical problems. But what else was going on? What was really happening to me?
Even as I asked myself that question, I sensed, as every woman does, that menopause wasn't just about the cessation of a monthly cycle. And it wasn't about getting old and dry and wrinkly, either. Deep within me I knew that this experience called menopause would somehow turn into a voyage, a journey, a time-consuming pilgrimage that might take years to complete. And it would be a journey that would not only transform my body, but would transform my soul as well.
The Transformational Journey of Menopause
And so while my endocrinologist began the arduous task of balancing my hormone levels, I, armed with a gut feeling and a large dose of uncertainty, began the arduous task of uncovering what the spiritual journey of menopause encompassed. I started with the written word. But nothing connecting spirituality with menopause could be found in the two dozen or so books I had faithfully purchased from my local bookstore. In fact, there wasn't even a short listing in any of the indexes on spirit. I was disappointed but not discouraged. After all, most of the books on menopause were written by medical doctors, and physicians were trained to heal the body, not the soul.
My next step was to go straight to the source. I talked with my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, and every other woman over 50 who would tolerate my intrusive questioning. My search eventually led me to internet chat rooms, where, not so surprisingly, I found the reassurance and answers I had been looking for.
These women were not the least bit shy about sharing their spiritual transformation with me. Not only did I receive an enormous amount of information on what to expect over the next few years, I learned a lot about the chutzpah of postmenopausal women who are allowed to share their experiences over the internet without the fear of someone shaming them. And as I corresponded with these women, I also began to document my own journey through menopause. As I did, I learned a few truths about the menopausal spirit.
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Fixing the Spiritual Imbalances
One of the most enduring lessons I learned was that the menopausal life passage isn't about a woman's body fighting to right itself of hormone imbalances at all. It is really about the soul trying to right itself of spiritual imbalances; it is about a woman's spirit fighting to regain a sense of symmetry in a distorted, asymmetrical world.
Though unbalanced hormones are certainly a symptom of the passage, it is the heart's cry to once again be absolute, and the spirit's desire to return to the place where it can exist in its natural state of strength and courage that defines the real journey through menopause.
And I learned that the menopausal pilgrimage was about returning to that place, that sacred land at the core of the soul, called home. And in returning to that home, that inner sanctum, a woman would again find that sense of spiritual strength and wholeness that she craved, and she would once again be filled with the zest and self-reliance that she had before puberty and children and her husband lured her away.
Myths and Fallacies about Menopause
In addition to enlightening me about the spiritual truths behind menopause, these women also gave me a lot of down-to-earth advice about the myths and fallacies that surround the physical transformation.
One of the most widespread misconceptions I discovered was that menopause was an event that happens to a woman around the age of 51. Although the average age of completing menopause may be 51, many women begin experiencing symptoms as early as 35. This means that menopause can often take up to ten or more years. And so the process of birthing oneself, which is what a woman does as she moves through menopause, becomes a lengthy one indeed.
An obstetrician was once asked how long it takes for a child to be born. He answered, "It takes as long as it takes." And so it is with menopause. It takes as long as it takes. The menopausal quest to retrieve that sense of wholeness is a pilgrimage that cannot be rushed, and it is important for a woman (and her loved ones) to keep in mind that one doesn't travel to the inner sanctum of the female soul and back overnight.
Menopausal Rites and Rituals
For the very reason that menopause is such a lengthy transition and not just a threshold, I feel that the journey should not be classified as a solitary rite of passage, but rather as a succession of rites or rituals. These succession of rites mark a woman's way through mid-life, validating the pain and frustration of her voyage like stepping stones across a rising river. Robert Fulghum wrote in his book From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives that "rituals are one way in which attention is paid." I have found this to be true for the rituals of menopause. The stepping stones of rites from childbearer to crone draw a woman's attention to her changing body, and more importantly, they draw attention to her changing spirit.
Like all female rituals, such as childbirth or monthly cramps, the menopausal rites are not meant as a punishment from God or nature, but are a way of waking us up to being truly female. They are part of the invaluable lessons bestowed upon us by our Creator that, from the very beginning, set us apart from men. These sacred rites are also a road map, a sort of diagram to chart our course -- a way of understanding where we've been and where we are headed. And more importantly, they are a reminder of just how long we stayed away, and just how far we've come in finding our way back home.
I would also like to add that although the information I gathered did seem to repeat itself in many places, it was still apparent that this unity of sisterhood wasn't exactly the same for all women. I have found that as each woman makes her way through these rites, she will find herself on an unprecedented, uncharted course. Some may find the sacraments painful, while others may hardly notice them. The journey of menopause is a highly individualistic passage, for even as all women make the voyage, the currents each chooses to sail on are hers and hers alone.
The Pilgrimage to Being a Wise-Woman
A vital part of the menopausal healing process can only be completed by reclaiming that ancient golden elixir of the crone and bringing back the wisdom from it to share with the rest of the planet. So while this pilgrimage of menopause is about journeying within, it's also a pilgrimage of journeying out as well.
I wish you all the best on your own voyage into the wise-woman years.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Santa Monica Press. © 2000. http://www.santamonicapress.com1-800-784-9553 for toll-free ordering.
This article is excerpted from the book:
The Seven Sacred Rites of Menopause: The Spiritual Journey to the Wise-Woman Years
by Kristi Meisenbach Boylan.
The Seven Sacred Rites of Menopause: The Spiritual Journey to the Wise-Woman Years is a groundbreaking work that will usher in a new way for women to cope with the emotional and physical challenges of menopause. Venturing into uncharted territory, Kristi Meisenbach Boylan takes an intriguing and original look at the seven rituals that menopausal women move through on their voyage to the wise-woman years. Author Meisenbach Boylan believes that these seven ceremonial milestones should be viewed as celebrations—not as symptoms of an illness—and that the menopausal life passage isn't just about a woman's body fighting to correct hormonal imbalances, but is really about the soul trying to find its spiritual balance.
About the Author
Kristi Meisenbach Boylan, the author of both The Seven Sacred Rites of Menopause and The Seven Sacred Rites of Menarche, is the former publisher of The Parent Track Magazine. She began writing about women's issues and the relationship between spiritual growth and fluctuating hormones after her own menopausal transformation, resulting in the widely praised The Seven Sacred Rites of Menopause. For The Seven Sacred Rites of Menarche, Meisenbach Boylan drew upon her experiences as the mother of a twelve-year-old girl. She lives in Richardson, Texas.