Isn't it somehow fitting that the director of Desperately Seeking Susan and the very first episode of Sex In The City has now done a film about menopause called The Hot Flashes? Yes, we all grow up, even those sassy 30-somethings who forever changed the way we viewed women, sex and NYC.
And while Susan Seidelman's new movie doesn't star Sarah Jessica Parker and Co., it features a cast of dynamic women who may change the way we ultimately view middle age. Brooke Shields, Wanda Sykes, Daryl Hannah, Virginia Madsen and Camryn Manheim play former basketball champs who take on a high school team to raise money for cancer awareness. The movie challenges not only stereotypes about gender, but about menopause itself, a topic that all too often has gone underground and been misunderstood.
Like the popular play "Menopause the Musical," Seidelman's film draws on the kind of humor women use to deal with uncomfortable midlife symptoms. For many, irritability and moodiness create an emotional roller coaster. Insomnia keeps some from sleeping. Hot flashes are actually pretty uncomfortable, especially when they're incessant or occur in the middle of the night. If you add decreased libido, vaginal dryness and bladder leakage, there aren't too many women actually laughing about it all.
And, while it's great that the topic is finally gaining attention up front and center, in reality, too many women hide their symptoms. Over 50 million are currently facing menopause in North America, yet many are afraid to share their discomforts even with those closest to them. They worry exposure will confirm their very own fears -- that they will be viewed as old, annoying and irrelevant. Sadly, they often suffer alone.
It's time we speak out and to one another, not only about the physical changes we experience, but about how we deal with them. Below are some of the most common reactions and some tips for how to deal:
1) Feeling Shame? Embarrassment is the reason often given for hiding menopausal symptoms. Women today pride themselves on their ability to multi-task -- juggling children, jobs, exercise, hobbies -- and the first signs of peri-menopause foreshadow increasing vulnerability. It's as if acknowledgement of symptoms is equated with admission of weakness or defeat. It represents the potential loss of the all-powerful image we have come to associate with being a successful woman today.
- Tip: We need to accept that menopause is a natural life transition -- not a weakness or disease -- so that we can remove the element of shame it evokes. We talk openly, and even celebrate, the onset of menstruation. It's time to find ways to do the same about moving on to this next stage of life. Once we open this conversation with others, we'll find there are many who have the same experience.
2) Am I Losing It? A menstrual cycle is one of the few regular, reliable experiences women count on throughout adulthood. We go through dozens of other transitions in our lifetime -- moving homes, new jobs, marriage or children -- but our periods are like clockwork, month after month. When they become irregular, on some level, it makes us feel uneasy. Something fundamental about us is changing -- our feminine identity -- and will never be the same. When night sweats and hot flashes arrive out of nowhere, it can feel as if an alien has taken over. This loss of control is often the most anxiety-producing aspect of menopause.
- Tip: One of the best ways to regain control is by gathering information. Keeping feelings secret creates greater anxiety. Start a conversation with your physician by asking, "I want to know more about what I'm feeling, why I'm feeling it and what I can do about it." If your doctor makes you think "it's all in your head," find another doctor. There are websites and blogs where women share their stories. There are products and services available that ease the menopausal experience. These are great ways to feel less alone and more in control.
3) Who, Me? Menopause is for old people, right? Well, unless you think 40 --often the age when hormones begin to change -- is old, it's inaccurate. Some women convince themselves that menopausal symptoms just don't apply to them and that talking about it is a waste of time. Besides, being open about it makes it more real, so they prefer to deny it altogether. But when symptoms can no longer be avoided, deniers tend to feel unprepared and overwhelmed.
- Tip: Actually, working hard to defy reality often makes symptoms worse. Accepting that menopause is real and talking about it is often the first step in coping -- a fact that is true about almost all aspects of aging. Like getting regular mammograms or bone density tests to ensure proper health care, so it is with menopause. We need to get comfortable owning -- rather than denying -- that this stage of life has arrived.
4) Am I My Mother? Most often, women fear their experience of menopause will replicate that of their mother's. Some recall their moms becoming irritable, depressed or withdrawn around age 50. It was the dreaded "Change" that made them go into hiding, some never to come out the other side. Mostly, women fear the unknown. Mothers in the past rarely shared what they experienced about menopause, leaving their daughters no road map to follow, only experiences they hoped to avoid.
- Tip: While we may not have a role model to help us navigate the menopausal experience, most of us know women who are now in their 70's and 80's living full and vital lives. Ask them how they managed. Remember, the pioneers of today's menopause experience are forging new ways to make the most of this phase of life. Join your sisters and share your new attitudes. It will serve an important purpose for future generations to come.
5) Does Change Mean Loss?As we leave behind childhood, we struggle with puberty. We hang on to adolescence, fearful of entering adulthood. The life cycle continues with transitions and losses all the way to the end. The changes that occur at menopause are part of that process and being afraid makes moving through them even more difficult.
- Tip Letting go and moving on are basic necessities in the process of aging gracefully. Cry with your friends, family or a doctor who specializes in menopause. Expressing sadness is key to letting go and moving on. Sharing how hard this phase of life is will allow you to begin making room for what comes next. There's a lot more ahead -- years of living a full life -- and the goal is to find new ways to enjoy them.
With media and marketers finally taking notice of the huge midlife demographic, it's time we all shift our attitude about menopause. We need to overcome our need for this long-standing cover up and let the big secret out. We're more than alive and well -- in spite of this change in our hormones -- with lots more we want to experience in this next phase of life. Let's educate ourselves about menopausal symptoms and deal with them so they don't interfere with all that lies ahead. Let's move on together, feeling proud of who we are. And yes, let's even laugh about it once in a while!
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.
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Vivian Diller is a consultant for Poise. Opinions expressed above are her own.