Monday 16 July 2018

'The bombshell that I was in menopause left me blind-sided, grief-stricken and angry' - Gemma Fullam on life and sex during 'the change'

Life was good. I had met The One, and we were blissfully happy, in love and in lust. Then menopause hit, and I lost all my desire, for life and for sex, writes Gemma Fullam

Gemma Fullam. Photo by Steve Humphreys
Gemma Fullam. Photo by Steve Humphreys

I can live without it all, love with its blood pump, sex with its messy hungers, men with their peacock strutting, their silly sexual baggage, their wet tongues in my ear. Erica Jong - 'Becoming a Nun'

Those words of novelist Erica Jong - she of the zipless fuck - reflect a truth my menopause revealed to me: I am enough.

"The change" entered my life almost 10 years ago, when I was 38. Its first stealthy soundings came in the form of occasional panicked pregnancy tests prompted by a newly irregular menstrual cycle; almost two years later, a random blood test revealed the hormonal castration that had been taking place while I was foolishly misinterpreting missed periods as evidence of my fecundity.

The bombshell that I was in menopause left me blind-sided, grief-stricken and angry. Boy, was I angry. In a culture that cherishes youth and beauty, it is impossible not to absorb the subliminal signals society sends out. Despite the appearance of a few token older females in the pop-culture sphere, ageing is not sexy, nor is it an aspirational state. And here I was, plunged into decrepitude; a vile reverse puberty with atrophied flesh at its end.

I had reason to rage. Twelve months before, I had embarked on a relationship with a man who, decades previously, I had fallen for on sight; a blue-eyed, tousle-headed dream of a man who intrigued me, and filled me with lust and longing. We had bonded over a shared passion for books, which endured while the intervening years of life and circumstance kept us apart; he introduced me to Philip Roth and Richard Ford, while I lent him Nancy Friday and Anais Nin. Our decades of back-and-forth dispatches led to a deeper passion when it finally arrived on the agenda; sex was, indeed, on fire. Until, one day, it wasn't.

I wasn't completely unprepared for the vicissitudes of menopause. When my mother's had hit, I devoured Leslie Kenton's Passage To Power, curious to understand this new stage of life she was experiencing. Kenton's assertion that, in her crone phase, a woman becomes "deeply and spontaneously sexual, assertive, straight, incorruptible, prophetic, intuitive and free" had baffled me and filled me with an inexplicable unease. Truly, the word 'crone' was enough to send shivers down my spine. And now the old hag had arrived at my door, and sneaked in when I wasn't looking.

That book's cover featured a serpent: a fitting symbol encompassing temptation, sex, betrayal, danger, death, transformation and the kundalini - the 'coiled one' at the base of the spine; a goddess energy that, once awoken, devours all in its path.

I was blissfully happy with The One. I had no need of zipless fucks; our congress was a communion, divine in its perfection. Then, almost overnight, my personality began to change with violent mood swings. I turned into the bitch to end all bitches. Vicious, terrible things spilled unprompted from my mouth. These barbs were always directed at my partner, and bemused us both. I, the Gemini, ruled by Mercury, the planet of communication, couldn't explain the origins of my nastiness, and he began to stop trusting me, while trying desperately to comprehend what I didn't myself - that this she-devil was not, in fact, me. It was the menopause talking. After a while, I knew he no longer believed me, and truth be told, I didn't either. Our honeymoon period rapidly descended into hell.

Sex became a battleground. One evening, having returned home from a wedding, he was sober, while I had consumed several G&Ts. We retired to bed, where my drunken amorous advances were repeatedly rejected. Profoundly irritated and uninterested, my weary partner headed for the sanctuary of the spare room, and I, to my eternal shame, picked up a heavy glass ashtray and flung it in his direction, narrowly missing his head. In that moment of being denied sex, I was overcome by an uncontrollable red mist, the viciousness of which stunned us both into silence. The hole left in the wall echoed the one the menopause had begun to gouge in our relationship.

Some months later, fully in the throes of 'the change', I took to talking in my sleep. "Space", I would grunt, over and over, while demarcating an expanse of mattress space with hands that mimed 'menopausal line; do not cross'. Again, he decamped to the spare room.

Sex and sensuality are inextricably linked to one's sense of self, and as the menopause advanced, I no longer felt like myself. I was inhabiting the body of a stranger; trapped within a fleshy frame that behaved as it liked, a sweaty, hot-and-cold carcass that was alien. Yet it was me. I was being consumed by the crone. She was feeding on me like a parasite, growing ever bigger and more powerful while I retreated ever further inside my own head.

I grew fat around the middle. I have a large chest that, with extra weight, looks matronly, and with the disappearance of my waist under ever-increasing blubber, my hourglass became a barrel. I could no longer dress myself; everything looked awful. I did not know this body. I hid under shapeless black, mourning my loss. There were days I looked in the mirror and was repulsed, and days I could not bear to look at all. I did not recognise the person I saw.

Sex is a joyous thing, but I felt no joy. So there was no sex. No more demands or pleading urges. Once my 'power surges' became ferocious in their intensity, my battered self retreated within to hide. I felt nothing. I was a void, a vacuum. The cues for intimacy - the glances, the tender touches, the playful flirting that had been so much a feature of our relationship before menopause - dwindled and died; our intimate language had changed and we no longer understood each other. The change had changed me and I didn't know how, or if, I could change back.

In 1963, Dr Robert Wilson listed the "stigmata" of "Nature's defeminisation" and how hormone supplementation can sidestep menopause's worst effects on a female's appearance, libido and mood. I had, as time went on, become desperate in my attempts to kill the climacteric hydra; for every move I made and symptom I controlled, two more would appear in its place. I cried for no reason; I felt consumed by despair; I couldn't control my weight; my hair was thinning on my head, while appearing in unwanted places; my skin was dry and cracked; I could not sleep at night and had difficulty staying awake during the day, and I was drinking. Mostly wine, and far too much of it, in an attempt to escape from myself; an impossible mission. It only made me fatter and more despondent at what I had lost. I was now celibate; there was nothing else to be. Germaine Greer, in Sex and Destiny, touts celibacy in situations where no sex might be a better option than bad sex. Truthfully, I had no desire for sex of any description.

Our relationship was foundering. It wasn't the lack of sex, it was the absence of what had initially brought us together, without which there could be no meaningful intimacy: communication and a common bond. I had become a stranger; a ghost; a cipher. Maybe it was drugs I needed. As women, we are fed the line that we can be eternally youthful; our 'best selves' living our 'best lives' - whatever the issue, there's a pill, or a syringe of something, to solve it. So I went to the doctor. In fact, I went to several. None of them listened to me. None of them had anything to offer bar lectures on why no woman should have to go through a difficult menopause (But I am!) or testimonials for hormone replacement therapy. While I desperately wanted the nightmare to end, a small voice inside my head suggested that maybe synthetic hormones made from horse urine weren't the answer. So I passed on the drugs.

It was after one of these trips to the doctor that I realised I wasn't listening, either. What I was going through was normal and natural and had its own language, one I needed to learn if I was to begin functioning again; if I was to live, not merely exist. Maybe it was time to stop buying into reductive attitudes about the "tragedy of menopause" and try to ride the wave, so to speak.

I realised it was shame that was holding me back; shame to see myself naked, literally and metaphorically; shame at who I was, who I'd left behind and shame at my inability to begin again. It wasn't misplaced Catholic guilt, I somehow dodged that bullet - helped in no small part by the writings of the aforementioned Nancy Friday, among others - but rather a deep fear of facing my authenticity, and owning it.

My desire to embrace that self has since taken me on many adventures, and to the wisdom of women, not least Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian analyst, author of Women Who Run With The Wolves. In it, she says, "To be strong does not mean to sprout muscles and flex. It means meeting one's own luminosity without fleeing... It means to stand and live."

To stand and live. Those words resonated profoundly with me. I think I had always been hiding, afraid of myself, and menopause forced me out of my foxhole.

Life, I have learned, is a cycle of death and rebirth; it continues regardless of whether one chooses to ignore it or embrace it. Just as the sexual orgasm is la petite mort, the little death, the menopause is also a form of dying.

In truth, the old me was never coming back, so my choice was to live with eternal regret at the loss of myself, or to get busy getting to know the new one. Relationship-building takes time, and it is only through giving myself time and space, that I have realised: I am enough. I no longer need to be the coquette, the giggling girl with batted lashes.

I am woman; hear me roar.

Passion, just like life, waxes and wanes. Wait long enough, and trust; it will return. And it has: stronger, deeper; forged in fire. As Ms Friday said, "No man can be really free in bed with a woman who is not." I am there, Nancy. Finally.

I'm over the hump.

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