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Illustration by April dela Noche Milne

For the past two years, I’ve been blaming everything on COVID-19. Now I blame it on menopause.

My Italian mother-in-law calls it “the flash.” Some of my friends call it “the change” or their own private “global warming.” My mother, well, she never called it anything. I just remember thinking, as a teenager, that my mother’s erratic, emotional waves, tsunamis at times, were not in keeping with her usual calm, composed, stoic nature. My sisters and I walked on eggshells from time to time, careful not to get in the way of mom’s adult temper tantrums. We knew when she was under the curse of the big M – Menopause – because she would randomly pull out the vacuum cleaner and terrorize the household with aggressive pushes and shoves, bumping into furniture legs, banging against baseboards. In her mind, perhaps, the more noise she created, the more aggression she unleashed, the better she might feel. These fits didn’t last long in terms of daily duration, but they did occur with some frequency for years.

Now in my early 50s, I am experiencing the natural turmoil and disruption first hand. Initially, it started with some innocuous tossing and turning, along with some sleepless nights. I wasn’t even sure what the problem was at first. I blamed it on the pandemic: stress, uncertainty, anxiety over contracting the virus, sadness over raising a child in such turbulent times. Then, months later came the hot flashes. Flushes, is the better word. Someone like me, always cold, sleeping in flannel pyjamas and thick socks, hugging a hot water bottle, covers up to my nose, I was not expecting to feel such unbearable, frightening waves of internal combustion. Is this what a heart attack feels like? Do I have COVID? Clammy forehead, hair stuck to the back of my neck, skin on fire. Then my laboured breathing (Am I giving birth to something?) in an attempt to cool my body temperature down so I could get back to sleep.

Next came the other uncomfortable, inconvenient symptoms of whatever was plaguing me. Dry, crepey skin where I like to think I once had a luminous, firm complexion. Could my N-95 mask be causing irritation and breakouts? Could my moist exhalations, now trapped in cloth or surgical material, be harbouring toxins, consequently clogging my pores? And, what about the dry, frizzy hair, or worse: hair loss? Just as no one tells you the full truth about labour, no one tells you that hormonal changes result in hair thinning and loss. You just discover one day, to your horror, that while you are shampooing your hair, significant clumps of it are falling out. My husband caught on to this unseemly reality before I did, calling the phenomenon Hairmageddon. Not wanting to clog the drain, I would pick up the fallen collection of locks and throw them against the shower wall, waiting for them to dry before gathering them up and tossing the furry wad into the garbage. This practice seemed reasonable enough to me. Okay, I admit that some days I forgot to return to the shower stall and, yes, it must have been an unsightly experience to walk into a shower polka-dotted with tumbleweeds of drying, dark hair. Does COVID cause hair loss? A sore back came next. Perhaps it’s our mattress, 18 years old. Logical. I’m sure these lumps are aggravating an otherwise healthy spine, so out with the old mattress and in with a new one. Still, the sore back persisted. Easy enough to explain: working from home during lockdowns, sitting at the computer, too many ZOOM calls and more walking to the fridge and back than to the office and back. I didn’t realize that estrogen and collagen loss were contributing to the stiffness. In addition to the physical symptoms of whatever was happening to me came the more subtle, emotional ones, like weeping hysterically over Salvation Army or SPCA commercials. More surprising, watching Hallmark Christmas movies. Watching them in December is alarming enough, but in July too? Something was up and I needed help.

“Try black cohosh.” “Vitamin E.” “Cut out caffeine, sugar and complex carbohydrates.” “Absolutely NO wine.” Kill me now, I would mutter under my breath, to well-meaning advice. Then I tried a natural, homeopathic, non-hormonal supplement. Hallelujah! That little miracle pill worked for about six months. Until it didn’t. Until my body caught on. Until the night sweats and insomnia began again, this time with a vengeance. What followed was brain fog, weight gain, irritability, to name a few uncomfortable symptoms. Triple vaccinated and committed to following all health protocols, I could no longer blame this series of unfortunate events on COVID-19.

Most nights I wake up between five and 10 times, yank the covers off and then pull them back up to my nose when I wake up minutes later, discovering that I am freezing. I suppose I could stick my head in the freezer or imagine that I’m drifting away on an ice floe, but this kind of visualization takes too much energy and effort at one o’clock, three o’clock, five o’clock and six o’clock in the morning. So, I stare at the ceiling and just accept that menopause is here to stay, the way I have accepted that COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon.

With any luck, the big M and the big C (coronavirus, I mean), will take a holiday together when they have grown tired of me and bored with the rest of us, in that order. Until that happens, I’ve got my deep breathing techniques, a miniature fan on my nightstand, an ice pack on my forehead and a very understanding, patient husband who knows, when my discomfort jolts him out of his slumber in the middle of the night, that it’s not my fault.

Kim DeBon lives in Burlington, Ont.

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