(Photo by Todd Webb circa 1949)
NB: When originally posted I attributed the final quote to Colette, when it was in fact, written by Marina Benjamin. This post has been modified for accuracy!
In the autumn of 1997, I was poised to marry my ex-husband, who is ten years my junior. “Remember to be patient with Lee,” his mother cautioned. “She’ll be having the change soon.” I was a month shy of my 38th birthday, and oh, how I laughed.
I was one of those kids best described as “three going on thirty.” As an adolescent I was desperate for my first period — all my friends had theirs — then immediately wished it away. “How long before menopause?” I asked within hours of that first gush of blood. Who needed a period? I didn’t want kids. (I knew nothing, then, about hormones and their biological benefits.)
It turned out that thirty-eight was the start of perimenopause. Or so I believe. You’ve got to understand that the symptoms — similar to PMS — also describe my personality.
Irritability. Wild Mood Swings. Depression. A normal day.
Uncertain whether anything was happening, I waited and waited for hot flashes — all my friends had theirs — but came there none. They were the one symptom I’d have relished, since I’m always so fucking cold. (Hold your fire. I have seen the suffering; I know they’re awful; but so are chilblains.) I never sought medical advice about my hormonal fluctuations, nor did I contemplate hormone replacement therapy (I’d read too many medical journals to trust it), though I dabbled with herbal supplements.
Eventually my body launched into the dramatic free fall of missed periods, periods that came every second week, and torrential 8 day wonders. This kept me on my toes for a couple of years until everything screeched to a halt a few months after my 49th birthday. Naturally it took some months to realise I’d finished for good.
Like quitting a job, it’s amazing how quickly you forget the routines and how utterly they cease to identify you. Some part of my brain wiped itself clean. I’d see an advert for tampons and think, “I did that? For thirty-six years? Really?”
Getting older is a lot more complicated than bleeding or not bleeding. I have thoughts about it — many more than are recorded here. They are subjective, influenced by my surprise at how unhappily my life has evolved, and my seesawing moods. I teeter between despair — it’s all over, I’ll never have anything I want, what’s the point of anything? — and optimism that things might still work out. After all, I’m not dead yet. When I’m up on the seesaw I love swinging my legs, but also fear the vast empty expanse beneath me. When I’m down on the ground I feel I could happily bore into the earth to disappear, without anyone noticing.
At the same time, because I don’t know how to feel, think or behave at this age — in two days I will turn 57 — I am baffled. I annoy myself by referring to my age frequently, labelling myself “old” in conversation, as if to drive the point home in my head. I want to slap my own face every time it happens.
Two books that came out earlier this year contemplate the changes that ageing brings. I’d like to draw your attention to them, but this is not, strictly speaking, a book review. Marina Benjamin, author of The Middlepause [Scribe Books, £14.99 hardcover], commissioned and edited (brilliantly) the Aeon piece I wrote about possessions as identity markers (https://aeon.co/essays/why-i-love-my-possessions-as-a-mirror-and-a-gallery-of-me). I feel it would be unethical to review her book. Let’s call this a discussion, where I engage with some of the ideas it sets out. Though I do recommend you read it, make no mistake about that.
The other book is Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time [4th Estate; £12.99 paperback], which covers similar territory — coming to terms with getting older — though skews a couple of years younger than the cusp of 50, which is Marina’s milestone.
For Benjamin, the body is an archive, carrying the imprint of our physical and cultural expectations. She writes: “My body is my starting point for storytelling, for inducting younger women into the business of getting older. . . . I’d like to fill in the silences. I’d like to dig into the gaps between the visible changes that ageing inflicts on us all and investigate how the passage of time transforms our sense of ourselves.”
This is especially vital for older women, she explains, because we are relentlessly encouraged to disguise, deny, and disown our bodies — or reshape them surgically. Her own perimenopause came to an abrupt end when she had a hysterectomy, and she writes movingly about recovering from such traumatic surgery.
Major surgery — and the conditions leading to its necessity — is a game-changer forcing a major rethink. I have had many such medical events, not least an exploded appendix and ten years later, a Crohn’s bout so prolonged and so bad that I agreed to an ileostomy, which, against the odds, was reversed a couple of years later.
For Benjamin, as well, surgery altered her sense of self, tipping her, overnight, into a hormonal and emotional whirlpool. It was a time of assessment and reckoning, as she tallied her emotional, physical, and cognitive changes. She writes: “I am not just out of sync with nature’s rhythms, I’ve got no rhythms.”
We grow up learning to inhabit our bodies, internalising their health, functionality and aesthetics as IDENTITY. For women who menstruate, this involves something akin to developing sea legs — learning to ride the rising and falling waves of emotion, pain, and debilitation that accompany periods. Learning, for example, not to succumb to suicidal thoughts every third week by remembering: I’ll feel better once the blood comes and my hormones shift.
We have to do this while also learning how to weather every other change accompanying the ageing process, good and bad. That includes finding meaningful work, addressing economic reality, building — or tearing down — relationships, and for some, raising families. Who was it who said “Life is hard and then you die”?
I strongly identify with Benjamin’s sense that the world is sometimes closing in on her, and her insistence that she’s not ready to be eclipsed. But I can’t identify with her — absolutely accurate — description of menopause as “the kind of enormous shift in bodily morphology and cell function not seen since puberty.” Perhaps it’s because mine was a slow creep rather than a sudden occurrence. Perhaps it’s because I chose not to be a parent, and no part of my identity was linked to reproduction.
One of Benjamin’s friends says hers was more of a mental menopause, prompting a rethink of every choice she ever made in life; it was as if everything was being undermined. This I relate to, and this sensation, to some extent, is the subject of Sawyer’s Out of Time.
Regular readers who’ve enjoyed my Age Inside interviews here on the blog know of my longstanding curiosity about the dissonance between the age we are and the age we feel we are — which is at the heart of Sawyer’s book. It’s confusing, she argues, to confront “early middle age when you still feel young.”
Can’t argue with that. Can report that it doesn’t get easier, when the numbers slide towards sixty, and you still feel dissatisfied, still hope for opportunities — work, romance, travel, education — that feel even more far-fetched than they did at 30 or even 40. It’s a horrific shock to the system.
Like Benjamin’s friend, Sawyer found herself waking up in the middle of the night “ripping up my life from the inside,” and thinking she’d “done everything wrong”. [Italics mine.] I blanched, seeing in print words I’d spoken to a friend six years ago. She — married, kids, living in the country, seemed to have made entirely different decisions to my own, and successfully — astounded me by snapping back: “Me too.”
Overall, Sawyer’s book struck me as hastily prepared. It falls into a genre I call “journalists’ books” — and yes, I worked in journalism. There’s a sense that she signed the contract, then got sidetracked, and had to pull the manuscript together in a hurry as her deadline loomed. Too many sections consist of: I wondered about X so I talked to A. To be fair, she accesses some great sources, including psychologist Philippa Perry, whom I count as a pal, but the book feels bolted together rather than seamlessly integrated.
I may be whinging because her fundamental questions hit home, and I’d like to have seen them more fully, or should I say, more gracefully explored. Sawyer’s coming to terms with the fact that a lot of her dreams won’t come true: “And not only that, but some of the stuff you think is achievable isn’t, because you’re overlooked by younger, perkier people. You wake one day and everything is wrong. you thought you would be somewhere else, someone else. You look at your life and it’s as unfamiliar to you as the life of an eighteenth-century Ghanian prince.”
Too true. I’d cry about it, but I seem to be out of tears for my life. In their place are insomnia-inducing anxiety, low-grade depression, and despair. They are the least charming of companions, and have turned me into an uncongenial playmate.
A bigger fear is that I’m turning into my mother, which is too upsetting and raw to go into here, because she fucked her life up royally and refused to admit her culpability. In her chapter “Guts,” Benjamin discusses her own mother and explores the evolutionary side of menopause and the idea that women had to stop creating children in order to nurture the ones they already had. She is upset by the idea that biology is destiny, and how much she resembles each of her parents. Is every step she treads in another’s footprint? “Since when, I wonder, did I begin ceasing to look like myself?”
It is scary, especially if you’ve dedicated your life (or think you have) to not replicating your parents’ mistakes and negative qualities. Maybe as youthful egocentrism fades we discern what was there all along — our resemblance to our family. For better or worse.
That gust of wind ruffling your hair was my sigh of resignation.
Both Sawyer and Benjamin are in committed, successful relationships, and have been for a long time. I know how hard they have to work to maintain those unions. But it means that neither book speaks to, or resounds, viscerally, with my situation: alone, lonely, unhappily celibate, unlikely to attract love to her life. (Put away the tiny violins, I’m trying to be honest, and basing this on 57 years’ of being me. I know my story better than you can.)
Philippa Perry tells Sawyer that “people who prioritise sex [in their lives] will change partners often. I think it’s more important to imagine who you would want around your deathbed than who you would want to jump into bed with.” I adore this quote. I said something similar a while back, when I tweeted that at my age, I’m no longer looking for a partner to build my life with, but one I could die with. People were outraged. They misunderstood what I meant.
Perry is right. I look at the hot bodies and drool, but more than athletic sex — which I wouldn’t kick out of bed, or off of a trapeze — I yearn for companionship. I want a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean against, someone to share inside jokes with, someone who cares if I get home safely, and rings to make sure. Do I want to shag that person senseless. Of course. But I currently feel that the most transgressive sex act is a joyful coupling between older people with lived-in, imperfect bodies, in a brightly lit room.
You’ll have heard me say that we have two choices in life: get older or die. I know it’s a privilege to age, because not all of my friends managed it. I know that being older has myriad compensations — and that I can’t explain them to the young folk, because they won’t be told. I wouldn’t be told, back then. It’s a pity, because this negation of experience and education is why we older people are being shoved to the side. As Benjamin writes, “I’m convinced that it is not possible to fully appreciate what it means to age without attending to what the body knows.” Try telling that to the supple, the juicy, and the flexible. Then again, don’t bother.
Rather than bang on and on, I’ll conclude with some words from Marina Benjamin, which are emotionally mature and wise, and which give me a goal to aim towards.
“We need not weep over our catalogue of hurts; rather we must work with the raw material of our suffering and integrate it into newer, more mature and more intricately sculpted selves. This, surely, is the very essence of re-birth.”