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Menopause: a Passage in Search of a Story

Rituals give meaning to symptoms.


If menopause is a passage, what is it a passage to?

Source: Shutterstock

Is menopause just a bunch of intolerable symptoms? Or is it truly a passage? And if menopause is a passage, what is it a passage to? Is there a ritual to mark such passage? It seems we need a story in order to define this experience, universal for women, and give it meaning.

What is your menopausal story?

We are inclined, as homo sapiens, to make meaning of our lives. We do this through ritual and story. These stories and rituals make our journeys, even the painful ones, purposeful and rich. They give us guidance. The help us transform.

For some time my menopausal experience was story-less. I was just a middle-aged woman with annoying symptoms. Irritability, inflammation, hot flashes and depressed mood overcame me and at times became me.

My general response was to scream at my family, curse my condition and pop four Advil.

Then I decided I needed more. Somehow all the aggravation had to be worthy of closer consideration.

The passage into adolescence is paired with a bat-mitzvah or confirmation, graduation from high school with a ceremony and a party, and marriage is launched with a wedding celebration. But there is one important passage that needs more. Gail Sheehy once termed menopause the silent passage because it seems somehow too taboo to discuss, even among close friends, let alone celebrate publicly.

I have been in the peri-menopausal passage for over 10 years now and the only ritual I have been invited to is one of cultural degradation or self-ridicule. Yes, I have fun with the self-ridicule piece. I make jokes about “the last egg” and I pretend that I am “drying up,” making my funny prune face. The laughter and self-effacement bring some relief, but not meaning.

So I decided to make up some rituals to bring meaning and depth to my symptoms. I do them in my head. Yes, it turns out that imaginary rituals can be almost as rich as real ones.

A ritual is a ceremonial act that is structured to provide entry into something new and emerging. The goal of a ceremonial ritual is to invite contemplation, exploration and transformation. We want to emerge from rituals changed in some way. Most rituals have a beginning, middle and end and progress in a story format.

The passage of menopause is a transformational one. In fact, it is often said that women in the passage are going through the “change.” The problem is, we don’t speculate or even imagine what the result of this change could be.

Hopefully, rituals of the mind will offer clues to what our symptoms mean and who we are becoming.

So now, when my meno pain starts, when I feel so irritated that I want to throw my phone across the room, or the heat fires up my innards so much that the sweat drenches my clothing, or my body is hijacked by relentless muscle and nerve pain, I go into the ritual of my mind.

I make space for myself, put an ice pack on my neck and close my eyes. I start by breathing slowly and deeply. I give myself permission to use my imagination and journey in my mind to find clues to the story of my symptoms.

My imaginary ritual has three parts and it goes like this:

The Beginning: the walk into my inner self.

First, and always first, I put on the crimson robe.

Then I enter the cave. The cave is dark and murky but filled with hundreds of brilliantly flickering candles. Sometimes Carmina Burama is playing. Other times it is Gloria Gaynor. I have a menopausal ceremonial tunes-shuffle in my mind. I have always loved the combination of reverence and bad girl as my soundtrack.

During my imaginary procession, I walk with sureness and an attitude of importance. My head is up and my core is breathing. I envisage breathing energy into my interior self. I walk my walk.

This part of the ritual fills me with permission, power and presence. I am already more than my symptoms. I enter the story.

The Middle: the visit.

In my ritual I visit with women who have survived the passage.

I see ahead of me the table. It sits in a little sunny grove. There is a flowered tablecloth. I smell strong coffee and anisette. Today, around the table, sit my grandmothers. The Italian one is dipping biscotti in her coffee and gesturing broadly with her other hand. The English grandmother is knitting. They both smile when they see me. Their eyes sparkle with recognition and love. They cheer and clap and put their strong arms out reaching for me. I sit and they pour me coffee. They ask me how I am doing. They listen intently when I tell them little details of my life. I touch each of their veined hands and feel the warmth come through to me. I tell a joke. They tip their heads back in laughter.

I tell them that I am changing but I don’t know who I am changing into. My grandmothers glance towards each other with a knowing smile. The English one says “Isn’t it cute how confused she is.” The Italian Gram leans forward and says—“Why, you are becoming more and more of you.” They both go on to warn me not to get smaller as they did with age. “Times are different. Be more and more you.”

Suddenly our table starts to levitate and we all three ascend on a little ride going up and up and around. I feel relaxed and enjoy the ride. Then my Grammies start to fade and I find myself descending into the path home. There is a full moon shining its glow on me.

I feel at once connected and magnificently unique, a surge of purpose: be yourself, more than ever, and connect to the bigger picture.

The End: The walk back

I hear the drumbeat and I know it is time to head back. I walk back with a sense of clarity and peace. I feel the connection to my grandmothers and to the all women who have come before me. It fills me with joy and love. As I walk back I tell myself to be strong, be big, bear the symptoms with a fierce becoming.

It will hold me over until the next hot flash. In time I will be big and full of all the wisdom my practice of rituals can provide.

You can practice too. Get a special pillow, or an ice pack and a place to sit comfortably and give yourself this three-part journey of the mind.

1. The walk into yourself.

2. The visit.

3. The walk back with the message.

Since I have been doing my rituals, my menopausal passage, every ache and pain and drop of sweat have more significance. The “change” is serving me. It is beckoning me to become fierce and reawakens something in me that all women before me and after me can become. Not only can I tolerate the aggravating symptoms of menopause, but now they are endowed with meaning. The symptoms connect me to my legacy, and link my body to the wonders of nature.

Over and over my rituals provide this message: We all need to decide who we are and then be her —even more. I wonder, is menopause a passage to empowerment? Can it be that knowledge, wisdom, and power are the gifts of this remarkable passage?

All of us face many losses and challenges that are unavoidable. But when we honor the difficulties with dignity and significance, we ascend. Through ritual we claim our place among the mysteries of life and the universe.

There is more to learn, more to experience and more to define regarding the story of menopause for women. It is a mystery awaiting our discovery, calling out for our stories, lots of stories.

Our imagination is where we begin. Sharing our stories and ritual ceremonies is the next step. In this way we empower each other to let menopause make us more, and more of who we always were.