The Dark Days: Women, midlife, and paradox.
Updated: Mar 5, 2018
As an acupuncturist with a practice specializing in women’s health, I am blessed to hear may women’s stories. While each patient is unique, I’ve observed similar arcs ar found in women’s mid-life health histories. On a Saturday morning at winters’s edge, I'm nestled in a flannel grey armchair directly across from my last patient of the day. Pandora faintly plays New Age Instrumental in the background while a diffusor languidly releases lavender mist. As she shares, I pen the strokes with familiarity. A story I’ve come to know well as both a practitioner and women in her own midlife emerges.
There have been hot flashes, increasing headaches, and what is best described as “emotional roller-coastering.” She’s fully entered the realm of perimenopause. “I just feel poorly all the time.” While her physical symptoms are integral to addressing her care today, I’m also conscious of the vulnerable nature in discussing her emotional experience of this phase. For some women, perimenopause is both incredibly challenging and flat out precarious. If I do my job today, and in her sessions to come, she will feel better physically. However, she may also come to feel empowered in unexpected ways. She doesn’t yet know how women possess an extraordinary barometer of wisdom whose beauty resides directly within her own body.
As she continues, the intake details a succinct picture. The length between menstrual cycles has become shortened while also erratic. “I’m operating like a dysfunctional thermostat. Some days I’m fine and others I’m a blazing furnace.” Stomach complaints and fatigue round out her physical assessment. “How are your emotions alongside these concerns?” Her hazel eyes glance away, then widen to meet my own. “I feel like I could honest to God smack my mother-in-law if she says one more snide remark about how I raise my teenagers! I mean I never would of course, but I’d really like to!”
“And this frustration is worse than it used to be?”
“Oh, my god yes! Things that I used to just let roll off me…I can’t now! It’s as if I’m not even myself anymore! My fuse is beyond short! But, it only lasts a day or so and then I’m fine again.”
I can’t help but smile. “Yes, that may keep happening for some time. And, when it does, I want you to know one absolute fact: You are not crazy.”
Premenstrual symptoms at any age for women can be dysregulating. Additionally, both mothers and mother-in-laws can tweak us like no others. In Chinese medicine, the earth element is associated with the maternal. And, our gynecology is yoked to its expression. When out of balance, our internal worlds can feel literally akin to a lopsided axis. However, the distinct days when symptoms and reactions experienced during perimenopause liken to PMS, the result may be as raucous as a hailstorm. You can guarantee there will be at least one day (if not a few) where everything seems overcast and extreme. I’ve come to affectionately yet wisely to refer to these as The Dark Days. Due to normal hormonal fluctuations during perimenopause, these days are much more involved, much more demanding on our bodies, and can be much more intense than anything we experienced as women in our younger years.
I’m talking burn-down-the-barn intense. I’m talking no longer considering but filing for divorce intense. I’m talking about the possibility of transformation taking you over. You may feel like a seething cauldron about to boil over. Things have been fomenting. Growth has been occurring. And, it can no longer survive within the container of YOU.
But only for a few days per month.
There’s a reason menopause is worthy of a musical. With your next erratic cycle, the performance will reoccur. Perhaps next time with a stronger cast possessing more fervent vocals. After all, we don’t call this “The Change” for nothing!
Having seen numerous women go through this transition, paired with my own experiences, I find I can offer some hefty empathy regarding the phase. At forty-five I’ve had many dark days since my symptoms commenced at forty-two. Some days there was fear. Other days I felt sorrow. Sometimes, even rage. And, while I didn’t burn down a barn, I did separate and divorce. I also came to the end of the road with last of my narcissistic relatives, a pain which was lifelong and could bear no resolution.
Furthermore, I had a wicked habit of always being “nice", merely code for codependency and brooding resentment. Such terrible habits needed to cease. In my own Dark Days, I listened to the wisdom of my changing body guiding me to know in what areas I needed to grow and heal. I took responsibility for my choices. All my choices. I had faith that my changing body was letting me know some visceral truths I hadn’t wanted to own. Some days I still miss parts of my old life the way I can miss pre-perimenopausal body. There was a false ease in ignorance. However, there’s a beauty and wisdom that perhaps only shortened periods and an irrepressible uterus could have afforded me.
In Chinese medicine, blood is considered a precious substance which grounds and contains our very being. As we go through perimenopause, we undergo more than just a physical transformation. When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite professors taught us about a belief in Asian culture which goes something like this: Women must give up their monthly bleeding cycles and ability to have children so they can retain the precious substance of their blood.
And, they must do this to become the shamans of the culture.
So...during perimenopause we are really becoming mid-life shamans?
A shaman by definition is considered a magical intermediary between our world and that which lies beyond. That seems like a tall order! However, what is also said of shamans is they have often experienced great suffering. This suffering and survival generate an acumen which they impart to the whole tribe. We may not see ourselves this way, yet when I observe a woman in this phase, the same themes arise; lives filled with struggle, but also compassion, insight, curiosity, and growth.
This is true for my patient today who is only beginning her experiences, albeit painfully, but undeniably. Women simply get more fascinating at mid-life. They have lived. Perhaps through forty plus years of menstrual challenges, fertility, infertility, miscarriages, or child loss, cancer or other formidable life experiences, they have lived. All of this has cultivated an ability to see life in panorama. Their wisdom is hard fought and aptly reminds me of the book and title by Maya Angelou: Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.
The Dark Days are akin to brief but brutal weather patterns forcing you to pay attention to where your life is out of balance, dissatisfied, or just plain miserable. You only need to pay attention to your body to hear its messages regarding what unfinished business demands your attention in mid-life. Brene Brown is quoted as saying the body keeps score and it always wins. Our amygdalas, the emotional reptilian parts of our brains, can be such drama queens. Yet, even when fear or anger seem out of proportion, it is worthy to listen to what your body may be telling you. There may be some sagacity percolating that will serve your evolution.
Is your own personal shamanism beseeching you?
It may be dissatisfaction with your career and the winds of a new calling emerging. Is the necessity for improved communication or even the release of relationships which are unhealthy broadcasting? A tell-tale sign I employ with my patients is a simple yet sometimes demanding question for women: ‘What are you really pissed about?” This can be a tough one as we’ve been culturally conditioned to bury our anger as females. A paradox exists here as well. The patients I observe most struggling to heal are those who proclaim that they "never get angry".
Everyone gets angry. It’s nothing more than energy. If it cannot be felt and metabolized in a healthy manner, I believe it gets stored in the body and may later exact a grave health price. An open-hearted courageous answer to "what am I truly angry about?" may guide you not to a mid-life crises, but rather a mid-life awakening.
And, it is our right to have it.
Out of every dark night comes the dawn. Within our dark days and nights, we have the potential to grow and evolve into who we are called to become. For my patient today and to all Dear Women in this phase, know that your own Dark Days hold the possibility of deeply connecting to your internal wisdom which has merely been awaiting its proper birth. Your Inner Shaman already knows this to be true. Listen to her. See what gorgeous truths may paradoxically be residing within your own dark days. It may be small changes. Or, your life may be poised for profound transformation. No matter. Change is coming. Let the beauty of your naturally changing body be your own beloved guide.
Joanne M. Cooper is a writer and licensed acupuncturist who practices in Chester County , Pennsylvania. You can find her at www.rosewellacupuncture.com