Thursday, November 10, 2011

I, Being A Woman Born

I'm on my third month of taking a little pink pill every day and on my third title for this piece about the experience.

I started with "Flying on Progesterone" but since summer has ended, that flight has descended to a cruising altitude not quite so ebullient. So I moved on to...

"Menopause? Me? Don't You Mean... Mani-Pedi... Applause, No? No? No?"

...but its promise of finding something funny about insomnia and heart palpitations couldn't be kept for the life of me so I'm sticking with the first line of one of my favorite poems.

The pill contains 100 milligrams of progestin, which is a synthetic version of the natural hormone progesterone. Its prescriptive functions range from preventing women from getting pregnant to helping women stay pregnant, from reducing the damage of traumatic brain injury to slowing the growth of endometrial cancer cells. And it can reduce the symptoms of perimenopause, the transitional phase before menopause.

I went to the doc initially for what I thought was some pretty serious PMS, lasting, oh, just about all month long. I knew it wasn't depression. Too sporadic. Too many moments of happiness. Too much lightness and frenzy. A serotonin reuptake inhibitor like Zoloft sounded like a bad solution, a misdiagnosis. A blood test revealed I had a low level of progesterone, a sign of perimenopause.

Progesterone is the soother in the cocktail of hormones that flies in our bloodstream and bathes our nerves. It balances energy-spikers like adrenaline and cortisol, those heart pumpers who help us run from the saber toothed cat, or jump out of the way of the truck, or get out of bed in the morning, but who are awful companions every minute of the rest of the day.

I was relieved, if a little surprised, to have a diagnosis, but it was some time before I filled the prescription and a little while longer before I actually started taking the pills.

There had to be a worst day, the day I knew I would not kick this by sheer will. But the worst day didn't turn out to be what you might think; it wasn't the loudest or the teariest.

And the worst day wasn't the April morning I scurried my girls out of my uncle's house, my kind uncle who had invited them to a sleepover at his place in the southwest suburbs with his granddaughters, who had prepared special gifts of clay dinosaur eggs and mineral science kits - like their own grandfather, my father, the jeweler, might have done, had he the time.

That wasn't the worst day, even though I sobbed as I drove away because at that point in the spring I could not bear to hear anyone correct my children, even gently, and because in the sharp and cobwebby place that was my world then I could not hear the man talk with pleasure about caring for his grandchildren every week without my own answering brokenglass thoughts ringing in my head like an echo chamber: Who takes care of my children? Who cares for my children? Who do they have?

On that day, at that moment, those sad questions exploded in my brain, obliterated nearly all the sense and self-sufficiency and compassion that normally rule. Because the answer, of course, it that I do. But I was lost in a sea of need. Now I look at painful questions like those and let them float away, like a balloon on the wind, or a leaf on a stream.

That wasn't the worst day, even though Nora's "I'm hungry" from the back seat nearly broke me and the search for breakfast in the endless looping hell that is the Jane Addams Toll and 53 and Algonquin Road led us to a mostly empty strip mall with the world's most potholed parking lot. A no-name mini-mart and one guy behind the counter who looked like he'd been there all night.

That wasn't even the worst moment, buying the girls crappy plastic-sleeved chocolate donuts with tears streaming down my face. In such a setting I actually felt a little reassured, a bit at home. God knows how many mornings those cluttered shelves had seen red-eyed women with their children trailing behind them; there was comfort being in the sorority.

Walking back to the car somehow lightened, I thought, not for the first time, that I wasn't sure I was suited for the pristine and mild suburbs. I missed the City and her garbagey streets; I missed Her thousand daily tales of woe and glory, disaster and renewal. She's a regular Scheherazade, Chicago is, isn't she?

No, that wasn't the worst day. The the worst day, the day when I at last accepted I needed to let go and take the damn pill, was when I came across a couple of lines in the therapeutic book I had been clinging to like J.D. Salinger's Franny clutches The Way of a Pilgrim:

"To put it simply, emotions are signals within your body that tell you what's happening. When something pleasurable is happening to you, you feel good; when something distressing is happening to you, you feel bad."

"Not for me," I thought. "Not now. Whenever anything happens to me, I feel bad."

So I finally said Enough. Enough with my repugnance over giving up control, enough with the self-righteous my-body-is-a-temple purity that has always kept me away from drugs, prescription and recreational, and that is revealed as only so much bullshit if it does not serve me or my kids.

The first day I knew the drug was working. The feeling of crawling on gravel was gone.

When I woke up after less than eight hours of sleep, I was tired, but the day was not ruined.

Now I feel good. I don't feel drugged or numb or blissfully apathetic - I feel like me, only more, let's say, calibrated.

The monster in Mom has retreated.

Now, needing to make the decision between doing laundry or dishes first does not undo me. Deciding when to make a left turn across traffic is no longer excruciating. An invisible hair tickling the back of my arm when my hands are plunged in the dishwater is no longer the stuff of high drama.

Before the pill, when Mia fell off the kitchen chair and scraped her back, I howled louder than she did. Which was not what she needed. Last week when she caught her finger in the back door, I could quietly soothe her, put the finger under cold water, know she needed to sit down and hold onto someone, kiss her head and have Nora fetch the car keys for the doctor.

This pill is helping me take care of the kids the way they deserve, gently and patiently.

Don't think I'm a contented fat pussycat now. There's still yelling. And seven days before my period, I'll still feel a little crazy. And every single time I hear "Someone Like You," I sob a bit, but who doesn't?

We crowded onto an elevator last month and even though the passengers weren't mobbed enough to touch, a woman in the back, her white hair in a chic haircut, said, "Oh no!" and forced her way out with her husband in tow.

"Are you okay?" I asked as she passed and when she said, "No!" to a not unusual situation, I thought "Been there." And "My sympathies." I knew how she felt - I could remember it well -- when the up and down elevator ride of this lovely old world was just about unbearable.

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