Gail Sheehy The Silent Passage

ISBN 13: 9780679413882

The Silent Passage

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9780679413882: The Silent Passage

The best-selling author of Passages takes a probing look at menopause, discussing the disquieting approach the medical community takes to it and offering commentary by some of today's most notable post-menopausal women. 50,000 first printing. Tour.

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About the Author:

Gail Sheehy, the author of eleven hooks including her most recent work, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, is best known for her landmark work, Passages, named in a 1991 Library of Congress survey among the top ten books that have most influenced people's lives.

One of the original contributors to New York magazine, Ms. Sheehy is also a political journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair. She is the mother of two daughters and divides her time between New York City and Berkeley, California, where she lives with her husband, Clay Felker, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, school of journalism.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

from The Need to Know and the Fear of Knowing

We think of ourselves as so liberated today that we can talk about anything. In an Oprahfied age people will tell strangers about their abortions or alcoholism, even declare on national television that they are dying of AIDS, yet just let a man suggest to his sleepless, perspiring, weepy wife that her uncharacteristic moods and symptoms might have something to do with menopause and he's bound to get a blanket denial: "What are you talking about! I'm too young!"

Menopause may be the last taboo. The first friend to whom I ever mentioned the subject was a sultry-looking woman of fifty. She had always prided herself on her appearance and gained much of her status from creatively supporting her husband, a successful author who looks somewhat younger than she. I asked if she had ever talked with anyone about menopause.

"No. And I don't want to."

"Women don't bring up the subject around you?"

"One friend did," she said sourly. "I haven't seen her since."

Another friend, a public television producer whose natural temperament is appallingly calm, recalled with rueful laughter her first sign of the Change of Life. She was seated between two titans of industry at a high-protocol Park Avenue dinner party, the kind where the place cards look like tracings from the Book of Kells and she was feeling particularly confident and pretty in her new black designer suit with its flattering white satin collar, when out of the blue a droplet of something hit her collar. Then another drop. What the -- was the help dribbling wine? Could there be a leaky ceiling under all that gorgeous boiserie? Suddenly she noticed her husband's gaze turn to alarm from across the table: What horrible thing was happening to her? She put a hand to her face. Her forehead was wet as a swamp.

Oh no, said her eyes, not me! as the moisture began running in rivulets down her face and slipping off her chin -- plop -- onto her pearly satin collar. Should I pick up the white linen napkin and wipe my forehead? She reached for the five-hundred-threads-per-inch napery, hesitated -- no, all the makeup will come off on the damn napkin -- when a few more plops fell into her decolletage. Frantic, she began dabbing at her face. Trying to pretend it wasn't happening, she turned to her dinner partner and began smiling and mopping, chatting and fanning, laughing at his jokes and dabbing, trying to keep up her end of the conversation while she wanted nothing more in this world than to disappear into the kitchen and tear off her clothes and open the freezer door -- never mind that it was February -- and just stand there.

She and her husband have since had the Thermostat Wars usual in menopausal households -- "It's freezing in here!" "No, it's boiling." "Did you turn the thermostat below fifty again?" "Oh, why don't you just get flannel pajamas!" But the producer is one of the lucky ones: She has had no other indicators beyond hot flashes that she is passing into another stage of life.

It happens to every woman. Pregnancy we can choose to go through or not. With menopause there is no choice. It happens to teachers and discount store clerks and dental hygienists, who nonetheless have to function in public, on their feet, every day. It happens to Navy pilots and gray-haired graduate students and former Olympic athletes, who are accustomed to demanding the highest physical and mental performance from themselves. It happens to women of color, to women in the home, it happens even in Hollywood. Gorgeous Goldie, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Candy Bergen, too, must deal with menopause. These women are hardly over the hill. In fact, they are more potent than ever.

But they never mention the big M.

The central myth is that menopause is a time in a woman's life when she goes batty for a few years -- subject to wild rages and deep depressions -- and after it she mourns her lost youth and fades into the woodwork. In truth, menopause is a bridge to the most vital and liberated period in a woman's life.

Certainly hormones have a powerful effect on our physical life and our mood, just as hormones underlie male aggression and affect potency as men age. During the passage through menopause, when hormones are spiking and falling a few times every day, or possibly within an hour, many women do experience waves of fatigue and bouts of the blues. But that is very different from clinical depression. And most important, it is temporary.

In fact, women in their fifties, once through menopause, have the lowest rates of clinical depression compared to women at any other stage of life. Depression actually subsides with age for women.

Ironically, the people who are the most evasive and unsympathetic about menopause tend to be women in their forties. Slouching toward the bridge to that unknown and frightening new territory of "postmenopausal woman," they may become "menophobic." Their own resistance to identifying with the stage of life beyond reproductivity is sometimes expressed in an uncharacteristic intolerance of their own friends.

A thirty-nine-year-old Chicago woman moved to a new city the year her premature menopause came on. Although she made new friends quickly, they began to shun her as soon as she mentioned physical signs associated with the Change. The ostracized woman struggled through five years with a large fibroid cyst and digestive problems before her friends and doctors acknowledged the source of her difficulties.

"I clearly remember not being sympathetic," recalled one of her friends with considerable regret. Others of the woman's friends remembered their impatience. "We'd talk about her among ourselves: 'She's complaining about hot flashes and stomach problems again this week. Why doesn't she just get over it?' We never really said, 'She's suffering.' We certainly never mentioned the possibility of menopause. And here we are, women."

"Women can be the worst," acknowledged her best friend.

The formerly shunned woman now realizes, "People wouldn't relate my problems to menopause because that would automatically classify them as old." Menopause must be one of the most misunderstood passages in a woman's life. One study showed that two-thirds of all American women say nothing to anybody as they approach what may be a distressing and even fearsome Change. But who can blame us? Menopause is inextricably linked with middle age, and in the youth-oriented societies of North America and Europe even the mention of middle age has a stigma about it. Shame, fear, and misinformation are the vague demons that have kept us silent about a passage that could not be more universal among females. The most common fears are: I'll lose my looks, I'II lose in my sex appeal, I'll get depressed, I'll become invisible. We don't have to lose any of these things. Yet the obvious sources of information and comfort -- mothers, doctors, academics -- have shied away from the subject. All that is changing as the subject of menopause becomes part of our public conversation.

Today fifty is the apex of the female life cycle. And menopause is more properly seen as the gateway to a Second Adulthood, a series of stages never before part of the predictable life cycle for other than the very long-lived.

If forty-five is the old age of youth, fifty is the youth of a woman's Second Adulthood. In fact, we can anticipate at least as many years of life after menopause as we have already lived as reproductive women. You don't believe it? Consider. Most women begin menstruating around thirteen and begin stopping at around forty-eight -- remaining defined, and confined, to some degree by their procreative abilities for thirty-five years. The life expectancy of an average woman who lives to age fifty in the U.S. or U.K. is now eighty-one. (A man of fifty can expect to live until seventy-six.) So, from the time she reaches perimenopause, the average woman has thirty-three more years.

The projected life span of the current generation of women now hitting fifty in the U.S. is beyond anything known by the human species. They can expect to live routinely into their eighties and nineties. Here is the most stunning statistic, affirmed by Kenneth Manton, research professor of demographic studies at Duke University.

A healthy, fifty-year-old American woman who does not succumb to heart disease or cancer can expect to see her ninety-second birthday.

Whoever prepared us for the possibility that we might live long enough to forget the name of our first husband?

Since there has been virtually no period in the history of the human species when evolution has favored postmenopausal females, we shall have to favor ourselves. We shall have to intervene -- medically, hormonally, psychologically, spiritually -- because we cannot assume that aging will go smoothly. Evolution didn't provide for it.

The main point is that we are living longer lives than ever before. But my impression from talking to thousands of women all over America and Europe is that this new perspective -- only milliseconds old in evolutionary terms -- has not caught up with most people.

Women today often believe they are well-informed about menopause. But the majority of women regard menopause as a short-term event and do not connect it with long-term health problems in postmenopausal life, such as heart disease, osteoporosis, or cancer. Less than half the women in a recent Gallup survey related the Change to these important issues, and more than one in four did not see a doctor at all, because they felt their symptoms were a natural part of menopause.

A keen social observer, British novelist Fay Weldon, points to the psychology of these women: "They'd on the whole rather not know -- for if we don't know, it doesn't matter." But it does matter. It matters whether or not a woman in her sixties finds it painful to walk or even bend as a result of osteoporosis. It matters when a woman in her fifties has a heart attack. It matters that women look these possibilitie...

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