I remember looking in the mirror and wondering why I had seemingly aged 10 years overnight, why I was crashing repeatedly throughout the day, and why I had no energy. Eventually after a number of visits to the doctor, “early perimenopause” was my doctor’s diagnosis along with hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. My hormones, thyroid and adrenals went haywire all at the same time contributing to a health crisis.
I started taking bioidentical estrogen in my 30s to rebalance my system, along with other bioidentical hormones, a thyroid supplement and a number of herbal remedies to support my adrenals. After a number of years of feeling pretty awful during which time my medical team put me through numerous tests, and we worked through getting my medication doses at a level where I could function, I came out the other side thankful. My integrative team of conventional and alternative medical folks, the ability to pay for tests and medications, and an understanding workplace helped get me back on my feet.
Other women I spoke to about their own experiences reported similar stories; some of my peers doubted their ability to function without the help of the medications they ended up on to support them around menopause.
It’s an ongoing process as my body continues to change and my hormones continue to change with it. And then of course there is the jolly outside world to contend with! Relationship stress, workload stress, world events – impermanence does, indeed (as the Buddha pointed out) seem to be a constant.
I went through a period of burnout, whose symptoms include irritability, lack of patience, putting up relationship barriers, and spending my hours either working or crashing.
And so just recently a time of relationship stress and workload stress has bumped up against a time of estrogen imbalance. Feeling the weight of having too much work and the constant nagging of a feisty inner critic contributed to strained relationships as I went through a period of burnout, whose symptoms included irritability, lack of patience, putting up relationship barriers, and spending my hours either working or crashing. Somewhere along the line my work joy turned into work stress, but as these things go, I didn’t see when this happened and I was in way too deep by the time I finally called out for help. Fortunately I’m on the other side of the worst of it now.
And being on the other side of it might mean the difference between feeling an estrogen imbalance as a blessing or a problem. Somewhere in the last few months my hormones went out of balance again, evidenced by some physical symptoms along with some fascinating emotional symptoms. Given that estrogen is the hormone that makes us more sensitive to emotions, having too much means I am over-sensitive to events I come across. But, as a follow on effect, I also have an uncanny willingness to take care of myself (women have mega doses of estrogen and oxytocin during childbirth and breast-feeding to help them bond with their baby). It makes total sense, evolutionarily, that an excess of estrogen simultaneously makes a woman hypersensitive to the pain her child is going through, and totally devoted to responding to that pain. Fortunately, estrogen gives us this ability to do these things for ourselves as well as for our children.
… when I wake up with a vulnerability hangover or shame nails my feet to the floor, I am able to bring mindfulness into the scene to notice these things are happening.
Along with this period of hypersensitivity, something else interesting has happened. When I wake up with a vulnerability hangover or shame nails my feet to the floor, I am able to bring mindfulness into the scene more readily to notice these things are happening. And when mindfulness accompanies me, I notice a subtle chain reaction:
- Difficult emotions hit.
- I start to abandon myself as the going gets tough. I feel this viscerally as a part of my essence starting to leave my body – probably a mild version of dissociation – as I react to that which seems too difficult to stay with. Feelings of shame, unworthiness, blame – these are things that can seem too much to be with, and so the option to escape can be appealing.
- But then, with mindfulness and a bunch of tending and befriending hormones in my system, I have noticed when that part of me starts to take flight, and the words, “Stay with me,” are offered spontaneously in response. There’s a part of me that notices that I’m checking out, and it asks me to stay instead. Always, in response, I feel the part that’s on its way out the door hesitate, and there is a moment of choice to stay or to leave. The wedge of mindfulness helps me to pause at that choice point.
- Then, in response, the part that has started to leave returns, but that too comes with a subtle and visceral pain – the pain of staying with a difficult situation. There is a physical response to the staying, but a knowing that this is what needs to be done in order to take care of myself.
- There is a short period of discomfort as my parts are reunited, but no sense of joy or coming home like I might anticipate. There is really just a feeling of the lack of being abandoned, which is surprisingly uneventful compared to the feeling of being abandoned. I think there might be another part of me that kinda’ likes the drama of abandonment – I get to be at the center of my attention as the one who has been abandoned. Not abandoning myself feels more like the subtle groundedness of equanimity – and no-one is writing Hollywood screen scripts about the thrill of equanimity 🙂
- Then I go along with my day, with just a remnant of memory of such a dramatic internal event that deflated into nothing. There’s not even anything particularly satisfying or gratifying – but there is lack of suffering, and I’ll take that!
It’s sort of ironic that showing up for myself is less exciting than abandoning myself, but this mirrors the process of growing from childhood to teenage years to young adulthood to maturity – we lose our status as the one to be taken care of and we become the one who cares for.
And so while this short period of estrogen excess makes life exquisitely more painful, it has also given me the opportunity to stay with myself: to react to abandonment by calling out “Stay with me,” as an act of asking for what I need; and to respond in the affirmative because I know I have the strength to stay even in the face of difficult emotions. This is the definition of compassion – feeling the sadness of a situation and choosing to not abandon the one who is suffering. When done as an internal process, this is self-compassion. It’s sort of ironic that showing up for myself is less exciting than abandoning myself, but this mirrors the process of growing from childhood to teenage years to young adulthood to maturity – we lose our status as the one to be taken care of and we become the one who cares for. Had I been a parent, I might have been in this place earlier in my life.
What I am feeling grateful for now is a mindfulness practice, an understanding of the physiology of shame and self-compassion, an understanding of the effects of my hormones, and a lifestyle that allows me to notice all of this. Contemplative monastics are on to something when they cultivate a simple life in order to notice what is going on for them – without space in my new schedule, I would have much more trouble finding time to practice.
And so the adventure continues…