Many of my friends are too well aware of my rather dry humour. Or my wild and inappropriate humour. Or – sometimes – my descent into unadulterated madness.
Today, these qualities will combine. And I shall also be adulting – specifically directed at women of a certain age and those who care about them. Care sexually, in addition to other forms of interaction. The topic calls for a bottom-line discussion here. You have been warned. The non-latex gloves are off.
So I’m relaxing in the tub, content with my usual foaming indulgence, assured that I won’t be interrupted by anyone. Living alone has its perks. Nobody pounds at the closed door or hollers at me to hurry up. I bathe in blissful silence. Through the steam, I can hear Bach and Handel. Bach appeals to me because, well, he’s Bach. Paterfamilias of multiple offspring, cornerstone of a musical dynasty, and rather attractive with his enigmatic half-smile, as if he’s hiding an especially fun idea that he will never share.
I know how that feels. I’ve been doing it quite a bit lately. With or without the “fun” part.
Handel I just … like. Confirmed bachelor, beautiful soul, man who dances to the same winds that play through my own trees. Like me, he has left the world no copy. No biological child to pass along his genes. His music is his bequest. We can’t always procreate. Some of us, however, create in other ways.
So I contemplate this small body sprawled below my chin. Explore its slippery contours, scrub them kindly. Decide that I’m in better shape than I’ve been for twenty years. I am, in fact, younger than my former self, in most of the ways that matter. The calendar is useful for recording to-do notes but not otherwise.
I’ve been solo for a long stretch now, either in the midst of plenty or at the mercy of circumstance. I tell myself it’s a preferable state for anyone past her prime – if I’m there yet. No fuss, no inconvenient adjustment to someone else’s choices. Just … easier. I say this quite often. I have almost come to believe it, but not quite. The woman in the foam sloshes water over her breasts and thighs. She wonders whether they will be of the slightest damn interest to another living human being, ever again. Anyone who might have appreciated them is either nonexistent or dead. So she believes.
The ego-centered “I” darts like a hummingbird from thought to thought. Droplets bead on her skin. They reflect light and perhaps her eyes. My eyes. They have sadness in them, and hope too. They are the windows to a soul not completely rubbed clean by time or chance. Rubbed raw, however. I have not bled from my flesh since age 52 but I bleed every day from parts that no one sees.
And thereby hangs a tale, which too many women know. We’ve memorized every word of it. We’re the ex-lovers who don’t dare look ahead to the next chance, the people whose cells feel uninterested in every new experience. The ladies who long for reassurance that we’re still attractive, still desirable, perhaps still destined to walk again in a couples’ world. Everyone is partnered, it seems. We’re clumsy that way. We fear to attract attention, lest we disappoint. We might run from it – the quirky smiles, the curious appraisals, the extended hands that want to meet ours. We step around men standing at our bus stops, because we can’t ride with them. Maybe they won’t enjoy our company once they realize it comes with a certain deficit. That’s how we think.
The medical community steps around us, too. Once our reproductive cycles have ended, few of us ask our doctors any questions relating to sex. It’s like a slamming barn door. The horse leaves with such frantic speed we’re coated with dust, standing dry in the road. Stinging with the kicked sand. Only 22% of women past the age of 50 ever raise sexual concerns with their physicians. 38% of men, however, ask such questions. Still not enough – but more than we do. (Mayo Clinic, Sexuality in the Aging Female, Carol L. Kuhle, 2016)
Why don’t we speak? Why can we not snip the silken threads that bind our mouths?
But it’s damned hard to go there. Vaginal atrophy affects up to half of all post-menopausal women. Suddenly, things aren’t so great “down below”. Parts of us shrink. They hurt. It’s like sandpaper on gravel. The spirit is willing but the proverbial flesh is not only weak, it’s screaming. Nature’s programming ensures that we will be reproductively sound as long as this is needed and then the gyne-goddess decrees that it’s time to stop that sort of nonsense. Like she has a say, right? We know what we want and a stop sign isn’t the sort of erection we have in mind at this point. Still … there are undeniable conditions.
For those women lucky enough to be sexually active when menopause swings its club at them, the impact of age can be diminished or at least made less awful. “Use it or lose it.” Still, we can’t predict which of us will end up falling off the veggie truck. Make that vaggie truck. Our partners call us by unflattering names. Cold. Frigid. Indifferent. They take it personally. We just take it. And when they abandon us for warmer beds, we sometimes find their forgotten packets of little blue pills in our medicine cabinets. The seesaw is unbalanced from the get-go. We fall on our asses. The thud is jarring, the consequences lasting. Ouch.
So we fear to try again. We are afraid to love. We’re scared to disappoint. But there’s really no set route to the finish line here. There are many other options besides the planted flagpole. We grew up with some pretty ground-breaking books to guide us. We’re not our grandmothers. Women are adept at adapting. We can express our physical interests and desires in several different ways – rather pleasurable, at that. For both parties.
But ours is very clearly a penetrative society. Viagra has made it even more so. And we cannot always be penetrated. Not by choice, merely by biology’s punches over time. We are (we’re led to believe) lessened if we don’t engage in the whole nine yards. Or six inches. Or whatever fits.
As I write this, “I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly” soars through the room. I used to sing it, many years ago; this was one I learned when I was studying voice, because I asked to learn it. I would give much to sing that lovely, anguished piece again. The last person to play for me is gone now; I have no love from which to fly or even limp. And a natural process is hardly sickness.
So here it is: I want to raise a window, lean outside, breathe the same joy I used to feel every single morning of the world. Shout to the sun. Become once again the woman I am inside – the woman who has never walked away. The burning self within the shell. Venus rising from the sea, or a tepid bath, or just a small bed where cats stretch with the daylight.
Yet that woman is anxious and discouraged. My current doctor has been forthright. “If you are ever in a position to consider a new relationship, there are treatments.” She’s a young woman, and I think she gets it more than most. Over-the-counter supplies can help, I suppose. They have cutesy names like Replens and Satin. Or maybe it’s Satan? We – the already-defeated – hesitate to go there. We don’t want to speak to a pharmacist. We study the packaging, squint at the instructions. Sounds messy. Sounds a bit futile. And rather paradoxical, since we won’t need this stuff until we have a use for it, or use it until we need it. I guess a crystal ball goes with the potions and lotions and creams.
The doctor’s more potent arsenal includes estrogen products. These can be effective but their content casts a long shadow. Female cancers. Breasts, ovaries, uterus. Deadly consequences of our craving for wholeness. Back in the day, when I believed myself less vulnerable and perhaps more obligated to act, a prescription was handed to me. With a warning – “I don’t want you on this for more than three months.” Great, right? Make the beast with two backs and then die before my time, if I’m unlucky. And trust me, I am unlucky more than I care to admit. I’m the woman who sprained her ankle once, driving to Halifax. Guess I pressed too hard on the gas pedal. You haven’t truly encountered embarrassment until you’re on crutches because you’ve got a heavy foot.
Then there are the sources of these creams. Premarin is a big zero for me; it comes from pregnant-mare urine. I know way too much about the PMU farms to ever consider that particular treatment. Estrace – estradiol cream – is made from plant-based estrogen, which makes it much more appealing. Still, if we’re contemplating either of these products, it’s advisable to read the monographs and chat with the medical pros. Then we’ll be aware and informed. These substances aren’t what our bodies ask for – only our minds. So there can be tricky side effects.
Meanwhile, I’m not sharing this piece on social media. We’re immersed in silence when attempting to discuss such topics. We can post messages of hate, or truly horrendous jokes, or graphic images of wounded creatures. But this health information might be deemed a bit “much” by some folks. And since I do want it to be read, I’ll use discretion – for now. I’m not exactly a model of discreet behaviour.
But I’m a woman; I hurt like so many of us. The sadness never leaves my eyes. I’ll do what I can to help it leave yours – or hers – or the quiet lady’s, as she’s browsing the pharmacy shelves. The one who simply won’t ask, won’t speak. Won’t admit to her own grief.
Information for Further Reading:
The Globe and Mail – Taking the stigma out of vaginal atrophy – without a little blue pill
The Guardian – When it comes to menopausal hormone therapy, women are left guessing at the risks
Livestrong – The Types of Estrogen Cream
Mayo Clinic – Sexuality in the Aging Female
Medscape – Vaginal Atrophy: The 21st Century Health Issue Affecting Quality of Life