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The following article appeared in The Phoenix, November 1997 (the oldest and largest recovery newspaper in the United States) www.phoenixrecovery.org

Menopause: Changing Hormones, Changing Perspectives

by Kathleen Laughlin

Documentary filmmakers often find, vicariously, gifts of knowledge, adventure and stimulation in whatever their current project is. We get led by jobs, clients and events into the middle of situations that would have taken us a lifetime to learn about otherwise. My latest video project, Woman on Fire: Menopause Stories, was like that, but with a twist. Alongside the lives and stories of the 25 wise women in my video, it was my also my own life, past and present, from which I would learn.

The scene is 1990, I'm 45 years old. Since about age 42, I had been unnerved by a catalogue of new changes in myself -- everything from totally random and horrible periods to numbness in my hands, to a growing fear of imbalance on my husband's small sailboat, to a new habit of silence in certain places, because I did not trust myself to speak intelligently, and, conversely, to unpredictable tirades in certain other places, as I had grown so opinionated.

Then, in someone's editing studio one hot summer day, it finally dawned on me that the room's discomfort level was not a constant -- it was me! And in experiencing that strange bird, the hot flash, for the first time, something primitive clicked in; I realized that my problems were probably all related to that catch-all time, menopause!

I had only heard the word used by a few doctors in their refrain to me, "...but you couldn't be in menopause yet..." and had only seen a few books on the subject, which all seemed to downplay menopausal changes with talk of a certain drug therapy. So I, too, had dismissed the whole shebang -- until the day of recognizing the flashes! After that I was so intrigued I started to seek out books, advice and explanations. The desire to make the video came when there weren't enough books, when they didn't agree, when I talked to many understandably confused friends. The direction the video would take came when I found a few writers who went beyond the logical explanations of a woman's natural change (fertility to non-fertility) and spoke of this period of their life as a journey, a mystery, a source of power and a transformation. If this could apply to my life, I didn't want to miss out.

I started with some self-exploration. Thirty years of deciding not to have children, once I lost the ability to do so, became a source of nagging depression. My mother was 13 years dead, and we'd never once talked about menopause; I felt a lack of older models, and was curious about other cultural models. I also noticed I was forgetting things, losing things, switching numbers, letters, dates. All this would find its way into the video.

I came to see that menopause was a call to pay attention -- to my body, to being a woman, and to my whole life -past, present and future. That I found any permission or encouragement to pause and consider all this, I have to credit Marian Van Eyk McCain in her book, Transformation Through Menopause. Cocoon, withdraw, remember, reassess, she says. The black and white "memories" that skip through my video are a direct result; originally far below the surface, I had to take a lot of time to pull things up about my mom. And it was not easy to decide how to dramatize them. Choosing an actress to be my mother?! Put words in her mouth, and live with it? Terrifying! Yet even my sister was comfortable with how actress Sharon Fazel became "mom"! Could it also be that my changing hormones were changing my perspectives? Both Dr. Sadja Greenwood and nurse practitioner Maura Kelsea remind us in the video that as the hormones change, the makeup of every cell in the body changes from what it has been the last 35 years. Kelsea adds, "...even spirit is changed..." I cut away to the camera circling the magical morning glory pool at Yellowstone.

Another piece in McCain's book I particularly liked was her not-so-idle speculation that instead of our physical changes being the catalyst to retrench and rethink, perhaps it is an inborn need, a time necessary to do this thinking, that actually helps to trigger the physical changes! What? say the scientists! But I was wide open. In my research mode, I was reading an article on traditional African folk arts. This article mentioned a traditional belief that any change in a pattern signaled a conjunction of ancestral power, a point of transformation; I nodded my head.

Sandy Boucher echoes this perspective in the video when speaking of her period ".. just because it was always regular, didn't mean I was in control of it!" What clues might there be in this out-of-control time and feeling? That it is bigger than oneself? That it is archetypal? That it is a test? That it is a path to rebirth?

I remembered my sister's early and healing attraction to the national monument on the Olympic Peninsula, Point of Arches. She let me appropriate her "arches" metaphor, "the only way out is through." I added this to other metaphorical images women speak of for this period -- a tunnel, a dark place, the goddess Demeter's (winter) underworld, a spiral, a crossing. The 1991 book, Women of the 14th Moon: Writings on Menopause, edited by Dena Taylor and Amber Coverdale Suural, introduced me to the first women I sought to interview: Connie Batten, Sandy Boucher, Louise Thornton, Elaine Goldman Gill, Dena Taylor and Maura Kelsea. That they agreed over the phone to being in the video was a rare sign in the world of documentary, and I felt the willing comradeship of a shared goal, as I did with the black and Native American sisters I interviewed. Still, I wanted to include some conversations with women to whom I was not a stranger -- current friends and friends from my past, ones I admired, and not without opinions. So from my community, I enlisted playwright Martha Boesing, artist Sandra Menefee Taylor and educator/scholar Terri Hawthorne; and then I called three of my oldest out-of-town friends -- wild cards in my plan! They became the most fleshed out characters in the video, and valuable friendships were reclaimed.

After an infusion of academic presentations at the 1993 conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research in Boston, I gave myself permission to bypass much of the big-medical hoopla around hormone replacement therapy. I went to Cape Cod to gather some nature images, and then turned west -- my first car trip out to the California coast in over 10 years. I was ready to gather words from women in transition!

That process began auspiciously -- after our first night's motel stop in Grand Rapids, South Dakota, my associate producer and I found ourselves in a crowded restaurant sharing a table with a couple from Minneapolis. The woman turned out to be Beth Brownfield, education director at a local Unitarian church. After hearing the mission of our trip, she pulled out what she just happened to have with her -- a few pages of text from her recent menopause "croning" celebration! Any reluctance to talk about our subject (to whomever asked) melted away after that.

Because I myself was having such a hard time with the word 'crone' (dictionaries are quite unforgiving -- "withered old woman"; "hussy"; "slut"; "an old ewe"). I challenged myself to deal with it in the center of the program. I finally met an old ewe I liked in the popular English movie of 1995, Babe, but I didn't embrace the crone idea until my friend and scholar Terri Hawthorne made me understand its significance through its root words -- circle, crown, divide, cut -- and well, wasn't I an editor?

Edit I did, from the first cut of three hours to the current 93 minutes.* Because so many of the women's stories converged, the editing attempts to progress as through one long multifaceted story, and in certain places it's almost like they are all actually talking with one another! One electronic whole now, it models the kind of discussion that could probably exist anywhere in the country during any 90 minutes of women of this age gathering. I'd like my video to suggest this type of discussion because it's from each other that the permission always comes -- to see our problematic changes as an invitation to transform, to take our power, freedom and crone wisdom to do what is most meaningful to us.

A film by Kathleen Laughlin

A film by Kathleen Laughlin
A film by Kathleen Laughlin
A film by Kathleen Laughlin

 

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