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Hot Flashes, Hormones, and Killer Whales: Talking About Menopause With Darcey Steinke

Darcey Steinke
June 28, 2019

By Debbie Koenig

When writer Darcey Steinke started to have hot flashes—a key indicator of menopause—she decided to keep a diary about her experiences. That led to her new book, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life. In it, she examines the science behind menopause, what we know and what we don’t, as well as what women can learn from another creature that experiences this transition: killer whales.

WebMD spoke with Steinke about what she found. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WebMD: Flash Count Diary is part literary memoir, part scientific examination of menopause. What made you want to write a book like this?

Darcey Steinke: I was at the very beginning of menopause, waking up with hot flashes, having trouble sleeping, feeling disoriented, not like my former self. I was walking around in the middle of the night molting, changing into a new creature. You often hear people make fun of menopausal women, but I hadn’t read anything about the profound transformation, the sci-fi-ness of it.

I found a few books that were sort of helpful, and some that were beautiful and insightful, but also a lot of terrible books, memoirs with a lot of suffering, books saying the solution was hormones. I’m not against hormones, but menopause is so much more profound than that. Also books that were scientifically wrong, playing on the idea of “crazy menopausal lady syndrome.” I felt so vulnerable, and to read a book that says if you don’t take hormones your husband will leave you—it’s painful. I got angry. I never really know anything unless I write about it, so I decided to write my own book.

WebMD: You say in the book that before menopause started, you knew plenty about both menstruation and pregnancy, but very little about what to expect going into menopause.

Steinke: You learn a little about menstruation from mom, hopefully, and school, and the narrative around pregnancy and birth is one of the strongest female oral traditions. But nobody wants to talk about menopause. Even my close friends would only talk about a few struggles. You go through it in isolation. My mother never talked to me about it. There was a lot of shame in her family. I saw her suffering but didn’t know what it was.

WebMD: You started keeping a hot flash diary as a way of tracking your symptoms. How did that help, and what did you learn from the practice?

Steinke: I’ll never forget my first hot flash, in bed, covered in sweat. Now that I know more about what flashes are, I know it’s a lot of the same things that happen when people have seizures. It doesn’t feel like you’re just hot, it’s a lot more. You feel like you’re in an elevated state of weird eeriness. At first it was so intense, and as they kept coming, I thought I should start keeping track. I had a feeling it would help—I did that before I decided to write a book.

It helps me when things aren’t just bad but also interesting. The diary helped me feel like it was something fascinating, something I was going to go deep into. Each hot flash was so unique—sometimes my back, sometimes my neck into my head. The heat seemed to come at different places in my body.

They used to think having hot flashes lasts for six months, a year, but now the doctors say it can last between six months and 10 years. I still have maybe two a day, where I used to have 15 a day. I have friends in their 70s who still get the occasional hot flash.

WebMD: What are some of the upsides of going through menopause?

Steinke: I think there are a lot! Some intuitively don’t seem like upsides, but they are. I was forced to stare at my mortality and beyond. I’m a creature with a life stamp, I’ve been on the earth for a while and I’m going into the long end period. That’s been helpful, to accept that and look that in the eye. It makes me value life more.

I really like not cycling. I think it’s great. I like not having that hormonal shift over the month, the instability. I’ve struggled with depression on and off, and I feel clear and stable now, in a way I’ve never felt before.

A lot of the negatives, if you go deep, they’re not really negative. The sexual side effects, painful penetration, if you talk to your partner about what your body is like now, you get off the old sexual script. A lot of intimacy comes from that. You have to be frank about your body and its changes. Hopefully your partner is sympathetic and cares, and it leads to a place of real connection.

Also, I just don’t care as much what people think about me. I don’t care if they think I’m attractive—I’m myself and I’ll do the best I can. I want to connect with other people, but I’m less interested in pleasing others.

WebMD: Ultimately you decided to give up on finding an antidote for your hot flashes. Why?

Steinke: My mom had breast cancer, and I was with her during that process. There was some talk then that she had been on hormones. Hormones have been linked to breast cancer but the percentage is very small, so it’s a risk a lot women are willing to take to relieve their symptoms. I knew that for me, I’m so anxious, it wouldn’t be worth it. I decided pretty quickly I wasn’t going to. My doctor feels that if you can move through menopause without them, you should.

Rather than fight it, I decided to accept it. There’s no cure, it’s something to meditate on. The idea that our fertile stage is the most important part of our lives is very dangerous, and hormones support that idea. Menopause is such a rich passage. There’s so much more. It gets debased into, “Should I take hormones or not?” Once I accepted this was happening, it was better for me to find a way to think about it than try to cure it.

But it’s completely a personal choice. Women are judged enough. I’d never judge anyone who wants to do it. If it helps, more power to them.

WebMD: You point out that nobody proposes eliminating childhood, adolescence, or other natural rites of passage. So why do we try so hard to undo menopause?

Steinke: It drives me crazy. No one tries to shut down puberty or birth. Menopause is the only female life stage people want to eradicate. There are many reasons: Women are mostly valued for sexuality and motherhood in our culture. There’s a lot of shame and fear when those phases are over. In the 1960s, Robert Wilson called us sexless eunuchs in his book Feminine Forever. He started the idea that menopause is a disease that has to be cured. Why would you want a woman who didn’t have smooth skin, shiny hair, a moist vagina? That idea got lodged in the culture.

I think there’s a huge amount of fear-mongering around menopause. It makes women not want to admit they’re going through it. It makes them feel vulnerable—a lot of women feel safer as they age if they can keep their fertile signs and symbols.

WebMD: Through your research, you wound up digging pretty deep into the lives of female killer whales. What connections do you see to the lives of women?

Steinke: We know that whales have culture. They pass down information. Whales have been seen training their young how to kill a seal. We can’t understand their speech, but we know they have names, 100 recognizable sounds, like a language. They have a community that has some similarities to ours.

But I don’t think their value is that they’re like us—they’re themselves and they’re really powerful. Particularly J2, known as Granny, who died in 2016. She was leader of the J pod [in Washington State’s Puget Sound]. Scientists were always talking to me about her leadership. She’d slap her tail and all the whales would line up behind her. She knew a lot about where to find salmon, how to fish. I’m inspired by her expertise.

When you get into your 50s and 60s, you know a lot. Culture debases you as a worn-out hag, but in reality your knowledge is really high. Whatever you’ve spent your life doing— work, how to be a mother, how to be a daughter, you know a lot. I think that’s where the whales are like women, they have that swagger. If we could live in a culture where we’re more respected, we’d have that swagger. I want that, I think it’s possible. You’re actually quite competent, adept, knowledgeable, cool.

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