The heat starts deep under my skin, pushing towards the surface with the force and inevitability of an oncoming wave.
I can feel when it starts, but by then it is too late.
I can tell myself that I am not actually hot, just flooded with sensation, but it makes no difference. I am warm, wet, dripping.
My internal thermostat is broken.
Every month, I go to have an implant injected into my stomach. And it freezes my body’s cycles. I feel I am standing on the knife’s edge of menopause.
It’s not much fun during the days, but it’s the nights that really get me.
I wake up, shivering and sweating at the same time.
If I get up to use the toilet, or tend to Rosie after she cries out, I know I have to budget at least fifteen minutes of lying in bed before I can put the covers back on. Otherwise the heat will come.
I don’t think women were designed to go through this change while looking after small children.
Bit by bit, it makes my sleep unravel.
I am doing everything in my power to cling to my potential to rest. It seems strange to think I used to be a champion sleeper.
There has been some improvement. One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I borrowed a book about insomnia from the online library at 2am. I proceeded to start following every recommendation in the book to the letter.
It seems to be working.
The most important part is sleep restriction – you are not allowed to do anything but sleep in your bed, and if you are stressing out, or not tired, you have to get back out of bed.
Maybe I am just so exhausted that it helps me sleep through the heatwaves? But somehow, my overall energy does feel better.
I don’t touch sugar. I meditate every day (mostly). I do yoga, even if just for five minutes, every day.
And then for one day I stop doing those things. I eat a bowl of ice cream. I sleep in instead of doing yoga. I write instead of meditate. And suddenly I am hot again.
Correlation or causation? Who knows.
Let’s blame sugar. It’s always easy to blame sugar.
It’s the same red-faced sensation that accompanies embarrassment, where you feel the warmth flooding your face. Only this time the trigger isn’t shame. It’s something else – but what?
The root cause remains a mystery.
I thought maybe these episodes wouldn’t be as frustrating if I understood why it happened. So I googled it. And from what I can tell from my amateur research, it is a mystery.
No one knows why women find themselves suddenly at the mercy of an out of control internal furnace. Despite the fact that every woman eventually goes through some version of this change, there simply hasn’t been enough research done to understand it.
Why don’t we talk about this more – what it feels like, how we cope? Sometimes it feels like I am the only person in the world this is happening to. And yet, it’s hard to think of an experience more universal. Not every woman bears a child. But every woman travels through the menopause if she is lucky to live long enough.
There are sometimes I don’t mind the sensation of the heat. I can observe it calmly, almost as if I were outside myself. It’s fascinating, feeling it move through my body like a row of dominoes, toppling one after another.
I thought hot flashes were boring before I experienced them, but each one feels like a dramatic episode: inciting incident, build to an overwhelming climax, denoument.
I was someone who was always cold. No longer.
I keep blankets in layers. I look longing at clothes made from synthetic fabrics I can no longer bring myself to wear.
When this change happened to my mother, she joked about it being a kind of game: “she’s hot, she’s cold, she’s freezing”.
It isn’t fun. But I can keep things in perspective: the sensations were infinitely worse during chemo.
I imagined my ovaries screaming, shrivelled up, dying in reaction to the toxic chemicals bathing my body.
In the space of just a few months I had gone from breastfeeding, through IVF, to this hormonal wasteland. No wonder my body was crashing.
When people asked me how I was coping, I would tell them “I can’t control my temperature.” Which on the surface doesn’t seem like a particularly devastating side effect, given the challenges cancer can bring. Listening to myself, it sounded like complaining about trivial things. I had no way of communicating how excruciating it was. I came to dread bedtime, when it was at its worst.
Between the headaches and the hot flashes and the gastrointestinal distress, I reached a point where I forgot what normal sleep felt like.
By comparison, now is a walk in the park.
And yet, I am still hot.
Sometimes, when I feel the heat start to spread, I imagine that I am lying on a beach, with the sun warming my body, and a cool drink by my side. It’s the closest I will get to a vacation during these crazy times.
I will be glad when this rollercoaster eventually stops. There is a surgery in my future that will take care of that. For now, I just try to accept it.
I don’t know how to be honest about it without being melodramatic. (Maybe it’s the hormones talking.) I’m worried this makes it all sound unbearable.
It isn’t. It’s just another strange experience of living in a female body.
It is almost bedtime. I have no idea what awaits me, sleep or sauna.
But as the heat rises and the blood rushes, at least I can take comfort in this undeniable evidence that I am alive.
Photo by Armando Ascorve Morales on Unsplash