You know, I used to think those t-shirts were so cute that said “It’s not a hot flash, it’s a power surge!” Yay for women! That’s what I thought. What a healthy, charming, and sharp-witted way to look at one of life’s major changes. “I’m going to get myself one of those shirts when the time comes”, I thought.
That was then. This is now. And now I’ve decided that telling women that hot flashes are empowering and fun is a lot like when parents used to tell their children they were going to an ice cream party when they were really headed into surgery to have their tonsils removed. Why do we insist on lying to each other? There is nothing empowering about a hot flash. Yes, it’s a marker on the way to a new stage of our life as women, and that’s a transition that should be honored and acknowledged, blah, blah, blah. But a power surge? Hardly.
There is nothing powerful about standing in front of a group of 50 business people as I did two weeks ago, about to make an important hour-long presentation, when suddenly I felt the telltale mini-wave of heat (I usually get a warning shot like that before the big one hits). Uh-oh. I braced myself for the next tide of warmth, and tried to ignore it with a happy smile and ice-breaking banter with the group. But how was I supposed to handle the water dripping down the side of my face? I’d brush it away quickly, and another would appear. I’d brush that away, and another would be soon be there. I shed my jacket, knowing I probably looked nervous to the group, which wasn’t exactly the impression I wanted to leave them with. How could they know that my body temperature felt like it was hitting 110˚? As I wiped away the fourth or fifth drop of sweat from near my left eye, I realized I had to say something, so I mumbled a few words about having “something in my eye – sorry!” as I tried to continue with some semblance of dignity.
For several years now, I’ve been relieved that hot flashes didn’t seem to be a big issue for me in perimenopause (that stretch of years just before the real thing). Yes, I had the very occasional hot flash, usually brought on by nerves or being in warm temperatures. But they were quick little things, and just a minor inconvenience. What was everyone complaining about? The worst one I had until very recently was after a shopping trip on a raw winter day. The store had been warm, and I was wearing a heavy winter coat and scarf. By the time Hubby and I got home, I was boiling from the inside out. He went out to get the rest of the grocery bags from the car, and by the time he came back in from the garage, I had shed coat, scarf, sweatshirt and turtleneck, and I was unpacking groceries in my bra as the snow swirled outside the window. I just put up my hand and said “hot flash”, and he walked away chuckling.
But now that I’m in the midst of the real deal “Big M”, I’m learning exactly how difficult hot flashes can be. I have days now when I cycle in and out of hot flashes twenty times or more. Jacket off, ice water, grab a book to fan myself with. Then I become totally chilled, and put the jacket back on and grab a cup of coffee. Which then sets off another hot flash, and jacket off again… Well, you get the picture. It’s irritating, distracting, and exhausting.
While some women describe becoming completely drenched in sweat during their hot flashes, I (so far and usually) just develop a sheen of sweat on my skin. Normally, my skin just feels like I’ve been outside for a while on a really hot, humid summer day.
Sometimes I am caught off guard by a full hot rush of heat that will cause me to start shedding clothing desperately (which is interesting when I’m in public…) and send me on a wild search for ice, ice water, a cool breeze, anything! But normally I get a little warning shot first that lets me know what’s coming. It’s a little spurt of warmth that just washes over my body in a flash. I now know that it’s a signal for a “big one”. Sometimes the real hot flash starts in my chest, and radiates up and out across my upper body. Sometimes it starts at the top of my scalp and flows downward. It feels like my thermostat has gone completely out of control. If you’ve never had one, you really can’t believe how fast your body can heat up. It’s like having my own little personal furnace, with the knob turned up to “high”. It’s actually pretty impressive. So for a minute or two, I’ll be boiling. And then, just like that, it’s gone.
On a not-so-good day, those hot flashes just roll over me all day long. On a good day, it will only happen 2 or 3 times. Usually right after I’ve taken my beloved scalding hot morning shower. And again after a cup of hot coffee (especially in the afternoons), and again in the evening while I’m relaxing. One neat trick I’ve learned in the morning is that my hair dryer has a “cold” setting, so I can cool my body down with my hair dryer before getting dressed – it works – honest!
And at night? Oh my Lord. I have a small throw blanket folded on top of the blanket on my side of the bed, because I’m usually cold, and Hubby never is. Over the past few months, that throw routinely goes flying in the middle of the night, as I wake up drenched in sweat. I fling off the regular blanket and sheets, and just lay there, waiting for it to pass. If I fall back to sleep right away, I’m sure to wake up 30 minutes later because now I’m cold from not having any covers on. Then I pick up the throw blanket from the floor and start all over again.
Scientific studies have indicated that the primary reason that menopause can cause irritability and forgetfulness is not because of a particular hormone, but because of these night sweats that wake us up over and over at night. Don’t believe it? You try sleeping night after night in a room where someone turns the heat up to 95 and then down to 55 every other hour. And stop laughing – it’s not funny.
Power surge? Really?!? A co-worker told me this week that she had hot flashes for a period of ten years. I almost wept. If mine keep up that long, I’ll be locked away in a padded cell somewhere, babbling incoherently from exhaustion. I just hope it’s air-conditioned.