Hot Flashes

By Sonja Herbert

When I felt my first hot flash, I decided I wouldn’t be one of these weak women who needed chemicals to feel good about their changing selves. I gave birth to six children without epidurals, and, after my marriage fell apart, I raised them by myself for eight years. Just because I finally found the perfect guy and re-married didn’t mean I wasn’t a strong woman who was in control.

However, the unwelcome flashy guests became more and more insistent. I talked to my mother-in-law, who was then 82. “Do the hot flashes ever go away?” I asked her.

“Don’t bank on it,” Mother Towne said. “I still get them occasionally, in spite of my age.”

Oh yeah. That won’t ever happen to me. My mother, also in her 80s, still lives in Germany and walks five kilometers every day. She’s never had a single hot flash in her life.

I said a polite “Oh my goodness,” to Mother Towne, and went my way, even more determined to wait out these pesky flashes, and become tough and enduring like my mother.

A few years went by. One night I woke, a hot flash straddling my racing heart. All kinds of terrible images invaded my sleepy mind. I catapulted up, convinced that my youngest daughter, who was still with us at 17, wasn’t home yet and had been in some terrible accident.

I woke my sleepy husband, who mumbled, “Whatsamatter?”

“Meagan,” I almost yelled. “Is Meagan home?”

“Simmer down,” Ken said. “Meagan came home before you went to bed. Remember?”

“Oh.” Yes. Then I remembered. She came in just as I turned off the TV.

I sank back into the blankets. The hot flash must have gotten tired of the havoc it had created and took the midnight train my racing heart had tried to catch. I lay in bed, trying to figure out what had just happened while Ken rolled over and resumed his soft snores. This sudden panic had come upon me unexpectedly and without warning, shutting down my reasoning facilities of which I was so proud. Shamefacedly, I told myself this was just a momentary lapse. With renewed determination not to let menopause win, I went back to sleep.

During the next year, I had many more anxiety attacks, but proudly talked myself out of them every time. I could win this fight if I just stuck with it.

The next summer, as so many times before, Ken and I went camping. Ken put up the tent, I got the blankets from the van, and we made our usual cozy nest beneath the Oregon fir trees. I snuggled into the inside corner, my jeans still on and covered myself with all the blankets I could find. Ken cozied up next to me by the entrance. For a little while we talked, laughed and then went to sleep.

My old visitor, hot flash, woke me. I struggled to get rid of the blankets to cool off when my head hit the low tent ceiling. My heart joined the struggle and aimlessly raced up and down in my chest.

I couldn’t breathe. This tiny crowded space held no air. I struggled to free myself from the constraining blankets. My hands struck the damp tent walls. My flailing got me tangled tighter into the blankets. My heart tried to push out of my chest to catch its own breath. I struggled over Ken, pulling the blankets behind me and groped for the exit.

There was no exit!

Ken tried to push me back into the terrible coffin-like space behind him. I pushed him away, fumbled for the zipper with my last shred of reasoning and burst from the tent.

Outside, in the pitch dark, I took deep breaths, calming my crazy heart. Ken must have thought that I needed to go to the bathroom. Let him think that. I wouldn’t be the one to enlighten him. Sitting on pine needles in the dark, I told myself this unexplainable, and never before experienced, bout of claustrophobia was but another manifestation of menopause. My strong, independent self should not succumb to it.

I was woman! I had taken life by the horns and conquered it! Menopause would not become my master! And I would not succumb to hormone replacement therapy, like other, weaker women. Eventually I crawled back into the tent and dozed on and off until daylight. The claustrophobia did not return.

In August, my mother visited from Germany. Mutti, as I call her, had grown smaller, but she was healthy, happy and delighted to see me. As we talked, the subject of menopause came up. “How come you never had hot flashes?” I asked, wiping the sweat from my brow.

She wrapped herself tighter into her jacket. “When I was about 45, I went to the doctor and got these pills,” she said.

I was dumbfounded. Here I was, believing all these years that Mutti was living proof hot flashes could be overcome and menopause could be conquered, and now she tells me she’s been on HRT all that time? I opened my mouth.

Before I could say anything, Mutti said, “I wasn’t going to deal with hot flashes while raising all of you. Do you think I should quit taking them now? After all, they are probably gone when you are 84.”

“Mother Towne says they aren’t,” was all I could say.

I was uncharacteristically quiet the rest of the day.

That night, Ken suggested we go camping. “I’m too old for such stuff,” Mutti said. “I’d rather go to the mall and do some walking.” I said nothing. I’d go camping again any time. But from now on, I would sleep on the outside. Let Ken wonder. I don’t care.

Maybe the hot flashes, anxiety attacks and the claustrophobia will give up one day. I won’t.

About this writer

  • Sonja Herbert Sonja Herbert is the author of an award-winning unpublished novel about her mother surviving the Holocaust in a circus, and of many other true stories. Her website is germanwriter.com.

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