The Queen of My Self

By Darcey Steinke

Hot flashes are inner apocalypses, singeing the body and the brain. During my first volcanic night sweat, a chaotic force moved through me. Heat rose, busting through the top of the thermometer, and swept through my body like the special effect I’d once seen on the set of a horror movie. Flames spread through a wire and rose up encircling a cabin. It was horrible, but also exquisite. Finally, I thought, God was going to communicate with me physically. Like a biblical character, I felt overwhelmed, scared, and sublime.

I waited for a voice, a vision, but all I felt was sweaty; heat seemed to be radiating out of my stomach. My bangs stuck to my forehead. I worried. Maybe it wasn’t divinity but a sign I had late-stage brain cancer. My mind raced. I’d spend my last months cultivating flowers, traveling to India, and practicing my electric guitar.

I hadn’t been looking for symptoms because, like every other premenopausal women, I didn’t think I’d suffer much from the change. I ate flaxseed and tofu. I did hot yoga and was always well hydrated. But these precautions did nothing to protect me. I suffered from insomnia, mood swings, and anxiety attacks, as well as heat that ambushed my body every hour of the day and night. I began to feel kinship, not disgust, for the red-faced ladies screaming for someone to open a window. The heat bothered me most, but I also cycled through other odd sensations. At times my tongue felt like it was burning, at other times as if I were getting electric shocks under my skin. The weirdest symptoms were inside the aura just before a hot flash: Inside that spooky, doom-filled space, I once had the acute sensation that my arms were growing out of their sockets like Play-Doh.

Puberty had also been discombobulating. I remember standing at 13 in front of the bathroom window and pulling off my T-shirt to stare, freaked out, at the new puffiness around my nipples. I’d been confused and overwhelmed then, but I also had the time to spend whole Saturdays lying on my bed listening to the same John Denver album, or I could act out with my equally revved-up girlfriends, driving by our male classmates’ split-levels while screaming the lyrics to “Desperado.”

Now, at 50, it was impossible to indulge in hormonally inspired behavior. I had a grown-up life with layers of complicated relationships and work responsibilities. At first I didn’t feel I could hold it all together. I wanted to kill menopause, shut it down completely. I begged my doctor for estrogen. She told me that because my mother had breast cancer it would be dangerous. Besides, she said, its best to go au naturel. If I needed them, she’d prescribe antidepressants.

I’d been on and off medication for years to deal with anxiety. But before my first hot flash I was in a good patch, and I didn’t want to go back on them now. Instead I tried natural remedies. I ate soy-rich foods, like yams. I took herbal supplements with names like “i-cool,” “Hot Flash Freedom,” and, my favorite, “Mellow Pause.” I shelled out cash for expensive estrogen creams that my doctor eventually told me were worthless. I took tinctures of black cohosh and vitamin E. I swam seven days a week for an hour. I cut out wine and sugar. None of this had any effect. The only thing that worked was acupuncture; after a treatment I slept better, felt calmer, flashed less. But the heat always rose up again, as well as the spooky aura before. Within a day or two I was up in the darkest part of the night, feeling as if I was losing my mind.

Often, as I lay in the dark, I thought of my mother in the years our relationship had been at its worst. I was a teenager and she in her late 40s when she stalked our un-air-conditioned Virginia ranch house wearing only a slip, her face pink and sweat-covered. When asked what was wrong, she’d say nothing. I felt more disdain for her than pity. I often found her in the only cool place in our house, the unfinished basement, sobbing so hard she could hardly catch her breath.

… Read Part 2 on Monday 

* ***
Donna Henes is the author of The Queen of My Self: Stepping into Sovereignty in Midlife. She offers counseling and upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity. Consult the MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus