What our mothers have to teach us

My mother was a ‘big’ lady, always what most people would consider overweight from the time I was born, which was when she was forty. She also had a sweet tooth, liked her biscuits and cakes (she was a wonderful cook) and ate a huge amount of sweets due, she always said, to the fact she had a constantly dry mouth, day and night. Because of this, she would suck her way through an endless supply of mints which she picked up in a huge paper bag from the newsagents at the start of each week – in fact, they would see her coming and start weighing out her bag!

Many times over the years I’ve looked back at the sheer quantity of mints that she ate, then the cakes and deserts, the biscuits with every cup of tea, and wondered how she did it, I mean, actually survived it when I can’t tolerate sugar in my diet at all. Well, her teeth certainly didn’t benefit but she seemed to be more robust than most people I knew, never brought down by coughs or colds and I never knew her to be bed ridden or to complain about any kind of aches or pains. That is until…

I suspect she hit menopause quite late compared to me; I would say she was approaching her late fifties when it really got going. In the decade after that, several things happened in quick succession. She had a hip replacement following a fall. She became diabetic. She started to develop all sorts of mystery ailments that baffled the doctors including terrible itchy skin that drove her bananas (and that unquenchable thirst only became worse). Incidentally, she developed an absolute passion for liquorice sweets (liquorice is one of Nature’s great answers to diminishing oestrogen levels…and the body always knows what it wants). And, very suddenly, she lost weight…I mean loads of weight, until she was really hardly there apart from this persistent thickening around her abdomen that was now oddly incongruous on top of her tiny little legs. This big-bonny woman developed twiggy limbs now baggy with surplus skin, her face-shape completely altered and her dress size went down dramatically; actually, she was so proud of herself – attributing it to the weekly half hour on a walking treadmill and exercise bike at the gym she joined with her pensioners entitlement after her sixtieth birthday. Everyone else egged her on about how well she had done with her weight-loss program…but it didn’t ring true to me; you would have to be doing ten hours a week at the gym and dieting your way through piles of lettuce leaves to make such a dramatic difference, so quickly, after so many years worth of weight gain; and she wasn’t doing either. Then came the diagnosis…she had liver cancer and, well within a year, she was dead. She was 68 years old; hardly any age at all for someone I had always imagined being here until she was well into her nineties.

It was as though the layers of body fat where keeping her alive; and, when she suddenly lost them post-menopause, she unleashed something that she had been storing up inside that was all too much for her body to handle. Apparently, it is classic that as levels of oestrogen drop, women lose the subcutaneous fat storage that is distributed as generalised curves all round their body and, as some sort of emergency measure to store what is then unleashed from all that fat, they sometimes thicken around their middle (as is more typical of a male) in an effort to find somewhere to carpark all those toxins that suddenly have nowhere else to go. Which is to say, if there is anything toxic or undealt with going on in your body (yes, that includes emotions), oestrogen is your friend…protecting you from unleashing it with such suddenness and ferocity that your system might not be able to cope.

I wrote a piece about oestrogen recently and my thoughts on the topic have continued to unravel as though my mind is working overtime, even when I’m asleep, to deliver answers that make sense of all my experience around it. I came up with the theory that oestrogen is a protector, something that cushions us from the hard knocks of life and I continue to feel that is true. Then these ponderings about my mother came into my mind as I was waking up – how did she survive all those huge bags of pure sugar she sucked for year after year, the carb heavy diet, no exercise to speak of apart from housework and running around after all of us, my hypochondriac dad (until he died), all of her adult “kids” with our endless dramas and then all the elderly neighbours she took care of; she literally lived her life for other people and their problems…

As I wade though one of the worst pain-episodes Ive had for some time, I can’t help noticing the pattern here – how it coincides with my period and the week following…a time that would, normally, mark the start of the oestrogen half of the month. Our oestrogen levels are meant to start rising from that Day 1 of our cycle, peaking as we reach ovulation approximately fourteen days after our period starts. That is, until menopause gets going and oestrogen levels plummet. In the early years of fibromyalgia, that week between my period ending and ovulation used to be the guaranteed-best of my month, my least painful by far; I would almost feel “back to normal” until the cliff edge of ovulation would bring me crashing down; a day that I would often spend curled up in a ball of sudden pain on the sofa. How those days have change…this is now my worst time of all.

With the onset of menopause, oestrogen levels dramatically diminish and so I can’t help wondering whether the sudden absence of oestrogen has redefined when pain “happens to me” in my monthly cycle. If I had to describe it, I would say it feels like there is no lubrication, no cushioning, no moisture, no buffer in the cells of my body at this time of my month…its like the tyre has burst and I have become the metal wheel dragging and causing sparks on the hard road surface of life. I feel everything going on in my body and the environment and I feel it profoundly; like my nerves have no myelin protecting them any more and I am wide-open and utterly exposed to it all. At these times, I notice how my skull suddenly feels bony, I can trace every bump and lump of my head like a road map and this accompanies the worst headache of my month; pain that feels like my head might split open. It radiates down my spine in a red hot zone of inflammation that switches on levels of back ache that I haven’t otherwise had since taking up yoga and it spirals out into limbs that feel leaden and flu-like; in fact my whole body feels utterly exhausted, like all its effort is already spent in just being upright and breathing, tolerating pain levels that shout “emergency” like they are the normal baseline of its day.

The other thing I note is how my subcutaneous fat seems to be disappearing a little more each hormonal month. My elbows, wrists and fingers, even my once relentlessly curvy thighs, feel lean, sinewy, boney and, yes, part of me was delighted with my new shape, the skinny physique that I chased after across decades of pointless dieting in my early adulthood. But then, as I bend down to the floor on my yoga mat and regard my skin-crinkled legs with the sharp bone protruding through, I can’t help but see my mother looking back at me and, at the same time as haunting me, it feels like it’s trying to tell me something…something important…like a cursory tale we both set up for me to receive at this moment.

I find myself sighing with the relief that I don’t enter menopause with the untackled eating habits and unexpressed emotional baggage that my mother entered her menopausal years carrying…because, suddenly, I know that blessing is key to my survival. Thankfully, the last decade of health issues has seen me tackle both of those areas – thoroughly – and leave so much of my old baggage and worst habits by the roadside. You could say, I’ve done the work, inside and out.

Because maybe thats the thing about oestrogen – it buffers us from ourselves until – suddenly no longer there, there is nothing left to stand between us and the life we have embodied for years and we are left to face up to it all, in one almighty effort. The brick walls that kept away the view we didn’t want to see, the unholy mess we didn’t want to deal with, is suddenly crumbled away, the view exposed and no avoiding it and so we either sink or swim as life’s full tidal wave comes in for us to surf or get crashed by. Put simply, we have to get our shit together really quickly or it can be all too much for us, whatever’s waiting on the other side of the thick smokescreen we put up. That mess could consist of terrible, habitual, lifestyle habits or a thoroughly rotten marriage – or it may just mean we need to make some tweaks and do some straight talking – but, whatever it is, there’s no buffer any more and we feel it – oh how we feel it all. Its like we are literally forced to get closer to the bone!

In my case, thankfully, I really like the view of my life…just not the pain, the super-sensitivity to everything environmental that means that, when the volume is suddenly turned up, it takes me right over the edge. I’m sick and tired of feeling electricity and changes in air pressure and temperature and space events and additives in food and…(OK, some of these sensitivities are trying to warn me about things I would do better to avoid…actually, they all have something to tell me…) when most people get to live their lives oblivious; why? That’s one I’m working on..something to be investigated further and, perhaps, entirely personal to me and something I came here to do. Still, this nugget of early-morning ponderings felt worth sharing for the fact it contains a universal about what happens when the protective coating pulls back, the convenient garden wall falls away and its just us and what we’ve created spread out as our view for as far as the eye can see…whatever that is…How do we feel then and how can we do the work beforehand to make sure we like that view when it shows itself to us? Like a preview of the bit when we get to look back at the whole of our life and see how happy we are with what we did with our time, it’s a time to take pause and work out how we feel about putting our name to who we are, what we are putting up with, how we behave, eat, look, feel…with time left to make any adjustments. As ever, I am convinced that menopause is intended to be an absolute blessing in a woman’s life but, sometimes (just sometimes…) it backfires if we find we’ve taken our eye off the ball for too long.

So not the conventional way of learning things from our mothers…perhaps not what the title led you to expect. It turns out mine had to transition our of her body for me to learn this one and, as I approach the twentieth anniversary of that happening in a month’s time, I take yet another deep bow in her direction for all she posthumously taught me – which has been as valuable, or more so, as what she showed me in life (which was considerable). The relationship – you could say, dialogue – with her never ended; she continues to teach me even now as I walk where she walked but get to make different choices guided by what she showed me. I no longer (for I know I used to…) subscribe to a belief in the inevitability of treading in all of her footsteps; I have too firm a conviction in the power of epigenetics to serve myself up to that deadly fear.

“Big lady”, big personality as she was, the biggest part about my mother was her heart which, sadly, wasn’t enough to sustain her though another few decades in that body. That is quite enough incentive for me to make sure that I am on alert to see what I can do different and I feel the oestrogen connection has such a lot to tell me; am already researching my way through the topic and feeling my way towards answers that – at the moment – suggest to me that the protective benefits of oestrogen can be sustained and bolstered through diet…which is where I am at now. And, of course, there’s an ongoing need to continue doing the inner work, to get closer to where you need no protection and nowhere to hide – this is no time in your life for putting up with things that don’t feel good or fulfilling; its time to be completely honest with yourself and others around you and to stand up for what you really want….in all things! As ever, I will post more when I have any further breakthroughs.

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