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A Wigwam for a Goose's I
writing and midlife, or, Perimenopause, coming soon to a keyboard near you 
1st-Feb-2012 04:30 pm
Over the last ten years, as I've entered midlife, I have acquired difficulties with cognition and language use common for those in perimenopause and menopause.  As this covers women roughly from the ages of 35 to 60 and onwards, you'd think someone somewhere in the blogosphere might have had something to say specifically about how the semantic and mnemonic lapses and mild cognitive impairment associated with perimenopause affect writing (and the writer). Yet if you google "writing and menopause" you get one hit. (No, "menopause and writing" isn't much better, and nothing for "perimenopause and writing".) Perhaps my google-foo is weak, so if someone you know deals with this in detail, please, just chime in and I'll point with linky glee. On the other hand, perhaps there are no hits because no one is interested in this. I have reasons for thinking otherwise, but I could use a little encouragement in the shape of a comment or two... (hint, hint)

My motivation for lifting the veil here is that had I known about these symptoms, I might not have indulged in quite so much self-loathing as they set in. I might even have developed coping strategies in advance. As it was, I largely just retreated into myself and stopped going out in company, because I couldn't bear the experience of being suddenly bereft of words in front of friends, companions and colleagues. Worse, I didn't know entirely who I was anymore. Long before I found out about sex, I loved words. If they were deserting me, who was I? Who am I?

While the medical jury is still deliberating on what treatments, if any, remedy these problems, there is a general consensus that these symptoms coincide with perimenopause (and halleluiah, there is new research that suggests that once menopause sets in, some of these problems abate). But I'm getting ahead of myself... 

Perimenopause, if your Greek is rusty, is the time that comes before menopause.  It's the lead-up where the hormones go nutso, recalibrating for life's next stage; it can take anywhere from a year to over a decade. (In my case, I've been in perimenopause for almost a decade. Each month I shout at my ovaries, "I'm too old for babies, and I ain't gonna have any, anyways!" and each month, they ignore me.) Where was I? Oh yes, chances are that the woman you are or a woman you know is experiencing or is going to experience these symptoms, and they will affect your ability to write and your identity as a writer (with or without a capital "W").

By writer, I mean anyone who writes for love or money - administrators, novelists, project managers, teachers, the list goes ever on and on.  So let's get started.  Remember, I'm only dealing with symptoms of menopause and perimenopause that specifically affect the writer; I don't pretend to be exhaustive, and I'm happy to be corrected or have more info.  I'm going to set out symptoms first, a few at a time, and then talk about remedies, such as there are, later. I'm going to go through the negatives first, because of the culture of silence around the topic, and then I'll hit a few positives (or report on them, because frankly, they haven't come to visit me...)

1) Vocabulary holes.
A while ago, at a frantic loss for a word, I had to get to it by plodding laboriously through its adjacent semantic fields:
hard --> iron --> scratch --> nail
Nail! That was it, that was the word I wanted.  Strangely enough, the conversation had moved on by the time my fish-sucking-air lips had reformed around it.  This happens with a chastening and distressing regularity.  It happens to a greater or lesser degree to every perimenopausal woman I have spoken with.  Words that you know, simple words, complex nouns, ten-a-penny verbs, technical vocabulary, they will fail you.  Just like that. Old friends who have kept you warm since you first smuggled a book under the blankets leave town without a note or explanation.  (And show up the next day for coffee as if they'd never left.)

Imagine giving a lecture, or a talk, or a reading, or a presentation, with this little Damoclean dagger hanging over your head. Imagine the novelist, hands poised over the keyboard, three complex plotlines rushing headlong toward each other, protagonists lining up like good little ducks, the scene in technicolour 3D with full CGI in her head, and then --- gone, empty, zilch -- some stupid word, that was just the right word, and you know exactly what it is, it's not an unusual word, you use it every day, but your fingers hover over the keyboard, stilled. Poof!  -- the scene that was hot and perfect crumbles.  Nor, pace Flaubert, is this an instance of swooning over "le mot juste" -- these are inexplicable gaps, sudden, whooshing lexical blackholes, nuggets of stupid right in the middle of your sentences.

2) Those things you capitalise...
Names. I've never been good at names, but I wasn't bad.  And once I'd learned someone's name, it generally stuck. I've taught classes of over 200 students, and hosted conferences with hundreds of attendees, and with a few mnemonic tricks, managed to remember most.  In the last few years, I can't remember my own cousins' names.  The name of my best friend in primary school, the name of the waitress at that cheap but good dive in Toronto where my true love and I would go at least 4 times a week for months on end while we had no kitchen, the name, the name, the name.  Place names, people names, thing names.  Gone.  For a while, I put it down to being an immigrant - I theorised that there was only so much memory allotted to names in the brain, and having moved to another country, I'd acquired a whole new set of proper names, and understandably, my buffer was full.  But it got worse, and then it got embarrassing. And then I found out that it's a common occurrence for women in perimenopause.

If you're worldbuilding, or have a novel populated with a cast of thousands, or if you're a project manager who moves from workplace to workplace, or...  Yes, there are many ways in which this makes a writing life difficult. I no longer hold quite as much in my head; spreadsheets and charts are my friend when it comes to novel writing. And when I meet you, and I cannot for the life of me summon up your name, even though once, in some bar at a writer's festival, we shared a cup of hot righteous indignation, I hope you will forgive me.

So there's two problems you can count on rubbing up against.  They're pretty common, and finding remedies for them is complicated by the fact that they share some real estate with ageing.  Still, women in their late 30s and early 40s have experienced the onset of these semantic and lexical gaps. Does this ring any bells?

Next up? Meet Mrs Malaprop.
1st-Feb-2012 09:52 pm (UTC)
When this started for me, I made a joke of it and used "thingie" everywhere. It didn't solve the emotional issue of having a vast vocabulary and no words, but it made it tolerable and meant I could function. Seven years on, and I'm still functioning. My writing style has changed a bit, but I can still write. It's a big thing, though, and touches on much that is fundamental to who we are.
1st-Feb-2012 10:54 pm (UTC)
I've only lost names. Faces, great, but names have gone scram. It's particularly annoying because my job requires networking with people I see once or twice a year, and recall is horrid.

1st-Feb-2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
The thing I find frustrating is that so little is written about this issue in terms of women working. When I finally went to a library and started spelunking on google, to figure out just what exactly was going on, I read lots of stuff targeted at explaining moods, and offering advice on functioning in a domestic context, but so little on the actual impact of semantic lapse and foggy mind to the woman who uses her brain to live and work. That silence compounded the irritations of the symptoms.

I'd be interested, Gillian, in how you feel your style has changed, and if you self-consciously adopted coping strategies. You too, z. Do you engadget yourself in some way to keep track of the names?
1st-Feb-2012 11:26 pm (UTC)
A scholar.google.com search for "cognitive" and "perimenopause" was helpful.

Some longitudinal studies, eg:


Looks to me as though premenopause cognition determines post-menopausal cognitive function, but perimenopause screws things up. Like being a teenager, backwards.
2nd-Feb-2012 09:01 am (UTC)
Yes, there's good stuff coming out now, because of SWAN, and because of developments in neurolinguistics, and neurology generally in the 1990s. Thanks for the British study reported in Menopause (2nd link), I missed it. I hinted in the post at the good news of the likely reversal of some of this once menopause actually hits. But if you're a women just googling to see if she's getting Alzheimer's or going nuts, it's actually quite hard to find other women talking about these problems without it being a sell for HRT, or a diatribe against. I didn't say that first up, but I think I should in my next post. Because HRT doesn't seem to do anything for loss of verbal memory or CMI, it's neither here nor there. And the fact that you regain those facilities once menopause arrives argues against this being the effect of age. It's all really fascinating, actually, and I'd go back and study neurolinguistics if my brain weren't such a sieve these days. ;-)
2nd-Feb-2012 02:06 am (UTC)
Not quite the same, but as I've gone through my own hormonal changes I have noticed a change in my facility with written language. I'm not aware of losing words in the way you describe. Instead, I just find myself at a complete loss when I'm called upon to write something. I have ideas in my head, but they don't seem to want translate themselves into words very easily any more. As a consequence, I write far less now than I used to, which means I suck at keeping in touch with people via email and LJ. Even writing a comment such as this feels rather taxing and takes several drafts to compose.
2nd-Feb-2012 09:08 am (UTC)
Ah, strange, almost like some kind of hormonally induced aphasia. I appreciate all the more then that you left your comment here. I'm curiously relieved, as I noticed you weren't posting much, but wasn't sure if it were because you were busy, or having a rough patch. I wonder whether this is temporary or something you'll have to learn to live with. Was it something you were warned might happen?
2nd-Feb-2012 02:18 am (UTC)
Cogent, coherent, fascinating and somewhat distressing to read. Our bodies do seem such traitors, sometimes! I can't offer anything but sympathy, of course, and the very slight possible consolation that a chap with nary a hint of perimenopause can likewise be dreadful at remembering names (that would be me).

I'll be very interested to read your further posts on this.
2nd-Feb-2012 09:15 am (UTC)
Sympathy always gratefully received. Our bodies are such strange things, aren't they? And a propos of absolutely nothing here, I went last weekend to Muiderslot, a castle on the outskirts of Amsterdam. They had marvellous exhibits for young children, including helms you could try on, and the front half of a suit of armour on a sliding gizmo that a child could heft into, to feel the weight. (Also, jousting on wooden horses, a hand-and-a-half sword with a ring on the very end around a pole so you could lift to feel the weight, and follow the pole in a stroke (if you see what I mean, I think language is failing me here, and I can't really blame it on perimenopause...). I couldn't help but think that through the magic of time travel I would have liked to bring a young Chris Barnes to visit it.
2nd-Feb-2012 09:49 am (UTC)
I've been to Muiderslot! The one time I was in Amsterdam (a few days in the late 80s), I went to see it as it was the nearest castle of note. It is the first actual medieval castle I ever visited. I don't remember the exhibits you describe - maybe they were added later. Well, it has been over 20 years since I was there, after all.
2nd-Feb-2012 10:20 am (UTC)
Oh, they're definitely recent exhibits -- there's a lot of touch screens and the like, so I'd say last 3-4 years. (There's quite a fun touch screen behind the machicolations which involves rolling virtual stone balls out of the murder slots to try to hit the invaders pictured below, while leaving villagers seeking shelter unscathed. We felt it incumbent upon us to test its suitability for children, several times.)

What a fine first medieval castle you chose. It's quite compact and still medieval-ish. Not a lot of Renaissance fripery added.
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