There was a brief time in my life when I lost control over my body and with it, the ability to correctly gauge my emotions. I wasn’t particularly good at feeling my feelings back then anyway. Even so, it took me longer than usual to detect a pattern and a disturbance in the fact that I was spending most of my nights off from work sacked out in front of the VCR eating Chinese food and watching Ben-Hur.
It was summer but my behavior suggested winter. Apparently the only way to manage a lonesome evening on my own was to feed on fried noodles and Chinese mustard, spicy Szechuan dumplings, cold sesame noodles, a velvety hot and sour soup, brown rice (not white, never white) and one of the house special entrées (usually tangerine chicken, crispy pork or prawn amazing). Fortunately, I worked nights, so this gluttony for water chestnuts, baby corn sautéed in exotic sauces and Charlton Heston’s epic proportions didn’t happen very often, but it happened often enough to finally make me wonder whether something might be wrong.
I was chef at a popular steakhouse known as the Jolly Butcher and even though it was summer and even though I flipped steaks, chicken and seafood over a sizzling grill, I still found it odd whenever my body stopped with a jolt while my brain discharged a weirdly disconcerting warm flush from my head down to my toes. After enough times, when the “power surge” had gone through, I would turn to the nearest waitress and ask, “Wow, was that a hot flash?”
When I started skipping tae kwon do classes on my nights off to robotically eat Chinese food and watch Ben-Hur until I could have performed it, I tried putting two and two together, went to Planned Parenthood and asked if I could be experiencing menopause. They laughed good-naturedly and said, “Oh no! You are much too young!”
It had been a summer of loss for me. Shortly after my June birthday, both of the men I had been seeing left town at roughly the same time, under circumstances that had nothing to do with each other – or me – for that matter. One of them represented six years of a mostly on-again relationship. The second had been a successful attempt to arouse jealousy in the first during one of our off-again stretches.
Also, my father had died only two summers before. I was still grieving for him and still traumatized by the shock of being present when he died. The staying heat of early July stirred up a reflexive sense of loss. I started slowing down.
My body was off. Off-kilter, off-balance, and I didn’t know why. I had been fiercely active over the past few years. My exercise routine included tae kwon do class twice a week plus one practice session on my own. (I was gearing up for my red belt test.) I had recently added tai chi to my training. I played tennis three times a week and did strength training at the gym every other day. Although I was always always sore, I felt vigorous and fit.
However, by the middle of that summer, I had randomly, unwittingly scaled down to perhaps a third of what I had been doing. My body stopped listening to me. It stopped responding to the commands I was giving it. My body just – stopped. A slow-motion wave of lethargy overtook my drive and vitality. The broken mind-body connection retired behind a wall of indifference. One night during tae kwon do, I burst into tears for no apparent reason and walked out of the room. A week later, my sensei, who liked to say that he never ever gave up on a student, called and suggested that I not return to class.
At about this time I let my membership at the gym expire.
I was sinking fast but I didn’t know it because on my nights off I was having a grand old time, great, cozy fun slurping up cold sesame noodles and losing myself in the epic tale of a Jewish prince living in Judea at the time of Christ who is betrayed by the newly appointed Tribune Messala, his boyhood Roman friend. Messala destroys Judah Ben-Hur’s family and sends him to the galleys to die where Judah swears revenge “with every stroke of that oar,” survives and returns in a lather of hate until his periodic casual encounters with Christ add up to an epiphany that saves his soul.
Twice more I went to Planned Parenthood and asked for the test that would determine whether I was perimenopausal. They refused. They just didn’t see the point. I was too young.
But I knew. I knew it in the trickle or the torrent of tears that burst spontaneously and with scant provocation from an achingly empty gut. At the end of the summer, there was another loss. I had been collaborating with my composer brother on five full-length, original musicals, which at that point represented twelve years of creative work and my only means to realizing my dream of becoming something other than a grill cook at the Jolly Butcher. My brother lost interest in the musicals and dropped them. He never told me. I had to figure it out on my own. It damaged the bond between us, which had been one of the most precious and significant relationships in my life.
By September I was feeling so listless and played out that I went back to Planned Parenthood and demanded they test me for menopause. I understood by now that I had ample reason to feel depressed, having lost a father, two boyfriends, my sensei and dojo, my art, my dream and a powerful sibling bond. Even with all that, I insisted that my body was also experiencing a profoundly fatiguing, fundamental change.
Planned Parenthood consented to the test and called a week later to say, “Guess what, you were right!” A month later I had my last period – ever. I was done. And that was a great loss, too. Although having children had never been a priority for me, the option had been snatched from my hands. I went into mourning for the children I would not have. I went into mourning because I was only forty and far too young to be a crone.
I started a novel. I was attending Smith College as a non-traditional aged student, still working full time and now writing a book. The book drew me in. The book, the book, it was all I had. I turned away from the world that had caused me so much grief and I channeled all my energy into a relationship that would not fail. As I developed the story, I began to grasp its scope, the amount of research it would take and the time I would need to write what was threatening to be a trilogy.
I crawled deep down inside of myself to give it my all. My physical activities tapered off and then ceased. I began to put on the weight for which I am now paying in the form of diabetes and heart disease.
I finished the trilogy a few years ago and I am still just inching out of my shell. I am determined to lose the weight, restore my health and get back out into the world, a world that can still harm me, hurt and disappoint me, but will never again drive me back in on myself as it did that summer and inhibit the whole person I am meant to be.
By the way, I recommend Ben-Hur. Not for nothing is it one of the most honored and award-winning films of all time. It won eleven Oscars, a feat not matched until Titanic and Lord of the Rings. Even if you’re squeamish about Jesus and over-the-top miracles, the contentious convergence of Romans, Jews and Arabs at the time of the Crucifixion makes for a fascinating story. And then there is that chariot race. And Charlton Heston in his prime.
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