Para-minnow-what? Perimenopausal, the Other PMS

I adore my doctor. I chose him for totally unscientific reasons. I was on the front edge of a divorce and needed to see someone about my sleeplessness, anxiety, stomach pains and weight loss. My mother, an RN and emergency room veteran, mandated it. “You are Superwoman,” she said, “but even Superwoman’s body can’t take that kind of stress for much longer. Go see someone. Today.”

Dr. A (as in Awesome!) spent an hour listening to me. He asked intelligent questions. He was empathetic to a woman’s challenges. He also had amazing artwork in his exam room.

Every exam room has something colorful or cheerful or soothing to look at, and Dr. A chose to display his 5-year-old son’s crayon art. My favorite was of an elephant with a huge pile of dung behind him. The pile was so realistic; it was practically steaming. Later, when I paid a compliment to the artist’s sense of realism, Dr. A told me that said manure was actually a mud puddle. To this day, I look at that picture and see poop. 

I like Dr. Awesome and that elephant so much that I continue to see him, even though I am now single, anxiety-proof, and living the dream. I like how he laughs at everything I say. I like how he takes my questions seriously and how he peeks into the manila folder I bring each year to see which new health and science articles I have clipped for him. “I am in charge of my health,” I tell him, and he nods sagely. 

“If only all patients thought that way,” 

I can see him thinking.


But there is one thing I am clearly not in charge of: my ovaries. And according to Dr. A, one day those twin organs are going to quit dropping eggs down my tubes. They’re going to retire and send my body into a strange hormonal overdrive. They’re going to mess me up for 7-8 years, minimum.

Dr. A is clearly trying to prepare me for the inevitable. Whenever I see him for a checkup, every symptom or concern I mention makes him ponder and then thoughtfully respond, “You could be perimenopausal.” 

Para-minnow-what? When does that start? How long does it last? How does one avoid it? Does giving up carbs or caffeine or your best friend help? Sadly, his answers are not very specific.

He began using the term “perimenopausal” when I hit 40. I’m sure it won’t stop until I’m at least 55. That’s when I expect to actually reach menopause. How do I know when it’s going to happen? For another wholly unscientific reason: That’s when my mother went through the change. At least she thinks she did. Dr. A instructed me to ask her. She’s not quite sure, actually—it took a few years, and like a broken bone, she says that memory of the pain faded over time.

As much as I enjoy seeing Dr. Awesome (and that pooping elephant), I have to wonder about the PMS diagnosis. When did menopause become a catch-all for what ails me? Can he really blame everything that’s wrong with me on this change of life? I don’t think so. I am Superwoman. And I have a plan.


This year I’m going to be really prepared for my annual checkup. I’m filling up sticky notes with potential symptoms and sneaking them into my manila folder (behind the article about only needing to get a Pap smear every five years—hooray!). 

My list of new maladies is growing. So far I have dry mouth, spider veins, recurring sinus infections and sarcasm. We’ll see where the buck stops. I’m betting on hammertoe. There is no way a crooked foot can be blamed on estrogen, unless you kick your husband constantly. I guess that could count. But why would you stop doing that just because you’ve reached age 55?

Pam Whitfield is a teacher, writer, horse show judge and spoken word artist. In 2011, she won the Minnesota professor of the year award from the Carnegie Foundation.