I was at the kind of music festival that draws packs of “festies,” young people who travel from concert to concert in the summertime wearing Indian-print skirts and bikini tops, their skin pierced and tattooed, wafting a fragrance that commingles pot and patchouli, with a base note of humid sleeping bag.
An afternoon spent among them was making me feel my age, 48 at the time. They were groovy goddesses of their own anointing, with crazy-curly-cool hair highlighted in green and purple, bare feet kicking up dirt as they danced. They looked like beautiful children with their exposed tummies — flat or rounded, it did not seem to matter which — playful and unselfconscious.
I was sitting under a dusty sycamore, wondering how weird I’d look if I starting reading my library book, when it struck me: a bolt of searing heat, a sudden scrambling of the brain. A hot flash is a bit like a menstrual cramp or migraine. Even if you’ve never had one, you know it when you feel it.
And perhaps because of the setting for my first one, I’ve experienced every subsequent hot flash as signifier of age. “You’re old,” they say to me as they take me in their super-heated grip. “Wow, you are so old!”
Socially, the sudden slick of sweat across my face is the hardest thing. People tend to look away, embarrassed for me, or so I imagine. No one says, “are you O.K.?” Or “shall I open a window?” I’ve been in meetings where I’ve had to resort to awkward ruses like picking up an intentionally dropped pen to mop my brow under the table.
Emotionally, it’s harder still. There’s an instant mood change from however I was feeling pre-flash to intense irritation. I am, for 60 seconds or so, Super Bitch. I’m likely to speak aloud whatever uncharitable and verging-on-career-ending thoughts cross my mind. And I’m guaranteed to snarl at the tourists swarming around Rockefeller Center, getting in my way, so they can look at … what exactly? Where the Christmas tree isn’t? I am prone to road rage, fight picking, and, one time, in a fit of flash-fueled fury over a rain-dampened cushion, lounge-chair chucking.Even if you’ve never had one, you know it when you feel it.
Here’s what I’d like to know, though I don’t know who to ask it of: What is the biological purpose of hot flashes? Women are subject to some freaky bodily changes, most of which function to keep the planet populated. Menstruation—while messier than need be—is understandable. So is pregnancy, though it’s longer in duration than would seem strictly necessary. But who thought it was a good idea to have a bunch of irritable, perspiring old ladies running around?
When my flashes first came on, I asked similarly aged women how they cope. One friend has opted for a patch. She sweats like a “whore in church” (her characterization) and simply can’t stand to appear so soaked, even for 60 seconds at a time, even given the health risks posed by hormone replacement therapy. Another friend dresses so she can shed a layer or two. Super-Bitch-like, she whips off her garments, stripping down to a tasteful cashmere tank. Because this woman has beautifully toned arms and shoulders, she actually looks gorgeous mid-flash.
My doctor has other ideas — pharmaceutical ideas, to be more specific. I’m now 58 and have suffered hot flashes for a decade. So that’s 10 year’s worth of annual checkups during which these medications are proposed, along with the annual query: “Why wouldn’t you want to fix something you can fix?” “If you feel socially awkward in any way, why not take care of the problem?”
Those are good questions. I guess I’m kind of anti-daily-medications for things that aren’t, truly, diseases. I’ve come to view hot flashes as part of aging—thinking it’s best to accept this vision-impaired, laugh-lined and occasionally sweaty version of myself, is it not? And so I continue to count myself among New York City’s population of slightly crazy-eyed but mostly harmless un-medicated people.
And I take some comfort from another friend my age, a goddess-y type, still a festy-girl, dancing in the dirt, after all these years. “Do you ever forget how powerful you are?” she asked me. When I admitted I do she said: “Think of hot flashes as power surges. Then you forget how strong you are, think of them as reminders of your super powers.”