Hip-hop artist Desdamona knew something was wrong at age 42, when excruciating stomach cramps forced her to leave a social event early. At home, she lay down but still writhed in pain.
And there was another unusual symptom: She was on the eighth day of her period, an unprecedented length for her cycle. “I was like, ‘Am I dying right now? What is happening to me?’ ” she recalled.
Turns out, Desdamona was experiencing perimenopause, the stage before menopause. Progesterone, estrogen and testosterone all decline during this time, resulting in dozens of symptoms. The changes can be drastic for any woman, affecting everything from digestion to mental health to memory. For musicians and other creative women, with their very public-facing careers, the symptoms can be especially taxing.
After checking herself into Regions Hospital, Desdamona was diagnosed with menorrhagia — abnormally heavy menstrual bleeding — and prescribed pain medication. Her ordeal wasn’t over, though. Her period lasted 21 days. She experienced high anxiety, extreme fatigue, forgetfulness, brain fog, hot flashes and weight gain. Her migraines were more frequent and stronger, making her physically ill. “When you have all of those different symptoms, it makes you feel crazy,” she said.
A confident performer since childhood, she felt she “didn’t belong” onstage due to the weight gain. “It’s silly, and I know it,” she said. Still, her insecurity drowned the urge to be in the spotlight. “I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to just be at home, which is really not my personality.”
An isolated journey
Musician Tina Schlieske — best known for her band Tina and the B-Sides — was in her 40s when she started experiencing depression and spikes of anger. She was fraught with “hard-core PMS” as well as erratic sleep, dry skin and hair, and inconsistent periods.
“I started feeling like a stranger in my own skin,” she said.
At age 48, a decade after a partial hysterectomy, jazz singer Pippi Ardennia began suffering from hot flashes, fogginess, irritability and impatience. She couldn’t think clearly, triggering fears about dementia. “I was feeling all those crazy, off-putting symptoms,” she said. “Like you’re having a mental breakdown.”
Each artist improvised her way to a coping strategy. Ardennia tried hormone replacement therapy, but quit within three weeks because it made her feel “extremely crazy.” She had better luck with natural remedies. Schlieske initially went the herbs-and-vitamins route because she wanted to “do it the old-school, pioneering way of pushing through it,” she said. At the suggestion of friends, she added bioidentical progesterone cream and estrogen patches.
Desdamona found help at St. Paul’s Menopause Center of Minnesota, where she received a prescription for natural progesterone cream. She also added acupuncture, medicinal teas and yoga. Today, at age 45, she feels more even-keeled.
She’s still a little baffled about the silence surrounding menopause, though. “I wondered why no woman I knew had ever talked to me about this except for one friend whose hair was thinning,” she said.
Desdamona recently shared an article on Facebook about perimenopause, deploying her social media clout to raise awareness. “I was nervous to post it,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh, this is going to make people uncomfortable.’ But I don’t care, ’cause I’m uncomfortable! And I know other people gotta be, too.”
Indeed, other women were. The post lit up with likes and comments. Although she was hesitant to speak on the record, “I need to talk about this because so many women that I know are having these symptoms and they don’t know what’s wrong with them and they don’t even know where to begin because they seem like unrelated symptoms.”
‘I embrace menopause’
Perimenopause symptoms may initially slow a woman’s artistic output. Once past menopause, however, many creatives get their second wind.
Ardennia, now 64, wanted to do something drastic, something bold. At age 50, she moved from Chicago to Minnesota, where she founded the nonprofit PipJazz, helping young musicians hone their skills by placing them onstage with world-class artists.
For her, menopause “was really about me becoming this new person. All my other friends were trying to maintain a life that they’d had. I was willing to create a new life with this new energy that I was feeling.” (She recently re-created her life yet again, falling in love with a composer and moving back to Illinois.)
Desdamona doesn’t perform as much as she used to, but “once I get onstage, I have a great time,” she said. “It’s like getting yourself to the gym; you don’t want to go, but if you can get yourself there, you do it, and it feels amazing.”
Now in the postmenopausal stage, Schlieske, 51, has experienced “a new lease on life,” she said. “I feel more punk-rock and young than I have in a long time. I feel like I’ve got this incredible energy of wanting to create nonstop.”
That led her to form a band called Genital Panic, which played at this year’s South by Southwest music fest in Austin, Texas. Her new songs address U.S. politics, feeling invisible in a music industry that treats older women as irrelevant — and, yes, menopause.
“I’m so [freaking] sick of being embarrassed about all that stuff about being a woman going through that change, so that’s why I turned it into a positive, a rebirth really,” Schlieske said. “I embrace menopause. It’s better than I thought it was going to be on the other side.”
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.