Accidentally, a little over two years ago, I stumbled upon the most surprising way to thrive.
I was 46, and exhausted. My period, — that release of bright red blood — which had been showing up more or less every thirty days since a Thanksgiving weekend when I was eleven, had started to stagger. At first it was just a skipped month here and there, and then the color started to darken (and consistency thicken –ew!) as the duration of my intermittent “curse” shortened to just a day, maybe two.
A period is one of those things women like to complain about — the PMS, the cramps, the inconvenience — but I for one mourned its loss. There’s nothing like appreciating something after it’s gone.
I noticed other things, too: the shift of my torso, to an ever so slightly more rectangular shape. My hair losing some of its lustre. Most confounding of all, the regular and deep sleep that I had always been able to count on, through even divorce and loss and infants and teenagers, night after night after night, was suddenly punctuated by a consistent 4am wake-up. Sometimes the wakening would be accompanied by a pool of sweat in the bed beneath me, rivulets of perspiration pooling between my heavy breasts and on my forehead, but other times there was nothing, just the gray light of my bedroom as I stared, wide awake and puzzled, at the walls.
All these symptoms amounted to one thing: aging. It’s not just women who sleep less as we get older. It happens to all of us. But women, particularly as we go through that in-between phase called peri-menopause (the liminal space between menstruation and no menstruation), often have a raft of other complaints: anxiety, change of body odor, feelings of impending doom, shifting teeth, bone loss, creaky knees, weight gain, loss of libido, emergence of back fat, vaginal atrophy…to name but a few.
I couldn’t believe that at 46, relatively well-educated and socially plugged into a wide network of friends and acquaintances, a frequent reader of women’s magazines and general consumer of pop culture, I had never, ever, been warned of these mostly inescapable developments. Granted, my mother had died when I was a teenager, so I didn’t have her to advise me. And not every single woman experiences these things. Just like some women deliver babies as easily as brushing their teeth, there are unicorns out there who never have a hot flash. But for the most part, overwhelmingly, peri-menopause is a thing, and it’s a thing that the culture mostly ignores.
More even, than when I was planning my wedding, or going through infertility treatments, or slogging through my painful first divorce, I felt the need to talk to other women about this. I wanted to know: how are we all managing this aging business? How do we reconcile the paradox of so much hard-earned wisdom with our encroaching invisibility in the culture? How do we get information that no one seems to want to give us? How can we feel better? How can we thrive during the second half of our lives?
I started a secret Facebook group, and I called it, ironically, “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” My closest friends and I are feminists, and huge readers, and funny. We needed A Room of Our Own and were hoping to avoid suicidal depression in the face of chin hair and sagging breasts (and yes, we know that Virginia Woolf had complicated metal health issues; we’re just joking!)
From day one, October 10, 2015, women started inviting like-minded friends, and within a few weeks, and then months, what started with a few dozen of my closest friends became hundreds, and eventually thousands of women. Bright, edgy women who want to talk and share, and be supported and offer support, in this time of our lives that increasingly has less to do with raising children and/or climbing the ladder of success, and much more with our own inner lives, and health, and overall sense of well-being.
It’s no secret that community plays a huge role in mental and physical health. The almost 80 year old Harvard Health Study of Adult Development, has consistently demonstrated that relationships and community boost longevity and well-being.
What’s surprised me with WWVWD is that I thought I already had a huge sense of community. After a lifetime of career (book publishing) and kids (four!) and living in NYC since birth, I have a large and deep circle. In times of crisis (of which I’ve had no shortage, like most of us by mid-life), I’m unusually fortunate to be able to call on any number of loved ones who care. Despite all this, in these last two years I’ve connected, intimately, with thousands of woman I may never meet, and it has been a revelation.
I’ve learned how truly not alone I am. We all rage, and grieve, and are scared. So many of us have had terrifying experiences with our children, whether drugs or depression or eating disorders or complications of biology like autism and other special needs. Raising kids is a uniquely humbling experience, but then I’ve also learned from so many Woolfers who never had children — whether by choice or for other reasons — and I’ve discovered how much more I have in common with them than not. Disappointment in love is everywhere, and we cheat, and our lovers cheat, and we fear dying alone. Some of us are done with sex, and resigned about relationships, while others are determined to find that elusive great romance before we die. We talk politics, and bra fit, infidelity, loneliness, vaginal discharge, penis size, the mores of dating as an “older woman” and so much more. Nothing is off-limits, and the faith we’ve developed in one another is astonishing.
On December 22, 2017 a few Woolfers in a thread about the holidays discovered that they were all going to be alone in New York City on Christmas Eve, and within minutes they (these complete strangers, who had never met or even spoken IRL) made a plan to meet in Chinatown for a festive dinner! That’s how much we’ve grown to trust our tribe of over 7,000 “like-minded” women. Not to mention the fact that we recommend doctors and lawyers and books and many of us have probably spent hundreds of dollars on beauty, household, and fashion products that others swear by.
Being able to share frankly, and feeling confident that we don’t need to be ashamed of our vulnerabilities, is a huge component of what makes our group special, but how is that different from my relationships in real life? How has it come to be that a digital community has buoyed me beyond the one I already have in flesh and blood? The answer, I think, lies in the random anonymity. With my own friends (and God knows, family), there is an implicit context, and a set of established expectations. There is history, and pattern, and prejudice. When I asked a bunch of complete strangers a question — for example “Am I being a jerk if I get a dog even though my husband doesn’t want one? What if I’m the one who will take on the bulk of the expense and care?” — I received range of answers (hundreds!) that were smart and thoughtful and completely unbiased, at least vis a vis me. Everyone of course brings their own baggage to every conversation, but the women dug deep, and really considered the question from all angles. It’s a little like having your own personal Ann Landers, x 7000.
The answer, by the way, was pretty evenly split — some women thought I was being selfish and disrespectful, others surmised he’d come to love the new dog in a heartbeat and he was being lazy and withholding. I didn’t get the dog, but I did wind up getting a divorce.
I don’t know if everyone needs a confidential online group of like-minded trustworthy strangers in their back pocket, but I can tell you for sure that it has changed my life. We make each other think — we laugh, we cry — we have instant simpatico friends wherever we travel, and a 24/7 resource to answer any conceivable question that one might need answered. We Woolfers have each other’s backs; we are a wonder!