In our ongoing interview series, we’re asking our favorite people our most burning questions about life in midlife — questions about love, loss, work, money and all the real talk that comes with getting older and wiser.
Over the course of her multi-decade career, journalist Jancee Dunn has tackled almost every topic there is — from probing the inner lives of rock stars during her years writing for Rolling Stone, to her book How Not Hate Your Husband After Kids, which examined how to stay emotionally connected to your partner during those stressful “diapers and vomit” child-rearing years.
Yet, despite working as a health journalist for publications like the New York Times and Vogue, when Dunn started experiencing perimenopause symptoms, she had no idea what was going on. “My skin started drying up, so I went to a dermatologist. My heart started racing, so I went to a cardiologist,” she says. “But I didn't put together that what was happening was perimenopause, and none of my other doctors did, either. By the time I figured out what was happening to me, I thought, ‘Okay, not only is there not much information out there — but if I didn't know what was happening, and writing about health is what I do for a living, what about everybody else?’"
When Dunn hit up her local library, she found shelves of books about pregnancy, “like What to Expect When You're Expecting — and then nothing on what to expect when you're, well, no longer expecting. Where was all the information?” Her new book, Hot and Bothered: What No One Tells You About Menopause and How To Feel Like Yourself Again, aims to fill that void, taking readers on a funny, factual ride that bounces from interviews with innovative menopause experts, to the history of hormone therapy, to Dunn’s own experience getting a hot flash while interviewing a movie star.
We sat down on Zoom to talk with Dunn about everything from discontinued snack foods to the state of menopause in America. “There's so many areas where we desperately need more progress, like help for menopausal women in the workplace,” says Dunn. But the stigma “is definitely lifting. And we are moving forward.”
What is the most unexpected thing you learned while you were writing this book?
That menopause is known to have 34 symptoms. When you hear that, it seems so unbelievable. And then, when I would talk to experts, they would say, "Oh, no, there are probably even more symptoms than that." At first, that seemed so implausible to me. And now that I really dug into the physiology, I see that, oh yes, of course that makes sense to have that many symptoms — we have estrogen receptors in almost every area of our bodies, so of course they’re going to be affected by changing estrogen levels. Things that used to seem bizarre to me, like my nails becoming flaky because of menopause, just totally don't phase me anymore.
I also learned about my own behavior. I realized how much I was feeding into that stigma around menopause, and that shame. Because I didn't tell my husband what was going on with my body — that sex was getting painful, that I wasn't feeling great about how my skin looked or that my hair was getting frizzy. And now that I think, "Why didn't I come clean to him and just say, 'Look, this is what's going on with me. Estrogen is leaving my body. Here's how it's affecting me'?" But instead, I kept it from him. And if I just talked to him about it, it would have made things a lot easier. He would have been able to be my ally in this whole transition, instead of shutting him out. I mean, he's getting older too.
What advice would you give someone who's just started going through perimenopause?
For the emerging perimenopausal, I would say, familiarize yourself with the alleged 34 symptoms. Know what they are and know what happens. Then, you can connect the dots, because it's about looking for patterns. And if you discern a pattern, make a separate appointment with your OB-GYN and to talk about your plan going forward with menopause. It isn't something that you should tack on to the last 10 minutes of your annual visit. It's a big subject and it's something that you need to be strategic about.
And what advice would you give someone who is deep in the thick of it right now?
My absolutely overwhelming, #1 piece of advice is: if you have a symptom or symptoms that are ruining your quality of life — if for instance, you're having hot flashes that are making you deranged and unable to function — you owe it to yourself to visit your doctor and explore treatments.
It's amazing what you can fold into your life and just normalize, once you've dealt with it it long enough. “Oh, okay, well, I've stopped bleeding. This is just going to be the way it is.” And with something like hot flashes, you may tell yourself, "Oh, maybe it'll go away in a few months." Well, it might not. Oftentimes they can last for years. And that that's not to be all doom and gloom. It's just a matter of not being able to predict it. So, don't dismiss the symptoms, and don't learn to live with them.
Over and over again, while researching this book, experts would say to me that quality of life is just not considered an issue with women's health, and it should be. Because when your quality of life is being ruined over the course of months or years, you still have to function. In midlife, many women are holding down jobs, they're taking care of kids, they're taking care of parents, there's so much going on. A lot of the symptoms can be treated or managed now, and you owe it to yourself to explore those options, and not be stoic the way that our mothers were.
What is the strangest situation you found yourself in recently?
I was at the grocery store, and I went to my favorite checkout guy, Reggie, and he was singing a song. He's older, he's a retiree who went back to work to do something more low-key.. And he was singing a song and he said, "Oh, you kids will never know what the song is." I love when I'm called kid, which almost never happens now, except by people in their 80s, which I think Reggie is. And he was singing “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis.
In fact, I do know that song. My parents used to play it, and I used to be a music journalist. So, he was singing, and I started singing along with him. We started singing together, because I really don't give a crap what anyone thinks of me at this point. It's such a glorious time to be alive when you're in menopause, because you're like, "Who cares? I'm going to sing a Johnny Mathis song with Reggie, the checkout guy in ShopRite,” which I did. And we sang the whole song.
Is there any discontinued product or thing that doesn’t exist anymore that you really miss?
Keebler Lemon Coolers. It was this little cookie that was lemon-flavored, and rolled in powdered sugar. I can't stand that there's no such thing as lemon coolers. Every once in a while, I check and see if they're going to bring it back. I could crush a whole box of lemon coolers. Maybe it's good that they're not coming back.
What advice would you give to your 17-year-old self?
Don't run while you have a Q-tip in your ear in 1995 to answer the door, because it's not going to end well. Buy Apple stock.
I would want to warn my 17-year-old self about three or four terrible boyfriends that I was going to date in the future. But then, I would also want to refrain from saying anything to her, because then it would have changed the trajectory of my life, and I like where I am now.
Final question: There’s a scene in your new book where you get an extremely sweaty hot flash right before you have to interview a young movie star. It reminded me of a scene in your book about your time at Rolling Stone, But Enough About Me, where you have an equally terrifying encounter interviewing the Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten. So, which was more frightening: getting a hot flash at work, or interviewing a famously rude and combative punk musician?
Oh my God, I was so scared when I interviewed Johnny Rotten that I thought I was going to faint. Because I was so green — I was recently out of the New Jersey suburbs, and so new at interviewing people. The first words out of his mouth were, "I hate your mag[azine]." He was angry and his back was towards me, and he wouldn't turn around. I mean, he was just so spiky. And I remember my hands were shaking and I had to put my hands at my side so that they would stop trembling. I can go back there and remember exactly how scared I was, and get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I kept thinking I would be fired from that job.
When I compare that to when I had my more recent interview with the hot flash: After you've been knocked around a while and you've gotten experience, nothing phases you as much. The main thing I was aware of in that more recent interview was that I was melting. I mean, it was really scary how drippy and gross I was. I was like something that you would turn over a log and see — pale, moist, nasty, translucent.
So that was a little difficult. But it was less about nerves, because I knew that I would get through it. Whereas when you're younger, you just think, "Oh my God, I'm going to be fired. I'm going to be this, I'm going to do that." And then when you get older, you're like, "Well, whatever happens, happens."
So, menopause is rough, but it's nowhere near as scary as Johnny Rotten.
That’s exactly right.
By Gabrielle Moss
Gabrielle Moss is the editor at Stripes. She's the author of Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Buzzfeed, Marie Claire and elsewhere.