The rim of the world
An interview with Flash Count Diary’s Darcey Steinke
Written by Amanda Fletcher
I’m on CA-18 "the Rim of the World Highway" weaving through the San Bernardino Mountains when I flash, the air conditioner in my little Kia on max and blowing directly in my face, Darcey Steinke’s voice in my ears:
“I’d argue that the flash has been debased because it’s a sort of conduit, a profound crossing to the older stage of life.”
My ass is on fire, the heat like a flame between my legs and under my breasts, it makes me breathe in short bursts through my mouth. Next thing I know, I’m in the middle of a downpour, startled by the harsh bleat of a flash flood warning on my phone, cancelling out the audio version of Steinke's memoir Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life
for what feels like the exact amount of time my body is burning.
I am on the way to Big Bear to spend a few days with my partner and his teenagers. As someone who is in the beginning stages of perimenopause
, with my hormones and my periods all over the place, it’s a trip within a trip to be around a young woman just entering her fertile years as I’m on my way out. I remember being obsessed with periods at her age–who was getting theirs and who wasn’t. How my body began to feel like it belonged to someone else. Over the last few months, I’ve begun to realize how similar this stage of life is to that one. My high school friends and I chime in to our group chat every day, charting our cycles, worried we won’t get “it.” Except now we’re in our 40s, not 14.
I have to admit: I am just as eager to talk about Flash Count Diary today as I was to whisper about Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret three decades ago. And my friends are down to hear about it. My partner maybe not so much, but I refuse to stay quiet about something my body does that I have no control over. I am woman, hear me bloody roar.
It’s this kind of thinking that’s moving the needle. “Feminism,” says Steinke, is making the menopause narrative more mainstream, “partly because there are powerful women that want to know, right?”
That is exactly right, I think.
When I ask her about flashing, Steinke says she flashed 10-15 times a day for five years. “I think it helped me to become the person I am now in some ways because my exterior was burned off.”
I see us like superheroes, beings forged in heat, more powerful than we were before. As a personal trainer, sweating has always built me up. Flashes might even be less extreme
because I’m so used to running hot. Running my mouth about all of this in Big Bear leads us into a family discussion about menopause
, what it means and how it affects people who experience it. My partner explains to the kids that their mother had a hysterectomy after they were born, and that the removal of her ovaries kicked her into early menopause. “It really changed her,” he says, shaking his head. “Maybe,” I say, fired up by what I’ve been learning, “it turned her into the person she was meant to be. Independent of what you expected from her.”
Later, I tell my man about a few of the 100 women Steinke interviewed for her book. I admit that while many of them did change emotionally, physically and mentally during menopause, that isn’t necessarily bad. Just different. Often they found themselves prioritizing intimacy beyond penetrative penis-in-vagina sex. “Lots of foreplay,” I say, “that sometimes ends up being the main event.” Think naked full-body massages slick with coconut oil. I talk about the woman who still goes to sex clubs but now gets off on watching instead of getting in the mix, and the couple in their sixties who had a rich intimate life until he started using Viagra (spoiler alert: the man realized that a hard penis doesn’t always lead to good sex). When I get to the lady who realizes how much she enjoys anal, he does a happy dance around our loft bedroom. “See,” I say. “Change is scary, but it can also be good.”
When I talk to Steinke a few days later, she points out that only about half of the women she spoke to admitted to a diminished desire for penetrative sex, and even that makes sense from a biological perspective. “When your hormones change, you're not fertile anymore.” If you can’t have babies, what’s the point? “You know what I mean? It's a no brainer.”
That doesn’t mean we lose the desire for intimacy, or that we somehow become “unfuckable” as the patriarchy might have us believe.
“If the idea of sex was opened up more,” Steinke says, “I don't think as many women would worry about getting unsexy.” She does admit that it can be a bumpy road, navigating this new hormonal landscape, unmedicated by estrogen. Vaginal sex can be painful and your libido might drop, but you’re also free from the rollercoaster ride of fertility, where hormonal shifts can alter your brain chemistry as much as 25 percent depending on where you’re at in your cycle. “It's a different horse than you had before,” she says. “So you need to learn how to ride the new horse, right?” And learning new things takes time, energy, dedication and courage.
With that kind of learning curve, it’s no surprise that hetero couples who’ve been together for a long time often struggle to get through this phase. When I tell Steinke that a married friend of mine just admitted that she’s less interested in sex with her husband and more interested in sex with herself, she gets it. “The sexual script that you were using in your 20s and 30s is not really going to work anymore,” she says, and that might mean, “your sex life becomes more private as you get older,” mainly because you know what you like and there is less pressure to perform.
The antidote for the sexual standoff that occurs when one partner wants sex more or less than the other is communication. What’s really sexy, according to Steinke, is authenticity. “Real people communicating,” she says, “that’s what’s really sexy.”
“Older women need a lot of support,” says Steinke. “Rather than feeling like they have to go by this sexual script they've used all of their lives, it's important that they know there’s nothing wrong with their changing desires.” And this support doesn’t just come from their romantic partners, but also friends, family and the culture in general, including resources like Coral.
Steinke goes on to tell me about a segment she did on NPR’s Let’s Talk About Sex
. “I talked about everything we're talking about now. And afterwards, somebody had this tweet that said, oh, gay sex is just like menopausal sex: lube and a lot of communication. I really liked that.”
The best part of all of this is that we’re actually talking about it. Steinke says that even though the science behind the menopausal transition is still unclear, that might not always be the case. “I heard something like, in 10 years, there'll be more female doctors than male doctors, so (potentially) we're climbing out of the period where there was (so much) negation and debasement around the female body.” When I admit that my mother suffered from depression at my age and that my stepfather blamed “the change” as part of her problem, Steinke had this to say: “I gave this reading and we were talking about depression and menopause, and one woman in the audience just shouted out: If menopause wasn't considered so terrible, we wouldn't be so depressed. Right? And I thought to myself, yeah.”
A different relationship with yourself, your partner and your community where you are open and honest about your needs? As Steinke points out in Flash Coint Diary, this process sounds a lot like getting sober. It hurts in the beginning, and you can’t imagine giving up the person you were before, but if you commit, you can emerge on the other side as something new, better even.
AND you don’t have to worry about your period anymore?
I can totally get behind that.