Why Didn’t You Tell Me The Truth About The Menopause?
Discovering there is so much more to the menopause and its effect on mental health.
I wasn’t expecting to be menopausal. Not in the way we tend to imagine the menopause to look like. I was confirmed peri-menopausal in my late 40s but it didn’t really affect me. I was used to mood swings and as for heavy menstruation, Endometriosis made damn sure of that. Those symptoms were already a big part of my life. They were just a wee bit more erratic.
Warning: If you are prone to getting queasy or fainting then look away now. I am about to mention the ‘b’ word.
My last ever bleed was almost three years ago. And pretty spectacular it was too. By spectacular I mean in its timing. Sorry, smelling salts anyone? I was in the middle of Tanzania you see. We were in a tented camp, run entirely by men. There was not even one other female guest of menstruating age. I literally had nobody to turn to. I had packed only a tiny emergency pack of sanitary stuff, just as an insurance policy. I really didn’t expect a period. Even if it did happen, it wouldn’t be anything to speak of. It had been eight months since my last one and then it was no big deal by my standards. In fact a male GP had said to me, if you have not had a period for six months then that’s you probably through the menopause. That is so not true, by the way.
So, back in the middle of the bush and I became aware of that familiar feeling in the knicker department. I will spare you the full and gory details — the last reader hasn’t got up off the floor yet. But suffice it to say, my meagre sanitary supplies were not going to see me through to the next camp. Next camp being my saviour, I hoped. I was just praying I would find a female member of staff there. And that she would be of an age where she might have her own supply. Meanwhile I was in a mess. Literally. So that was me, making my own sanitary towels! Cutting up plastic bags and using the flannels from the tent washstand to pad up. It truly made me realise just what girls and women in some parts of Africa have to go through when they get their periods.
You are safe to look again now.
So, having survived THAT episode in Africa with my dignity still intact, I really was patting myself on the back. All the other symptoms had somehow passed me by.
In a slightly twisted way, I had relished the prospect of hot flushes and flashes. Who knew they were entirely different things? I live in the Cairngorms, a mountainous region in the Highlands of UK Scotland, where it can be damn cold, even on a summer’s day. So I was kind of looking forward to being a sweaty Betty. Hell, I might even be able to leave my fleece jacket off! But, no, I had somehow missed out on being too hot, and needing open windows, entirely.
I had had no brain fog either. I had managed a very successful events business all the way through the various meno stages. Planning, detail, multi-tasking and focus were my strengths. I didn’t even know what brain fog was. I now realise I really was one of the lucky ones.
So, on balance, putting heavy unpredictable bleeds aside, I was home and dry. Nothing to see. Move along. We are all done here. Time to look ahead to a period free life. No more big bulky pants for me. That is totally true. For eight days a month my underwear was like a cross between Victorian bloomers and a baby’s nappy.
And then there is the practicality of carrying all those supplies with you at work.
For one week in every month my handbag looked like an airline carry on. I remember one of the men in the office actually asking me outright if I had a bigger bag when it was my time of the month because he ‘overheard the girls in the admin office talking about it’. How is that even okay to say — man or woman? I was devastated. It’s true, I had to carry so much stuff, my bag was bulging. In that moment, with those cruel, cruel words, I was transported back to my school days. The fear of people knowing. Too scared to walk past their office to go to the loo when I felt that telltale warm, wet trickle between my legs. Timed too late but too stressed they would be laughing behind my back.
You have to love Endometriosis — not. All those TV ads, with women enjoying their carefree periods in thongs and white trousers, were something I could only dream about.
But now it was all over. No more embarrassing accidents. I could look forward to healthy iron levels again. I would have more energy. And I could free up ‘that’ drawer in the bathroom too. Seriously moody Marie would be a thing of the past. My mister would no longer ask what day of the month it was, wondering how much longer he had to tread on those eggshells. Ooh, exciting times ahead.
By last summer I was feeling pretty fantastic. Happy, healthy, hardly any mood swings and I had a very positive outlook on life. And I had more bathroom storage too! Way to go.
Then it all changed.
The summer of 2018 was pretty damned awesome in the UK. It was hot, even in the Highlands of Scotland. It was liberating to throw off the duvet and sleep with the window open. I was having a few sweaty nights. No, not like lots of hot sex. I mean I was waking in the night, sweating buckets, drenched pyjamas, the lot. But we were experiencing warm nights. I had no alarm bells ringing. My body temperature was just higher because of the weather. This was definitely not menopause, because that’s all done now. Right?
I was in my studio, painting a chest of drawers, listening to the Monday GP guest slot on the radio when she mentioned night sweats and lymphoma. I freaked out. Despite thinking the GP would give me a telling me off for listening to that stuff, I booked an appointment. And so began several weeks, turning into months, of blood tests, scans, more appointments.
Firstly, I am glad to say, after a full medical MOT, I was given a thumbs up. Nothing sinister. But then she uttered those immortal words “I am coming back to thinking probably menopause related. It’s not common but these symptoms can kick in later for some women”.
At this point it is probably worth mentioning I thought I knew enough about the menopause to have it all mapped out. I understood the build up (peri) and all that stuff that can happen. The sweats, murderous mood swings, flashes, erratic periods. I even knew the risks of pregnancy with all those false alarm ‘last periods’. But it would all eventually stop and you could throw away the tampons and the birth control. Because that is pretty much the way I was taught about the change of life, as we knew it. Oh how apt that particular phrase is now starting to feel.
I am 54 now and suddenly I feel as if my body is creating its own little micro climate of hormonal ailments. It is like it woke up one day, remembered it had forgotten some stages of my menopause and doesn’t want me to miss out.
First up are the painful bones and joints. Some mornings I literally limp to the shower, because the bones in my feet hurt. I am currently hitting on a daily dose of Vitamin D to assist with deficiency. It is helping, but there seem to be so many theories on why we suddenly get pain.
Then there is the bloating. My GP brushed it aside with a ‘I know, it’s a bummer how all the fat seems to head straight there after your menopause’. But it really hurts. Not physically, but mentally. You see, my belly looks like I am six months pregnant. Permanently. The irony is not lost. Those who read my piece about infertility will understand how that comment really wasn’t helpful. I could literally feel myself sliding down that metaphorical wall.
Emotions are completely off the scale too now. I seem to have a constant lump in my throat. I could cry at News Night. I know the world is a bit messed up right now but do I really need to burst into tears at everything? I mean seriously. It’s embarrassing. The other day I bought a copy of Big Issue and found myself developing a tear when the man said bless you.
Then I totally lost my mojo. I lost interest in the things I used to love. I upcycle furniture to the point of being obsessed with finding and repurposing items. A year ago you would have had to prise me out of my studio ‘I will just do one more coat’. Now? I couldn’t give a shit. Seriously, it could all go back on marketplace for someone else.
And with that comes anxiety. Talking among friends of a similar age, we all share the same stories. Feelings of nervousness and unease about seemingly simple tasks. Last month I got myself in a real tizz about a drive to a town I have been to before, plenty of times. Would I find a parking place? And what about lunch? Where will I get lunch? What if I am late getting lunch and it affects my dinner? A spiral of really crazy thoughts which had me almost canceling my meeting.
And I am still sweating. It disturbs my sleep sometimes but, in all honesty, this particular symptom is a piece of cake compared to the effects on my mental health. Aside: how hard is it to find an image of a middle-aged woman sweating her bits off. Search and you get lots of ‘hot’ females, and lots of women at the gym. But ask for a representative menopausal woman on the regular image sites and what do you get? I leave it there.
As for that happy, optimistic carefree me of last summer? She is gone. Replaced by a woman I am struggling to recognise. I have always been prone to see-saw moods, but early this year I hit an all-time low. They tell me this could go on for many more years yet. I want last summer’s Marie back.
It took a total, snotty, sobbing meltdown at my GP surgery before I finally cried for help with my mental health.
When I think back to the ‘birds and bees’ talk, the whole issue of your menopause was really glossed over. It’s not an illness, I was often reminded. By the time my Mum hit hers with gusto I had moved out, so I didn’t witness first hand the issues she would have faced.
In my simplistic view, I thought oestrogen gradually stopped being produced. Instead, I now read that the ovaries stop making it, but small amounts are made from, or is it by, other hormones elsewhere in the body. And that starts to link into some of the physical symptoms which would otherwise seem totally illogical.
Why were we not told this? Not just at puberty, but now. Why are GPs not explaining the science a bit more? Don’t just tell me it sucks when I cry about my fat meno belly. I already know that! I want you to help me understand why. Instead, I find myself trawling the internet for clues. But then social media latches onto my searches and before you know it, poor desperate Marie is being offered fourteen different diets to make her dreams come true. For just $49 a month.
Here in the UK, there is a lot of talk about recognising the effects menopause has on women. It affects your work life, your home life, your sex life, your mental health. A woman in Scotland has started a movement of Menopause Cafes. Places where women (and indeed their partners too) can just go and talk about it. A place to share what is working for them, what’s not. Or just to know you are not alone. The movement is growing and they are popping up all over the UK.
I know I should make an effort to find one. Start one perhaps? But then comes the memory of those girls in the admin office, laughing behind my back, and the man who thought it was okay to laugh with them — then tell me like he was doing me a favour. It all comes flooding back. I am not ready yet.
But at least now I am talking about it.
©Marie T Smith (She Wordsmiths..)