You feel like you have to fight
We have to fight illness and ill health, right? We’re supposed to battle to be well. If we survive we’re victorious. If we die we lose. And if we just go through life struggling with our symptoms what are we then? Failed warriors? Collaborators? Cowards?
Stop. Resist this line of thought. Menopause feels like an interloper — an invader even. We don’t invite it in, but it happens anyway.
The thing is it doesn’t happen to our body. It is what our body does.
My body did it, quickly and brutally. I was crippled by what was diagnosed as vulvodynia but was in fact Genito-Urinary Syndrome of Menopause. Pain and discomfort in my vulva, vagina, urethra, and bladder. I couldn’t sit, couldn’t walk, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate.
It took four years to get some decent pain relief and a couple more before the birth control pill gave it chance to heal. For those years it was like having cystitis constantly. I was frequently suicidal.
I learned a lot. I learned how to be alive. I learned how to be happy.
You are not a war zone
If you are in perimenopause or menopause you can pretty much guarantee that your amygdala is already making whoopee. That little peanut inside your brain manages your ‘fight or flight’ response and it likes its oestrogen.
As your oestrogen levels drop it can go a little crazy, making you excitable, anxious, over-reactive, and generally worse at dealing with stress. That has knock-on effects throughout the whole body that makes other menopausal symptoms much harder to manage.
If you live your life as if it is a battle, the levels of your stress levels, such as cortisol will increase. Cortisol is not all bad news — it’s anti-inflammatory for a start. But if you live with constantly high stress levels, your cortisol response becomes blunted, and inflammation increases.
Stress also makes us feel pain worse. It may affect our production of reproductive hormones. It interferes with our body's management of glucose which can leave us fatigued and even more likely to put on weight.
If there’s one thing every single one of us should do in peri/menopause it’s to manage our stress levels. You can’t do that if you’re angry at your body or trying to defeat menopause.
Make friends with it
The best advice I got was from my friend Darren. Big, tough, ex-forces, biker-tattooist. He was a guy who knew about pain and injury. About being tough. About fighting. That guy could take a beating.
His advice? ‘Make friends with your pain?’ Naturally, I thought he was an idiot. I was going to beat this thing. I read everything. Tried anything.
I almost certainly made it worse with some of the things I tried. (Please be very careful about putting tea-tree oil near your foo-foo!). Some days I seemed to be winning, but on the days I seemed to be losing I was desolate. And that battle dominated my life.
But I discovered that was the body I was living in. That’s the one I had to love, and the one I had to enjoy life though.
Th’asta Start Where Th’art.
Just because you accept how things are, doesn’t mean you stop striving to make them change. In fact, arguably, you can’t make things change if you’re not fully grounded where you are.
When I was a teenager my family used to take fairground equipment around the country. One day, when we were in Derbyshire, my brother was helping my Dad erect the swing- boats. . My Dad had an idiosyncratic way of doing things that can infuriate others. An argument broke out.
This is the tale my brother told me later. He’d gone off in some temper and upset, and an old man had come to comfort him. What the old man said went something like this — “Tha hasta start where th’art”.
It turns out to be an ordinary piece of wisdom, but it works. You can only start from where you are — from the body you have and the world you are in. Work with that — moving forward, but from a place of peace and not conflict.
How I changed things
I laid down my sword and shield. It was not surrender but an act of profound courage. I accepted that this was how my body felt now. Not forever, but now. This was the body I would take to bed and wake up with.
It was the body I learned to have sex with all over again, by stimulating myself differently. It was the body I took on all sorts of adventures, with other people facing sexual difficulty.
It was the body I paid attention to. I noticed that orgasm helped. I found that yoga and gentle movement helped. Eventually, of course, I realised that oestrogen helped, but I had a journey to go on before I got there!
I discovered that the bigger my world was, the smaller my pain was, so I made my world bigger. I brought more wonder and more love into it. Party by means of cats, but also through acts of making and through friendships that have become deep and abiding.
Life Goes On
Blah. Blah. No. Life is going on. All around you. You are part of it. It is, as it always was wonderful, terrible, and hilarious in equal measure.
But which bit are you focussing on? Laughter and joy will nourish your body, manage stress, reduce inflammation and pain, and improve your mood.
Battles and enmities are overwhelming. You can’t stop to smell the roses or laugh about puppies.
If you make your struggle with menopause all-consuming, as I did for quite some years, my battle with GUSM, you will find yourself faced with the question — is this all there is?
My body did not betray me
I remember the time and the place I realised this — beside the sea one evening in Spain. I wish I could tell you the thought process that led to it, but I remember it as a flash of lightning.
My body wasn’t betraying me. I was betraying my body.
It was doing its best.
I’d been pretty disrespectful of it at times and it had kept up with my crazy life. And now when it was struggling, I was furious with it. I resented it. I ignored it and disregarded its needs. I tried to shout it down, dominate it. If my body had been another person I would have advised it not to marry me.
These days I’m inclined to be even gentler with myself. I did not betray my body. My body and I were in a ****** up relationship because the world is ****** up.
Become your body’s best advocate
You and your body need to be on the same side because this may not be easy. It may take some effort to get the answers you want and the support you need.
There are going to be tricky conversations — with doctors, with partners, with colleagues, with employers. Some people are not going to be as enlightened as they might be.
You may have to pick your way through information and, misinformation and make very nuanced decisions about what’s right for you. There are going to be false starts — you’re going to try things with all the hope in the world and find they’re not suitable.
But I’m going to encourage you to think of this, not as a fight, but as work. In fact not as hard labour, but as a worthwhile endeavour.
Who else is on the team?
Once you and your body are on the same team, you need to think about who else is on your team. It might not be the people you expect — however well-meaning they are your partner, your bestie, even your mum — maybe having completely different experiences and making completely different demands.
It will be OK.
This is what I wish I’d known all those years ago.
It may not be what it was. It may not be what you thought it would be. But it will be ok. Because you are going to find a way of making it OK.
There are so many things that help, from hormone therapy to lifestyle changes. You will find the combination that works for you.
You will be doing it without making anything harder than it need be because you will be nurturing and nourishing yourself as you put in the effort. You will be doing it in harmony with your body. And you won’t be doing it alone.
Helen Clare learned about menopause the hard way so you don’t have to. When she’s not coaching or tending to her own menopausal body, she’s usually making textile art or looking after cats.