The Big M: why it shouldn't be taboo

 

Tomorrow is World Menopause Day - a good time to start talking about an issue that silently affects thousands of women here every year. With the right approach it can be a liberating experience, argues Grace Wynne-Jones

THERE AREN'T THAT many conversational taboos left in modern Ireland, but one of them appears to be menopause. It is sometimes discussed, of course, particularly among those who are experiencing their own form of global warming. But in general conversation the topic has all the allure of extruded aluminium.

When I mentioned that I was going through menopause to a verbally adventurous and pleasant fellow, he actually burst out laughing. He wasn't being rude; I think he found my candour entertaining and he was probably also mildly embarrassed. I didn't prolong his discomfort by pointing out that, like puberty and childbirth, menopause is in fact a great rite of passage that in some cultures is deeply honoured, even celebrated. In casual chats there is such a thing as too much information.

So why write an article about menopause for a national newspaper? Because it affects thousands of Irish lives every year but is rarely discussed in the media.

Recent research conducted for The Women's Health Council (WHC) found that 50 per cent of Irish women who have experienced menopause said that it had a substantial effect on their lives. And "just over half of women over 35 consider themselves informed about the menopause". Called The Menopause And Me, the WHC's research series highlighted that there's "a need for more information on the menopause and increased awareness of the services available to women".

I personally have been interested in menopause for a long time and wish it was more widely acknowledged. Not everyone agrees with me. For example, one woman I contacted clearly felt women should shut up about it, and indeed it would be tedious if silence on the topic morphed into a menopause fest. But what is clearly needed is more well-informed advice.

Geraldine Luddy, WHC director, says: "Information is vital so women can make informed decisions regarding their health during the menopause. The menopause is not a disease and information that outlines to women what is happening, what to expect and how they can look after their health into the future is one of the key public-health actions in this area."

Another recent WHC report, titled Menopause Information and Services Available to Women in Ireland, found that the current available information does not emphasise the role of lifestyle factors, such as a healthy diet and regular physical activity during menopause.

In addition, the research found that there is a need for impartial information on the advantages and disadvantages of HRT and complementary and alternative therapies.

These initiatives were clearly needed. In the Menopause Talk section of WHC's comprehensive website, a woman called Niamh wrote: "It's tough, I'd sit in the bed in the morning and just burst out into tears, crying for absolutely no reason. I'd have no problems, no money worries, no fight with anyone - but yet, I'd have just loads of tears."

THIS REVELATION WOULD not surprise natural health and fitness expert Leslie Kenton. She believes that "few women in our culture are prepared for the intensity of emotion - both anguish and joy - that can accompany the end of the childbearing years". She thinks this is because we are told so little about menopause.

The back cover of her book Passage to Powerproclaims: "Menopause is a time of celebration when our creativity is no longer bound to our obligation as a member of the human race to propagate the species. Often, for the first time in a woman's life, her creativity can be set free for use in whatever way the whispers of her soul dictate."

Yess, yess, yess, as Bridget Jones might say.

Of course some women say they hardly notice menopause and others sometimes experience mild or intense symptoms. These may or may not include mood swings, sadness, irritability, thinning hair and feelings of loss. As someone who has been known to wear four jumpers, I've learned that even hot flushes can have their advantages.

My body is definitely going through adjustments. I've taken homeopathy remedies, and regularly take herbs that are rumoured to be helpful. When I described some seemingly mysterious symptoms to an acupuncturist she smiled at me calmly.

Menopause, it seems, is a process. It is also, as famed feminist Gloria Steinem once quipped, "the greatest contraceptive ever invented".

But Steinem has also written that in cultures that "worship youth, in which older women are less valued" there is "much more reporting of discomfort, depression, menopausal symptoms of all kinds".

"Women have menopause and men have the meno-Porsche" goes the joke, but men also face their own complex mid-life issues.

Yes, menopause is a natural part of ageing. And ageing is, frankly, a very unglamorous subject. "I can't believe I'll be 40 next month. Forty seems like something you should be ready for - not something that lands smug and like-it-or-not in your life . . . " reveals the main character in my novel Ordinary Miracles.

Many women identified with this indignant declaration. However, some of the most powerful and savvy women in the world are over 40. They are going through "the change" or approaching it, and they seem to be dealing with it just fine, but they don't want to draw attention to it. I myself have discovered that well-known women don't exactly queue up to talk about "the change" for a newspaper article.

HOWEVER, OPRAH Winfrey has declared that menopause "doesn't have to be something we dread - it should be something we celebrate".

She changed her mind about the "Big M" after interviewing Dr Christiane Northrup, author of The Wisdom of Menopause.

It seems the "Big M" is gradually being given a brighter rebranding. And though it's not a bundle of laughs, it has inspired a hit musical. Anthropologist Margaret Mead claimed that passing through menopause brought a woman "post-menopausal zest". Throughout the ages women have spoken of it bringing a new depth and soulfulness to their lives, a greater sense of what truly matters to them. For, as Picasso once said: "To be young, really young, takes a very long time."

The WHC has produced a new information booklet in conjunction with the HSE. Menopause: A Guideis available in GPs' surgeries, local health offices and public libraries and copies can be ordered from the HSE Infoline on 1850-241850 or from www.healthpromotion.ie. The booklet can also be downloaded from the council's menopause website, www.whc.ie/menopause

Grace Wynne-Jones's latest novel is The Truth Club (Accent Press, £6.99)