Ann Marie McMahon
‘Early menopause is the silent voice that society does not want to hear’
Menopause: that dreaded word conjures up images of women in bad moods, tetchy and getting ready to feel old. The word is also a stigma because it reminds women that the ageing process is catching up, and fatigue and low energy loom ahead. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
For many years the role of women in society was to have babies, and once that was done they could fade into the background. But, as we all know, women’s roles have changed dramatically. Today women are living longer, have economic independence and work outside the home. They also have many leisure pursuits and can travel anywhere in the world.
However, nature has not changed the way society has. The arrival of the perimenopause followed by the menopause is a stark reminder of the power of nature. The perimenopause – the transitional time when the body is getting ready to adjust to the menopause – is the first indication that a change is taking place. It can commence as early as the late 30s and can sometimes last for four to five years before the onset of full menopause. Many women are confused by the perimenopause as they do not know what is happening. Symptoms can vary from spotting, changes in period length, fatigue and a sense of anxiety.
Those prone to low mood may experience an increase in emotional and mental issues and seek the wrong treatment. It is only when bloods are taken and hormones examined that the truth can be addressed. Sometimes the bloods have to be taken monthly to observe closely how the perimenopause ceases, and menopause starts.
Many do not seek treatment, and seek solace in the bottle, believing that a few drinks will sort them out. Very often they can go on to create a new problem in the guise of alcohol dependency. This can last for years and cause chaos in very different areas of the woman’s life. Alcohol does not help to delete symptoms in any way.
The real difficulty for women who get early menopause is the realisation that they will be unable to have children, especially if they do not have any. There will be a huge sense of loss and this may go hand in hand with other losses that may be happening in their lives. While doctors tend to focus on the medical side, the emotional side creates an increase in mental health issues, particularly depression. It is also about adapting to a world in which everyone else appears to have children, and you wonder how on earth you arrived at this place without any warning. Support is needed, as is an awareness of looking after yourself in so many ways. Early menopause is the silent voice that society does not want to hear, believing if we stay silent, it will go away. It is time to start talking. Ann Marie McMahon is a counselling psychologist.
‘I felt neither liberated nor empowered by menopause. It simply was’
I spent six weeks in Australia on a writers’ residency some years ago. One morning, while taking a beach-combing walk along the sub-tropical shores of Byron Bay, it dawned on me: I was in the middle of the big pause, the one that apparently loomed on the biological horizon for one gender, like an axe about to fall and destroy your life forever. Except that I had never felt so well. Sometimes hotter than usual, but I’d put that down to humidity and carried on blithely for months before realising that my last menstruation had been five months before. And, unlike the outgoing Pacific, that tide was never to return.
My immediate response was to feel amazed at my own normality, and then to book myself on a snorkelling trip that would take me some miles off the coast with a group of young divers clocking up diving hours. Not a strong swimmer, I had never snorkelled, and was not accustomed to deep water either, but I dragged on the wetsuit, did a few practice lengths of a pool with the snorkel in position, and headed for the boat. It was a wonderful day and I returned exhilarated and proud that I had pushed myself to experience the beauty of what lies beneath.
That trip signals my attitude to life. You carry on and you continue to look beneath, to explore what is there, right under your nose. I felt neither liberated nor empowered by menopause. It simply was. It is part of biological patterning and, like every other ordinary wonder we experience, it neither harms nor heals. We carry on, we endure. Coincidentally, it comes at a time when many of us want to do other things, but we would do these things by dint of our age, with or without menopause. So, do I care? No. Did it empower me? No. Did it make me consider my mortality? Inevitably. I still treasure a photograph of myself in that wetsuit, my cheeks sun- and salt-scorched after I took to the deeps, so alive and so well. Mary O'Donnell is an author and poet. Her latest collection of poetry, Those April Fevers, was published last month by Arc Publishing UK.
‘It started with what felt like crazy hormone surges, a bit like extreme PMS’
I’d be in the kitchen making dinner, feeling full of unexplained fury. I was 48 and wondered what was going on.
I realised my period was maybe six weeks late. Could I be pregnant? Eventually, after three months, a pregnancy test confirmed that I wasn’t. This was a big relief as I was happy with my four great daughters. I was aware, and anxious, that many women get pregnant in their late 40s, a time of unexpected fertility.
I was so relieved not to be pregnant that I welcomed the menopause with uncertain but open arms. What is the menopause? I’m interested in health and good living but I didn’t have a notion about menopause. In hushed tones I asked friends. Most of them looked embarrassed and knew very little. There were mutterings about HRT, being dried up, hot flushes . . . Then I read and read about it. I learned about all the hormone shifts and resulting symptoms, some of which were affecting me: lack of confidence, insomnia, night sweats, forgetfulness. But I also discovered that in China menopause is called a second spring: a time of new growth, and greater wisdom and confidence. This idea appealed greatly. I read that women often start again at midlife and find a new and more confident voice. I was filled with an urge to start a business, having been a stay-at-home mum for 13 years.
In October 2013 I launched mysecondspring.ie to provide a voice for women at midlife. We discuss all aspects of life during and after menopause. It can be a very difficult and lonely time for many women; this is not helped by the fact that it's still a taboo subject. Hopefully not for much longer.
‘Nobody I knew was talking about the menopause and I wasn’t looking to start the conversation’
I thought for a while that it might have happened unnoticed, that I'd been spared. No hot flushes for me, no siree. Or maybe that it was all still way off in the future. Nobody I knew was talking about the menopause and I certainly wasn't looking to start the conversation. During a routine smear test, a nurse told me that I still had "loads of hormones" and that I'd have to be careful not to get pregnant. I was 50. I skipped out of the clinic feeling like a girl and bought myself some shorter skirts. There was Robin Wright in House of Cards, leaning into her great big fridge for relief and I thought, At least I don't feel like that. Until I did.
Suddenly – and it did seem to happen overnight – I got hot, very hot, at the most unlikely times and in the most awkward situations. A name, a face, a line in a book was often all it took to turn me into a human radiator turned up full blast. Was my face as puce as it felt? I’d rush to check in the loo at work, but all seemed normal on the outside. At meetings I’d fan myself with documents, start fiddling with the air conditioning and ask everyone else did it feel a bit close. A gale began to blow through the bedroom as I threw open windows and doors, duvet covers and sleepwear. One minute I would be asleep, the next wide awake, bathed in sweat and feeling a rush of anxiety about work, life, the universe. I was determined to ride it out and certainly never to be seen in front of a shelf full of products with flowers on the packaging, called Meno-this or that.
Instead, I became cranky and unsure of myself. The internet offered lots to worry about, but few solutions. Wear layers, concluded an article in the New York Times. Really? Thanks for that. I lost several scarves and cardigans, shedding them in restaurants and pubs when they became suffocating, then forgetting them, along with all the other things I kept forgetting: the actual names of everyday things; what I did yesterday. It's like pregnancy brain all over again, only worse, and with no lovely baby to look forward to. And all the emotions. Feeling frantic, fearful, tearful, paranoid and continuing to feel up and down, all the time. And that's the worst of it.
When does it end? Nobody can say. It could be months or it could be years. If men felt this way, there’d be a quick fix. That’s all I’m saying.
‘I was reasonably well prepared, but nobody warned me about the facial hair’
I accepted it all (this suggests choice, but of course there is none): the flushes, irritability, trouble sleeping and night sweats. The end of premenstrual tension and feeling unwell for a few days a month compensated for the sadness I felt on realising my reproductive days were well and truly over.
I’d read and heard a lot about menopause and I was reasonably well prepared, but nobody warned me about the facial hair. Sweet Lamb of Divine God! You bleed for half a lifetime and then you grow a bloody beard.
‘There’s some kind of wisdom, comfort in my own well-worn skin’
Fifty wasn’t a big shock for me, I’d had too many other shocks by that stage. I brought up my daughter, Liadain, on my own so when she got a place at university, there was a tremendous feeling of relief and happiness. A grown-up daughter isn’t lost, just better company than ever. There was, however, the suicide disease. Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) arrived at age 50, though I had known back pain since a car accident in 1986. What TN taught me, among other things, was to stop taking orders just because someone else thought they knew better than I did. I guess this was some hangover from being the youngest of 10 and I was learning the lesson too slowly because when the pain was bad, I had to stand up. The pain diminished.
People weren’t out to get me; it was about taking responsibility, and I was dragged back to the starting line every time until I learned my lesson. Now I find that the more I take my own counsel, the less pain impinges on my life. There’s some kind of wisdom, comfort in my own well-worn skin. My green fingers sprouted at the end of my 40s, confirming I’d reached the witch stage. Surrounded by books, cats and plants, it feels deliciously and scarily familiar. This is what I was waiting and wanting to become all the time. I love the 50s. Martina Evans is a writer and poet.
‘The enemies of menopause are people who insist that women can stop the clock’
Menopause is a subtraction. It’s a time when you lose things – hormones, youth, vigour, lustre – most of which you never get back and some of which, like the eponymous menses themselves, you don’t much miss. Given the age at which menopause strikes, you often lose parents too, and if you started having children when you were relatively young, you will most likely lose them as well: they’ll stretch their wings through study, relationships, work, adventure, tasting the whole adult world before them, and then fly the coop.
There’s little solace in the popular media for women who find themselves suddenly bereft this way, stripped bare by their menopausal mugging. Instead there are the turbo-charged sexual predations of the Loose Women, the frozen-faced smiles of ageing A-listers, and the constant moaning of the grumpy women brigade.
Meanwhile, bookshop shelves heave with self-help literature that peddles a strange feminist revisionism in which menopause is viewed as a “gift” or “blessing” that frees women from both biological cycles and the cycles of dependency to which these are supposedly linked. Upbeat, forward-looking and unforgiving, these books contend that if women have to suffer a bit for their post-menopausal freedom, with hot flashes, insomnia, aching joints, acne and mood swings, then so be it. There’s nothing about menopause, say these books, that cannot be vanquished with a one-two punch of fortitude and good humour.
But if menopause brings any rewards, I would argue that women stand little chance of cashing in on them without first going through a process of grieving, such as you would following any bereavement.
The many losses that menopause brings, trailing behind it like iron filings dragged by a magnet, need to be owned up to and confronted head-on. We need to grieve for our lost youth (not pretend that we can forever cling to its diminishing shreds, desperate and grabby as those fairytale witches that suck the lifeblood from hapless young heroines); and reconcile ourselves to various roads we’ve not taken, without laying the blame for the choices we did make at someone else’s door. These are the demands of midlife: the demands of maturity.
The enemies of menopause are people who insist that women can stop the clock; that there's no need to change or adapt; that 40 is the new 30, and 50 the new 40; that you're only as old as you feel; that you can dress like your daughter and get away with it. I suspect it's not just me, but I can't help feeling it is time the menopause deniers, unwilling to tackle loss, simply grew up. Marina Benjamin's new book, The Mirror and the Clock, A Testimony of Turning 50, will be published in 2016.
‘I was crumbling inside and did not know what to do’ The realisation that my life had taken a diversion from the highway to Paradise happened at a friend’s 40th birthday bash. The party was to show off their newly built home with wonderful views and stunning interior.
The champagne was flowing and everyone, including me, was super-excited to be there. I was very happy for my friends and very thrilled to be a part of the evening.
Halfway through the evening, the reality of where I was in my career, my private life and so on hit me like a steam train. It was so unexpected that I was in shock at the intensity of the moment.
At the party, conversation was in full swing of overseas trips, corporate meetings, house renovations and upcoming joint ventures. Everyone seemed to have their life in order and I was floundering. I was crumbling inside and did not know what to do with this unsettling emotion.
For many women in their late 40s and early 50s, midlife crises may collide with a disruption of their hormones, leaving them in a quandary about what is the correct approach in handling issues such as anger and resentment, coupled with hot flushes and lack of sleep. But labelling everything as a menopause symptom may be preventing a woman moving on.
Talking about any issues, symptoms and having blood tests to assess hormone levels can help women to know exactly what they are dealing with and how best to move forward.
Rather than wallow in misery when confronted with "successful" friends, I choose not to compare myself to them, nor to judge my success on material things. I re-evaluated my life and appreciate what have, rather than what I don't. Julie Dargan blogs about menopause; see http://iti.ms/1OE85pN
‘I’m more adventurous and willing to try new things’
I’m a 56-year-old woman. I separated about 10 years ago and divorced this year. I was married for 28 years. I have three grown sons. I can identify with almost all the symptoms listed in your piece on menopause, with one exception. I have been dating a guy for the past year and we have sex once or twice a week. I have no problem with dryness at all. I’m very lucky, I suppose, but the need to change things is always there. I’m more adventurous and willing to try new things. I’m still getting over the spill I took off a Segway last April. I’m taking a soya-based supplement and it helps with night sweats and sleep. I exercise twice or three times a week, but I feel I put on weight just by looking at food. Anyway, the menopause is a bitch.