When I first went to the doctor with symptoms of the menopause, I hadn’t a clue what it was. Turns out, neither did he. He was so far off the mark I’m surprised he didn’t ask to hold my testicles and get me to cough.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Suddenly I feel like I’m losing my memory. I’m exhausted. I’m gaining weight. I feel like I’m losing my memory. I’m overheating. I’ve lost my libido, my motivation, my concentration. I’m aching all over. And I smell like a tomcat.”
“Sadly, we don’t have a cure for being a middle-aged lady,” he said, “But I can offer you anti-depressants.”
“Will they help?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but you won’t give a shit.”
“Sounds lovely,” I said.
The above is a facetious conflation of my own experience, and that of so many women I’ve spoken to, read and/or heard over the past 18 months. It all combined to inspire a new stage show, How to Get the Menopause and Enjoy It.
No, I don't think I'm great. I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1970s/early 1980s. 'You think you're great' was among the worst that could be said about you
Can you be funny about menopause, considering the awful information gaps about what it is, its often debilitating symptoms, and its under-discussed long-term ramifications? Not to mention hormone replacement therapy: does or doesn’t HRT increase your risk of breast cancer? Is it or isn’t it necessary? Why are there so many conflicting messages around it, and hoops to jump through in order to be prescribed it?
The sheer absurdity of the mystery surrounding a biological phase that will affect half the population, and around thoroughly researched and vetted hormone treatments that can massively improve women’s quality of life, is, I think, darkly hilarious. And if you can’t laugh at terrible things, what’s the point in having them?
I stumbled on the topic by accident. A year and a half ago I was struggling to write a new show; something reflective of midlife, that would make your face hurt from laughing. I was stuck in rut of writer’s block when my partner, Paul, suggested I take a tighter focus, and wrote “How to Get the Menopause and Enjoy It” on my whiteboard. That was the eureka moment. He also contributed extra gags along the way, and directed the final show.
As Paul says: “Behind every great woman is a fair to middling man.”
And no, I don't think I'm great. I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1970s/early 1980s. "You think you're great" was among the worst that could be said about you. How anachronistic such an attitude seems now, in the era of social media and #theself as centre of the universe. Our foremothers' attitude to life could be summed up in four words: "Ah, don't mind me." Is this one of many reasons for the traditional silence and mystery around The Change?
A primary reason I decided to stay on HRT long term was loss of bone density
In researching the menopause, I could not believe all I didn’t know. Not least that the chemotherapy treatment I underwent for breast cancer 10 years ago had plunged me into it. Yes, of course I was aware my periods had ended, but it was all the other issues: vertigo kicked in, which for months I was sure was brain metastases and for which I spent a fortune on scans, only to discover, long after the fact, that the menopausal fall in oestrogen can affect the inner ear and balance. Not to mention the chronic fatigue, joint pain, brain fog and depression. Just to have been aware of the link between all these and the hormone depletion of menopause would have been, to say the least, helpful.
And it would have been useful to know that HRT is a tried and tested option, not just for alleviating immediate symptoms but in the longer term for ameliorating the effects of hormone loss in old age. It’s well documented that, in particular, oestrogen depletion affects the brain, bones and heart.
A primary reason I decided to stay on HRT long term was loss of bone density: I’ve witnessed it in my mum and her sisters, formerly fine, tall women, but now, as I say in the show, “A family gathering is like a gnome convention”. I don’t want to be a gnome. Or suffer “bone loss”, as it’s medically referred to, an odd term that always makes me think of women declaring: “Oh no! I’ve left a fibula on the bus” or “That’s strange, I could have sworn I had two knees this morning”.
The topic of menopause spins widely in the show, from touching upon the historic sidelining of women in medicine to how our foremothers may have perceived their menopauses. My personal experience is bookended by the advent of my periods and introduction to the weird world of feminine hygiene products, to the sudden end of menses when I started chemotherapy. And the story of a weepy farewell to tampons in a chemist’s in Cork. Here I may claim an Irish stage first: mining the poignancy in Lil-lets. In Cork.
It seems to have struck a chord, too, with feedback from women in their eighties telling me I captured everything about their experience, to twentysomethings who enjoy the comic insight into how things were for girls “back in my day”. Writer June Caldwell has described it as a “wonderful tonic and cultural link to our bonkers past, told in sausage trousers and with intellectual sparkle”. And a tweet from a man-person declared it “Billy Connolly meets The Vagina Monologues”.
Now I’m sounding like I think I’m great. I don’t, it’s just such a relief to be back on stage after Covid.
How to Get the Menopause and Enjoy It returns to the Viking Theatre, Clontarf, April 4th-16th, vikingtheatredublin.com. And on International Women's Day, March 8th, it will play at The Bluestack Centre, Drimarone, Co Donegal