Will You Yell Back?
My daughter calls the menopause ‘Old Lady Puberty’ and she’s right. It’s an inevitable change to the female body, which impacts women as enormously as when they first forayed into shuttlecock nipples and bloodied underwear.
The effect of the menopause is so universal that it’s the whispered topic of every conversation between fellow sufferers. It’s the feeling that we have to whisper about it that enrages me.
There are educational books written specifically to help us guide our tween daughters through the changes incurred during puberty. It is a topic dealt with at school in Personal, Social and Health Education lessons (or whatever the hell they’re calling those sessions these days). But I think there’s a noticeable lack of support and understanding at the other end of the fertility spectrum.
Mariella Frostrup’s BBC programme, The Truth About the Menopause, highlighted the negative attitude towards these mid-life hormonal changes. The thing that struck me most was the change in people’s facial expressions when they were asked to come up with words they associate with the menopause; they ranged from confusion to repulsion. Some even physically stepped back from Mariella. This tells us a lot.
This week alone, I have talked with friends my age who are experiencing hot flushes, insomnia, erratic and uncontrollable bleeding, uterine prolapse, night sweats, forgetfulness, mood swings, breast tenderness and anxiety. And it’s only Wednesday.
These conversations take place behind closed doors, or in hushed tones over coffee (OK, wine). Heaven forbid a young person, or a man, should be exposed to the horrors of what happens to the minds and bodies of women in their middle years.
I’ve written before about the insidious stigma attached to mental health issues, and I feel the same about the menopause (often a contributory factor to poor mental health in women). It’s widely believed that one in four of us will suffer with a mental health problem, and some headway is being made to address the negativity surrounding a diagnosis.
Whilst this is a positive move, one in every two human beings is going to go through the menopause (some will be lucky and barely notice, others will have life-inhibiting symptoms), and the stigma attached to admitting what’s changing in our minds and bodies is not going to reduce until we start to shout about it at the top of our lungs.
First, I think we need to address why the stigma exists: The Patriarchy. There. Job done.
If a woman admits she’s got a brain full of cotton wool, sweated herself to a husk and barely slept the night before, she’s admitting she is no longer young. And women aren’t allowed to get old, are we? We’re meant to be young and pretty and pliable.
Only, we all know that’s bollocks. The Patriarchy also knows this, but it takes a long time to change the time-worn order of things. Huge advances have been made, we’ve had two female Prime Ministers (let’s not work out the ratio of male: female in the 65 British Prime Ministers since 1770…) and since Teresa May is currently 62, she must’ve gone through some of her most powerful years whilst enduring the challenges of a hormonal reboot.
But did we hear about it? No.
I’m not saying that the Prime Minister of the UK should have told us the date her periods stopped, but I do wish that going through the menopause was more open for discussion. It is not a guilty secret.
I’m peri-menopausal (And, despite my protestations, I still feel like I should be standing up from a circle of chairs, head bowed, my name is Lisa and I am peri-menopausal). Perimenopause is the lead up to full-blown menopause, which is categorised by not having had a period for twelve consecutive months.
I don’t sleep a full night any more. I wake at around 2am and can be alert for three hours. I’m not unduly worried about anything, but I simply cannot get back to sleep. I am often woken by searing heat emanating from my core and lie, sweat dripping along my cleavage. Oh, the glamour.
After a night like that I am tired, snappy and forgetful. This is not a huge problem for me because I work from home, so can fire my wrath at you through this keyboard, but imagine being in a leading professional position and suddenly being soaked from head to toe in sweat because a hot flush decided to set you on fire as you gave a presentation to the Board?
The first time I saw a hot flush in action I was on a night out with a friend who had been put into enforced menopause due to oestrogen-sensitive breast cancer. I was speaking to her when she started to blink, breath more quickly and within seconds she was drenched. This is no exaggeration. Water dripped from the end of her nose, her hair stuck to her scalp. She had to escape to somewhere cooler immediately. That happened to her indiscriminately, as it does to millions of other women every day.
Bleeding has always been an issue we Brits are squeamish about. I have endometriosis (a condition where the uterine lining grows in other parts of the body and leads to painful, very heavy periods), so am no stranger to the humiliation of rivers of claret running down my legs at unexpected times. This was bad enough as a teen, but at least I had my mum to guide, sympathise and mop up after me.
My friends are new to the sudden bloodbath of an exploding womb. They are being caught unawares, one notable time was at a school presentation evening, when a friend stood up in her white trousers at the end, to find her crotch was flooded with red, and the white chair she’d been sitting on was similarly stained. There is no dignified exit from that.
There is no dignity in the menopause, but, like childbirth, smears and mammograms, we have to get on with it the best we can, and I think the de-stigmatisation is the strongest starting point.
I talk to my daughters about my symptoms, because what I’m experiencing is normal and natural and they will go through similar things when they are my age. One friend asked whether this approach would make them dread their own menopause, but if I’m sensitive and informative, I don’t think so.
If something is inevitable, surely forearmed is forewarned? I’m not scaremongering, I’m talking about how our bodies function and it’s an important part of the open dialogue I’m advocating. If you understand something, hopefully you’ll be less likely to recoil when it’s mentioned, or when it happens to you.
I talk to my friends and that helps us feel less alone in experiencing what are often considered embarrassing or distasteful manifestations.
When I can no longer manage my symptoms comfortably, I will be banging on the Doctor’s door, making my case for HRT. I encourage other women to do the same. There are risks, notably breast cancer, but recent tests show that there are far greater risks from alcohol consumption and obesity, and few of us are handing back the cake and gin.
We are all going through our old lady puberties in our own way, but something this ubiquitous shouldn’t be a taboo subject, talked about quietly, out of earshot of those too fragile to cope with the realities of what women’s bodies endure. If people don’t know about it, how can they prepare, sympathise, or help make going through the menopause easier in the workplace or wider society?
That’s why I’m shouting about the menopause. Fancy yelling back?
Main image by Oleg Magni on Pexels