For Angela, her perfectly planned menopause arrived four years early and didn’t go at all to plan……
I can’t recall the exact moment I first said the M word out loud. But I am sure it was waaaay before the event itself. And I’d say it had a smug tone to it. You see, a lifelong practitioner of the 5- and the 10- year year plan, I had already scoped out in my early 40s what 50 and the inevitable arrival of Menopause was going to look like for me. With the naiveté of the ignorant (or was it arrogant?) I just knew my midlife rite of passage was going to be dynamic, feisty, and fabulous. Hell, it was Celtic Tiger Ireland. We were all unstoppable….
Menopause: ahead of schedule
Fast-forward a few years from that date. My menopausal moment had arrived, earlier than scheduled. Sooner than planned, I thought, but, with plenty of change under my belt in the intervening years – late motherhood, moving country, mothballing a career, “the change” would be a walk in the park. Heck, I was practically an expert.
Except that it wasn’t. It was a rollercoaster. Dips, swings, loop the loops. The sleep deprivation of the baby years gave way to even more punishing night sweats and chills. In the dead of night, anxiety came calling, churning the slightest ache or pain into the possibility of serious, life threatening illnesses. Every morning, I woke to find my mood on the floor, and my energy levels not much higher. Daylight brought a different type of thermostat malfunction - sudden rushes of unsettling, humid heat and random explosions of irrational irritation. . So far, so very un-fabulous. So not me! my younger self would have thought.
A hot mess
The unremitting cycle of tiredness triggering sugar cravings, spurring ever-hotter flashes, followed by sugar crashes was close to unbearable. I was, as my American sisters would put it, a hot mess.
Advice was scant. Take off a sweater, a relative in her late sixties suggested, echoing the widespread mantra of the middle aged magazines to “Dress in layers.” (She had a faint recollection of getting a bit warm in meetings sometimes.) No one offered advice on how to manage the inconvenience of multiple showers and clothing changes a day – not to mention the extra laundry duty that comes with it.
Seeking professional help
I stuck it out for almost two years, more from helplessness than grit, before seeking help from Dr Rachel Mackey at the Women’s Health Clinic in Dun Laoighaire. A specialist in menopause, with a published women's health book covering the subject, she surely could help. I knew from my 3am digital expeditions that hormone balancing therapy - what used to be called HRT - was a no no for someone with a family history of breast cancer. I also knew, though, having happened upon the infamous and ominous sounding 34 Signs of Menopause website, that I’d only experienced a few of the delights of menopause thus far. More fun in prospect – it seemed time to call in the SWAT team.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but it was vanity that eventually took me to Dr Rachel’s door. (That, and a plummeting libido.) The face in the mirror looked like the older sister I’d never had, and she seemed to show up overnight. My skin, hair, nails, body, all seemed to undergo a series of stealthy little losses that added up to quite radical change. Weight crept on in places it never settled before- something I’d managed to avoid without too much effort for the best part of half a century. Nails weakened, hair coarsened - and migrated to my face. Grooves deepened, pores widened, skin folded and sagged a little bit more. It seemed downright ungrateful to complain about such minor cosmetic sacrifices when women in the last century would have considered themselves lucky to live to a menopausal age in a state of relative health.
Self Esteem takes a hit
Still, the cumulative toll of sweating and sleep deficit, a hollowed face and a filled out middle, a lower mood and a higher level of anxiety can be devastating to a woman’s self esteem, especially in a world where ageing is regarded as an aberration and 50 is expected to be the new 40.
Time has passed and I’ve at last settled into an accommodation with my post menopausal body and the pattern of a hormonally volatile day. Dr Rachel introduced me to the wonder of Sylk lubricant which slowly took effect. As for the rest, I’m a slow learner but I’m getting there. I know that the humble little polo mint can prompt a ferocious hot flash. (And that it can be a handy heat source on a winter’s morning). So too, a particularly strong cup of coffee. A glass of prosecco. Green and Black’s chocolate. A good giggle. All of the best things in life seem to spark the familiar surge in body temperature.
Bring on the burka
I know what fabrics overheat me – most synthetics – and think ahead to the rooms and venues I might find myself in and plan strategic exit points. I get the sleep I can, to reign in sugar cravings. I take considerable comfort from the upbeat, smart, capable women I've met recently who can turn their transition into a positive opportunity.
I try to exercise, because I absolutely know it’s the one prescription that works for women my age – on so many levels, from protecting bone health to keeping depression at bay - but I’ve got a way to go. My weight remains somewhat stable, although I am still mourning my pre-change body, which managed to come through two pregnancies and four decades relatively unscathed, but has succumbed to some serious hormonal shape shifting. Bikinis are now well beyond me, while burkas and chadors are starting to look very appealing - and in that there’s the start of relinquishing youthful things.
Letting go can be liberating
But giving up those things that defined your younger self can be a fiercely liberating thing, You do let yourself go a little, as the cliché goes, but in the best possible way. You still aim for a groomed exterior but increasingly don’t give a hoot who thinks you look good or not. Ditto your clothes.
The opinion that matters most
The opinion that matters most post-menopause is yours. And that’s empowering. What’s inside becomes more important than what’s on the surface – when you realise that the real power source is no longer physical attractiveness but character and experience. Change really doesn’t phase you any more – you’ve navigated hormone hell and all the indignities that go with it and whatever’s coming next, you’ll work it out and you’re pretty sure you’ll be grand.