Is it Time to Talk About The Menopause?

close-up of woman biting her pink lipsticked bottom lip

Last weekend I found myself having three separate conversations about the menopause. The first was with my hairdresser. We were discussing our monthly migraines and before you knew it we were swapping stories of how we no longer recognise ourselves at times as our hormones wreak havoc with our moods, minds and bodies.

I had to break the news gently to Natalie (not her real name) that what she was describing was the perimenopause.  You’d swear I’d told her the sky was purple. There was a sense of disbelief as I uttered the dreaded ‘M’ word – Menopause.

The Perimenopause

No woman the wrong side of 40 wants to hear it, but like it or not, all women over the age of 40 will at some stage enter the peri-menopause. The problem is nobody wants to talk about it. And a lot of women don’t want to acknowledge what is happening to them and so they suffer in silence.  Natalie is not the first woman I’ve spoken to who’s described perimenopausal symptoms and not really understood what’s happening with her body.

In fact, the term menopause is slightly misleading. Menopause refers to the fact that your periods have completely stopped for a year or more.  The period leading up to this point, which most people call the menopause, is actually the perimenopause.  This is the period of transition your body goes through in the lead up to menopause which lasts on average between two and eight years, sometimes longer.

The Symptoms of Perimenopause

Falling oestrogen and progesterone levels during this period spark a myriad of unpleasant symptoms.  These include:

  • hot flushes
  • mood swings
  • depression and anxiety
  • night sweats
  • difficulty sleeping
  • irregular periods
  • aches and pains
  • vaginal dryness
  • loss of libido
  • bladder problems
  • drying and ageing skin
  • loss of joie de vivre

Looking at the list of symptoms, it’s no wonder women don’t want to talk about them openly. It’s not a pretty picture. Some of the symptoms are just downright embarrassing and others are signs of ageing or mental health problems that few want to acknowledge.  But, unless you realise what is going on with you, you may jeopardise relationships with loved ones unknowingly or mis-diagnose an illness.

Tracey Emin and The Menopause

So, it was with great interest that I read an interview with Tracey Emin in The Guardian last Saturday. Tracey Emin was the ‘enfant terrible’ of The Young British Artists who achieved great success in the 1990’s. She was famous for her outspokenness, drunken behaviour and turning her sex life into art.  Who doesn’t remember her tent – Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 and the stains, condoms and dirty underwear that littered her Unmade Bed (1998).

But now that she’s approaching 50 Tracey Emin has begun speaking openly about going through the menopause. Never one to mince her words, Tracey tells it like it is.  In the interview she says:

I am going through the menopause and I have been for ages. It is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. It’s horrible. And I don’t look like that kind of person; you don’t put menopause on top of my head, it doesn’t associate with me.

People don’t talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead…For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I’ve got to start using my brain more – I’ve got to be more ethereal and more enlightened.

Tracey Emin may be being honest but she doesn’t give a very enlightened view of menopause.  I guess there aren’t many celebrities who would want to discuss their menopause in public. If there were, it might help to open up the discussion, and make women who are going through menopause feel less alone and less frightened.

What Does a Menopausal Woman Look Like?

What is interesting is that she says “I don’t look like that kind of person”.  Just what does a menopausal woman look like?

Society in general regards menopausal women as dried out old prunes, thrown up on the scrap heap of life.  For many women menopause is something to be dreaded and avoided. It signals the end of fertility and for some that is equated with the end of sexuality too.

While  I applaud her openness and honesty I do feel that Tracey Emin is painting a picture of doom and despair.  She even goes so far as to describe it as feeling ‘slightly dead’.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Menopause as a Period of Transition

What is clear is that menopause is definitely a period of transition. It is often referred to as ‘the change of life’ which is appropriate as many women go through significant life changes in the run-up to the menopause.  It is a time of re-evaluation and changing priorities. Many women start new careers or businesses during this time, and leave marriages that are no longer working for them.   For Emin, it sounds like she feels she can no longer rely on her sexuality, she is focused more on intellectual rather than physical matters. It could mean the rebirth of her art, a new direction.

Time to Start Talking About the Menopause

In the meantime, we can all start talking about the perimenopause with each other and realise that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And remember, that where there is ‘death’ of the self, there is always rebirth.

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6 Responses to Is it Time to Talk About The Menopause?

  1. Jane August 15, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    I applaud your piece Angie. Let’s talk about the great unspoken that is….drum roll…the menopause. I have been ‘in it’ for about 9 years with varying degrees of symptoms, a very early one apparently. Initially the anxiety, sleeplessness made me feel I was losing the plot, that I’m clearly mad, always have been and only now realising it fully! then after weeks of this, once again the penny drops and I re-realise (as I often realise it & then promptly forget) it’s the menopause and I feel more justified in my insanity, it puts my feelings, fears within a context, and they don’t have so much power over me.
    I don’t see it as a death, it feels like a transition for me. Having periods or not, isn’t what defines me as a woman. I’m so much more than my menstrual cycle!
    It’s often a lonely place to be as it’s a time of re-evaluation…almost at knife point, in that there’s almost no choice. But I see that as a good thing, as long as you keep talking about it. Consciously making choices about one’s life and what’s/who’s in it can be daunting for some, me included, but like it was when I had my pre-period ‘madness’, the things I found myself confronted with were the real deal, no escaping the realisations that were stumbled upon on a monthly basis!
    I haven’t taken any supplements other than the wonderful ‘Floradix’ which I swear by. I flirted with Black Cohosh for a few months but didn’t feel it was for me. What I prefer is to really tune in to myself, my body, my mind and properly listen to what it needs at the time, whether it’s more sleep (insomnia is the worst part for me), excercise, a good heart to heart with a friend or counsellor, an hour or 2 in the company of horses (always works for me), whatever it is, it’s a message that’s important and needs responding to as far as is possible.
    Apart from that, it’s a learning curve which can be quite fun.
    All the best to fellow travellers on this particular path. Jane

    • Angie Macdonald August 16, 2012 at 9:52 am #

      Jane, I feel very touched by your honesty and openness in your comment. Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to it on so many levels as I think I’ve been ‘in it’ for about 8 years now.

      You make so many excellent points and I agree with you that it is a period of transition and can sometimes feel lonely. I have felt quite confused and bewildered at times. I wish that I could have been more prepared for this phase of my life somehow, but until I acknowledged that it was really happening to me, I wasn’t interested in reading up about it or speaking about it.

      I love that you say, ‘I’m so much more than my menstrual cycle!’ I think menopause can offer a wonderful opportunity for re-evaluation and it’s wonderful that you are able to tune in to yourself and listen to your body. I feel that’s the best way through this. And the more we talk about it the better!

  2. Thedoc Toriscrazy May 31, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    I am not an expert, nor am I a woman, so I am somewhat reticent to comment – but here I go anyway.

    Some women pass through peri-menopause with nary a hot flash, while others experience extreme disruptions. The point I would like to make is that there are things that can help those who are having trouble.

    For many, exercise can be incredibly helpful. For mild to moderate symptoms, there is good evidence that Oil of Evening Primrose reduces the severity of hot flashes, night sweats and various other symptoms.

    For those with severe symptoms, hormone therapy is an excellent option. The important thing to note here is that hormone therapy for peri-menopause involves the *short-term* use of low-dose hormones to smooth the ups and downs that can occur. It is *not* the same as long-term post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy. Because it is short-term, it does not carry the same risks that may be associated with longer-term treatment, and it does not mean that you are obligated to continue treatment. It can be very effective in relieving troubling symptoms with minimal risk and few side effects.

    If your symptoms are detracting from your quality of life then speak to your primary health care provider. If she isn’t helpful, then ask to be referred to someone with more expertise in this area. There is no need to suffer in silence.

    • Angie Macdonald May 31, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Thanks for pointing out the difference between *short-term* use of low-dose hormones and long-term post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy, doc. I’m glad to hear there’s good evidence that Oil of Evening Primrose works to reduce some symptoms. I think I may start there.

  3. Jennie Walters May 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    I think a menopausal woman has a wild glint in her eye and looks slightly unhinged! I don’t have a very positive view of it either, I’m afraid, despite having ploughed through a weighty tome called ‘The wisdom of menopause’ which is about how as our ability to nurture others decreases, we start to nurture ourselves. That hasn’t been the case in my experience. Perhaps tranquillity will come but I think it’s rather like being a teenager again, with all those hormones sloshing about, but a teenager trapped in some rather unattractive middle-aged body. Nature’s cruel joke. Good for Tracey E for even uttering the dreaded word; as somebody whose work and identity are very closely associated with sex, and who’s talked about her sadness at not having children, it must be a difficult process for her. I think menopausal women deserve sympathy… Sorry not to be more positive about the whole thing.

    • Angie Macdonald May 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

      Jennie, congratulations on ploughing through The Wisdom of Menopause. Clearly menopause has left you with your brain intact and a lot of time on your hands. I have a copy and have been impressed by the bit I have managed to read so far, but fear I may have come out the other side of menopause before I’ve finished reading it as it’s rather thick. And yes, I wholeheartedly agree, it is like being a teenager again, except not quite as much fun. I am trying very hard to be positive but it’s not always easy. Thank you for your honesty.

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