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.
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.