The relief I feel as I write this today is indescribable. It’s not as if the menopause is any big secret: we have always heard about the foibles of “women of a certain age”, a cause for some hidden smiles and a few shrugs of acceptance; a sort of “that’s life” attitude. Menopause was something that we women could not avoid, were obliged to endure, and at the end of it would discover that we had transitioned to old women. The detail of our menopause would provide fuel for humour generation after generation. Who can forget Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough’s Ada and Cissie, two middle-aged women, who mouthed the symptoms of their “change” at each other, hoisted their falling boobs and clutched their handbags to their expanding stomachs?
The relief I sense is that women are finally talking about the menopause openly as something that can have a devastating effect on their lives. They are talking publicly about the problems they experience as a result of the menopause, or rather, the symptoms of the menopause, and they are exhorting other women to open up and to support and help each other. More than this, they are forcing the medical establishment to sit up and take notice, researching the why, how and what ifs of HRT and actively seeking ways of easing the path through the menopause.
While many of us in the throes of the menopause – and this can take around ten years and more with varying symptoms and varying intensities – are known to grumble about our various aches, pains and discomforts, many of us can feel oddly isolated. My symptoms are not at all the same as my sister’s for example. At the office women all seem to experience some or other effect from a range of symptoms, and to a greater or lesser intensity. It’s not a subject that is easy to discuss, even in groups of other women. We have a tendency to shake our discomforts off with the excuse of “it must be my age”.
It’s the shrugging off that really bugs me. At a time when many women are finally reaching the peak of their careers, when our children are grown up and no longer dependent on them, and we have the freedom to really stride out and make achievements, we are assaulted by our own bodies. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Just as I was beginning to feel in my stride I was ambushed by flushes, sudden sweats, insomnia, mood swings, joint pain, bouts of depression alternating with bouts of almost uncontrollable rage…the list goes on.
For women at work, especially in senior roles, this is a tough obstacle to overcome. We have spent the past thirty years proving ourselves, working harder than our male counterparts, smashing that glass ceiling and suddenly we are brought to a screaming halt. I know that many women get on with it. Some don’t experience very severe symptoms. Some have managed to get on really well with HRT. Some simply took early retirement, cut back their hours, or downscaled, so that they could find a way to cope with what was happening to them and balance their lives somehow.
It is because we don’t talk about it enough that many of us feel that we are not coping very well. The thoughts of “well if she’s coping and her job is harder than mine, I need to toughen up and just get through this” can make you feel inadequate, less of a woman even, at a time when everything that so far you think has made you a woman appears to be altering beyond recognition: less oestrogen, lost libido, vaginal dryness, for example, more wrinkles, saggy skin, saggy boobs and saggy bottom. When I say life seems to be going pear-shaped, I am literal in my intended meaning.
So I was delighted when Carol Vorderman appeared on breakfast television last week looking far more glamorous than I’ll ever pretend to and told the world about how the menopause had floored her with a terrible depression that made her seriously consider ending her life. The call lines were instantly flooded with viewers who had experienced similar.
And a few weeks ago, a programme on the BBC by journalist Kirsty Wark broke the silence on the menopause and I watched, open mouthed, listening to my symptoms being recounted by a whole variety of ordinary women. I don’t get particularly bad flushes, nor very often, but when I do, they are embarrassing – because they usually occur during a work meeting full of blokes. I do get mood swings and I have now got to the stage where I can feel them coming on and I give the family a few hours’ warning. My poor husband is beginning to sense them building up before I do these days. I do get horrendous periods that sometimes result in my staying at home clutching painkillers and trying to staunch the bleeding. I sometimes think that if I bled that heavily from my wrists I would be rushed into hospital. But instead, being female and bleeding from the vagina, I keep changing pads and shrug it off. And sometimes I struggle to sleep and that affects my thinking, my mood, my memory.
Wark’s documentary was fascinating and I have put the link to a related article in The Guardian below if you want to follow it up. Besides being one of a number of articulate women finally breaking the silence, she alludes to how not so long ago the menopause was used to consign older women to the ranks of the “batty”. We lost our ability to reproduce, so with it we lost our womanhood, our usefulness to men. We lost our looks, our energy, we were redundant. Women have often been consigned to the margins of society as we enter this new phase in our lives, because of the difficulties that the passageway into this new phase has entailed.
As a grandmother in Gibraltar, my voice is only small compared to the voices of prominent women such as Gillian Anderson, Angelina Jolie and Cynthia Nixon. But I am one of millions of ordinary women whose life has been turned upside down and inside out by the menopause, and by the lack of help, support and understanding there seems to be out there. I do have a very understanding female GP who tells me my painful hips are wear and tear associated with age and who prescribed iron tablets to help with the borderline anaemia, though I no doubt will see more of her because my menopause seems far from over. But I do hear all too often that GPs have brushed off women’s symptoms – I don’t blame the GPs; they need training and an arsenal of well-researched treatments.
As a professional, I have to deal with disturbed nights, extreme tiredness and a peculiar sense of losing my grip – something other women CEOs have confided to me. As a mother with teenagers at home, and as a grandmother, I am acutely aware of how the menopause does affect my relationships with my family and my ability to work as hard for them as I have done before. Life seems to have gone round again as far as the sleepless nights are concerned but this time, being thirty years older, it is much harder to recover from them.
But, small grandmother’s voice or not, I shall be speaking up and pronouncing the M-word loud and proud. The menopause is a distinct phase in my life which I am looking at as a transition to a new phase that need not be as difficult as our own grandmothers experienced. The symptoms of the menopause can be treated – sometimes as individual treatments, such as using gel for vaginal dryness, sometimes as a more universal approach through HRT. As women, we need to speak out and insist that we receive treatment, that we receive recognition and that everyone around us, especially those women who have yet to experience this, understand that we are not batty, we are not frail, we are not getting weaker. We are menopausal, and we are becoming newer, stronger selves. Let’s keep the M-word on our lips.
I have added a few links below if you want to find out more about how to deal with your menopause:
Women’s Health Concern