Making Sense of Menopause

Why are things that are so natural, so innate to our being and biology, often so shrouded in mystery?

The answer lies in patriarchy’s long history of power and control, that helped render the natural machinations of a female body – menstruation, sexual desire, child bearing – secret and shameful.

Menopause has become something that happens to ‘older women’ that relates to being ‘dried up’, and we know it’s happening because they have ‘hot flushes’ and ‘HRT’.

Of course, the truth is infinitely more complex, nuanced, and individual.  Women’s experiences of menopause vary vastly, and are as individual as their bearer.

What is menopause?

Menopause is the most natural occurance that every ovulating person will experience in mid-life (51 being the average age).  It is the ovaries saying ‘your reproductive years are over’,  and it marks the end of The Period. So cause for celebration then? Maybe, if you achieved everything with your reproductive parts you wanted to.  And maybe sadness for others.  It’s a complex affair, and probably hard to really understand unless you go through it. Like childbirth.

It is shrouded in myth and misunderstanding, and like so many aspects of our sexuality, does not hold a comfortable place in daily dialogue.  So let’s start talking.  To start, around 75% of menopausal women will experience the famous hot flush; not everyone has hormone replacement therapy; and some women will have a trouble free menopause!

For those that do suffer, the symptoms can be confusing, confronting, challenging,  or even further up the continuum, truly disruptive and debilitating, altering life in profound ways.  And that includes physical, mental and existential dimensions.

Finding the right support through health practitioners trained in women’s health is absolutely critical, and will make a world of difference.

Am I in Menopause?

  • The average age for women to hit Meno is 51 (yes, it’s young), but the normal range is 48-54.  You will always meet someone who started much younger, and someone who had periods until they were 60.  This is because we are unique human beings, not machines.
  • Early onset may occur due to illness or medications tampering with our systems, or smoking, obesity or hereditary factors.
  • Symptoms, mild or strong, may include all or some of the below:
    • Anxiety, depression (or depressed mood); mood swings
    • Brain fogging
    • General headaches or migraine
    • Sleep problems and/or night sweats
    • Hot flushes (or flashes some may say) at random times
    • The need to pee frequently, and maybe other urinary problems like leaking
    • Bloating and/or weight gain
    • Tender breasts
    • Dry vulva and vagina (vaginal atrophy)
    • Dry skin, eyes and hair
    • Reduced interest in sex
    • Aching or painful joints, or
    • Fatigue.

Lovely.  And you thought it was just a few hot flushes and people telling you you’re getting old.

(Oh, and note that perimenopause (the period leading up to full menopause) can see the above symptoms plaguing you before your period shows signs of stopping, so stay tuned to your self.)

Worlds Colliding

Menopause strikes at a time when a bunch of other things may also be striking. Ageing parents needing care. Kids becoming adults and leaving home (cue empty nest syndrome). Changes in career or work, for self or partner. Partners taking off for greener (younger) pastures.  Menopause does not exist in a silo, and for this reason it is hard to know what and when to attribute symptoms to it.

If you are feeling any of the above symptoms, it’s going to be useful to see a women’s health specialist and/or counsellor anyway.  Just be sure to get your oestrogen checked – for this is the key.

The Wonders of Oestrogen

Oestrogen is the female sex hormone that appears in males and females, but we have more. It is critical in our bodies, for brain, bone, heart, skin and reproductive health.  It kicks off big-time in puberty, ebbs and flows through the monthly cycle, generates in pregnancy, and varies in menopause.  It’s your oestrogen levels not being in balance with other hormones, that is causing most of your issues.

(This is where the famed HRT comes in (hormone replacement therapy), balancing you back out and restoring your powers.  These can be patches, gels, vaginal pills, or creams. They can be long term, short term, and absolutely life transforming.  Women who have given up on sex as it is just too painful (even with some lube) suddenly find a new lease of life. And the fun gal you used to be before irritability and the blues moved in, returns to form. 

What else can I do about Menopause?

Talk about it!  Share your experiences and concerns with friends and elders. You’ll be amazed at what comes back.  Most women have something to say about menopause, whether lived experience, or curiosity and questions.

Let your partner know what is going on with you, it will impact them too, and they can’t support you if they don’t know you’re experiencing a bunch of weird stuff.

Seek out reliable info from places like the Australasian Menopause Society.

Studies have shown that taking care of yourself with mindful breathing and relaxation techniques can help (plus minimising other stress factors in life will help clear the decks for anything Meno throws at you). CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) will help with your depression or anxiety, and has also shown to be useful in shaping the experience and helping with other symptoms.

If you’re struggling, find a counsellor that specialises in women’s issues. Let yourself be supported in the way you need.  Online counselling from the comfort of your home can be a huge support – no added stress of finding a practice and getting there!

And remember, many MANY women are enjoying wonderful sex and intimacy while there is breath in their body.  If someone says menopause is the end of your sex life – and they will – you can laugh and give them the finger.  Or give them the facts. That’s probably more useful in the long run.

What do I do if I think I’m in menopause?

If you’re observing change and any of the above symptoms, or you’re worried about what’s going on with you – and think you might be in peri-or full menopause – it’s GP time. Choose someone whose online profile shows they specialise in women’s health – then double check their credentials. It raises your chances of getting the answers you seek, and will make a big difference to your whole menopause experience.

See a genuine women’s health menopause expert (and double check – just because it says so on their profile, or just because they are female themselves, does NOT  mean they understand menopause!)

Your chosen GP (or gynaecologist) can help with symptom management, HRT, and lifestyle tips like reducing alcohol and caffeine, exercising (yoga has shown to be helpful, plus bone strengthening work), putting a mat under your sheet so you don’t ruin your mattress from night sweats. Stuff like that.  She’ll also let you know about natural relief options, and your pharmacist should be able to cover this off too.

Your counsellor will support you emotionally and help with anxiety, self-esteem, life impacts, and any other issues that surface for you at this time. Especially when all worlds are colliding.

Common menopause questions haunting the 50 year old mind:

“Will I never want sex again?” You may go off sex, but not necessarily just because of hormones (refer above to Worlds Colliding), and not necessarily for ever, or at all. Many MANY women are enjoying wonderful sex and intimacy while there is breathe in their body. Again, your counsellor (with sexuality training) can help you if this is a challenging area of you. She can help you find a way to address it, that is comfortable for you.

“I’ve always had some or all of those symptoms – how do I know this is menopause?” It sounds like you could use some help regardless – time to see your GP and/or counsellor depending on your symptoms.

“How do I know it’s menopause when my periods have always been patchy and I always have brain fog?” Explore with trusted friends, and talk to the professionals.

“How do I know it’s menopause – I haven’t had a period for twenty years because of having children and using the Mirena” Good question – go back to a Mirena specialist, and make sure you visit a women’s health clinic or a GP specially trained.

“How long does the whole thing take?” Different for everyone – but if you haven’t had a period for over a year, you are likely out of the woods. Keep talking to your GP if you’re concerned about ongoing physical symptoms.

“Should I have HRT?”  Maybe!  It can be transformative and old fears and myths around breast cancer are exactly that. “Some heightened risk after five years, if it’s in the family anyway, but something to be aware of rather than worried about” is how my GP described it.  Do your research, and pick the option that suits you.

“Everything’s shit and I can’t talk to anyone / No one understands / I don’t have the language / I feel embarrassed / I can’t talk to my partner, It’s awkward.”   That’s normal too. Talk to a counsellor. She can help.

 

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