Menopause has turned my life upside down, is that normal?

Dear Rhona,

I’m 51 years old and am bang in the middle of my menopause. I never expected it to be this bad and it’s turned my life upside down.

I’m awake in the middle of the night either changing the sheets after profusely sweating or sometimes for no reason at all. I’m moody, much more short-tempered and anxious than I’ve ever been and have steadily been putting on weight for two years now.

I just have no motivation. I work part-time and have to be on my feet a lot. I’m finding getting out of bed on hardly any sleep and just turning up a huge struggle at the moment. I’m not on HRT as am afraid of the risks but am taking natural remedies, prescribed by my homeopath.

I’ve moved out of the bedroom with my husband – night waking was my excuse – and have no interest whatsoever in a physical relationship with him, or anyone for that matter. I’ve never felt more alone and isolated and am getting no support from my GP, who’s just telling me that I’m going through the change and all of the above is normal.

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I don’t know if I want to end my marriage, quit work, head off travelling indefinitely (I can’t afford that) or cry my eyes out. I feel nothing like myself. Would you call that normal?

Anon


I’m so sorry that you’re obviously going through hell right now. My first inclination – and brittle hope – was to tell you that no, what you’re experiencing is not normal. But at 44, with only one toe in the perimenopausal gulf, I have yet to pull on the proverbial wet suit and plunge into the climacteric abyss.

I have however, over the last few days, read, researched and reached out to friends and family who have endured The Change. My findings are thus: there is no normal. Which is of no immediate comfort to you but it does sound like you are in the ten per cent of women who experience ‘severe’ symptoms.

Yet again, if the above deep sea diving metaphor wasn’t disclaimer enough, I am not a doctor. What follows is the most interesting and relevant-to-you intel I could unearth, plus some suggestions on where you might find greater support, in real life.

I expected to find a bottomless scroll of menopausal resources, lifestyle features and forums. And while there are certainly lots of excellent personal blogs, mainstream coverage is still scant and often reliant on high-profile women sharing their experiences. It seems that up until the last three to five years, even the most ardent over-sharers refrained from broadcasting their midlife torment.

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This is likely to do with the traditional social profiling of menopausal women as irrational, ‘mad’ and ‘past it;’ the fear that owning the changes we are experiencing might negatively impact how people view us, especially at work. Interestingly, a recent ITV survey, The Truth About The Menopause, gleaned that 25 per cent of women would give up work if they could due to menopausal symptoms, with 85 per cent agreeing that there should be workplace guidelines to cater to women going through the menopause.

Lucky for us, trailblazers like Gillian Anderson, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Saunders, Angelina Jolie and Ulrika Jonsson have talked openly about their physical and mental struggles triggered by The Pause. Kirsty Wark wrote about it here and originated the BBC documentary, The Menopause and Me last year. Meg Matthews, interior designer and former wife of Noel Gallagher, has dedicated an entire website  to her menopause, so traumatic was it.

In 2015, British TV presenter, Carol Vorderman discussed the suicidal thoughts and deep depression she experienced at the age of 54. Her light-bulb moment came six months in, when she connected her ‘moods’ to her menstrual cycle and sought immediate help.

And there is most definitely help. Dublin’s Well Woman Centre have a myth-busting section on their site, charting the need-to-know basics of menopausal symptoms and treatment. They acknowledge that HRT is not for everyone but that it is the most effective prescribed medication to treat the heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, forgetfulness, mood swings, chest tightness, loss of libido, night sweats etc., which may kick off six to eight years before our periods even stop.

The risks of HRT were widely misreported in a 2002 study. More recent research has confirmed that although HRT is not entirely risk free, with an average 1 in 1,000 chance of developing breast cancer, the breast cancer is more treatable because HRT patients are undergoing more regular breast checks. A full consultation, including blood tests, with the Well Woman Centre is €130. A centre run by women, exclusively for women, seems like the best first option for you to find a bespoke solution.

You do not have to endure the isolation and litany of symptoms you are experiencing. And although chemical intervention may not appeal to you, it sounds like your current homeopathic plan is not effectively managing you mental and physical health.

There is another treatment option, the plant-derived Bio-Identical Hormone Therapy, but it is not widely available in Ireland and by all accounts, is fairly pricey. The multi-award winning author, Jeanette Winterson, wrote the most thorough and relatable piece I found here about her battle to feel comfortable in her body, and brain, again. She also makes sense of the importance of diet and lifestyle during menopause, which has a profound effect on everything from our bone density to how we feel.

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As the piece was written in 2014, before the recent wave of HRT research, she does slate HRT. Ignore that for now, especially as she is in the very privileged position to afford BIHT, which has not yet been researched on a similar scale.

In the meantime, don’t make any rash decisions. Can you take a little time off work to explore next steps in addressing your symptoms? Open up to your husband and your close friends and put an action plan together. Booking in to see a recommended therapist may also be a good first step in terms of trying to separate your head from your hormones.

Remember that there may be no one-stop-shop solution for you. You might find that a combination of talk therapy, a nutritional plan, herbal remedies and regular exercise brings you back to life. From everything I’ve read, it seems that for the 70 per cent of women who do experience symptoms, what works for each individual varies hugely. Try to be patient and commit yourself to the cause: getting back to you.

If you need a laugh – and I think you might – watching this vintage clip of Absolutely Fabulous, (12 minutes in) which I pulled from the deepest recesses of the internet, will do the job. It’s eight minutes of joy from their 'Menopause' episode, in which Patsy and Eddy attend Menopausal Anonymous. Sending love.

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