Nicky Marr: We need to keep on talking about the menopause
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What do you think of when you hear the word menopause?
If you’ve not already stopped reading, fearing that this is all going to get a bit “womany” and “icky”, then I’ll tell you what I used to think. In my 20s, I thought the end of my fertile life would signify the end of my useful life as a woman. Maybe by then (I’m there now) I’d have grandchildren, so would find vicarious purpose in helping to raise the next generation. Or I would sit quietly, keeping my hot flushes, anxiety and forgetfulness to myself, or talking in hushed tones to my equally washed-up friends about “the change” and “women’s problems”.
In fact, at 57, I’m probably fitter, more determined, and more confident in myself than I have ever been. This year’s birthday present was a kayak.
I knew nothing in my 20s about menopause. But now, around five years into my menopausal years, I realise I still don’t know enough. And if I don’t understand it, and I’m living it, what chances do others have?
The menopause is like a secret, shameful part of life as a woman. But it shouldn’t be. As sure as eggs is eggs, ours will run out, and we’ll find ourselves with a drawer full of stock-piled sanitary products, and another full of symptoms.
For two years I put up with embarrassing hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, and crippling self-doubt. Chats with friends revealed they pretty much felt the same way. This was it. End of an era. I assumed I’d just need to knuckle down and get through it.
But broken sleep left me exhausted during the day, and tiredness made me forgetful, irritable, and resentful. I resented feeling old and useless. I mourned the lost clarity of thought I’d once had. My brain felt in constant need of coffee. I didn’t like being with others but felt lonely when alone.
Davina McCall’s 2021 documentary was a catalyst. The following morning, during a phone call with my GP about something unrelated, I asked her about it.
Her reaction was perfect. “Get through it?” she laughed. “Do you think the hormones you have lost are going to come back?”
We spent months playing about with patches, pessaries, and gels, and finally found a winning formula. And since then, I’ve got back my sense of self. I feel feisty and fun again. I feel younger and stronger than I have for years.
But there’s still so much I don’t know. I know that friends with breast cancer have had a sudden onset of menopause, and that others can’t use HRT to alleviate their symptoms at all. What a slap in the face that must be. Cancer, then this?
I know that some women barely experience any symptoms at all, and that others will find them incredibly debilitating. But I didn’t know, till I read Annabelle Gauntlett’s piece last week, that it can happen almost as soon as periods become established; Annabelle was just 15 when she was diagnosed with early menopause.
Worryingly, I’m not alone in my ignorance. This week’s British Medical Journal carries a feature called ‘The known unknowns of menopause’ with The BMJ Podcast calling on GPs to listen to women when they need help. Not every solution will or should be a prescription, but it’s part of a whole swathe of support that is out there.
Changes in lifestyle and diet, or food supplements and relaxation techniques, can all play their part.
But the bottom line is that not enough is yet known about menopause, and women’s infinitely diverse experiences of it. And what little we do know is almost kept hush-hush, for fear of offending someone who’d rather not think about what goes on “down below”.
Menopause impacts us all, not just the 51 per cent of the population whose periods will one day stop. So let’s keep researching, asking questions, and talking. Please, let’s keep talking.
To get involved in the Menopause & Me conversation, email firstname.lastname@example.org