Vaneisa: Menarche to menopause—lifting curtain on “hormonal interventions”

A friend of mine was worried about her increasing forgetfulness. It didn’t seem any more acute than that of most of the people I know (myself included) over 50. But it was so disturbing to her that she was contemplating getting tested for possible ADHD.

She is 51, and now entering menopause. It isn’t full-blown yet, and because other elements are sporadic, it had not occurred to her that there could be a connection.

Hot in here…

Having recently sat in on a consultation with a 53-year-old relative and her doctor over the same subject, the whole business of what it entails is fresh in my mind.

My relative, sprightly, energetic and fit, was having a hard time with hot flashes—the sudden prickly spurts that leave you visibly drenched with sweat, no matter the surrounding temperature; in her case, wintry Canada.

She was having trouble sleeping, tugging her blankets on and off during the night, and the insomnia meant she felt bedraggled during her working hours.

Naturally she felt tired quickly, and it had become a struggle to make it through the day. She attributed her forgetfulness to lost sleep. She had become irritable, too, flaring up over little things.

Her normally sunny disposition had become spotty. On top of everything, she was putting on weight.

It had begun to affect her relationships. She felt nobody understood what she was going through (although I don’t believe she articulated any of it), and she felt her husband could be more sensitive.

I sympathise with her, and all the women who endure this type of menopausal experience. The symptoms run along a spectrum, ranging from total disorder to mild shifts, pretty much the way menstrual periods behave.

Mood swings are common features of hormonal imbalance.

My mother said she had barely any symptoms, she said her mother didn’t either, but they really did not talk about those things. In fact, they were fairly ignorant about details because these were taboo subjects.

Typical of me, I had a wild and unexpected ride. I was around 32 when the hot flashes, the mood swings, and the weight gain kicked in.

Ever since my first menstrual periods when I was around 12, I suffered terrible pain, and heavy bleeding for up to three weeks at a time. Dysmenorrhoea was what I was told, and then endometriosis. The thing is, in my early thirties I had entered perimenopause.

I would not have known had I not switched doctors and the new one ran a series of blood tests as a welcoming gesture. I had experienced all the intense symptoms without any warning.

What I regret the most was the way it damaged relationships. The mood swings did not last long, but that business of zero to a thousand in seconds was scary to people around me.

I am sharing this because I have become aware that many of us remain ignorant about the nature of these life changes, the medical explanations and the treatments that can help alleviate some of the distress.

In our societies, biological changes that affect women are kept mysteries. You are not allowed to discuss it.

I learned about menstruation from a little book we were given in school, called Growing Up and Liking It, which explained the process. It was all I had. There was no birds-and-bees conversation.

I believe that silence is the same with menopause.

Now that I am old enough to have been there and done that (I eventually had a hysterectomy in 2007), I hear the personal experiences of friends as they try to navigate this protracted transitional period in their lives.

Life spans have lengthened. Humans aren’t screeching to a halt in their forties anymore. For women, who had traditionally been kept within the parameters of housekeepers and mothering, the world is a different experience.

Many, in their forties, are arriving at senior positions in their careers. Even if they are not working within some ­institution, they are often single parents who still have to earn an income.

Embracing womanhood…

Within the highly competitive workspace, they have had to juggle multiple demands on their mental and physical spaces. From menarche (the first period) to menopause (the last), they have to manage these biological functions.

They have had to go to school, go to work, participate in whatever they choose to do throughout these regular events.

I have heard men make remarks about women, “who must be seeing they period”, when they find them short-tempered. In the workplace, it is common for the boys to make snide comments, questioning women’s capacity to perform because of these hormonal interventions. Women have tried to mask them.

But menopause is a lot more bare-faced than a period. You can’t conceal a flushed face dripping with perspiration in a room with the air-conditioning so low that everyone is wearing a cardigan.

You can’t pull yourself up short when your temper erupts. You can’t forget how your brain goes blank while you search for words.

Worse, you can’t ignore the feeling of embarrassment that you have betrayed yourself, fallen short. That’s the feeling you take home.

It doesn’t help if you don’t understand what’s happening to you. It doesn’t help if others don’t.

We cannot imagine what it is like without experiencing it, and it would make a world of difference if we could at least try to understand that difference, and be supportive. It is a part of life.

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