It was the bus ride home from town that finally convinced me that ‘life as I knew it’ had ended. As we lumbered through Rathmines, I glanced nervously at the people around me, wondering could any of them tell? Numb with fear, I was a stationary tornado of crippling thoughts, catastrophising about how, at the age of just 48, I would soon have to give up my young children and require constant care; no longer able to avoid the signs of early onset Alzheimers.
I’ve always had an agile mind, my brain bouncing ideas and plans around like a toddler on white chocolate. But recently I’d been forgetting things. Not the things I always forget, like the dog’s poo bags and the name of yer man on the telly. You know the one. Him.. you know? Whatsisname? This time, I got on the bus and forgot the name of the road I lived on.
Then it all made sense
To cut a long story short (partly because I can’t remember most of it), I took myself to the doctor to get the official diagnosis. I could see she was trying not to laugh. This is the beginning, I thought. People treating me like I’m a mad old bat.
“I’m pretty sure you still have all your mental faculties,” she said. “It’s just a symptom of menopause.”
It all suddenly made sense. It wasn’t just my mind. My body had also been doing things I didn’t want it to. Like someone with physical Tourettes, my body exploded randomly with socially embarrassing outbursts – a hot flush here, rampant chin hairs there, and a cacophony of mood swings so extreme I could run through a fairly impressive repertoire in 60 seconds. Except no-one was impressed. My arm was sore from having to constantly hold things at a distance to read them, and my periods now betrayed a lifetime of exemplary time keeping, instead behaving like 21st Century weather forecasts now that global warming has kicked in – floods, heavy rains, and unexpected deluges. And while we’re on the subject of global warming, my body’s eco system had switched hemisphere overnight; I went from a pyjama and sock wearing, electric blanket sleeper, to a knickers and sheet, sweaty one. My mind and body where transforming (less changing rooms and more changing wombs) but what bothered me most was I hadn’t prepared.
Puberty in Reverse
Menopause is just puberty in reverse. During puberty, all the hormones are rushing in like crowds on a Black Friday morning sale. Now, they are retreating, and not in an orderly fashion. My eldest daughter recently had her first period, and having had made sure she knew everything there was to know well in advance, I also presented her with a celebration box full of practical supplies and goodies – chocolate, painkillers, a mini hot water bottle – to help her navigate this crucial time in her life. I also advised her to download a period tracking app so she can monitor her moods and cycle and brought her breakfast in bed. How come we don’t do the same for ourselves during this crucial change in our lives?
So Step 1 is Self-care
Possibly it’s because we’re so busy looking after everyone else, we don’t look after ourselves, and perhaps because menopause often happens right in the middle of a turbulent time in our lives – that other M word. Mid-age can be a period of huge personal, emotional and physical upheaval; we are often in the eye of Storm Overwhelm, juggling jobs, relationships, kids and elderly parents. Then, as if wrinkles, grey hairs and burnout wasn’t enough, fucking menopause hits! Pass the wine – oh wait, that’s right, we can’t. Menopause now means we get vicious hangovers if we so much as eat a bag of sweets and the sugar ferments in our annoyingly bulging bellies.
Our body, our metabolism, our mind, our brain, our hormones, our perceived visibility, our ambitions, our status, our circumstances are all in a constant state of flux. Instead of ‘arriving’ we can’t tell if we are coming or going. I love my new menopause-induced belly! No woman ever said. Middle aged spread – it’s a fucking thing. We beat ourselves up that we’re eating too much, drinking too much, not exercising enough and while all of these things may or may not be true, it’s actually also to do with the fact that once we reach a certain age, our body (without permission, thank you very much) decides to do things differently. Ageing is evolution, not a democracy. Just like that, it starts storing fat in a different part of our body, namely the front and sides. A decline in eostrogen causes fat cells in the abdominal area to store more fat, and may even reduce your body’s ability to burn fat as much. So that’s fact, not just fat. Even my pal who is a pilates instructor got a belly, although admittedly hers is like a travel size compared to my industrial sized one. Be kind to yourself, treat yourself well and then arm yourself.
So Step 2 is Self-knowledge
Every woman’s experience of menopause is different. Whether you self-medicate with mindfulness, Merlot or shopping; seek support from friends, facebook or therapy; need help from prescribed anti-depressants, anti-anxiety or anti-hormones, the point is we’re not our mothers and grandmothers. We can read books, join chat groups or seek support from a variety of places to get the information we need to minimise, eradicate or just understand what we are going through. This wasn’t available to previous generations and so there is no excuse not to take time to invest in what is happening to us, through us, and within us.
Research has shown that women who were informed and more accepting of the transition typically experienced milder and shorter symptoms. The stress of not understanding it, or hiding it from people around you, or not being able to talk about it, makes it physically harder. Being a woman is a process. We are always a glorious work in progress and no part of that progress should be seen as lesser than another. So whatever your age – later 30’s, early 40’s, late 50’s; whatever your stage – ignorant bliss, WTF is happening to me?, peri, post or probably confused; get armed with information and then take action to ensure you are doing the best you can for yourself.
Once we know the facts about what is happening to us, we can accept them, compensate for them, minimise symptoms, give and receive sympathy, tips and bottles of Gin with fellow menopausal mates, but we get to be in charge, and don’t feel our body has been taken over by a megalomaniac.
Our bodies are just doing what they’re supposed to do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t treat them like an obnoxious child and do whatever it takes to put them in their place. We need to ask, research, and invest some time, effort, and if needs be, money that puts us somewhat back in control of our bodies. And our lives. Which segues nicely into Step 3.
Step 3 is Self-agency
Change is hard. I’m not going to lie. I’ve sought change, fought change, resisted change and embraced change. Recently within a year, my marriage ended, my mother died and my body and mind transformed without a permission slip. I had whiplash from the changes to my life. So I’m not preaching something I haven’t bought, worn, washed and Marie Kondo rolled the T-shirt for. It’s all too easy to just let menopause steamroll over us, but I’m here to tell you instead we must own it, not succumb to it.
Mid-age is confusing and challenging and changeable, yes. But for our generation, it is also a time of incredible potential. Unlike any other before us, we have a chance to redefine middle age. If you look at the first half of our lives, we may have followed the traditional signposts – education, travel, career, cohabit/marriage, mortgage, kids. Suddenly the signposts stop, yet it feels we still have a whole life to lead. With increased life-expectancy and opportunities, we have an extra two decades to play around with – not at the end of our lives, but in the middle. When we look at what we have achieved between 20 and 40, that is the same amount of time between 40 and 60, yet the ground is often unchartered, un-signposted, and full of change. But also full of potential.
Change has two sides to it:
1. Shock, reluctance, resistance, and hardship.
2. Potential, adaptability, and always the chance to choose your response.
Unfortunately, many of us spend our energy on Option 1. We need to turn that focus to Option 2.
Well F*** That
Ageing is a natural process. But like a compliment that actually hides an insult, the scourge of Anti-ageing propaganda has made us feel hopeful and humiliated at the same time. Even the pseudo-posturing that 40 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 20, still advocates that being younger is better, while trying to suggest you can still be relevant DESPITE your age. Well, fuck that. Youth is not better. Who the hell wants to grow up in the selfie generation? Here’s what we have to realise.
40 is the NEW 40… redefined, reformed and redesigned. By this generation.
50 is the MOST BEAUTIFUL 50 it has ever been for women. And we have the maintenance bills to prove it. And we don’t care!
60 is the BEST 60 in history. Literally. Not even a hundred years ago, life expectancy for women was 57.9.
70 is the SEXIEST 70 that has ever gone before. You will actually see a woman in her 70’s having sex on TV (Jane Fonda in Netflix’s Grace & Frankie for one).
We need to make sure we are in charge of the new signposts. Taking control and ownership of our minds and bodies is the first step. It’s not about changing, hiding or fighting our age or menopause; it’s about recognising that our age is so different to previous generations that it is a groundbreaking age; a new age. A redefining age.
We are the magic M Phase
We should not become hostage to the idea that maturing is death. We should not become victims of the Youth Mentality. We should not see the M word as a mystery or a monster or a time of mayhem, but a time of magic and mapping. Magic, or alchemy, is changing from one state to another…. a transformation, a rebirth. Human females are one of only three species in the world to live a long life after menopause (longer now than ever before). The killer whale (and the short finned pilot whale) are the only other mammals where the females live a considerably long life after the reproductive phase ends. Why? What is the evolutionary purpose? Because they store the deeply held knowledge of feeding grounds in times of scarcity, and they help the rest of the pod stay alive. They ensure the survival of their society.
We women of the Magic M phase and beyond have a vital function and role, and importantly, a chance to devote time to ourselves. Once we finishing giving birth to the next generation, we can give birth back to ourselves. So let’s strut our funky stuff, unleash our glorious power of being alive in this moment, and kick some menopause ass.