Perimenopause? Didn’t have a clue. I hadn’t heard of it and neither had my friends. But it is a ‘thing’, and a somewhat unpleasant one, especially when it arrives unexpectedly in all it’s hairy, bloated, energy zapping, gory glory. Perimenopause sneaks up on you with it’s nasty little pals ‘anxiety’ and ‘insomnia’ and they aren’t good friends to have around at this stage in your life. Diets stop working, you grow a goatee faster than your husband can, your hair falls out at an alarming rate and your memory gets so bad you need to keep a list to remind you where all your lists are! At the age of 45, I found myself on what I now know is the rocky road to menopause … and so far it has been a bit of a bumpy ride.
The first time I found out anything about menopause, or periods come to that, was when the ‘Tampax Lady’ visited our school. I still don’t know where the boys went, but the girls were all herded into the lower-school hall. We all lined up to go in, not realising that any last drops of innocence were about to be squeezed from us. A confident lady, well rehearsed in tampon insertion demos, answered all our daft questions (Does the string dangle between your legs?) and confirmed our worst fears that periods were going to be around for a long time, before slowly sailing towards something called menopause.
The demo ended and we all shuffled back to class, some quietly dealing with new worries, some full of bravado and boasting of tampon exploits. I left feeling petrified. Worries filled my mind of the practicalities of impending womanhood – it was bad enough when I got my first bra and had the back strap twanged constantly. Would sanitary towels make me walk like John Wayne? Would they make a noise when I moved? Would it leak? I couldn’t talk to my Mum – we still don’t have that kind of relationship. So I quietly spent the next couple of months dreading a sudden gush of bright red blood at a really inappropriate time.
Luckily all that happened was my mum popping her head around my bedroom door one evening and throwing a packet of sanitary towels on my bed. She had noticed the watery brown spotting way before I realised what it was. So, too embarrassed to talk about it, this was a journey I started on my own.
Periods quietly rule your life, dictating what you wear and where you go. And that Tampax advert on TV in the 1980s lied to me, as when I eventually tried using tampons, I was not better at rollerskating, unlike the girls in the adverts, enjoying their menstrual lives with gay abandon. I had a miserable (and often messy) time getting to grips with it all. With no technology at my finger tips in those days, I couldn’t track dates and flows with an app like you can now, nor did I have the sense to keep a log or diary.
Fast forward to 2012. The London Olympics are in full swing and I’m in a huge crowd of people on the South Bank in London. Thousands of us are watching Mo Farah compete in the 10,000m race, leaping up and down like crazy people, the atmosphere buzzing with electricity as we will him to victory. The evening was to become known as Super Saturday as Mo would go on to join Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford as medal winners. We’d already watched the Gold going to Jessica and Greg and were desperate for a third win. I was having the time of my life. I looked over to Tower Bridge, looking fabulous with her Olympic rings bathed in brightly coloured illuminations, topped off with the most spectacular full moon.
That’s when the horror struck … I was in the middle of London, miles from home and it was a full moon which meant period time … and I was wearing white trousers! But no period. Not a sign. After being as regular as clockwork and always in line with a full moon, I was late. At first I had a glimmer of excitement that after many years of trying, maybe my early 40s were going to reward me with my first baby. Hopes were dashed a few weeks later, as usual.
I started to pay more attention to my periods over the coming years as they started to get a little erratic. Being terribly modern, I started to use an app to track my cycle. The changes were subtle at first as my periods started a few days earlier or later than expected. I wasn’t concerned and put it down to things that were going on in my life at the time. Now, however, it’s a bit of a guessing game with cycles varying between 21 days and 55. But the other symptom I had in this department was flooding. Never heard of it? No – neither had I, and the first time it happened I was horror-struck.
In the past I’ve had heavy periods and I’ve had painful periods – we all do at some point in our lives. Learning to understand our bodies, we begin to know what is normal for us and get on with life. But floods were a new one on me. Also referred to as hypermenorrhea or menorrhagia, it was dreadful. Towels and tampons could not cope with the heavy bleeding, to the point I was convinced I was having a miscarriage. Thankfully I wasn’t. But the experience really scared me. After talking with other women, I’ve realised that I’ve got off lightly, as I’ve only had a few floods so far. Some of the women have found themselves in totally debilitating situations, others have to leave the house with a spare change of clothes. For me it meant working at home when I needed to – my manager was great and listened to me as I had a meltdown on the phone.
Currently my signs are absolute textbook;
- sleep issues – I’ll be shattered in the day because I’m wide awake in the middle of the night
- mood – probably related to my lack of sleep too, but I can be happy, sad, anxious, emotional and generally not have a lot of time for other human beings at all
- incontinence – yup. Even though I haven’t had kids, Mother Nature is still going to ensure I don’t miss out on this little gem. When I need to go, I NEED TO GO!
- weight issues – at least I have a decent excuse as to why the diet isn’t working as well as it should. A little extra effort is required to shift the pounds these days.
- facial hair – what a bloody delight this one is! You can leave the house in the morning fuzz free, but that night, or in the harsh glare of the light in the ladies loo at work, you will spot a great big dark, thick hair sprouting from your chin or neck. I can grow facial hair faster than my husband!
- hair loss – not a huge amount, but a noticeable increase on the hair brush and comb that initially caused alarm
So how did I know I was in perimenopause? Depending on your age, you may be offered a blood test, but at my age I was ticking a lot of boxes and the signs were all there. Just how long this will last for though, is a guess. I can be in this pre-menopause state for a year or up to 10 years, which sent me into a bit of a tail spin.
Being a person who likes to plan, I wasn’t happy with the level of uncertainty I was facing, so I had to find and develop ways of being able to cope. I still have little wobbles on the days that my hormones play me up, but in general I’m doing OK now I’ve got my head around what is happening to me. I was unprepared for this stage in my life, which didn’t help me at all.
Talk to friends, talk to family, or talk to your doctor. Do you research. Going into perimenopause armed with the facts will ensure you can manage this stage in your life better than I did! You may also find these links useful:
- My Menopause Doctor and The North American Menopause Society are both great online resources
- If you prefer a book, then the Haynes Menopause Manual or Older and Wider by Jenny Eclair are both good reads
Look out for Part 2, where I’ll be sharing more stories from my perimenopausal journey of discovery. Until then the best advice I can give at this stage is don’t suffer in silence like I did. And write to-do lists!