Perimenopause is a lonely old place. Younger friends don’t know it exists or live in denial of the day when all this will happen to them. Older friends don’t talk about ‘things downstairs’ or ‘the change’ because it’s not the done thing. So here I am stuck in between a rock and a hot place. Everything I read is telling me I should talk about my perimenopause, but nobody knows what to say to me.
I’ve warned a couple of close friends and my immediate colleagues that I’m not myself at the moment. I’ve also explained why … and that was what killed it. When you lean in to confide in someone or share a bit of gossip, have you noticed they lean in too? They want to listen. They are keen to share their experiences with you and offer kind words of advice. Not everyone is so keen to listen when you talk about perimenopause, however.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my friends and colleagues are not hard-faced bitches who don’t give a toss about my malfunctioning menstrual cycle. Not all of them anyway. No. I think the truth is that they simply don’t know what to say to me. We’ve all grown up aware that Great Aunt Marge went through ‘the change’, but none of us actually know what ‘the change’ was, because nobody thought to ask her.
Menopause seems to be this mystical mid-life stage that looms somewhere in the future where women get a bit hot, their periods stop and they might cry a bit more than usual. But nobody is totally sure because we don’t talk about things like that. We no longer whisper the words ‘cancer’ or ‘mental health’ and will quite happily engage in conversation about them. But when was the last time you saw a character in a soap opera or film deliver an honest and realistic portrayal of life in menopause. Anything I have seen has started off quite promising, but then swerved off into a late-life pregnancy story instead. Clearly far more palatable.
Well News-Flush time! I’m happy to talk. I want to talk. I want you to understand why I do and say what I do. I don’t want you to give me the answers – I just want you to know what I’m going through. I’m not going to give you gory details about how many tampons I can use in a day if I’m having a flood … unless you really want to know. I just wish that instead of looking embarrassed and planning a swift exit, you asked me a question.
How hard is it to ask ‘how are you feeling today?’ or send me a text checking in on me? Maybe my friends and colleagues are so anxious that they might say the wrong thing, they are saying nothing. So what should you ask me? Or more importantly, what shouldn’t you say to me?
- Dodgy Dismissals – if I’m having a meltdown or a spectacular case of brain fog or anxiety, telling me to pull myself together is probably not the best response. When I’m at my worst I’m looking for empathy and kindness. A bit of patience and reassurance is the perfect tonic and support from those around me really makes a difference. This is a ‘temporary me’ and not the ‘me of the future’. Ask me what will help me right now, just like you would if someone whose freezer has self-defrosted or car has broken down. And if I don’t know what I want, then suggest something. All the usual things work such as hugs, laughs, gin, time off, sharing the load.
- Accusations of Attention Seeking – women are finally speaking out about menopause. Just because we used to mention it in hushed tones does not mean I think I’m special. Women are walking away from jobs they love because they cannot talk about their symptoms in the work place. That is NOT attention seeking. If I’m struggling with my bladder or heavy periods, then I need to be able to have a conversation at work about it. I should not have to leave my career behind me because my colleagues or employer can’t support me by making a few small changes to my work routine, or are too embarrassed to talk about it. I’m feeling uneasy too – I don’t want a sign above my desk drawing attention to the fact that I’ve got spare clothes in my handbag or need a desk fan. My life is bad enough right now. The best question you could ask me if you were my manager or colleague is ‘What do you need from me that will help?’ and to ask it whenever you see I am struggling.
- Insensitive Remarks – if you want to send me into free fall then ‘at least your periods have stopped’ or ‘you don’t need to worry about birth control’ are the two killer comments. Perimenopause can last for up to 10 years (I’m in year 3 in case you are interested), and periods can continue throughout. Menopause is actually when you have not had a period for 12 months. Sadly you don’t know when that will happen as your cycle becomes completely shot. I live in fear that my next one will arrive unannounced, unexpected and be a flood so bad I can’t leave the house. They can arrive in as little as 20 days, or as far apart as 2 months and you need to be prepared with the full rainbow of Tampax in your handbag just in case. I have not used contraception for over 20 years and spent years of my life praying for my period to be late. I’ve managed one extremely short and ultimately failed pregnancy and have mastered the art of a stiff upper lip and kind smile as each of my friends and colleagues fell pregnant with ease. I now have to live with potentially 10 years of my body reminding me that my fertility is shot. It’s safe to say a lot of emotions can be triggered in the reproductive minefield, so just be careful what you say in this area. My advice would be to be kind and be sensitive.
- Bragging is a Big Deal – So, your Mum sailed through her menopause, did she? Well that’s really helpful. Thanks. OK, some of us are going to have a better time than others, so maybe this is another of those minefield topics where drawing comparisons should be avoided. If you know someone is struggling, offer to help them do some research, encourage them to speak to their GP or even suggest they look at CBT. We are all going to have different experiences and will all need different levels of support. By asking them if they have considered or want help to research all the alternative avenues of help out there, you really are being a great support.
At a time in my life where I’m feeling frumpy, ugly, bloated, useless, grumpy, sad, tired and alone, I guess the best thing you can say is anything that reminds me why we are friends. Remind me that I was fabulous once, still am and will continue to be. Help me to remember that we laugh a lot together, even with my dodgy bladder. Give me space to deal with things my way but remind me that I’m neglecting our relationship by arranging to do nice things with me, even when I’m being a bitch and loving social distancing just a little bit too much.
And right now, remind me that I’m special just the way I am.