Why are we so unprepared for one of life’s inevitable transitions?
‘There are still many women who think that menopause is the end of your life.’
I didn’t think for me at any stage that I would suffer as much as I am. And I had no idea. In my family, no one talked about it. The women, the women never spoke. I wouldn’t have known that my mom had gone through menopause. And did she go through menopause? I don’t really know. My aunts, did they? They just soldiered on. I started hot flashes when I was 52. But I didn’t realize that was menopause. I thought my heating was broken. And you know, I honestly thought — I was ready to call British Gas, because I just got a new boiler. So I thought it was that. I was opening the window. I don’t know why. Maybe I was in denial. I just — Yeah. And then one day it clicked. I was like, “Oh, oh!” and I just laughed. They say, oh, well, just hot flashes, they’re just hot flashes. But it’s like you’ve just been sitting normally and suddenly you feel as if your whole body is going into a fever. You know, like you really, your whole body just breaks out into this sweat all over. You can feel it all over your body, in the roots of your hair and your neck and your chest. I can literally feel the hot flash start in my brain. And also I can feel where in the brain it starts. It’s in the front like left-hand side here. And as soon as a hot flash happens — it sounds nuts, my partner laughs at me all the time — I feel like something goes “whoosh,” like it makes that sound too. In my mind it makes that sound, like something gets released, like there’s a spark and it starts there first in the brain. Work was really stressful. We were getting married. We were buying a house. There was just, like, a lot going on. And I ended up with, like, really bad insomnia. And I remember saying to Ross, like, this sounds really silly, but I feel like I flipped my hormones upside down and I don’t know how to get them back again. At that time I must have been 34, 35. And I went to the doctors. They are just, like, based on your results, it looks like you’re going through menopause. And I was just, like, sorry, I don’t understand. So, like, if I’m going through menopause, what does that mean if I want to have children? And the doctor just said, “Oh, yeah, you won’t be able to have your own kids.” Very rapidly my periods got heavier and heavier and heavier. It was the summer. It was a really hot day. And I was in the shower. And I’m having my shower and I’m washing my hair and then I looked down and the floor of the bath, you know, my feet and the base of the bath was just red. It was like someone had just tipped red paint in the bottom of the bath. It was just a sea of red. And I remember, I just stood there looking, thinking, OK, like, what do I do? Do I tell Tony to phone an ambulance? This can’t be normal. The hair started falling out. Concentration levels got worse. My mood got worse. I felt really down. I felt really fat, really huge. You didn’t have to eat a lot. You just take a breath and you’re swollen and bloated. I don’t understand how I can diet and detox for a whole day and wake up in the morning and weigh more. And you know, you can’t take off anymore. You stood there naked on the scales weighing yourself. You weigh more and you’ve been eating celery and lettuce the day before and weeing nonstop. And you weigh more. What is that about? Night sweats, restless legs, hot flashes, migraines, like, really bad digestion, heartburn, like, brittle nails, dry skin, anxiety, low confidence, things like memory loss, I didn’t realize that was a symptom of the menopause, so I just thought I was getting really shit at my job. I had brain fog. I started to forget things. I couldn’t remember anything. And it was quite disconcerting because I had quite a job where I had to remember a lot of things. So I would have anxiety attacks, where I would start to get shortness of breath and burst into tears. Irrational, you become an irrational person. It doesn’t matter this lifetime of learning you’ve had about managing your feelings and being aware, all of that just goes out the window. And it’s just, it’s rage. It’s like, it’s like there’s an injustice, like there’s massive injustice. It’s really deeply unpleasant. In fact, it’s beyond unpleasant it’s scary, because I don’t feel like me and I’m not in control. So there’s something about, like, this stage of life where you just lose all patience. Whereas, when you’re a younger woman you’d be like a people- pleaser and just like, oh, it’s OK, or laid back about things or trying to please people or trying to be seen in a — “Oh, she’s so nice.” And then you just, like, don’t even give a shit after a while with this. You just, like, you can’t even pretend. I think that when you’re going through the menopause, you start to really feel a bit of your mortality, you know. And you kind of know that you’re going into this other phase of life, you know, you’re no longer a fertile woman. I don’t — do I miss periods? I don’t know what to say to that. I suppose the inconvenience down there. I don’t miss that. But for me periods meant — it was part of my femininity. It proved that I was still a woman and that if I wanted to have a child, I could have a child. But when you have that taken away from you, you do feel that you lose some of your womanness. I said one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with is intimacy and sex and not having a desire for myself or with my partner. That’s horrific. It’s like I’m having a conversation with myself going, OK, how can I feel sexy today? How can I feel, like, when I look at my partner, I’m like, oh, my God, I want you inside me, I want to have it, you know, like, really? Like, I did go through a period where I thought that Ross would find me less attractive because I couldn’t give him the one thing that we wanted. And he’s never made me feel like that. But mentally, I just thought, like, my body has failed me, and I have failed, like, us as a family. And that is a really unattractive place to be. Your vagina starts losing its moisture levels and you start to dry up basically. And at the beginning it wasn’t severe, but I had a lot of scar tissue from, first of all, the first birth I had an episiotomy. The second birth I had a bad tear and the skin on my perineum started to thin and dry a bit. And suddenly I had real problems with that scarring, like, it would feel really tight and painful, and sex became quite painful unless I used a lubricant. My libido did go completely. But I was OK with that. I think part of the change is we want to stay the same as we were. And we need to embrace where we’re going. It’s not a bad thing. If your libido goes, it’s not necessarily bad. I remember a phrase that Boy George said. And he said, what did he say? He said, you know, “Sometimes I’d just rather have a cup of tea than have sex.” And that is true. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As women we’re really sold that sexual energy is what is the most important. And when we lose that, then we feel like we don’t have that anymore. It’s not that we’re losing it. It’s changing, it’s shifting into something else. You can start using sexual energy in a different way. I think it gets confusing for women because possibly that submissive receptivity is kind of gone. You know, where you’re like, yeah, just take me, do me or — it almost opens up all of these other avenues. Yeah, I would say that menopause is unpleasant. You know, like, we don’t talk about it in society, but it’s unpleasant. But of course, it’s got its good sides as well, like, you know, it’s wonderful now that I’ve come through the other side, I’m finished my menopause. It’s like owning yourself in a way. I mean, I can’t stress that high enough. I don’t have these mood swings. I feel I’m constant, you know. I feel I understand myself better. All through your fertile years, at times, well, I did sort of question, “Who am I? I seem to be all over the place.” That all kind of disappears. It’s a wonderful relief. There’s a million reasons why you can go through it. I know there’s people younger than me that have gone through it. And no one tells you that. I often, like, want to tell all of my friends about it, you know. And I want them to understand all about their hormones and their ovulation, so that they can feel as empowered as me by that. I feel kind of like how I felt when I was, like, 11 or 12, 10 years old before I started getting the hormone changes of puberty where I just felt, like, this is me or you just feel like I know who I am. You do feel like estrogen was just this weird drug that you were under the influence of, like it was a trip. And now you’re coming out the other end of this trip, and you’re just looking back going like, weird. I feel it’s really important to always speak up because there are still many women who think that menopause is the end of your life. Me, I’m just getting started. I got shit to do. You know, how could this be the end of my life? You know when you were 20 and you think 50 is ancient or when you were 10 and you think 21 is really grown up. No one knows what they’re doing, like no one. So you may as well just live your life at any age, you know, I’m not lying down for it. [LAUGHTER]
By Bronwen Parker-Rhodes
Ms. Parker-Rhodes is a documentary filmmaker.
About half of the world’s population will experience menopause, yet it’s a period that can be isolating for a woman in their personal and professional life. Menopause marks the end of menstruation, and the changes that come with it are often not discussed openly. In the short documentary above, women across England share their intimate, complicated and illuminating experiences with menopause. It’s a conversation that should happen more often, and without fear.
Bronwen Parker-Rhodes is a filmmaker based in London.
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