By Kelly Oden |
Menopause effects every woman differently, but it is a transition that happens to every woman as she reaches the end of her reproductive years. Why then, do so many women feel unprepared for the change? Perhaps it’s the negative stereotypes that prevail in modern culture. Perhaps it’s a lack of reliable information, or, alternately, a glut of conflicting information. Whatever the reason, women approaching menopause are often at a loss as to how to approach this life transition or even which route they should take to help mitigate the symptoms.
When women talk about experiencing menopausal symptoms, they are usually talking about the perimenopausal stage. Perimenopause is the time when the majority of symptoms occur and it typically lasts four to five years. Once a woman has gone 12 months without a period, she has entered menopause and for most, the dramatic symptoms come to and end.
In an effort to demystify this transitional time in every woman’s life, we asked a few women in varying stages of the process to share their experiences. We hope it offers those approaching menopause a glimpse into what to expect and an entry point for more discussion amongst friends, family and physicians.
Jen began experiencing symptoms of perimenopause between the ages of 43 and 44. During that time, Jen also lost her husband. “I went through a lot of stress,” she said. “That’s when I first noticed something was going on. Your body goes into survival mode after a loss, but after a year or so, I had some additional business stress and my whole body was affected. My back went out, I walked with a limp, my emotions were out of whack and I had a loss of mental clarity. I was trying to figure out what was grief and what was stress. Then, the hot flashes came, and I was like, ok, well that’s a big flag right there.”
Jen said she goes a month or two without a period and then one will show up out of the blue. “I feel like it really comes to a head a little more when there is stress,” she said. “At the rise, I was able to manage things healthily, but then with the COVID, the hot flashes came back. It was obviously directly related to stress.”
Jen has made some lifestyle changes. “I already eat things like kale and tofu. I limit my sugar and caffeine. Then, out of nowhere, I gained 7-10 pounds. I was like, ‘Come on. You can’t do this with kale and tofu. What’s going on?’ I realized that’s all part of it. I gained weight in places I normally never gained weight. So, I started doing yoga and a small workout every morning–just something to get the blood flowing. It’s made a world of difference in my stamina. I have energy in the morning without drinking a bunch of coffee. The weight came off, and I realized that I need to stay limber and keep the blood moving. It helps a lot.”
Jen said that the emotional side of things can be difficult at first, but once she realized that the emotions were all part of it, she was able to tie everything together. “The depression, the weight gain and the brain fog all ties together, but I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to listen to my body. Your body will show you different things about yourself and provide you with the information if you listen to it. But our mind doesn’t always want to listen. The hardest part is the emotional part, but it’s just part of the process.”
Jen believes that life in general gets more emotional as she grows older. ” Some of this stuff is heavier these days than it was earlier in life. We have more responsibilities and things can drag us down more emotionally. It makes everything seem extra real. The different stages of life and evolving–seeing children growing up is emotional. Seeing our parents and loved ones rapidly leave this earth is emotional. We are at that stage. It just all becomes super real. That’s a lot for all of us to take in and to have heightened emotions at the same time makes it more difficult.”
Ultimately, Jen said that she is learning a lot through the journey. She’s doing her own research because she wants to be a source of information and guidance for friends and family, which is something she didn’t really have. “I want to be able to tell my daughter everything about it and not have it be such a surprise for her. I want to be able to talk to other people, too. I want everyone to have the awareness to be able to link your mind and your body together and work harmoniously. I think a lot of people have been told, ‘There’s something wrong with you, you better get it fixed.’ I go a different route. I take a few supplements and herbs that support healthy aging and help to soften the blow rather than trying to fix or cure menopausal symptoms.”
Michelle has been experiencing perimenopausal symptoms for a few years. “I first noticed hormone related symptoms when I would get really enraged about things,” she said. “I could feel my blood boiling in situations in which I would usually keep my cool.” Michelle is also experiencing somewhat unusual menstrual cycles. “They are kind of alternating between nightmare scenarios and the normal, terrible situation. It seems to alternate in severity every other month.”
Michelle’s gynecologist suggested she try birth control pills to regulate her hormones. “It was at the beginning of the COVID stuff. Everything was so crazy. I took them for about a month, but I stopped because I couldn’t tell what was going on. I felt like everything that was happening in the outside world was enough of a stressor, and it wasn’t a controlled situation where I could relax and monitor the changes the birth control pills had on my body.”
Michelle takes magnesium supplements to help with sleep, she exercises regularly and limits her alcohol intake. Her biggest concern is a fear of the unknown. “Not knowing what to expect and picturing Bette Davis style theatrics in my life is a fear. Is it really going to get that terribly worse? Am I naïve to think I am level-headed and can just get through this and be fine? Is the monster going to come out?”
While Michelle realizes that these changes are a natural part of life, she does wonder about some of the stereotypes that come along with menopause. “The negative connotations are there. The idea of becoming viewed as less desirable because of all the stereotypical negative connotations that go along with “men-o-pause,” which seems like such an ugly word. It’s kind of like, ‘oh boy, here we go.’”
Michelle’s job gives her ample opportunity to discuss the topic with other women. “I’m in a unique position as a bartender. I have a lot of friends that come visit me and that can be therapy time when the bar is slow. We laugh about the stereotypical moodiness and being bitchy. I joke that I’m a total bitch all the time–no one is even going to notice.”
Michelle recently ended a long-term relationship but said that her former partner was understanding about her symptoms. “Sometimes, I would just say,’ Hey, I can’t sleep. You need to go sleep in the spare room.’ I would kick him out the room on a regular basis. He was very understanding and empathetic–as much as he could be while also admitting that he had no idea what I was going through.”
Ultimately, Michelle wishes there was more education for everyone. “The major changes in hormones in early life and late in life definitely should be discussed more openly. Everyone would benefit from more education–men and women. Men would be able to know what to expect from their partners beyond negative stereotypes.”
Jennifer was 35 years old when she began feeling perimenopause symptoms. Her symptoms began primarily as an interruption of a good night’s sleep and night sweats. “All of the doctors said, ‘You’re too young. That’s not what it is.’ They didn’t really offer any alternative diagnosis,” she said.
Jennifer’s story is unique in that she spent between 10 and 12 years in the peri-menopausal phase, entering post menopause at 48. Other symptoms included moodiness. “I just thought that was because I didn’t like people,” she laughed. “My friends told me I needed to go on hormones because I was such a bitch. I refused to go on hormone therapy because I didn’t like the things that I read about it. Plus, women in the dark ages went through this without them. It’s part of what our body is supposed to be doing. But I really was a total bitch. The moodiness was extreme at times.”
Jennifer also experienced weight gain. Between 40 and 45, she gained roughly 40 pounds. However, she lost all of it when she turned 50. “The metabolism is definitely gone. I had to work out in order to lose weight post-menopausal. It didn’t matter if I reduced or changed my diet.”
Jennifer said she didn’t seek out medical care specifically for menopause, but during her gynecological exams, she would discuss her symptoms. “They never tested my hormone levels or suggested hormone therapy,” she said. “I think they just thought I was too young. So, I just powered through it. I bought a book, I asked my living family members and talked to friends. I didn’t make any lifestyle or dietary changes in those early days, which is probably why I gained the weight. I drank too much, to be honest. I was self medicating so I could get a good night’s sleep and that’s not healthy. Alcohol and night sweats combined don’t make for a very good night’s rest, though, so you just become a little bit grumpier.”
Jennifer didn’t worry too much about stereotypes. “I don’t think I was surprised by the process. I knew that because I wasn’t doing the hormone therapy, I was going to exhibit symptoms that people who were replacing their hormones might not. I just thought, ‘So, what? I’m perimenopausal. It’s just life.”
Jennifer was a single parent when she started perimenopause, and she was focused more on parenting than dating, but she did notice a decline in her libido as the years went on. “It definitely goes down. It doesn’t mean that when you are post-menopausal that you don’t have a sex drive, but it’s not what it was in your 20s at all. It wasn’t for me.”
Jennifer said that she hopes women will support one another and talk openly about menopause. “Recognize that it’s natural,” she said. “It’s what our bodies were intended to do. Accept it for what it is and don’t be ashamed of it or try to hide it. Hormone therapy was not for me, but if you can’t get through it without killing someone, then maybe you should try it.”
Celeste began having symptoms around the age of 50. “Mine happened all at once. I didn’t have that perimenopausal lead up,” she said. “My period stopped and boom, I went from somebody who was cold all the time to a full body, head to toe drenched in sweat. I never got big mood swings. I didn’t have any issues with weight gain. Mine have always been these random, full on body sweats. I still have them after 11 years. Sometimes it’s just a little momentary flash. Sometimes it wakes me up soaking wet.”
Celeste asked her gynecologist about it when her symptoms first started. Her gynecologist suggested hormones. “My mom took hormones and she got breast cancer. There is no other breast cancer in our family, and she was convinced it was from the hormones. I also have a friend who took hormones, and she is also convinced they gave her breast cancer. So, I knew there was no way I was taking them.”
Three years ago, Celeste’s primary care doctor suggested an antidepressant that’s approved to treat menopause. “When I read the label, there were all kinds of side-affects associated with it. ‘I said no way. I’m not taking this.’ I’d just be trading one thing for another. I was fortunate that my symptoms were more annoying than terrible.”
So, she made diet modifications, started taking the Black Cohosh supplement, reduced caffeine and stress and exercised more.
Celeste said the biggest stereotype she’s heard about menopause are the mood swings. “The first time I ever heard anything about menopause was back in the 70s,” she recalled. “There was this All in the Family episode where Edith goes through the change. She starts talking back to Archie and he’s yelling at her ‘Just change, already!’ I think it was the first time it was discussed on television at all. So, to me, that was a big stereotype–that you have big mood swings and your personality can change. I didn’t have that.”
While Celeste said she didn’t necessarily experience a drop in her libido, she does acknowledge that sex is different post menopause. “Things don’t work the same way they used to. That’s for sure. You’re just more sensitive. It’s a different experience. I realize that I’m going to change as I get older. I don’t expect to feel the same things or look the same as I did when I was in my 30s. It’s just a different stage of my life, but I don’t feel like I’ve lost that part of my life at all. It was not a traumatic experience for me in any way. I know for some women, it’s the end of their youth, the end of their reproductive years. I didn’t have any of that. I had no angst about it.”
Valerie was on birth control most of her adult life, but when she was 49, she developed a rare cancer of the thymus and had surgery to remove the tumor. “It freaked me out so bad that I went off the pill. I was so close to menopause that I just decided to stop taking it,” she said.
Once she stopped taking the pill, Valerie started having menopausal symptoms.
“I didn’t have too much of the night sweats, but during the day, I was so hot. I had terrible hot flashes. At work meetings, I couldn’t sit next to a man because men put off a lot of heat. I couldn’t stand it. I wouldn’t eat or drink anything hot. I also had some weight gain, lowered libido and dryness. I had some mild mood swings, too.”
A few years into the process, Valerie’s friend recommended she look into hormones. Her primary doctor also recommended it.
She used BioTE, a hormone pellet, inserted into her hip. It started working after two weeks. Her doctor monitored her hormone levels to determine when she needed more. “I didn’t have any symptoms after that. It helped with everything,” Valerie said. “I was struggling to lose weight. Once I started the hormones, it was no problem to drop the weight. All of the libido and mood issues also resolved with the hormones as well.”
Valerie did her research and she felt comfortable with the safety of the bio identical hormones. “I had been through what I call hell–the hot flashes in particular were really awful. I just went for it and it worked out for me. I felt really great,” she said.
All of this happened when Valerie lived out West. When she moved to Pensacola, a few years ago, she had difficulty finding a doctor who offered BioTE. “I did try the cream and that was a pain in the butt. The main problem with the cream was that my husband couldn’t touch me wherever I administered it. He couldn’t touch the towel I used to dry my hands. It’s dangerous for men. It was a big pain and it didn’t work for me anyways. Maybe it takes longer than a couple weeks, but it was such a hassle, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Since stopping the BioTE, Valerie said that she hasn’t had any symptoms. “When it started wearing off, I realized that I didn’t really need it anymore,” she said. “I’m ok now–not like when I was younger, but I’m ok.”
Valerie was upset by the lack of information and guidance from the medical world. “My Ob/gyn didn’t tell me anything about what was about to happen,” she said. “That ticked me off a little bit. They talked to me about whether I was sure I didn’t want to have kids because my clock was ticking, but they didn’t talk to me about what was about to happen to my body. That doctor never mentioned hormones, either. It wasn’t until I changed doctors for a different reason that I was even introduced to the idea of hormone pellets.”
About three years before Valerie began going through menopause, she went to see Menopause: The Musical. “We went with two other couples and the other two ladies were in the middle of menopause. They thought the damn thing was hilarious. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This awful. This is terrible. I don’t think this is funny at all.’ But, other than that, I don’t think some of the stereotypes have held up. I have several friends who didn’t gain any weight. In fact, I think some of them are skinnier than they were before they went through menopause. Everybody’s different.”