When life gives you melons: Del Hughes explores the ups and downs of The Change
In my family, it was never called the menopause. I recall Mum, my aunts and grandmothers all referring to it as ‘The Change’ – spoken of in hushed tones, and definitely capitalised.
And as a child, I would frequently wonder what that actually meant. What were my female relatives going to change into? I had visions of the Incredible Hulk, maybe werewolves or a variety of metamorphosis characters I’d seen on Dr Who. And I was really excited to see it happen.
Now, having gone through the worst of it myself, I can confirm that what I became, for a time, was a fretful, forgetful woman, filled with a simmering rage that would turn to tears in a heartbeat, who had zero libido and an insatiable hunger for carbs. Actually, the Hulk wasn’t far off the mark.
And though I’ve never really warmed to Davina McCall, (whose presenting style is just a tad too frenetic for me), that the menopause is finally out of the shadows and a hot topic is due, in large part, to her – and for that, us women should be grateful because it’s been overlooked, mocked and downright ignored for far too many years.
I’m fifty-two, so you’d probably expect me to be starting with the whole ‘hot flush, brain fog, low libido’ issues about now. But mine actually began twenty years ago, six months after meeting my partner, Tim.
Back then, I was working as a teacher at a rural school in Gloucestershire, and I loved my job.
In fact, it consumed me, pushing thoughts of boyfriends and kids to the very bottom of my imaginary priorities list.
See, I’d never been a woman who craved ankle-biters.
Of course, I knew that – someday – I’d have children, but the timeframe for becoming a mother was nebulous.
And I knew that I couldn’t consider starting a family until I’d met my Mr Right – who, it turned out, was a rather irascible Yorkshireman, with quick wits and kind eyes.
And meeting Tim when I did was serendipitous because he was the one who first diagnosed that there might be something amiss, ‘down there.’
Hmm! Off I went to my GP where, red-faced and mortified, I explained that I might need an internal examination because, ‘my boyfriend said it feels like I’ve got a fruit basket up my foof.’
Long story short, it wasn’t a basket, just a couple of melon-sized tumours – one Honeydew, one Galia.
Cue familial panic, many maternal meltdowns and me, in the eye of the storm, calmly trying to put everyone’s fears to rest.
It didn’t work, so I was actually quite glad to get into hospital seven days later and away from all the emotional drama that frequently accompanies occurrences like this.
The surgical team paid me numerous visits, all promising to be ‘conservative’ since I was ‘young and childless’, assuring me that they would save what they could. But waking up afterwards, it transpired that, just like a closing down sale, everything had to go.
I’d had a ‘total abdominal hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy’ (aka ‘radical hysterectomy’ which is much easier to say, and I still find it rather thrilling that, at least, something about me can be classed as radical!)
Truthfully though, it was a bit of a blow and I definitely struggled to wrap my head around the long-term implications of such a procedure, as well as coping with the immediate after-effects.
On the bright side, I was alive, cancer-free and could wave farewell to tampons, pads, PMT and stomach cramps.
But the downside was, obviously, no kids.
And that’s life I suppose – the universe gives, and it takes.
However, despite the conversation I’d had with the hormone nurse prior to going under the knife, I clearly hadn’t fully understood that, within hours of coming around from anaesthesia, the joy that is the menopause would immediately, and aggressively, kick straight in.
Describing my very first symptom as a ‘hot flush’ severely understates the blazing fire that was pulsing through me, and the resultant sweat which saturated my bedding within minutes.
They put me on an oestrogen oral HRT, which helped a little but still, I was burning up, miserable and mentally exhausted.
I should have stayed in longer, but the worst place to recover from illness or operation is, paradoxically, a hospital where the routines keep you awake and you yearn for a dark room, your own bed and blissful silence.
After five long days (and even longer nights) I begged the surgeon to allow me to leave and, with a little persuasion, he finally agreed.
For six weeks, I sat at home, giving mind and body a chance to heal.
Of course, there was the pain and discomfort that came from a wound which ran from belly button to bikini line – and which had me back in hospital for a couple of nights when it became infected.
But it was the menopause that hit me hardest. I guess I’d never thought hormones could play such a massive part in my mental (and physical) health but, by God they did!
I struggled on with my existing HRT for three months, but when I next saw my endocrinologist, the floodgates opened and I sobbed for a good half hour as I tried to explain how even the easiest tasks were now insurmountable, how my thoughts were no longer my own and how I had completely ‘lost myself.’
He recommended implants – and these were, to put it bluntly, the dog’s bollocks!
Because of my age, I had oestrogen and testosterone. What? Yep, apparently women produce small amounts of testosterone physiologically which ‘drives their libido’, and which, I confess, was news to me – but then I did get a D for Biology ‘O’ Level so. . .
Anyway, just twice a year I’d have a local injection in my belly, a nurse would make a small cut and then shove in (none to gently, it has to be said) a couple of slow-release balls of hormones.
And that was it.
I’d skip happily away, knowing that my debilitating symptoms would be under control for the next six months or so, brimming with zest and bursting with vigour.
However, all good things. . . One fateful day, I trotted along for my implants only to be told that, ‘due to supply issues’, the NHS couldn’t continue offering that treatment!
Alert, alert – panic mode activated!
Shit! It takes time to adapt to different medication, alongside the attendant ‘tweaking’ of doses, so the thought of it being possibly months before I felt human again was pretty damned depressing.
Back on the pills, with a testosterone gel which didn’t have much effect (Sorry Tim!), I battled on but within weeks, I hit rock bottom.
I was at work and remember leaving my classroom, only to have a sudden, and total, mental absence – I didn’t know what I was meant to be doing or where I was going.
I didn’t even have the energy to carry on walking so I sat on the stairs and cried my heart out, supremely unconcerned that the pupils might see me.
Luckily, I was rescued by the (aptly titled) caretaker who took me to his shed, gave me a mug of sweet tea and patted my back until I’d stopped blubbing.
Next day, I saw my doctor again and the whole HRT routine began anew.
With hindsight though, I think that I was actually lucky to have a ‘surgical menopause’; at least I knew the exact reason for my lack of reason, my tears, my inability to think logically, my plummeting libido and my total character change.
For those women who simply slide into the menopause gradually, well, you have it much tougher than I ever did.
But time marches on, and now I’m mainly on an even keel though it seems I can’t, fully, say goodbye to the brain fog, flushes or night sweats. But these days, I have learned ways to mitigate them.
I always carry a hand fan, and I’m talking about those old-fashioned, folding ones. They not only shift a ton of air, but you can also pretend you’re in ‘Bridgerton’. (And, on a side topic, we really are missing a trick if ‘Fan Flirtations’ of the Victorian era don’t become mainstream again.)
I used to slap on foundation but found it exacerbated the ‘face sweats’ so I binned it in favour of powder, now a mainstay of my make-up bag.
It’s ideal if I need to tone down pink cheeks or, more likely, repair the after-effects of sweat rivulets and mascara runs.
Deodorant, and I mean spray and roll-on.
Yeah, I know that’s a given, but now I put it everywhere, paying particular attention to under boob, under stomach, inner thighs and arse cheeks.
Anything to guard against buttock-shaped sweat stains on leather chairs or car seats.
Because I can’t rely on my memory, long or short, the most used app on my mobile is the calendar which I fill in as soon as I make any arrangements.
Not only that, but I also set alarms because it’s no good using an aide-memoire if you keep forgetting to check it.
Diamonds? Nope, it’s layers that are a hormonal girl’s best friend.
Top tip – ensure your base garment is made from a natural fabric such as cotton or cheesecloth. Both are cool and also great for absorbing excessive sweat. However, avoid polyester like the plague!
I used to take my HRT each morning – one 2mg pill. But a few years back, I was chatting to a hormone nurse who mentioned that, throughout the day (and night), the effects of the HRT begin to wear off.
What? I mean, it’s obvious now that I think about it, but I never really had!
Hmm. . . maybe that’s why my symptoms became more apparent at night?
I rang the practice, asked if I could have 1mg tablets prescribed instead, and now I take them morning and evening.
And touch wood, I’m sleeping better than I have for years and the night sweats, which still episodically occur, seem milder too.
Some women, myself included, find that alcohol and spicy foods often kick off the sweats and flashes, so I kept a food diary for a while which helped me work out my triggers.
Though I haven’t knocked Toffee Apple cider and Chicken Madras on the head, having these earlier in the evening means I can enjoy my faves whilst keeping menopausal symptoms at bay.
And when Tim and I pop out for a Sunday roast, we avoid a carvery, where queuing next to boiling hot food is guaranteed to set me off – plus it’s awkward when you use a walking stick.
Instead, we go to a local pub where I always reserve the table that’s furthest from the kitchens, and which also happens to have two large windows which actually open. Heaven!
Lately, as friends of a similar age have begun entering this particular stage of life, I’ve heard, too many times to count, how they’ve lost confidence, feel down, depressed, fatigued and how they are ‘losing’ themselves.
And that’s really the crux of the matter. Because the menopause is about loss.
But there are beneficial gains too which we shouldn’t ignore – and no, I don’t mean those extra pounds which are an absolute bugger to shift.
Now, I feel surprisingly free; free to try new things, make new friends, explore new places.
I’m more comfortable in my skin than I’ve ever been – despite sagging tits, greying hair and a pudgy menopausal midriff. (Not to mention the incipient beard! Sigh.)
I’ve discovered that I‘m more self-assured and can say what’s on my mind without the fear of being judged holding me back.
And I’ve got a better understanding of what’s really important to me and, because I know that I can’t please everyone, I no longer feel obligated to try.
I’m in the midst of what traditional Chinese medicine calls, ‘The Second Spring’ – a phase in a woman’s life that marks new beginnings, wisdom and flowering feminine potential.
Wow! Isn’t it great to see such a positive approach that speaks of rebirth, renewal and growth?
And they’re absolutely, bloody spot on!
So, grit your teeth ladies, we’ll get through this! And once we do?
Well, our ‘Second Summer’ is waiting just around the corner – and it’s going to be blooming fabulous!
If you’re struggling or just need advice, speak to your GP, or ask to see the doctor/nurse in your practice who specialises in dealing with menopausal matters. There are so many treatments available that can help you get through it as painlessly as possible – whether HRT or natural therapies. Or you can visit any of these Twitter accounts for lots of useful information:
@menomatters @BrMenopauseSoc @Menopause_Cafe @BLKMenopause @Pausitivity2 @hystersisters
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