I remember a day in the fifth grade when all the girls in my class were herded into the library to watch an animated video on menstruation, and listen to the school nurse give a brief, perfunctory explanation of the changes our bodies would go through in the next couple of years. It was supposed to be informative, and it was, in the sense that we knew what was going to happen, and why. However, it was the things that the film left out that probably would’ve been the most helpful. For example, what to do if you get your period and experience a leak at school, how to use a tampon, and how to handle the occasional public crying jag; these words of wisdom would have been much more useful at the time.
I guess I should be grateful, because fast forward 40 years and I could really use an animated feature on menopause. As much as people like to give young girls a heads up on the changes that occur during puberty, talking openly about menopause is a whole different story. In fact, there is almost secretiveness around the topic. Every woman goes through it, but no one wants to admit it. Maybe that’s because society doesn’t applaud women for aging, and menopause can often feel like the nail in the coffin of our youth.
Of course most of us over 40 know the basics; our hormone production declines, and we can experience hot flashes, insomnia, moodiness, weight gain and a host of other fun symptoms. But what we don’t know until we are knee deep in a puddle of our own sweat in the middle of winter is that there is so much more to it than that. Here are five things I wish I’d known before menopause reared its head.
1. It can strike much earlier than you think…and last much longer. Unlike your first period, which tells you with absolute certainty that you have hit puberty, determining your actual last period can be unusually tricky, which makes the timing of your own menopause more confusing. In fact, by the time you have your last period, you have probably been experiencing “premenopausal symptoms” such as sleeplessness, increased irritability, night sweats, or lighter periods, for years. Menopause is a gradual process that, according to menopause.org, typically occurs between the ages of 40 and 58. But it’s not just a “one and done” Experience. It’s ongoing and can be exhausting both physically and mentally until you get the symptoms under control.
2. “Mood Swings” are not a strong enough term. The words “mood swing” do not come close to describing what I experienced during my stages of menopause. While every woman is different, my moodiness was more akin to having multiple personalities. One minute I was laughing, and then I’d find myself raging and yelling over something as insignificant as a driver cutting me off in traffic. The worst part, however, was the depression. I actually sunk into a very dark place that culminated with me lying on my kitchen floor crying hysterically for absolutely no reason. That’s when I knew something was very wrong. A trip to the doctor assured me I was not losing my mind as I suspected but was instead in the throes of early menopause.
3. You may have mixed emotions about going through menopause. I actually cried (ok—see above—I was moody) when my doctor called me with the news. It wasn’t that I wanted any more children, it was that the choice was now not mine to make anymore. I began to view myself differently and the word “old” kept creeping into my head. It took a little while to reconcile the way I felt, which was more fit and healthy than I was in my 20s, with the fact that my body was in fact, going through a natural aging process.
4. Hot flashes can and will occur anytime, anywhere. They are the menopausal equivalent of that time you got your period in homeroom. Seriously. It’s not like being outside on a hot day, or even being sweaty in your favorite exercise class. It is a unique form of internal heat that feels like you may burst into flames at any moment—but you don’t. Instead you just become a sweaty, hot mess. Good times!
5. The Liberation. The biggest thing I wish someone had told me is that for all the inconveniences of menopause, there is something liberating about the whole process. Not only are periods, birth control, and cupboards full of feminine hygiene products a thing of the past, but also menopause brought a sense of freedom. I’m not sure why, but for me it felt like I was granted permission to speak up about the changes I was going through, rather than apologize for my emotions or worrying about what other people thought. At the end of the day, I felt stronger for having weathered the storm.