September. A day of bright skies and lowering sun. I was at a work meeting, pen hovering. Seemingly, all of the last dregs of summer heat were concentrated and beat in through a skylight, ricocheting so hard off the white table I could almost hear it. The skin of my arms prickled and rivulets of sweat tickled my scalp, finding an outlet around my hairline and forming a damp coastline. I looked up at the eye-achingly blue sky laced by the cool wings of white-bellied seagulls. And then I realised that tears were coursing down my face, fat cartoon tears that splashed onto the pages of my notebook, bending the words written there.
My colleague looked at me, slack-jawed. Her hand landed like a butterfly on my wrist, a cool whisper. ‘Oh, what’s wrong?’ I had no answer. Because there was nothing wrong. And everything…
I couldn’t pinpoint when it had started. It was more of a gradual slide. My body trembled from the inside out, my joints ached, my skin crawled, sudden fevers were accompanied by rushes of anxiety and dread, nausea roiled around my solar plexus, there were headaches and dizziness, and sleep became a prolonged tussle with my aching body and the duvet, in which nobody won. I found it difficult to read and absorb anything which, for a bookworm, was a little inconvenient to say the least. I forgot what I was saying mid-sentence. I had always been active, but now even a short run left me exhausted, and my belly was spongy and strained at my clothes, despite eating my usual healthy diet. I became susceptible to surges of rage at usually small annoyances, like printers that blinked but didn’t print, socks on the floor, and my husband. But most disturbingly, I looked in the mirror each morning and didn’t recognise the woman looking back at me.
The following day, I did what I should have done a while ago and booked a GP appointment. He did a good job of being unflinchingly patient (I could see the effort tugging like a puppet-master at the muscles of his face) as I tried to string together something coherent. And then, he was turning to his computer screen, tapping on the keyboard. He looked certain. I liked that. A prescription was folded into my hand. Just like that? No referrals, no tests, not even a brain scan? The doc smiled, templing his hands across his chest.
The prescription was for anti-depressants. Wh-a-a-a-a-t? It made absolutely no sense. But I was too tired to argue. I took them for a few weeks and started to feel a little better. I could sleep at last, the debilitating fevers had subsided to a barbecue rather than a wildfire, and the anxiety became background music rather than a symphony.
I was sitting one day in the delicious cool of our rickety conservatory, shucking the thick, baggy skin from a clementine (I had developed an addiction). Still unable to concentrate on a book but needing words like a drug, I was flicking through a women’s magazine. My eyes were snared by a title and drifted down the page, skimming. A minute later, I was straight-backed, then standing, clutching at the magazine, clementine on the floor. Symptoms. Hormones. Treatment.
THIS was what was happening to me. And it even had a name…
Or ‘The Change’, the descriptor coined by Germaine Greer and adopted by many of my mother’s generation at a time when talking about ‘women’s problems’ was a delicacy for rare and private moments.
So, my ‘fevers’ were actually hot flushes – I came to call them ‘tropical moments’ – and, like all my other symptoms, they were down to the hormonal imbalance that comes with the close of a woman’s reproductive life.
I went from relief – I wasn’t dying after all – to questions. Why hadn’t I known about this? And then to full-blown rage. Why hadn’t the GP told me? Understanding rushed in. I was exactly the ‘right’ age for menopause, and the symptoms that I had been unable to make any sense of, and had caused such distress, such dysfunction, were right there, listed in orderly black letters on an innocent white page.
My story is worth telling simply because it’s an incredibly common one, as I found out from the research and interactions with women at all stages of menopause that followed my conservatory epiphany. My rage had turned rapidly into purpose. Now that I knew what was happening to me, I put myself in charge. With a firm belief in the wisdom of the body and its ability to heal and in the importance of our lifestyle choices in supporting that, along with a long-held resistance to taking medication (which would have made me refuse HRT, had it even been mentioned), I made myself my own guinea-pig. Over the next few months, I read voraciously and tested various changes to my nutrition and lifestyle, finding what helped and what didn’t. And once I had got myself to a better place, it became my passion to change ‘The Change’, playing whatever small part I could in ensuring that no other woman would have to go through what I had been through.
I embarked on study, adding to my existing qualifications in fitness and health by obtaining a certification as a ‘3rd Age Woman’ wellness practitioner, and later trained to become an accredited menopause champion for Menopause Experts. And my business – Change Ahead – was born. It’s a year old now and on its feet, sometimes toddling, but toddling bravely and getting stronger every day. It has grown organically, originating from the life-force packed into the early seeds of the idea and growing ‘shoots’ – its programmes – on the basis of experience, finding out what works, what women want to know about menopause and what they can do to make it better. At the start, it was about getting information out there, for women directly impacted by menopause, as well as for those indirectly affected – partners, families, social groups, businesses and employers – emerging from the deep understanding that knowledge truly is power. I stood up at events to talk about menopause, ran workshops and talked to women on a one-to-one basis. From there, I developed a six-week menopause programme, based on the five lifestyle themes that are the foundation of Change Ahead and which can be delivered to groups in corporate or community settings, or to individuals.
What strikes me most is that this is the time for menopause to come out from the shadows, to be talked about using real words and without shuffling or blushing. And it’s not just me saying that. People – of all genders and expressions, and in all kinds of life situations and contexts – are asking about menopause and opening up to proper conversations, as well as looking for practical strategies to make it better. There’s a powerful recognition that menopause has implications for both equality and the economy and as such, it’s everybody’s business.
And what strikes me equally most (I’m menopausal, don’t argue!) is the hugely positive impact being achieved by the work of the growing community of menopause businesses and professionals of which I am privileged to be a part.
September. I step outside after a meeting with a big corporate I’ve been working with for the past few months to discuss some new initiatives. It’s a different sky now, rain clouds and sun jostling for supremacy. Geese honk comically overhead. The meeting went well. There may have been a tropical moment or two, but absolutely no tears.