"You know when you start a sentence, and then just tail off and start doing something else... is that the menopause?” said my eldest son, echoed by a chorus of agreement from his siblings. And so the unspoken became spoken.
The dictionary definition of menopause is as mundane, functional and as unlayered as it gets: "the ceasing of menstruation". Let’s face it, few women would actually miss that monthly shenanigans. But the perimenopause and menopause (a period of up to 10 years) is so much more complex than that.
Yes, I have reached "that" time. The end of fertility, of my "use" as a woman. Yet, it’s less the supposed loss of my womanhood that I’m affected by, and far more the very real impact on my mental health, confidence and brain functioning.
This isn’t just the classic open-the-cupboard or go-into-a-room-and-completely-forget-what-for type of thing. This is wholescale brain and body rebellion. I am so so so very tired from sweating throughout the night, clearly purging the very essence of womanhood from my body. I ache, constantly, and get regular headaches, which I’ve been lucky enough to never really suffer from previously. The periods I have are erratic in their timings and strength.
But this is nothing compared to what I can only describe as a mindstorm.
I’ve had whole conversations with my husband, where I remember exactly what he said, and where he was standing when we were talking. Then it turned out that they NEVER HAPPENED.
There was one time where I’d dropped off one of his drawings and been paid in cash. The person paying me had rolled up the notes and kept them together with a rubber band like some kind of dodgy drug deal. He asked for the money, and I told him I’d already given it to him. I specifically remembered, you see, because he’d chuckled when he’d seen the rolled up notes. That “chuckle” came back to haunt me when I found the money tucked safely away in my cycling bag. I’d never given it to him. It was all in my mind. We now have a family gag, where they can challenge anything I say by chanting “was I chuckling when I said that?”
I’ve unknowingly sent random texts that mean nothing, that I don’t remember sending. I’ve thought that I’ve seen messages from people that have never happened, but I’ve responded to. I have huge holes in my vocabulary; ordinary words that I’ve used regularly for years that I just can’t find in my head.
Don’t even get me started on names. I consistently dreaded the horror of talking to clients or my team, and then simply failing to find the words. Embarrassing and humiliating are the first words that come to mind (if I haven’t "lost" them, that is). But it’s the cold spread of fear that really took a hold in the beginning, which definitely exacerbated the problem. The desperate grasping for an alternative word, while trying to keep my poise and professionalism, rather than just wanting to curl up in a ball and make it all stop.
Channel 4 introduced its Menopause Policy in 2019 and made it public last year. It covers off good stuff like flexible working, counselling services, paid sickness and desk fans. Publicis.Poke launched its last week and went a step further with a pledge to break down the taboos of talking about the menopause at work. Now this is more like it.
I think we need to feel comfortable talking more openly about it. It’s not about embarrassing people by sharing grim stories of nighttime terrors or bathroom pseudo-murder scenes. It’s about fronting up that you’re feeling hot; that you’ve forgotten a really basic word, name, phrase or action; that you just feel a bit off-kilter and need to skip a meeting – and that the reason for this is the menopause, not some non-specific illness.
I’ve decided that I’m just going to say the unsayable. “I’m so sorry, I’m menopausal, and it’s playing havoc with my brain/body, please can you bear with me/indulge my craziness.”
I’ve found it energising being so upfront and honest, and I’ve experienced a great deal of empathy. Agency folk and clients alike can relate to it in a number of ways – from their own mental health struggles, from their mothers or wives going through similar experiences, or from just being more alert to the impact of Covid on general health and wellbeing.
I’m not a doctor, nor a counsellor, but I do have some suggestions as to how to navigate through some of the harder times without losing your dignity or sense of self; coping mechanics that have been working quite well for me:
There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s much better to 'fess up to being menopausal, than to overtly struggle in a meeting and be traumatised about it. Honestly, it’s been great.
Create your own 'glossary'
When I "lose" words or names, I know that I do actually know what they are, I just can’t find them in my head. So as soon as I am reminded of one of my "missing words", I pop them in a glossary I have created at the front of my notebook. As soon as I glance at it, the relevant word jumps out, and I successfully navigate a potentially awkward moment.
Take control of the sweat
Even during the coldest of nights this winter, I have woken up with a sheen all over me, and a large pool gathered in my cleavage. It’s not nice. At the very least, have a towel to hand. But actually, I have found that if you do a decent half an hour of sweat-inducing exercise in the day, you are far less affected by night sweats. I’m lucky enough to be having my turn with the agency Peloton, and every morning, I take a punchy cycle through Utah, France or the Alps, and it’s been revelatory.
Read The Shift by Sam Baker
My friend, the founder of The Pool and previously editor of Cosmopolitan and Red, has written an empowering book about taking control of your own narrative, in a society seeking to automatically shut down our relevance once we’re past it. There’s also a podcast of the same name, with Sam interviewing a series of awesome and sexy women, of "that" age.
Take Vitamin D
Apparently your serotonin levels take a hammering during menopause, and you’re unlikely to make enough back from a walk in the sunshine. Without it, you’re just that bit grumpier and mood swingier. The mouth sprays are best.
Make a food diary
There are some trigger foods that will make the physical symptoms worse, and because life is like this, it’s different for everyone. It’s worth making notes of what you’ve eaten that’s "different" when you have a particularly bad night – and you’ll collate a list of food and drinks best avoided.
For those of you not going through it, hopefully this provides some context and understanding. It might be worth considering a policy to both support those going through menopause as well as open up the conversation. Thanks for reading.
Melissa Robertson is chief executive of Dark Horses