“I just coped,” were the words that Kirsty Wark used to describe her experience of the menopause. She was speaking ahead of a new BBC documentary, The Menopause and Me, airing on Thursday, and, of course, she is not alone in her sentiment. Each year, around 1.5 million women – 80 per cent of those going through the menopause – are affected by night sweats, hot flushes, mood changes, joint and muscle pain and headaches, to name a few symptoms. The effects on a woman’s body can be severe – yet, “the change” as the menopause is often referred to – its nickname tellingly mysterious – is still rarely spoken of.
It needs to change. And some women are, finally, leading the charge to do just that. Here are ten of them, speaking honestly on what it’s really like to go through the menopause – and why we need to end the silence surrounding it.
“The most disconcerting side-effects were disturbed sleep and night sweats, waking up literally wrung out, with no discernible pattern to either … Suddenly, I had no oestrogen and the disturbed sleep and night sweats started. By the time I started making the documentary, nothing much had changed for me in 12 years and I just coped with it, as so many others do.”
“I was used to being able to balance a lot of things, and all of a sudden I felt like I could handle nothing. I felt completely overwhelmed. When I talked to the menopause specialist, she said that she often gets phone calls from female CEOs screaming down the phone, "I need help now! I am losing my mind!" And that's completely right. I felt like somebody else had taken over my brain.”
There's no countdown. It's just boom. All those years bitching about my period and when it stopped, I was stunned to realise how much my womanhood was tied into it
“The menopause is truly the last taboo: it’s not sexy. It’s the opposite of sexy — the end of fecundity, the beginning of nan-dom — and so we don’t want to know. This is a fantastically silly stance to adopt, for any number of reasons, including the fact that being a sort of collective village idiot on the subject is really not sexy, either. Also, what is the point of being proud of being a woman if you’re going to be desperately ashamed of this one bit of it — this last third of your actual life?”
“The final part of my [breast cancer] treatment involved taking the drug tamoxifen, which prevents you ever having any oestrogen again ever. This basically means it plunges you into the menopause in one fell swoop. It’s fairly brutal and you go through all the accompanying side-effects: hot flushes, weight gain; a sense of mourning for lost youth, sexiness and somehow the point in anything. I became depressed, which I ended up getting help with on the advice of Tanya Byron; I got some pills that opened up the curtains again and exiled Evil Jennifer. That was four years ago now, and I’m pleased to say that life is good again. I now have a dog.”
“People don't talk about it, but the menopause, for me, makes you feel slightly dead, so you have to start using the other things – using your mind more, read more, you have to be more enlightened, you have to take on new things, think of new ideas, discover new things, start looking at the stars, understand astronomy… just wake yourself up, otherwise it's a gentle decline. For women, it is the beginning of dying. It is a sign. I've got to start using my brain more – I've got to be more ethereal and more enlightened.”
“The stress of not understanding it, or hiding it from the people around you, or not being able to talk to your girlfriends, or be able to help your partner or children understand what you’re going through, makes it physically harder. It’s like periods – none of ours are the same because we all experience different symptoms and experience them differently on a monthly basis. The transition is different for everyone too. It’s better if we can understand as much as we can about what’s ahead of us. It’s also good to have the comfort of knowing that it will pass – it’s the thought of it never ending that makes people go crazy and makes it hard to endure.”
“I actually love being in menopause. I haven’t had a terrible reaction to it, so I’m very fortunate. I feel older, and I feel settled being older. I feel happy that I’ve grown up. I don’t want to be young again.”
“Literally one moment you’re fine, and then another, you feel like you’re in a vat of boiling water, and you feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath you — especially the first experience. What I would say, which I’ve said to myself and to girlfriends who’ve also experienced hot flashes, in particular, is that change is part of being human. We evolve and should not fear that change. You're not alone. I feel that part of living this long is experiencing this, so I’m trying to turn it into a very positive thing for myself, which it has been, in the sense of acceptance and tolerance and education about this time of life.”
“The menopause can be hard to deal with because it really is a shock when it hits you. There's no countdown. It's just boom. All those years bitching about my period and when it stopped, I was stunned to realise how much my womanhood was tied into it. It hits you hard.”
“Memory loss was a huge one for me. I thought that I was getting dementia. I would just go into my brain to try and pull a few facts off the shelf. I'd be halfway through a sentence and I simply couldn't find them. And when that happens on a regular basis, it can get scary. You can stop wanting to engage in an argument or put your point across because you might forget what it is halfway through. I found myself becoming silent. I was losing my voice through fear of not being able to deliver in the way that I'd taken for granted all my life. Now I make myself speak, and if I forget or can't locate the stats to back up my point, I tell the truth: "Sorry, it's my menopause brain." And when I own it out loud, the fear gets less, and I find other women start admitting it too.”
The Menopause and Me is on BBC One tomorrow at 10:45pm