“The Change. That’s what my mum called it. She said, ‘The Change will happen to you, and your periods will stop.’ That was about as much as I knew. When I started getting night sweats, I was convinced I had tuberculosis. I’m not kidding.”
My mum is talking about the menopause – specifically, the onset of the menopause, when it first rears its (very hot) head and brings with it a new unknown. We had started talking about “The Change” (as my nanny called it) this week, ahead of new film, I Got Life! – a French comedy about a 50-year-old divorcee, her grown-up daughters… and something we rarely see on the big screen: the menopause. Watching it, I realised that, despite Mum being there through my first period and many, many subsequent ones, despite her coaching me through hormones and contraception and even abortion, I’d never really asked what she was going through or what she had been through. Perhaps, because, when it comes to talking women’s health, the menopause is still largely overlooked.
Which doesn’t make much sense – after all, it happens to 50 per cent of the population. In the UK, there are approximately 13 million women currently peri-menopausal (when hormonal changes have begun, usually in the early forties) or post-menopausal. Most women (eight out of 10, according to some surveys) will experience symptoms in the run-up to the menopause and almost half of those women will find the symptoms difficult to deal with.
And the symptoms are extensive – imposing, even. Women often suffer “night sweats” (though Mum assures me they are not limited to night time by any stretch), vaginal dryness, hot flashes, chills, sleep problems, weight gain, changes in mood, thinning of hair, dry skin, night blindness, anxiety, loss of libido, aches and pains, insomnia – I could go on. Yet, despite this upheaval in a woman’s life – a quarter of women will suffer severe symptoms that can last up to 15 years – we rarely see public discussion of the menopause and its effect on women’s lives.
“I started going through the menopause when I was around 43 or 44,” Mum explained yesterday. “As a nurse, I knew that night sweats were a bad sign. Because I thought I was too young to begin the menopause, I assumed it was something horrible. When I went to my GP, he said the same thing: that I wasn’t old enough for that to be the case. He ordered blood tests when I insisted that I knew my body and I knew something wasn’t right. Sure enough, it was the menopause. He was as surprised as I was.”
Mum explained to me that she started experiencing frequent hot flushes (which were “sudden and overwhelming”, she says), severe night sweats (“I’d have to change my night clothes and the sheets”). She put on weight, which she says made her a little more self-conscious of her appearance than she’d normally be, and she had increased aches and pains. “Oestrogen is a natural anti-inflammatory,” she says frankly over the phone. “And when the menopause hits, you start to lose that. It makes things more physically painful.”
The menopause would be easier if we could all just talk about it openly because knowing what is happening is probably half the battle
And, further to this, Mum was also very anxious and depressed at points during this time. I remember it. But, she says, she never thought to associate her mental ill health to anything to do with the menopause. At the time, her husband, my dad, had just left our home and she was keeping us both afloat. “I was mad at your dad and everything felt quite stressful anyway,” she said. “I knew I was depressed and anxious – I was anxious about doing things and going places, in particular – but was that because your dad had just left? I don’t know. It was a weird time for us. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the menopause exacerbated it all.”
It was a combination of the physical and emotional that rocked Mum at that time, and there’s no real way of knowing whether it was the context in which she started the menopause, or the hormones themselves that created the mood swings she talks about (“I did a lot of shouting or crying, with nothing in between,” she says). And, as she moved through the years, despite still experiencing symptoms of the menopause, she did regain the confidence I always associated her with. While many of her friends felt the beginning of the menopause was a saddening indictment of age, or began to feel invisible, Mum says she was glad to maintain a good level of self-worth.
“I’ve known women going through the menopause who begin to feel that they’re not attractive to men any more, or that they’re overlooked as women because they’re not able to reproduce. I didn’t feel anything like that,” Mum says, “and I’m glad I didn’t. That stuff didn’t really affect me. I was still confident and I didn’t lose my sex drive either.
“But, I’m very aware that everyone experiences the menopause differently; we’re all different. I went on HRT, which many of my friends said made them feel amazing – yet, I didn’t feel any different on it. The trouble is that there’s no real information about it unless you really look for it. And who does that? You never see it on the TV or in films. It’s like it doesn’t really exist outside of our own friendship circles, of women our own age.”
And it all occurs at a time of quite significant “change” in someone’s life anyway – especially if they’ve had a family. After Mum started going through the menopause, I left home to go to university and she felt, she says, “a bit redundant; not needed”, which is echoed in the film I Got Life!, which we watched this week.
“But in the end,” Mum says, “things work out OK – in the film, and in real life, for me. Her daughters came back and needed her again, and you still need me.” (I do.) “The menopause would be easier if we could all just talk about it openly because knowing what is happening is probably half the battle. Maybe if I’d known more about it I would have sought extra help for what I was going through. Maybe I’d have spoken about it more freely and I wouldn’t have been as embarrassed.”
Nanny might have called it The Change, but one thing’s clear: something’s got to.
I Got Life! is in cinemas now