If there are any men reading this, you might want to look away now…
Actually, don’t, because if you have any women in your life – mother, sister, wife, significant other, even a daughter – that woman will at some point go through the menopause. No ifs, no buts – it WILL happen. You might not live long enough to witness your daughter going through it (sorry to be so blunt) or your mother might have already gone through it and come out the other side, but you still need to be aware of it and the effects it might have on your loved ones.
Everyone knows about hot flushes (flashes, I think they’re called across the pond), but there are a host of other physical symptoms which can vary from being annoying to downright distressing. But the physical side of the menopause didn’t bother me much. No, it wasn’t nice, but I could cope with it. What I found harder to deal with were the mental and emotional symptoms. Apart from mood swings, which tend to be spoken about, there are some things which are far less often aired.
One of these is depression, which can manifest itself in different ways from despondency to feelings of utter worthlessness. Hormone-driven, this depression can often be compounded by other events which can occur in a woman’s life around this time – creeping signs of the advancing years, offspring flying the nest, parents becoming ill and needing additional care, or, God forbid, dying – all leading to the increasing realisation of one’s own mortality.
I have spoken to a number of friends and colleagues and apart from the tiredness caused by altered sleep patterns, their main concern seems to be a lack of self-worth and a feeling of being cast adrift, as if they no longer have a purpose in life. Now, don’t get me wrong, men too can experience the same feelings, but combine this with the drop in hormone production then it can lead to a perfect storm and a downward spiral of negative emotions.
I noticed the mental and emotional symptoms long before the physical ones kicked in. Brain fog, forgetfulness, a sense of dread (no idea why or about what), a feeling that my life was on a slippery slope towards old age, restlessness, lack of self-worth, an odd feeling of being invisible… Other people I have spoken to have described similar feelings and one, in particular, confided that she felt empty.
I’ve not yet come out the other side, but I think I have gained some insight after several years on the menopause carousel, and what helped me considerably was having a purpose and an interest which was outside my family and my job – and that was writing. Which was odd, really, considering I had such issues with my memory, especially finding words – ironic, I know, considering words are my stock-in-trade. But writing worked for me, in that it focused my mind and forced me to think. It also kept me occupied.
I’m not suggesting every woman of a certain age should take up writing, but I strongly believe that having something in my life that is mine and mine alone, and that I am passionate about, has given me a renewed zest for life.
I’d written stories some years before, unpublished and now mostly forgotten manuscripts (forgotten for a very good reason) but I had put those fledgeling novels to one side as life got in the way. A few years later, with my family slightly less needy and a burning idea in my head (State of Grace), I began writing again. Then the menopause struck and I lost my way and sense of purpose for a while. The only thing that kept me grounded was completing the second book in the series, because I felt it was deeply unfair to have the first book published, and never to complete the second. I owed it to my readers (hilarious, really, because I didn’t exactly have many of those!) but it kept me going until I had three completed novels.
The ideas kept coming. Instead of focusing on the negatives when I woke in the middle of the night as so often happens to us menopausal women, I held conversations in my head with my characters, getting to know them as intimately as I know my own family, working through plot holes, playing scenes over and over again until I was happy with them. Or else I would sneak off into the spare room and read, or chat to other authors on social media, or search for the ideal book cover, or perform the myriad of other tasks a writer has to do.
Suddenly, I’d gone from mopey and despondent to motivated and driven. Yes, I’m probably obsessed (many writers find it hard to switch off because so much of what we do is cerebral) but I find that a positive rather than a negative.
I’m not claiming that this level of obsession is right for everyone. It’s not. You have to find your own passion, your own reason for leaping out of bed in the morning (yes, I do leap – well, mentally I do; in reality it takes a while for the bones and muscles to get going), and I honestly can’t wait to get started on a new manuscript. The thrill of seeing my book baby on Amazon, or holding the paperback in my hand can’t be described. Writing has kept me going, has helped me through some of the darkest days and has brought me unbounded satisfaction.
So, if you’re going through the menopause, or are looking ahead and dreading it, take heart, find something that inspires you, whether it is running marathons, making wedding dresses, feeding the homeless, clearing your local canal, or taking a gap year – it doesn’t matter what.
Find your passion and tell me about it. Whatever it is, I’m sure it will be wonderful