Hot flushes and cold truths: My perimenopause journey
To mark World Menopause Day, Melissa Shoemark, a Senior Recovery Coach with our Somerset-based support and housing service, Step Together, talks candidly about how the perimenopause has affected her mental wellbeing, confidence and career, while also offering hope for other sufferers.
Writing this piece has given me the opportunity to reflect upon my experience of being perimenopausal and its impact on my life and that of others around me. I wanted to share my experience to bring awareness and to encourage open discussions and dispel the embarrassment and associated taboo.
I started to experience symptoms about two years ago, but at the time I did not associate the symptoms with the perimenopause.
Common and uncommon symptoms
There are the better-known symptoms – the change in the menstrual cycle and hot flushes (Oh my goodness – the hot flushes! I feel like I’m going to self-combust at times. Duvet on, duvet off, windows and doors open, standing in front of the open freezer – all bring little relief!). The less obvious symptoms have been aching muscles, joint pain and stiffness, weight gain, dry lacklustre hair, dry itchy skin, ulcers and a dry burning mouth, acne (I thought I was done with spots decades ago!), and fatigue – I feel exhausted most of the time. I lack energy, enthusiasm, and motivation and at times feel I have lost my zest for life.
Mental health scare
The hardest thing I have found about the perimenopause is the impact on my mental health. Some days I wake up with an enormous sense of sadness and feel very emotional about everything. The simplest of everyday tasks become a huge challenge. I experience high anxiety including heart palpitations and sweaty palms. There are days when I don’t want to leave the safety of my home.
And brain fog – OMG! I can’t think, I can’t speak, I can’t find the words. I struggle to understand what people are saying to me, I can’t seem to process ANYTHING. I forget EVERYTHING. I write lists to try to remember things but will misplace them or forget I’ve written them. I lose things all the time, keys, phone, purse; I go to the fridge for ingredients to make dinner and can’t remember what I’m cooking! I enjoy reading but have noticed that the words do not leave the page and enter my head. I can read and re-read a chapter and have no clue what I’ve read. I can’t remember if I’ve put washing powder in the machine when doing a wash, and I’m sure some days the dogs have double helpings for dinner.
After 30 years of driving, which I used to really enjoy, I am filled with dread getting in the car. I am anxious and hesitant approaching traffic lights. I hesitate at round-abouts and junctions waiting for the right gap in the traffic, and I am unable to choose a parking space in the car park. Apparently, nervousness when driving is a common experience in perimenopausal/menopausal women – who knew?
I’ve noticed that I lack confidence and find it difficult to make decisions, even small simple decisions, which raises concerns for me around my competency and ability to carry out my job to my full potential, which creates additional pressure and anxiety. I don’t feel that I am able to progress in my career as much as I would have liked to due to the impact that being perimenopausal is having on my mental health and self-worth. I’m sure I have a vacant look on my face most of the time as I try to process what people are saying to me. I feel like an alien, unable to understand the world I’m living in most of the time. In the beginning I thought I was having a breakdown or experiencing early onset dementia.
A glimmer of hope
However, I am very fortunate that I am registered with a GP surgery which has a designated menopause nurse. She has been very informative and supportive, and after several consultations and medical tests I am now prescribed HRT. I still experience all I have mentioned, however I am beginning to notice some improvements – the hot flushes aren’t as often, and I’m working on ways to improve my mental health and allow myself to make adjustments in my life to take the pressure off and reduce anxiety. After considering the pros and cons of HRT I came to the conclusion that for me, the benefits outweighed the risks. I need to feel more like the me before any of this began.
Many female staff members came forward to share their menopause and perimenopause experiences. Here are just a couple more.
From Annie (not her real name):
The menopause has been brutal for me. It involved an A&E admission and a full hysterectomy as well as a lot of time off work due both to the surgery and to a relapse in my mental health. It’s now effectively managed by HRT, but the flushes keep coming when under stress and the memory and word/ thought loss are terrible and worrying. I have gone from being an efficient and very organised person to not knowing half the time who or where I am, or what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s quite disabling at times. It needs to be thought about at work.
What helps is cold water swimming, exercise, fresh air, a nourishing social life and healthy cooking. I avoid alcohol and limit caffeine. Holidays are also essential to have a restorative life.
From Emily – Recovery and Wellbeing Worker, Open Mental Health
The perimenopause can kick in several years before menopause, when the female body gradually begins to make less oestrogen. I’m 40 and recently discovered I was perimenopausal after experiencing a prolonged bout of vertigo, just before starting work with Second Step. My other symptoms included a very flat mood and rapid weight gain.
I was lucky to have a consultation with a very helpful and understanding female doctor and I’m now trialling an HRT patch which makes me feel so much better and more balanced physically and emotionally.
This may not be the route that every woman chooses to go down but I’m discovering there isn’t the stigma there perhaps was around HRT, and there are different ways to use it that limit potential risks. Try to combine this with a healthy lifestyle – exercise, eating well etc. Us women go through a lot. It’s helpful to know we are not alone and there are things we can do to help alleviate our symptoms.
Unravelling the Menopause – Free menopause workshops in Bristol and North Somerset
Our Bristol Wellbeing College and North Somerset Wellbeing service offer free workshops to adults in across Bristol and North Somerset.
In our menopause workshops we look at the stages of menopause, how changes in hormones can affect us physically and psychologically. We also explore how the menopause can affect our relationships and look at the treatment options available.