What is your age and stage?
I am 60 and I am out the other side, happily adventuring towards the much-maligned but in reality marvellous state of Cronehood. To get here though, I had to drop down a black hole and I had to shed a part of myself to do with my unreasonable expectations of me.
When did your symptoms start?
I was 53/4 when symptoms made themselves spectacularly noticeable. Up until that point I had enjoyed a slow reduction of monthly cycles that were shorter with bigger gaps in between. I realise in this respect I was very lucky and speaking to my younger sisters, their experiences have been different.
I felt my entire personality was disappearing and the emotional resilience I had come to reply upon over the years simply vanished.
What were your symptoms?
The physical symptoms were doable: insomnia, heat surges and night sweats seemed fairly manageable… nothing like the physical assault I read about suffered by some women.
I was working very hard and not prepared for the emotional and cognitive turbulence however. In fact I had no idea to anticipate this. I mean serious roller coaster stuff, mostly punctuated by a visceral feeling of sinking to a dark murky depth where I would feel completely debilitated for days and overwhelmed by my inability to make sense of what was going on. I lost myself and my memory, and with it, industry knowledge. I even lost my vocabulary and my ability to explain myself. I tried to talk and I would feel like giving up. I would end up explaining “I’ve lost my words.” My family took to playing hilarious guessing games to get me to the end of a sentence. Obviously this really bothered me and I was fearful that it was early onset of dementia.
I felt my entire personality was disappearing and the emotional resilience I had come to reply upon over the years simply vanished. I was also disappearing intellectually day by day. I asked my mother whether she experienced anything like it and an older girlfriend too. Both said no and neither had they heard a story like mine.
How did your GP respond?
It felt like an emergency to me and I didn’t know if this was hormonally related. I’d never read anything to tell me it was. I wanted the doctor to say ‘ahh yes, don’t worry this is normal’. What she did say was, ‘you seem alright to me’. She wasn’t able to answer my questions about whether hormone treatment would help and didn’t offer any suggestions about where I could find treatment at all.
I knew I didn’t want the chemicals my mother had taken, which were equine in formulation, as I hadn’t read good things about them. I discussed all this with my doctor and hoped treatment had moved on but she didn’t know and really didn’t seem to recognise my absolute panic about my mental state. I came out with nothing, feeling like it I would either be correctly diagnosed with some kind of cognitive decline in the very near future or if this was related to my hormonal status that waiting for ‘it’ to pass was all I had.
I remember thinking there must be more to learn about my current state. I was quite bewildered by the lack of guidance from this older female doctor. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this down…if someone had said to me, ‘this is stuff is horrible but it is normal,’ it would have made a massive difference.
I was medicating with lots of red wine in the evenings. I was permanently anxious and unable to sleep.
What were your coping mechanisms?
By this time I was medicating with lots of red wine in the evenings. I was permanently anxious and unable to sleep. I was dog-tired and would conk out but not be able to stay asleep for very long and would usually wake after about two hours of sleep with a hammer in my ribcage, a chainsaw in my guts and a jet plane taking off in my head.
I dutifully used the time to work on the charity campaigns I was running because at least I could get up at 3am and distract myself, rather than lie there and feel worse by the minute. I told myself I obviously didn’t need the sleep. Big mistake. I was running myself ragged and began losing weight. One sister commented on this…was I ill?
Your biggest challenge?
The most challenging thing to deal with at the time was how it affected my professional life. I couldn’t just stop work and rest. I had many professional engagements and so I had to put so much more work into preparing for events, making sure I had sheets of info to rely upon because there was nothing in my head. I was permanently tense, convinced something in my brain had irrevocably broken.
My family were all very loving and nurturing but I thought they were privately frightened too. I was clearly going mad in front of them. I was very grateful for the compassion my husband Ian showed me…he was a magnificent liar in all the right ways, telling me I made perfect sense and taking me on long walks to unwind me. He would hold my hand and reassure me that I was not broken to him.
The things that got you through
For the first time in my life I was asking for help and I got it. I really let go and fell down. I cancelled stuff where I could and began to treat myself with a little more self-love. I had always been switched on not just as a worker but as a committed parent and partner. My daughters were on hand with fun and jokes to make light of things but my youngest was still smarting from the day I forgot her name.
I also began researching. The Wisdom of Menopause by Dr Christiane Northrup was my bible. I also looked into bio-identical hormones and found an excellent book, Natural Hormone Balance by Dr Uzzi Reiss (both available at Amazon). Armed with knowledge, I realised there was help out there.
The professional advice you sought
I looked for someone who knew about bio-identical hormones and heard about Doctor Lynette Yong from a friend already seeing her. Yes, she is private. A soon as I walked through the door she was able to reassure me. The relief that I was merely experiencing extreme hormone withdrawal and not losing my mind made me cry with relief. And yes, she had seen it many times before.
After a blood test, which was screened for multiple readings, she was able to prescribe oestrogen supplements which I later switched to DHEA (a precursor to oestrogen). My memory returned very quickly and with it my ability to make sense of things and so my confidence was restored too. I was still running around with my hair on fire on no sleep but slowly, with my newly returned powers of normal mental processing, I began to address the other areas that needed work. I’m making this all sound linear and simple but I didn’t properly address my insomnia and with the combination of other pressures such as managing difficult work place relationships I became more ill before I got better.
Although my memory and vocabulary had returned immediately, I wrongly expected to pursue the long hours I had taken for granted and be super supportive to others. I still had a lot to learn about treating myself with respect.
What lifestyle changes did you make?
Many things got me through a period of three years hormonal turbulence. Adjustments like slowly stripping away unnecessary pressures at work such as inconsequential meetings, numerous document writing obligations and general networking helped immediately.
I also edited my life. I stopped being so helpful to anyone who asked for my time and pulled back. I became more choosy about the people in my life and the obligations I had previously signed up for. I understood finally that this was a hugely transformative time, with many advantages. Sure I was no longer invincible but I was engaging with the truth – I was a normal middle-aged woman who couldn’t save the world. I’m laughing now but I was working on a particularly exhausting pro-women national initiative almost single handedly as well as needing to earn a living and I overstretched myself.
Your ongoing management of your symptoms?
I now take Progesterone and multiple supplements including magnesium and B12. And I have made changes to ensure I sleep better. I still wake up repeatedly but I’ve learned to stay in bed and read with a small reading light for 20 minutes or so and then try for sleep again.
If I have to get up because the brain is firing off, I do not work on a lap top. I’ll put on the TV, read a magazine or write someone a card. I also take melatonin to help me through these patches of insomnia. When it passes, I make sure to catch up on sleep with a few early nights.
To any woman dealing with this I would say ‘this too will pass,’ there is help. Hold your nerve and baton down the hatches, you are stronger than you know.
Are there any positives to your experience?
One of the most unexpected gifts has been the closeness I now have with my immediate family based on the honesty of all of me. Ian encouraged me to let go of who I thought I was and celebrated with me the new-found sense of being that awaited me.
I now know myself to be more complex and I have a deeper understanding of mental illness because I’ve been there briefly, with all the self-loathing, loss of control and utter internal chaos that entails. At my worst I thought about how to end it. Now because I understand the fragility of each and every one of us in a way I didn’t before, I am more respectful of and yes grateful for the multiple functions my brain performs. When I lost some of it briefly, and with it some of myself, it shook me to the core. Now out the other side, I’m a bigger and more expansive energy than ever, but I have more humility and I recognise my privilege: I had financial resources and the support of a loving partner, but I’ve also taken responsibility for the high standards I expected from myself and done away with them.
One small example is house work…I do less and if Ian doesn’t share the chores, then the house stays dirty. I eat more raw food so I cook less and there’s less washing up. I’m not saying that’s the answer but lots of small adjustments add up.
What you wish you’d known
To any woman dealing with this I would say ‘this too will pass,’ there is help.
Hold your nerve and batten down the hatches, you are stronger than you know but give others the chance to support and nurture you. Cut back on things that drain your energy and for the first time… probably in your life – focus on you. This is not selfish this is smart.