Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman

Apologies to anyone who read that title and now has a Tammy Wynette ear worm. But sometimes it is just hard to be a woman – particularly when it comes to our bodies and our hormones.

Now, perhaps when I reach a higher spiritual place I will just sit down on a monthly basis and say “thank you” to the universe for the gift of my bloated tummy, spotty face, rollercoaster emotions and cramps (annoyingly I have actually done that a few times and it helped), but right now I’m just going to say it again – it’s hard, and it’s gets harder the closer you get to and as you start to go through the menopause.

Let me just preface this by saying, I am not a medical doctor or a hormone specialist. Through my work as a journalist working in the medical field, I have written about menopause a lot in recent years, since the topic has started to be more widely discussed, but that by no means makes me any kind of expert. The point of this blog is just to discuss my experience and how it’s been effecting me mentally.

I’m 41 and I have to say I shouldn’t really moan. As women, periods and menopause are a part of our life cycle and I’ve really been very lucky with mine and for that I should be very grateful. Until about six months ago my periods were like clock work, lasted for only four or five days and were only really particularly painful for one or two of those days. Some women really suffer with theirs, so I am actually very blessed. But the area where mine have caused me to lose the plot is beforehand – the dreaded PMS.

PMS

PMS or Pre-Menstural Syndrome encompasses all the symptoms we get before our periods arrive. For me that is mainly bad skin (spots, redness, soreness, dryness), bloating and water retention, food cravings, forgetfulness or brain fog and mood swings. Not all women suffer with PMS and it’s degree of severity varies greatly from woman to woman, however, it is largely triggered by the surge in hormones we experience as our body prepares to shed its uterus lining each month.

The main hormones that come into play in our monthly cycle are the sex hormones: oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone as well as follicle stimulating hormone (this causes the maturation of the egg in your ovaries) and luteinising hormone (which stimulates the egg to be released).

OESTROGEN is the female sex hormone. It’s what makes us develop breasts during puberty and it regulates our menstrual cycle. It also affects how our skin looks and protects us against heart disease, which is why after menopause a woman’s risk of heart disease becomes more in line with that of a man’s. Oestrogen is also what makes us produce and release eggs every month so when those levels deplete we stop ovulating and start to go through menopause.

PROGESTERONE is another female sex hormone. It’s particularly important during pregnancy and plays a part in regulating your monthly cycle, preparing your body for the egg to be fertilised. It is thought that high levels of progesterone contribute to symptoms of PMS.

TESTOSTERONE is the male sex hormone, however women still produce it too. It’s main function is to do with our sex drive and libido but it also plays a part in our muscle to fat ratio and energy levels. Before our periods, when we are in the fertile phase we have higher levels of testosterone to encourage us to want to have sex. But this is also why a lot of women get spots before their period as testosterone is known to stimulate sebum production/the oil glands in the skin.

Some women use the contraceptive pill or other methods of contraception to manage the symptoms of their periods but I’ve never been able to use these methods because every single one I’ve tried has sent me into a spiral of crazy and made me depressed and highly emotionally unstable. I went almost 20 years without using the pill and thought I’d give it another go a few years ago. I went on the mini pill and within a few weeks felt like I’d utterly lost my mind. I absolutely fell apart emotionally so I vowed that was the last time I was ever going to put myself through that and I guess now I’m not going to really have to worry about that because now I have started to enter the next phase of my lifecycle – menopause.

Menopause

About six months ago I noticed that something was up when it came to my monthly cycle. I went for almost two months without a period and initially put it down to stress. But I’d never not had my period. Even through the years when I had an eating disorder, which for some women affects their cycle, mine remained the same. I also felt what I can only describe as really weird and emotionally unstable. I was getting hot sweats at night and started to need to get up in the night to go to the toilet. I felt like I was losing my mind. I tried to brush my teeth with my headphones and a pen before realising it was a toothbrush I needed. I would also get the huge surge of emotional imbalance I’d usually get before my time of the month but then nothing would happen and the level of that emotional distress had escalated 10 fold and was lasting for longer periods of time.

During one worrying instant I was driving and went from being fine one minute to sobbing uncontrollably and shouting out “I can’t cope” the next. I was hardly able to see through my tears and had to pull over my car. That was scary as it seemed to come out of nowhere.

Because I’ve had depression in the past my doctor just wanted to put me on antidepressants but it didn’t feel like depression. I know how that is. I’ve suffered it many times and for my own personal reasons I didn’t want to go on antidepressants again. There’s no judgement here about taking medication. This should be something you decide with your doctor. Antidepressants have helped me get back on my feet in very dark times but this time I felt very strongly that this was not what was going on and that it was more hormonal in nature. Of course I’m not a doctor and being resistant to what they are telling you to do doesn’t go down well, but I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to go on antidepressants again. So I got tested by a private doctor I know who does a lot of work in the area of hormones and menopause and that confirmed that my female hormone levels had dropped right off and that I was in the early stages of the menopause.

The menopause is the time in our life cycle when our ovaries lose their reproductive function. The average age this happens in the UK is 51 but early menopause is becoming more and more common. I don’t know if this is just because we are more open about discussing it these days that we are more aware of it or if lifestyle factors are playing a part. I’m not an expert so I won’t try and explain it other than to say that my doctor told me it was actually more common than you’d think.

I struggled with this news. I’m 41 and I have not had children. I always thought I had time if that was something I wanted so to find out that Mother Nature had other ideas was emotionally difficult to deal with. Of course there’s always options but I felt like my body was betraying me, that I was somehow less of a woman – that I was not ready for this yet and that I was too young. I also had a lot of fear around what menopause would mean – was I going to gain lots of weight, lose my hair, lose my sex drive, become crazy?

Of course my body has never betrayed me. She’s been incredibly resilient over the years when I have not been very kind to her at all and so there was also a sense of guilt in how I’d lived my life. That in the years where my friends were getting married and having children, my priority was getting shit faced, partying and throwing myself into my work.

It felt like in some ways part of my life was ending and that I’d squandered it and I felt very emotional about that. That sounds very over dramatic but anyone who has been through it will have had their own reaction to it and how we feel is never wrong, it’s just how we feel. What we do with those feelings is another matter. I spent a lot of time crying that week and then I started BHRT – bioidentical hormone replacement therapy.

BHRT has made a huge difference to my emotional state. I’ve balanced back out in the main and my cycle has become much more normal again so it’s been wonderful. But the days before my period comes I’m emotionally losing the plot.

Losing the plot

For the last three days I’ve been in that space. It started with anger – a deep rage and intolerance inside me where I was angry at the whole world and everyone in it. I find anger an incredibly uncomfortable emotion to deal with and so I really do not like feeling like that. The absolute expletives that’s came out of my mouth as I just screamed out some of that rage in my bathroom were terrifying.

After two day’s of that it then turned into that kind of uncontrollable sobbing, the end of the world type crying where you just feel hopeless and can’t seem to find a way out of the mental fog. This was made worse by the fact that people want to know “What’s wrong?” “What’s happened?” “Surely something must have happened to make you this bad? It can’t just be that you are due on.” Well it is. I haven’t been anywhere or done anything. I haven’t seen anyone. No one has upset me. Nothing has happened. I went to bed fine and I woke up like this. The first thing that opened the flood gates was watching a video of a guy singing on America’s Got Talent on my Facebook feed. That was all. No one died.

Now I have lots of tools I use to help me manage my mental state on a daily basis and they work. Meditation, journaling, spiritual practices. But in the dark cloud of hormonal imbalance none of those seem to work and so I have no choice but to sit with it. And that’s tough. I live on my own so during our current situation in lockdown due to the coronavirus I don’t have anyone physically here to support me.

Yesterday was an extremely difficult day for that reason. I could not stop crying and although my rational mind knew it was my hormones and that it would pass I felt extremely distressed. Our hormones are incredibly powerful. They are amazing things. Our bodies are a wonder and what they are capable of as a woman – creating and growing life – is a miracle. However when they are all over the place you cannot see the woods for the trees and it can be scary.

I think what I find most difficult is that people are still embarrassed to talk about this sort of stuff. Me included. I’m writing this but will definitely feel a pang of embarrassment when I press publish and am effectively talking on an open forum about my periods and the fact I’m starting menopause in my early 40s. But as with so many things in life, talking openly and honestly about them helps. How much of a relief is it when you find that someone else is experiencing the same feelings and emotions as you?

With hormones and with menopause and periods it’s different for every woman. Some just breeze through it, some have an incredibly difficult time. It can be daunting and overwhelming at times knowing your body is changing permanently but not knowing what’s going to happen. Last night I reached out to someone I love and trust and she very wisely reminded me that I can’t change it so I need to just accept the feelings, allow them in, let myself cry and surrender to the process.

Vicky