Don’t know what you had until it is gone
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are 1.3 million women who become menopausal each year in the United States. Menopause occurs when a woman has not had a menstrual cycle for 12 consecutive months. The menopause transition typically occurs between the ages of 45-55 years old. In the United States, the average menopause age is 51 years old. The transition can last from 7-14 years.
Menopause has been an emotional and physical journey for me. I wanted to shed some light on my experience. Before I do, first I want to talk about hormones. Sure I know we are made up of hormones but I didn’t really think about estrogen and progesterone or how it affects a woman’s body until wait for it…. I was in Menopause!
Estrogen and progesterone are steroid hormones that are produced by the ovaries. These hormones regulate the menstrual cycle and affect the reproductive tract, urinary tract, heart and blood vessels, bones, breasts, skin, hair mucous membrane, pelvic muscles, and brain. During menopause, the ovaries produce less and less estrogen and progesterone. As a result, you guessed it, the above mentioned, are affected.
Menopause can be an uncomfortable subject to talk about for many. I felt a little trepidation about writing about it myself however I feel that it is important to acknowledge and honor the process. I believe that the more people talk about it, the less mysterious menopause is.
Wow, where to begin? There are so many things I didn’t know about menopause! First of all, I didn’t realize that menopause occurs in phases and I didn’t do much to inform myself either. I knew it revolved around my menstrual cycle and it occurred after 12 months of no period and that pregnancy was no longer a possibility. I had heard that some troublesome symptoms are hot flashes, brain fog, mood changes, and weight gain.
Even though I had heard about these symptoms I didn’t think much about them. Yes, I had hot flashes at times however they weren’t too bad. Yes, I had mood changes however I thought it was because of what was going on in my personal life, many good things and many unknowns. On top of that my body was changing even though I was exercising. I got really frustrated at times because I didn’t quite understand what was happening with my body. It didn’t occur to me that I was going through the transition to menopause.
After the birth of my daughter in my late thirties, my doctor and I talked about birth control options and at one point mentioned that if I decided to use an intrauterine device (IUD) I wouldn’t need to replace it until I’m probably 50 years old. It’s amazing how that age of 50 years old stuck in my memory and I thought to myself that is way down the road! It was closer than I realized!
A year went by and I didn’t have a menstrual cycle so I went to my doctor. My doctor did the follicle-stimulating hormone test (FSH) and it confirmed that I was in menopause. Logically I understood, yes this is a normal part of life and I am in menopause however I had this feeling of grief, anger, and confusion. During this time I had so many unanswered questions of my mom who had died in 2002.
How old was she when she experienced menopause? What was it like for her? What physical and emotional symptoms did she experience? I had wonderful people encouraging me to embrace this change however I was not embracing it at all! Granted I knew I was pretty lucky with my symptoms being relatively easy because I know many individuals experience a rough perimenopause phase.
Since I was diagnosed as being in menopause, I have gone through many emotions since that time and the intensity of them has decreased. I have had my menstrual cycle since I was 13 years old. I didn’t really think about it much except when that time of the month came. It was a part of me and it was consistent even though annoying at times.
When I was told that the FSH test showed that I was in menopause I had a feeling of loss and sadness, which was surprising to me. Some of the losses and grief that I had experienced in the past resurfaced. It was important for me to revisit the death of my mom and the decision not to have more children due to genetic reasons. Even though I had worked through those losses with the help and support of my husband, friends, and my therapist, I needed to honor those losses on a different level.
Another issue I became more aware of was the pervasive way society values youth and fertility. Yes, I was aware of those values however it didn’t seem to impact me as much as it did once I was in menopause. Even though I knew I was still “me”, I was comparing myself to unrealistic ideas about beauty and youth. I was struggling with my identity and I realized how powerful the messages are to women including myself. It was an “aha” moment for me!
Through this journey into menopause, I have learned many valuable insights about myself. I learned the importance of honoring my own feelings and cutting myself some slack. I learned that self-care is important physically and emotionally. The menopause journey is different for every one woman and if you need a place to process feelings that may arise, please don’t hesitate to contact me!
Did you know?
Menopause is a natural process however other reasons can cause menopause such as a hysterectomy or surgical removal of ovaries, treatment of endometriosis, breast cancer with antiestrogens and other cancers due to chemotherapy medications.
There are 3 Phases of menopause- Perimenopause, Menopause and Post Menopause
The first phase is the Perimenopause. During this phase, symptoms begin such as irregular menstrual cycles, hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, weight gain (due to metabolism change), vaginal dryness, change in sex drive, brain fog, thinning hair, dry skin, and loss of breast fullness. During this time the amount of estrogen and progesterone produced by the ovaries fluctuates.
The second phase is the Menopause. During this time the menstrual cycle ceases, therefore, a woman cannot get pregnant. The body’s production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone is greatly decreased. Most symptoms subside however some may still experience hot flashes. Health risks such as osteoporosis, heart disease, and stroke begin to increase due to the small amount of estrogen and progesterone being produced.
The final phase is Postmenopause. Postmenopause generally lasts from 24-36 months after the last menstrual cycle. The main symptom is vaginal dryness. There are treatments that can help to relieve the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood. It is best to talk with your doctor to figure out what works for you.
Some tips to help partners and friends support the person in their life going through menopause are to educate yourself about menopause, be patient, encourage her to do things that interest her, encourage self care and exercise, try not to take the mood swings personal and when it comes to sex, talk with your partner in a caring way about your concerns and feelings.
Mary Ann Wertz, LPCC, NCC is a counselor with South Platte Counseling in Englewood, Colorado. Mary Ann is interested in women's aging issues, life transitions, grief, depression, and anxiety