Menopause. It has always seemed very theoretical to me… something that might happen to me years from now, if at all. I know this isn’t a realistic viewpoint, but rather that silly human trait of believing I am invincible. I had an easy (actually enjoyable) pregnancy and a healthy child at the rather ripe age of 43. I remember my horror when I saw the term “Geriatric Maternal Age” written in red ink on my medical file, like a danger warning. It struck me then that in medical terms, I was just a statistical point on the outermost lucky side of the bell curve. A good skincare and fitness regime might keep my outside looking youthful, but ovaries don’t lie. They refuse to participate in my Peter Pan complex.
I’m not in menopause yet. I’m in that weird ambiguous stage called perimenopause, which can last anywhere from 6 months to 6 years. Usually, perimenopause is much more disruptive than menopause, because your hormones are fluctuating so wildly, struggling to find a balance. By menopause, everything begins to settle down (she says, crossing her fingers). Here’s what’s been happening to me…
Several months ago, I started having severe heart palpitations and dizziness. The palpitations only happened at night, either preventing me from falling asleep, or waking me up during the night. However, the dizziness was random; it struck at any time… driving, walking down stairs, even lying down. I went to a few doctors, had ECGs, wore a heart monitor, was sent to heart specialists, and to make a long story short, there was nothing sinister happening. I just had severe heart arrhythmia at night. During my heart investigations, they discovered I have Long QT Syndrome (an uncommon condition where the heart takes longer to recharge between beats). This has nothing to do with my night time arrhythmia or dizziness apparently, but certainly doesn’t help. In addition, I’ve also had extreme anxiety. Let me tell you, the best way to go straight from garden-variety ‘anxiety’ to full-blown ‘panic attack’ is to have strong heart palpitations at 2 a.m. on top of a heart condition diagnosis (google Long QT Syndrome, you’ll see why).
Since the beginning of this year, I’ve found it impossible to get back into my groove. At first, I chalked it up to being behind at life after being away for so long over Christmas… but I knew it was more than that. Now it is February, and my mojo is getting worse, not better. My brain feels like it is encased in thick fog. I’m extremely forgetful. I miss appointments which are clearly written in my diary. I forgot to pick up my son from school recently. I lose keys. I lose parking tickets between the store and my car. I can’t remember which day of the week it is (ok, I never keep up with that anyway). In conversation, I struggle to find words, remember well-known names, or I completely forget my train of thought mid-sentence in a conversation. Some of these are basic ageing issues, but mine have come on quite suddenly. I have to write EVERYTHING down, because I can’t trust my brain right now.
This brain fog has really shaken me, perhaps even more than the anxiety. It has affected my confidence and my self-perception. Being clever, having a good memory, and not doing stupid flaky things is part of my identity. It is who I am, who I’ve always been. I am a person who worked on trading floors for 20 years, trading bonds and currencies out to four decimal places and never ever made a mistake. Oh sure, I made bad decisions or called the markets completely wrong, but in my whole career, I never made a single ‘human error’ kind of mistake. I quadruple check things. I’m a details girl. For example, when I had my son, I had spreadsheets that I (or anyone looking after my son) had to fill in for his eating/drinking/sleeping schedule. Everyone thought I was crazy control freak (which is true as well), but I am comforted by details and data. I don’t let anything fall through the cracks. However, right now my brain is so faulty that I don’t know what important thing I’ll forget next, but I know for sure that it will happen. The anxiety I can conceal from other people, but the brain fog is glaringly obvious, and it makes me feel ashamed.
Another perimenopause symptom I have been experiencing is a bizarre all over physical numbness. My whole body feels dizzy. It comes and goes, but it is a peculiar out-of-it feeling, like my whole body is blurry and fuzzy. I have a disconcerting vibrating sensation that there are two copies of me which aren’t aligned with each other and are trying to get in sync.
The last issue I’ve had is a seriously short temper. I’m quite short-tempered by nature anyway, but this is next level. Small things trigger disproportionate and inappropriate rage. I refuse to be a mother who loses her shit over everyday events; this particular symptom was the catalyst which made me begin researching all of my symptoms to figure out what to do about them.
For the past few months, I have genuinely wondered whether I was going crazy. Or developing dementia. Or both. I’ve had to fabricate imaginative excuses for my extreme forgetfulness. At times, I’ve felt a bit fraudulent for making up socially-acceptable reasons to wallpaper over things which I was sure were signs of my spiral into insanity.
Last year, my friend Michelle wrote a post about menopause and perimenopause, and I went back to re-read it. I remembered her mentioning anxiety attacks and describing the weird, fuzzy, ‘out of body’ feeling that I am having. I described my symptoms to her, and she immediately knew that I was in perimenopause. Once you enter actual menopause, most of these symptoms go away. Now that I’ve done some research, I am so relieved to find that I am just perimenopausal and not actually going barking mad. In fact, all of my symptoms are quite common, they’re just not the ones people talk about. It seems hot flashes are socially acceptable to discuss but the rest aren’t. Here is what I’ve learned:
A drop in oestrogen makes it hard for the body to regulate blood vessels and blood pressure, so that causes my heart palpitations and dizziness.
A decrease in progesterone (our ‘calming hormone’) causes anxiety and panic attacks.
Fluctuations in oestrogen and testosterone make it hard to concentrate, wreak havoc on your memory, and have a strong influence on your mood. My memory is shot and my temper is short.
Most people have terrible insomnia in perimenopause. I’ve had insomnia since the day I was born, so my sleep is not much different during perimenopause. I do feel the fatigue that goes along with fluctuating hormones, like most women feel in the first trimester of pregnancy. I don’t have any hot flashes. I’ve been hot-natured my entire life, and now I’m cold all the time.
For the time being, I’m going the natural route. I’ll try the usual recommended supplements to see if they do anything before exploring HRT. Before I figured all of this out, I cried myself to sleep, worried and anxious about how my son would cope with his mother losing her mind while he’s still so young. Tonight, I sat at the dinner table with him, feeling happy and content, when out of nowhere, snakes of anxiety start to writhe and constrict in my stomach. Armed with the knowledge that this is ‘just perimenopause’, I can exhale and view it as a difficult weather pattern which will pass. I’m ok with that. I have several days at a stretch where I feel perfectly normal and then a few days where something shifts and I really don’t feel like myself at all. I suppose this is my new normal for a while.
The reason I’m putting all of this on the blog is if it weren’t for Michelle’s post last year, I would have had absolutely no idea what was happening to me. Her post was instrumental to me figuring out where to start looking for answers. Maybe my post will help someone else with this issue that seems so off-limits.
I am grateful to blogs for the support and information that I didn’t find elsewhere, even from my GP. Why is it, when a 48 year old woman presents symptoms of dizziness and palpitations (2 of the top symptoms of menopause), that none of my many doctors suggested perimenopause? My monthly cycle is as regular as a Swiss train, so in my ignorance I never suspected anything menopausal, but my doctors certainly should have. Also, I can’t remember any magazine article ever mentioning my symptoms; they only push products for hot flushes. My symptoms are not at all unusual. Why does no one talk about it? None of my older friends ever mentioned any symptoms like mine. Maybe there is fear and shame around the alarming mental aspect. I mean, who wants to broadcast that they’re becoming a crazy old lady?
I’ve ordered three things to help me along the perimenopause path. I’m reading these two books: One by Liz Earle, and one by Christiane Northrup. And I’m taking this supplement. From my research, the ingredients in Pukka Womankind are the ones that I need most for my particular symptoms. So far they work brilliantly. Pukka does make one specifically for menopause, but I’m not quite there yet.
Since I’ve had to play doctor to diagnose my ‘condition,’ I’m going to also write myself a prescription to go with the Pukka supplement.
Sleep– Good sleep is crucial during perimenopause; I’m enforcing a strict 10:00 curfew on myself, no matter what. No blog post, no email, or no news item is more important than my sleep at the moment. One bad night can literally ruin the next day because fatigue makes me vulnerable to the anxiety and extreme irritability that can overwhelm me right now.
Gratitude List– I’m going to say, out loud, every day, five things that I am grateful for. I used to do this as a nightly practice, and I need to resume it. Gratitude chases away all manner of ills. Grateful hearts find it hard to be anxious or negative.
Phone a friend– I have been a little withdrawn from some friends because I’ve been fearful of exposing my craziness. I’ve also simply not been in the frame of mind to make plans in advance because panic can descend on me unexpectedly. Friendship and social connection make happier and longer-living humans, especially for women.
Cutting Caffeine– I’m going to cut down on my caffeine to help with the sleep and anxiety/panic issues. This is HARD since coffee is my new sugar. I’ve done this for five days now and it seems to be helping (unfortunately!).
Mandatory meditation– I tend to skip meditating if I go to bed late, but no more. I raved about the Calm App here. When I meditate before bed time, I have far better quality sleep; right now this is a priority. My body needs it. The Calm App even has a meditation series on anxiety that I am working my way through.
Therapy Animal– I got a bunny rabbit (or my second child, as friends call him). It is hard to be anxious when you are petting a soft, adorable, entertaining little creature like this. Some people get a sports car for their midlife crisis, I got a black otter mini-Rex rabbit.
Balthazar, the Sequinist whisperer
I do wonder how perimenopause feels to a killer whale or a short-finned pilot whale… they are the only other animals on this planet besides humans to go through menopause (throw that into conversation at your next book club). Do they swim in anxious circles or have fits of irritation and rage? As I keep saying, I’m so grateful and relived to only be perimenopausal since I thought it was something much worse. My usual programming will resume; colour and sequins will be worn. I might be (temporarily) losing my marbles, but I am keeping my style. If you have any tips or advice on this stage of life, like my bunny rabbit, I’m all ears. xx
UPDATE: Thankfully, this was indeed a temporary storm, and all seems to be back to normal. The key to resolving ALLLL of my issues was sorting out my sleep. When sleep became a priority over everything else, everything else magically fell into place. Have a look at my my article on sleep if you fancy. The improvement to my health and my mind with good proper sleep has been nothing short of drastic. It only took me 49 years to learn how to sleep!