Elizabeth Joseph on the Perimenopause
Elizabeth Joseph welcomes fellow travellers on World Menopause Day
Knowing where we are doesn’t actually change anything and yet we know it changes everything. It allows us to educate and inform ourselves in order to choose the right path through it all. It shows us that we are not alone in how we are currently feeling and what we are currently experiencing. It reassures us that it is our fluctuating hormones at work, that we are not losing our minds, and that we are not ill.
Knowing where we are helps us to understand that we will eventually move out of Hell Gorge. We will not be stuck here forever. And maybe, just maybe, it helps us to believe we will emerge bolder and braver than we entered.
I wandered completely clueless into Hell Gorge. I knew nothing about perimenopause. This is the case, unfortunately, for the majority of women. Most of us have never even heard the word. We are aware of menopause but completely uninformed about the stage leading up to it. (Typically, women reach their menopause at 51; perimenopause is the build up to the menopause and lasts four years on average.)
So, somewhere in our 40s when many of us are nicely nestled in the sandwich generation – caring for both our children and our parents – we somehow find ourselves in this place we know nothing about. Many of us are at the height of our careers. All of us have different but crucial responsibilities. Most of us have many, many people relying on us. We all have life occasionally hurling curve balls at us.
When I unwittingly found myself in Hell Gorge I put all my issues (anxiety, aches and pains, forgetfulness, sleeplessness, itchy skin, mood swings, epic wind, to name but a few) down to the good old kicking life seemed to be giving me at the time. In a six-month period my husband lost his job, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I lost my job and a close friend died suddenly. It took me two years to realise that it wasn’t just stress causing my delightful array of symptoms.
More than anything, I just didn’t feel like myself anymore. Perimenopause affects different women in different ways but I believe the one thing we all share is that feeling. You just don’t feel yourself anymore. You are lost and confused.
I spent two years feeling lost and confused. No one could tell me what was wrong with me, not medical professionals, not the women in my life, no one. I lost a great deal of confidence and, bit by bit, I retreated. Anxiety took over and I sought to become invisible. I did a lot of cancelling at the last minute. I stayed in the house a lot. My world became very small. I didn’t go back to work. I became a stay-at-home mum. I only ventured out for the school run.
However, when my periods started getting closer together and heavier I realised I must be heading for ‘the change’. Further research online brought up the word perimenopause and I finally had an answer to all the other changes I was experiencing. This, bit by bit, emboldened me to attempt to take control of the situation and to try out all the weird and wonderful natural remedies I have regaled you with over the last couple of months.
What my research also threw up, as it were, was that as we journey through these changes we have the chance to experience a midlife revelation, revolution, reinvention – call it what you will. What I was reading was that in the midst of this debilitating, confusing, frightening time, I had the opportunity to discover the real me, to step into my power, to emerge braver and bolder.
Whenever I read such nonsense I would mentally tell the writer to shove off. Only a bit ruder. I really wasn’t ready to believe that anything positive could come out of this awful experience. My confidence, my get up and go, had got up and gone.
So, please feel free to tell me to shove off, or ruder, but do me a favour, put this beautiful magazine in a drawer and take it out when you are ready because, I promise you, you will be ready.
You will be ready to become visible once more.
If I can, you can.
I couldn’t find any answers from the women around me so I decided to try social media for the first time in my life. When I joined Instagram in January 2021, I started sharing my journey through Hell Gorge and I found my tribe. I found a group of women I could ask for advice and support and with whom I had the confidence to be open and honest. I started, bit by bit, to feel braver. I no longer wanted to be invisible.
I went from being adamant that I would never put my face on Instagram to posting pictures of myself in the back alley wearing period pants. I asked the lovely editor of this magazine if she would let me write a column. I asked the founder of the period pants company if she would like me to be in her next ad campaign. I wasn’t a writer, and I definitely wasn’t a model, but they both said yes. It all scared the living daylights out of me but I did it.
This awful situation, perimenopause, Hell Gorge, call it what you will, is going to turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I was so shocked and dismayed that no one had warned me about this stage in life that I went from thinking ‘who am I to speak up?’ to ‘how can I stay silent?’ I was a stay-at-home mum, a stay-at-home mum who was slowly choosing to stop being and feeling invisible.
I was, I am, stepping into my power.
Orcas step, or rather swim, into their power. Orca females, like us, go through menopause. It would initially seem to be something of a design flaw to survive past your reproductive years, yet extensive research has shown that post- menopausal orca females take over. They become the pod leaders. Their extensive knowledge, experience and wisdom means that they are perfect for this new role and responsibility.
I can see you shaking your heads and muttering at me. I know you are not orcas. I know it feels impossible now. You don’t need to lead your pod. You don’t need to step into your power. You don’t need to stand in your back alley in your pants. It doesn’t need to be big at all. It can just start with putting you and your needs first for a while and seeing how that feels. It just needs a gentle, little push. But it will happen. It is not always easy and it can be scary, but you will get there. Bit by bit.
I don’t find it easy, and a lot of it scares me, but I am getting there. I have discovered that I can write and writing makes me feel serene. I am writing a book about my journey through Hell Gorge. I am not an expert, and I am not a celebrity, but I believe my story could help others. As the Dalai Lama said: ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference try sleeping with a mosquito.’
This will be my last column for a while, while I go away and write. I will, if you will have me, come back and tell you all about it when it is finished.
While I write, will you start to care for yourself as well as you care for those around you? Will you? Just give yourself a gentle, little push. When you feel ready. Bit by bit. Go! Orcas!
You can follow @elizabethjosephnavigating on Instagram.