When Being A Woman Is A Life Sentence
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Most of my generation are currently entering the menopause. Now, if I hear one more woman saying that they “sailed through it”, I am gong to blow. Some women do - but that doesn’t mean they need to brag about it! A lot don’t sail through; some never had issues previously, and feel like they’ve suddenly been hit by a truck. It’s at times like these, that I think: “welcome to the club - I’ve been feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck continually, for the last 37 years”.
37 years is a long time, and particularly since it was proved years ago that I was infertile (something I had suspected, since the age of 16), it has been a long, long time to have to endure what can only be described as a life sentence. When, as a girl, you reach menarche, you have no idea what to expect. Then, as the years go by, and the symptoms get worse - with incredibly limited solutions available -you realise that, indeed, this is going to be the rest of your life.
To go right back to the beginning: once upon a time, I was a cheeky, mischievous, vital little girl. I was bright, I was 2 years younger than the oldest in the class, winning scholarships to 2 separate schools, and it really looked as though the world would be my oyster, and that I was on target for unlimited success.
But, there were changes going on in the background, and I could not have prepared myself for what was about to hit me. I started puberty comparatively early - at 7 (which led to bullying, and molestation of myself by my own mother, and by other girls at my girls’ school), followed by menarche at age 10.
I never got over it; I felt like I had been robbed of my childhood. My father said I was never the same again. My mother said she had no idea why I matured so early, but our domestic situation might have shed some light on this; my parents’ marriage nearly broke down shortly after I was born, and apparently in families where there is high conflict, and there is the risk of the loss of a father, a female child is more likely to mature early.
Whatever the reason might have been, it certainly didn’t help my case. The hormone-related problems started pretty much straight away, exacerbated by an uncongenial school environment, a violent domestic environment, and my severely mentally disturbed mother (who had her own gynaecological problems).
Over the last 37 years, I have had every symptom in the book: flooding; fibroids; migraines; vomiting; acne; severe mood swings and raging (PMDD); gastrointestinal upsets; susceptibility to colds and flu; and pain everywhere in my body so bad that I could not get out of bed, and which painkillers would not touch. In exasperation, I eventually went to my GP, and asked for some super-strength painkillers. She gave me a prescription for a set of 6 painkillers, to be taken at 2-hourly intervals, and said, “if these don’t work, you’ll have to go to A & E, because there’s nothing else we can do for you”.
Around the age of 37, my symptoms seemed to take a turn for the worse; in addition to the already debilitating symptoms, which required me to take a couple of days off work each month, there was another sinister layer of feeling generally unwell, on top of it all. Put it this way: it felt like death, every time I got a period. This wasn’t period flu; what I do think, is that it was the beginning of the menopause. I got my first hot flush at about 39; I was overcome by an unbelievable sense of heat, and had to go and lie down.
It was around that time that I started drinking. I had never used to drink, but during my late 30s, would have the occasional tot of whisky, to get me through singing performances, as I am naturally a rather nervous person. Whilst unfortunately the drinking brought with it its own set of problems over time, it was observable, that some of my symptoms did indeed improve.
For example: 1) I became more confident, and my panic attacks disappeared. 2) My acne, which I’d struggled with since the age of 9, also magically disappeared overnight. 3) Alcohol was able to calm my oftentimes terrible digestion. 4) I had suffered, since menarche, from something called “pseudobulbar effect” - which is basically, a predisposition to crying - and once you start, you can’t stop for hours, which was incredibly embarrassing for me. Regular consumption of alcohol got rid of all that.
And lastly, 5) I no longer got the migraines which had slayed me, without fail, every single month for 20 years. It was worth drinking, in order not to experience these crippling migraines any more. When I did in fact temporarily stop drinking, for about 4 weeks in September of last year, I had the mother of all menstrual migraines. I honestly thought my head was going to split in two, or worse, that I would have a stroke, or a brain haemorrhage. I was screaming and crying to my then partner, to get me some frozen peas, to put on my head; now, if I sense the familiar grey curtain, with the zigzag lines, descending over my eyes, I have to go and lie down straight away. I find this rarely happens, if I drink regularly.
I mused on exactly why alcohol must be relieving these symptoms. It was obvious that it was redressing some sort of imbalance, or providing something which my body wasn’t getting. As someone who used to be a bit of a Chemistry nut, I took a look at some of the sex hormone molecular structures, and noticed that the oestrogen molecule (specifically oestradiol) shares chemical groups with your average alcohol molecule (the C-OH group). Could it be, that these chemical groups were making up for something I was lacking in?
I wondered about that. I still do. I am one of these women for whom no kind of artificial hormones have ever worked; so I am wondering, whether in its own peculiar way, alcohol (at least in my case) was acting as some sort of HRT.
At 47, I estimate I have now been going through the menopause for about 10 years, with acute symptoms over about half that time, such as rapidly growing fibroids, dizziness, double vision, vertigo, crashing tiredness, debilitating night sweats (being continually drenched in sweat all night, so you can’t sleep - and during the day, too). Every time I get a period (which might be 2-3 times a month, or not at all) - I cannot get out of bed - I feel like death. I have been hospitalised twice, in the last 4 months, due to periods.
I have an intolerance to grains - if I eat macaroni cheese, or bread, or curry with rice, I’ll pay for it the next day - as well as megadoses of vitamins (I was prescribed these by my doctor, before I realised, through keeping a symptom diary, that my vomiting for 2 weeks out of 4 straight, and food poisoning symptoms, were actually caused by vitamin toxicity).
I have a womb the size of a 22 week pregnancy due to overgrown fibroids, which impacts my digestion; the only option I have is a hysterectomy. There is currently a 2-year waiting list on the NHS. It’s also clear that the level of surgical skill is not what it used to be 40 years ago, when my mother had her hysterectomy; the operation brings with it the risks of a perforated bladder or bowel, as well as infection, or (God forbid) surgical materials being left inside one. I went to see a private consultant, who said to me, “My concern is that you have no private health insurance. I’m getting a bit old and grey, and if something goes wrong, I don’t want you to hate me forever”!!!
I am aware, that a hysterectomy would put me out of action for some considerable time, and do not have the luxury, as my mother had, of staying at home and recovering. Our generation has always had to be on the go, or on the ball, or ready for action. Although, in my case, a high-flying career would have been out of the question, based on what I’ve just said, and my own experiences; it could never have got off the ground. I did consider fibroid removal a few years ago, and was working 2 jobs at the time. When I mentioned the possibility of an operation to both my employers, they both of them told me, “that’s fine - but remember, that we need someone for the hours for which you are contracted to work - and remember, you are dispensable”.
So, I have to work out how to get the best quality of life - for me. For most of us women, it is a matter of trial and error. I have long given up on doctors, as it seems that, frankly, an awful lot of women on Facebook menopause forums are better experts on the menopause, and women’s issues, than doctors are - the gaps in medical knowledge are staggering.
One thing I do know is that women who do suffer in this way, need to be cut some slack. We didn’t ask for this to be foisted on us; I’m also convinced that a lot of rubbish in the food that has been produced, particularly over the last 50 years - and the elevated levels of life stress - have contributed to greater problems, than perhaps our mothers and grandmothers faced. One thing people should never, never do, is to tell us to “suck it up and deal with it - there’s no excuse”. This confounding lack of empathy, won’t get anyone, anywhere. We don’t all “sail through”.
I will say, even though it's a cliche - if I had to do it all over again, or do things differently - I would come back as a man!