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in the red

I am a 43-year-old woman. I had my first period when I was 12 years old, which is when my struggles started: the same struggles we all go through, nothing more, and nothing less. As we all do, I got used to living with that struggle. We go to school; we bleed. We go to work; we bleed. We turn up for important meetings, we meet our appointments, we attend events - and we bleed.

When I turned 38, things started to change. The heat was on like never before. I was caught off guard. Things became unbearable; this was a new kind of struggle, one I didn’t know how to deal with.

For two years, I struggled with symptoms; the symptoms of early perimenopause. Over the course of those two years, I saw my GP at least six times, each time giving a detailed account of what I was going through, and outlining the pattern of early menopause which runs in my family, and which had affected both my mother and my grandmother. But every time, reliably, the doctors said the same thing: ‘it’s too early for you to be having menopause’.

I still feel shaken by my experiences over those two years; two years with barely a single night of undisrupted sleep and countless hot flashes; I was put on and off antidepressants; I put on 14 kilos. I was horrified to notice less hair on my head, but more hair around my chin. My libido evaporated. Increasingly, I suffered from severe back pains, mood swings, and heavy, long periods - sometimes twice a month - which left me exhausted, tired and in pain. Most importantly, as I am a writer and a translator, I almost entirely lost my ability to focus, seriously affecting my ability to work.

Every time, reliably, the doctors said the same thing: ‘it’s too early for you to be having menopause’

I described all of these symptoms to every one of the many doctors I saw during that time: not one of them was willing to make the connection between my symptoms and menopause. Their answer was contraceptive pills to regulate my period, and antidepressants for my mood swings. For me, though, the reality behind my symptoms was plain to see - my hormones were changing dramatically at an early age and nobody was listening.

I began to feel delusional: surely, if I knew what was happening to my body, my doctors should know it too: wasn’t that their job, and what they had been trained for?

At the same time, my partner - a white, British academic - began to suspect that he had been undiagnosed with ADHD since childhood. This is normally a difficult diagnosis to receive as an adult, but I watched him navigate an unfamiliar system, one which appeared to be much more receptive and sympathetic to his needs than they had ever been to mine; his diagnosis came after only 6 months -during the pandemic- and only a couple of appointments with a psychiatrist.

There must be some reason for the difference between our experiences. I couldn’t help but stop and wonder – if men went through menopause, would it be treated the same? And as a foreign-born, foreign-sounding woman, did I have the worst of both worlds?

Maybe my accent stopped them taking me seriously, or didn’t give any of the usual hints about my education or my class background: for them I was probably just an immigrant, and an immigrant woman from a non-European country at that.

Maybe my accent stopped them taking me seriously, or didn’t give any of the usual hints about my education or my class background

I felt frustrated because, whatever the reason, I had been underestimated and undervalued. I even blamed myself, wondering if I was doing something wrong. Maybe, I thought to myself, if I had asked my partner to attend the appointment with me then things might have gone differently. But then wouldn’t I lose all my self-respect, having to rely on someone else to stand up for me? Did I really need a white British man at my side for my problems with my own biological menstruation cycle to be taken seriously? And so I kept on waiting to be acknowledged, and I suffered in silence.

When, in the end, I received the blood test - the one I had asked for so many times, after two years of waiting - I was finally diagnosed with early onset menopause. I got the news by way of a quick chat with a young male doctor on the phone: he was very pleasant, but he didn’t provide much in the way of information. Just in time, before he could quickly hang the phone up on me, I specifically asked if I could have a referral to the menopause clinic I’d found by doing my own research online. He asked me if it was necessary, as I’d said I wasn’t planning to have any more children, but eventually agreed to arrange one.

On the recommendation of the menopause clinic - but not my GP - I finally won the luxury of receiving treatment, with hormone replacement therapy, at the age of 40. I’ve now been on HRT for the last 3 years. Things have been up and down. We’ve changed the dose of my medication a few times, switched from pills to patches, I’ve had a hormonal IUD fitted. It hasn’t been an easy ride, or a steady one, but it has been a journey, and one I found my own path through, as we all have, or do, or will - because we’re strong. Because our journeys make us stronger…

With every fall, I learned to prioritize myself a bit more: it wasn’t a luxury to finally get myself a good quality mattress and a cooling pillow, or hair loss laser treatment for my face and an expensive anti hair loss shampoo for my hair. If I’m still carrying that extra weight, I know now that I’m not any more valuable when I take up less physical space. I’ve accepted myself as the way I am, and I focus on appreciating my own mental abilities and emotional capacities. I’ve learned the importance of asking for help. I’ve learned to follow my dreams; I turned my hobby of making polymer clay jewellery into a business, at the very same time I was struggling the most. I’ve learned to accept my struggles, and that I can rise above my suffering.

I’ve accepted myself as the way I am, and I focus on appreciating my own mental abilities and emotional capacities

So here I am, approaching the final stages of menstruation - but at the same time that my daughter, 12 years old, is at the beginning of theirs. As we lift the stigmas around menstruation for the next generation, I hope we can all come together to share our experiences, both of having periods, and of not having periods. The more voices who join, the louder we get, the more we’ll be heard.

The lack of knowledge, empathy and recognition around periods and menopause is widespread, but doctors in particular have a responsibility to learn much more, because we deserve better. And most importantly - when women speak, doctors should listen.


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