I was still denying menopause instead of accepting it. But to be fair, the fight was so much bigger than my current situation. I struggled against all my childhood memories, all the messages about what a woman is that had been planted in my head.
The streets were filled with pregnant women. One day I sat on a train and counted six pregnant women sat next to and directly across from me. Life seemed out to make me face my feelings. I got off the train on the next stop.
Since my diagnosis I spent most of my waking hours telling myself that I was ok; everything was fine. ‘Nothing changed, look I still have my periods like a clock, even though with the help of hormone pills.’
A wide and empty gulf had opened up between me and everyone I knew. The pregnant women weren’t just on the trains, they were many of my friends, excitedly talking about babies if they weren’t already pregnant while I, age 32, faced my secret shame: menopause. I kept quiet during these conversations and otherwise, I buried myself in work. What else could I do?
I stayed late at the office unless there were after work drinks with colleagues. I did anything I could to keep myself distracted including a bottle of red wine at home for company. Some nights, even after finishing the bottle on the sofa gazing to the wall in silence, I was still certain I was in one piece. I was just fine.
But one day, a close friend of mine gave birth. We had been speaking regularly during her pregnancy, yet during all those conversations I pretended that nothing had changed in my life. Never once did I mention my diagnosis. She was so happy, scared and excited about her baby that I didn’t want to add my dull cease of periods to her worry list. When she gave birth, I was so happy for her and wanted to give her a call. She wasn’t the first friend who gave birth since my diagnosis but still, each time I typed her name into my phone, I froze. I couldn’t make the call.
Every day I picked up my phone. But I couldn’t do it. Instead, I tortured myself thinking about what a bad a friend I was. It wasn’t that I was scared to hear her baby crying in the background, and that I might feel bad about myself. I was truly happy for her as I received her news from our mutual friends.
“She’d become the symbol of my failure as a woman. Her motherhood represented my fear of facing up to my own sadness and pain. She was a mirror; in her reflection I became ‘the other’.”
I was still denying menopause instead of accepting it. But to be fair, the fight was so much bigger than my current situation. I struggled against all my childhood memories, all the messages about what a woman is that had been planted in my head. I was like a computer, trying to adopt to a new world while only possessing old software. I felt terrified, trembling with fear, but hiding behind a happy face with a smile felt preferable to examining and doing the painful work of confronting my deeply held beliefs.
By living in denial I could look strong and protect myself from all the questions that would cause me to break down before others. My fear of being perceived as a failure; or even worse as a woman to be pitied, turned me a child defending her dignity.
Did the world even need me anymore?
To become strong, I had to accept that I was an infertile woman, with no possibility to have children of my own. But accepting it also meant to challenge all the familiar statements that had been planted in my head my whole life.
‘A woman who won’t complete her mission in the world.’
‘A woman condemned to live a half-life.’
‘A selfish woman, who only thinks about her own existence.’
‘A woman who will never love unconditionally.’
‘A woman on her death bed with no one to hold her hand.’
‘A woman who will live, and die, alone.’
Because after all didn’t a woman without children forsake much more? A husband? A school-based community? Friends with children? Where did a woman without children fit into the world? What purpose would I have? Did the world even need me anymore?
Terrified of redefining everything I’d based a belief system on, instead I repressed all the sadness. I wouldn’t surrender, I would use my anger to win against the fear. Of course, I had episodes of rage growing and overflowing from my body towards the cushions of my sofa or the pillows in my bed, followed by tears and anguish. And once I let my anger out of my body (usually in secret, at home, halfway through the wine), I went back to my frozen self, gazing at the walls, going through the motions of work and life.
“I’m sure you can’t have your menopause this early?”
When I mentioned my menopause to a few of my friends, I realised that I wasn’t the only one struggling to accept it. I was walking in East London with an old friend, and after getting my courage up I finally told her that I was diagnosed with menopause. She stopped in the middle of the noisy and overly crowded pavement and screamed like she discovered the thing that will change the course of human history: “Of course you didn’t have menopause that young in life! You can never trust lab results nowadays as they make mistakes due to high demands from women who are trying to get pregnant.” Which one was worst, the fact that I felt rejected by a friend that I trusted to empathise with me or that everyone on the street heard how weak my body was as a woman, and the effort I’ve had to put to convince one more person to believe me, I couldn’t decide. But I felt vulnerable, I felt unfamiliar, I felt tired…
Because familiar things are associated with our past; they give us known feelings. We feel more comfortable dealing with the known than coping with the unknown. Having periods connects to the warm feeling of motherhood, the miracle of birth, the miracle of life, the healthy woman young and fresh. But menopause meant old, fat, wrinkled, agitated. In my head, it was associated with women waving fans anxiously while complaining about lack of sleep, flying off the handle in rage at anyone or anything around them.
In my case, it meant a death of my old self, a discontinuity. It meant the extinction of my genes. It was cold, it was joyless, it was gray. It made me an outsider.
Both menopause, and to never become a mother, were unfamiliar concepts for me and my friends. And the unfamiliar creates tension as it distorts the rhythm of life, the system, the natural expectations of a woman.
I had the same blood test over and over again in different labs, hoping to get a different result, hoping to be normal again
. When I kept getting the same result, was I facing up to a brutal truth or further estranging myself? Did I know which side of that line I was on when I explained my situation to people, sometimes with tears in my eyes, sometimes with a ‘mature’ smile on my face?
At that time in our late twenties and early thirties we all took periods and becoming a mother for granted. So when I told friends my diagnosis, I was always met with a well-meaning challenge:
‘I’m sure you can’t have your menopause this early?
Yes, I did have my menopause, various doctors and lab results have confirmed it. There really is nothing I can do about it. But maybe that was in my best interest, you know? Maybe life is protecting me from harm that would happen in the future.
But, you still have your periods, don’t you? They can’t just stop like that in a day, there should have been some warnings at least from a year before?
No, I don’t have periods anymore. Yes, they stopped in a day. One month I had my period and the next month they were gone forever. But you know it is ok. I’d rather face it in one go than wait for it to arrive slowly.
'How can you be sure that you will never be able to have kids of your own? You can maybe freeze your eggs? You can still have an IVF and have your own kids, no?’
No periods mean no eggs to fertilise and no kids. That’s also why IVF wouldn’t work. Because my hormone levels are so low, they won’t be in the suitable range for ovulation hence pregnancy. But you know everything happens for a reason…
You may notice every time I ended by trying to make the other person feel better, which only left me more exhausted. Meanwhile, no one could make me feel better. After a point, I didn’t expect them to.
Every time I mentioned my menopause to a friend or a stranger, the result was the same. Even my manicurist and I had a similar conversation once. That day she was so excited and in love with her fiancé, she had only one thing on her mind so she asked,
‘Do you plan to have kids?’
She was 33 and had recently met the love of her life. She couldn’t stop talking about him. When she heard we were the same age she just popped the normal question. I was going to dodge her question as I generally did, but something pushed the reality out of my mouth.
Most of the time, once people heard about my inability to have kids, the whole problem became theirs and they tried to “help” by suggesting solutions, they cried for me, instead of crying with me, they threw me the names of the best doctors in the field, they tried to convince me to believe in my body “fixing” itself.
Sometimes, they went further and tried to look on the bright side, saying how hard motherhood is anyway. Every time I heard these words, I felt a big fire burn in me that I was then forced to swallow. But that day, something felt restless inside, and words spilled;
‘Unfortunately, I can’t get pregnant.’
I saw the light of hope she felt about sharing her moment with another woman fizzle and die. She couldn’t figure out how to respond, her shoulders fell and she focused on my nail polish without saying another word. I was like a dark shadow that fell across her joy of motherhood. Heaviness and guilt hung a thick weight across my shoulders.
Soon, I became estranged from my own emotions. I became the doctor explaining my patient’s situation to her loved ones, and I provided comfort to people who felt sad for me. It was easier to look after others than myself. Making sure to put a smile on peoples’ faces was much easier than facing my own sadness, fear, and disappointment.
So I went back to my normal, I comforted people, and when it became unbearable I opened a bottle of wine and stared at the wall. Some days I just gathered information about menopause to make my answers more convincing to others and to cut the conversation about menopause even shorter.
And it really required determination to find the right answers especially for young women, as menopause happens only to a tiny minority before age 40 (1% in the UK). The stats for women going through menopause before age 35 is not available on web sites like NHS or the British Menopause Society, but most likely that means it is less than 1%. So the web pages I visited would only mention menopause as a condition older women go through. The medical world splits menopause into three categories: Menopause at normal age (45-55), or early menopause (before age 45) and premature menopause (before age 40). Besides the sources weren’t mentioning anything different for menopausal side effects if you belong to different groups than the ones mentioned. All side effects, symptoms and risks were the same. I found no research on women’s physical changes if they had their menopause in their early 30s.
I was on hormone replacement therapy, and I wasn’t feeling any of the side effects of menopause like hot flushes, headaches and vaginal dryness. I did experience difficulty staying asleep and mood changes, which I knew were definitely a side effect of menopause, but not because of the lack of hormones.
Unfortunately, I had no one around me to empathise with what I was going through, as I was the first amongst my friends and even some of mother’s friends to go through menopause. Dealing with this life change alone, I felt lost most of the time. I couldn’t sleep most nights, or I woke in the middle of the night feeling restless. I was afraid to live without having sex again, I was afraid of being excluded by my female friends who would all become mothers soon, if not already. I had more worry lines on my forehead than ever. All these thoughts and fears made me restless, at nights especially, where there were no distractions.
Palpitations, tears, get into foetal position, breathe, and breathe again, deeper, and deeper, perhaps a bath, breathe again, in the water… And finally, eventually, silence and sleep.
Some nights I managed to silence my thoughts and sleep, but most of the time seeing a woman pushing a buggy, or holding their child’s hand would be all it took to trigger my sleepless nights. My breathing exercises were not enough. I had to find another way of dealing with menopause. Maybe if I had more information, I would calm down instead of being afraid. Maybe knowledge could lighten up the constant sadness and grief that had become my new normal.