Menopause is one of those things in life that seems as elusive as illness or death. But if you live long enough, you will most certainly experience it sooner or later. While women are eager to publicly discuss all the symptoms of say, pregnancy—no matter how private or unpleasant—few seem to be as ready to volunteer what they're suffering as they go through menopause. As someone who is smack in the middle of menopause, I can tell you it's quite the ride. And while every woman's experience may be different, one thing is certain, and it´s that it brings changes, feelings and symptoms that you may not have expected.
For the benefit of all women who will follow or are already following in my footsteps, here are six things you probably didn't know, or won't know, about menopause until it hits you.
1. Menopause is not an "old lady thing."
Menopause can start as early as your 30s or as late as your 60s. The average age is in your 50s. Hereditary and health factors all influence the time in your life when you will experience menopause. But keep in mind that going through menopause, no matter what your age, is nothing to be ashamed of. It's as natural an occurrence as puberty, pregnancy and labor.
2. Before menopause, there is perimenopause.
So what is this, exactly? These are the years preceding actual menopause. Your body slowly produces less and less estrogen, your periods become irregular and some women start to experience hot flashes and mood swings. That sounds as vague and as familiar as PMS, right? Sure enough, the only person who can really tell you whether you are, in fact, perimenopausal is your OB-GYN.
3. You may miss your periods, but I mean reallymissthem.
At 51, I haven't had a period for almost 10 months. And I miss them. I miss having PMS, which brought with it increased libido and engorged breasts. I miss the relief I felt when I got my period, and even the excuse I had to lie in bed for half a day with a heating pad on my belly. I even miss buying tampons, although now I buy them for my teen. My menstrual cycles were something I could, well, count on.
4.You really shouldn't swear off HRT.
Trust me, you don't really want to swear off hormone replacement therapy until you're sure you can pull it off. I know because I used to think I would rather suffer through hot flashes than put my health at risk by popping hormone pills. But that's like saying you want natural birth and then screaming for an epidural in the birthing room. When I found myself in the throes of menopause, I ran to the doctor's office and begged for solutions. She told me I was a good candidate for HRT—I was healthy, fit and slim, with no family history of cancer—prescribed it and I gratefully indulged. It's not for everyone, but it's an option. Ask your doctor about HRT and BHRT (bioidentical hormone replacement therapy) and be informed.
Who hasn't heard of hot flashes? They're no fun, I can tell you from experience. Night sweats are no pleasantry, either. But not all women go through these. And on the other hand, you may find yourself having dizzy spells, even vertigo, migraines, being short of breath, suffering from insomnia, acute anxiety and even panic attacks. Forgetfulness, similar to mommy brain, fatigue, muscle soreness, you name it. Mood swings? You haven't had a really bad mood swing until it's caused by menopause!
6.It lasts more than a year.
You won't know you're past menopause until you've missed your period for a whole year and know for sure you aren't pregnant! So, if eight months go by and then you have a menstrual period, you start counting the months all over again, while your symptoms drag on. In the meantime, you'll have to continue whatever treatment you're following to feel better. Apparently, the mellowness of maturity doesn't settle in until you are very much post-menopausal. Also, if you did take HRT, it's not recommended to be taken for more than five years.
Despite all of the above, there are ways to navigate menopause and continue living a full life. From enlisting the help of a good OB-GYN to talking about your changes openly with friends, you still must take care of yourself by exercising, eating well and sleeping enough.