What do you do when you have menopause symptoms in your 30s and your healthcare providers put your symptoms down to work stress rather than early menopause? Erin shares the isolation of dealing with the embarrassment of panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, bouts of irrational rage and grim night sweats while trying to get her voice heard in the doctor’s surgery.
When I think about it now, my perimenopause probably began in my 30s but began really having an impact when I was around 41.
I remember thinking, “What on earth is wrong with me? I am going nuts!” It took a long time to convince my healthcare providers that I was going through perimenopause because they said I was too young.
At the time my doctor was straight out of medical school and didn’t have much life experience. She stuck to the textbook, ran tests and told me my levels were fine. I’d tell her I was not fine, there was something going on. She’d then counter that it was down to my very stressful job. It felt hopeless.
Disintegrating during a panic attack
One of the worst symptoms were panic attacks and there was a five-year period where they were much more likely to happen. The first time it happened, I called my mum up, who is a nurse, and she told me it was a panic attack. I didn’t believe her at first as I felt so unhinged.
I am a control freak, catastrophist and not an optimist. I’m the sort of anxious person who worries if I am not worried. The panic attacks would be triggered when things were out of my control, some would be stressful things and others were caused by things that shouldn’t be a problem.
The last one I had was on an airplane when I was moving to France with my cats and partner. I thought I had drugged my cats to death on the plane. I’d given the cats the pills and knew that I couldn’t go and pump it out of their stomachs. Another one sticks in my mind because my neighbour had mice and left poison out. I was frantic that my cats would eat a poisoned mouse and die.
When an attack happens, my body feels light and I can see myself from above. I feel like I am disintegrating and physically gone. I hyperventilate, sob uncontrollably and it’s hard to get myself back under control. The intellectual part of my brain is saying, ‘Just breathe and don’t be an idiot. You know how to manage this, use your skills and strategies.’ But, the irrational part of my brain having the attack is shouting, ‘I am not listening to anything you say!’
A panic attack is the last thing you want to happen. You begin to panic about having a panic attack. It is something that is hard to understand by someone who hasn’t experienced one. When my partner saw me having an attack he realised I wasn’t being dramatic and could see the physical impact.
Burning with irrational rage
Another one of my perimenopause symptoms was uncharacteristic bouts of rage, which caused one of the lowest moments of my life. I was travelling to South America and needed vaccinations as mine had expired. I was trying to get an appointment and couldn’t get one. I was running out of time and getting the runaround.
I completely lost it on the phone to a receptionist and spoke to her like you shouldn’t speak to anyone. It was awful. I called her back half an hour later and told her I was mortified and sorry, she was just doing her job and no one should ever be spoken to that way. She was really kind.
I asked myself, “Who are you?” I didn’t have a chance to take a breath and say to myself everyone is walking their own struggle. It was a zero to five million in a nanosecond blow up. My mum told me that rage was how she knew she was perimenopausal. She went to the doctor and said, “You have to do something before I murder someone.”
I was also crying all the time and I am not really a crier. I’d cry over toilet paper, getting the shopping and any heartwarming stories. I’d put it down to grief after losing beloved pets but it was disapprotionate. I couldn’t cope with it.
Physical changes were also hard to reconcile and the loss of collagen is such a kick in the teeth! As someone who has always struggled with weight, it was difficult to suddenly see my body changing shape and weight moving to places it hadn’t been before. That had a huge impact on my wellbeing. And the night sweats! I’d wake up with the hollow in my neck so full of sweat, I could splash myself with it.
Feeling alone during early menopause
I struggled with all these symptoms for a few years until my parents told me to go to the doctor to get help, whether therapy or medication. My doctor suggested a low dose of antidepressants and I burst into tears as I didn’t want to take drugs. The doctor told me everyone always says that but it could give me the little kick needed to get better. In the end she convinced me to go on a low dose and it did help.
The doctor called me at home shortly after my consultation and said she’d been thinking about me and she was going to send me to a menopause clinic here in Canada run by a leading researcher. I suspect my sobbing hysterically in her office had something to do with it. I ended up on the waitlist for six months and, when I got seen, I wasn’t a mystery to them and they’d seen it all before. They had answers and ideas.
By then I was 46 and had spent half my perimenopause alone and feeling like I was walking backwards up a hill. No one had believed me because I didn’t fit the profile. I began asking my family about their menopause experiences and discovered that my grandmother and mother both had early menopause. They were fully menopausal at the same age I was, age 44. Even though I have this family history of early menopause, I hadn’t been able to convince my healthcare provider that is what was happening to me.
The first thing the doctor at the menopause clinic said to me was, “I am really sorry you had to suffer for as long as you did.” Cue the waterworks again. They were super supportive, made me feel seen and that it’s not just me. I wasn’t just howling into the wilderness any longer as someone finally believed me and was going to help.
Now I am 52, I feel better and more at peace. I have zero libido though and I doubt it is ever coming back. That is a great regret to me as I don’t feel it is fair to my partner that I am not interested. I tried HRT to get it back but it hasn’t worked. I tried testosterone but I don’t think I committed to it fully as I was worried of getting even more of a moustache!
During my last blood work in 2019, they told me my testosterone levels were at 0.01% and they’d never seen anyone with a count that low. Usually postmenopause women have levels around 2-3%.
I am grieving for my sex life and have a little lump in my throat just talking about it. The media promotes sex as such a big deal and that everyone has to be wanting and thinking about sex all the time. It feels so toxic.
I’d like to stop using antidepressants as I’ve been on them eight years now. Yet everytime I try something terrible happens, or a global pandemic hits! I’ve tapered off my HRT and it seems fine. I would like to be in a position where the only treatment I am using is topical hormonal stuff.
When I was going through perimenopause, I could get information on the medical side but there was nothing about your body, emotions or style changing. Today there is much more information and the fact these resources are run by women for women is really valuable.
Dr Michelle Griffin, Chief Medical Officer of Vira Health, says: “Everyone has a different menopause journey. Some women may only experience one or a few symptoms quite lightly, while others, like Erin, may suffer for many years. It is so important to get help and, when that is not forthcoming, to persist.
“There are many different menopausal symptoms and loss of libido is very common. It has been reported that 80% of women find their sex life reduces postmenopause with the majority of them finding difficulties in desire and enjoyment. Wanting and having sex is complex and involves lots of different factors. Physical changes and symptoms, plus the associated behaviours and feelings around menopause can all affect your sex life. Being aware of what is happening and knowing what can help is a good first step towards feeling comfortable and satisfied, and finding your sex life pleasurable.”