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I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time but put it off because I’m not an expert in menopause.
I’m just a woman who survived it—barely.
Recently, I had an opportunity to discuss my experience publicly on my podcast when we covered the topic of despair. I took this as a sign that I should finally put my menopause nightmare down on paper to help other women navigate, or at least prepare, for what could be one of the most difficult physical and mental journeys of their life.
The Early Days
Nearly 10 years ago, just before my 38th birthday, my periods started to get wonky. I bought more pregnancy tests over the course of three or four months than I had in my lifetime. All were negative and it was the first time I considered my issues might be menopause related.
Next stop was the doctor’s office. My primary care provider at the time was understanding, but also a bit dismissive because she’d already been through “the change.” Thankfully, she was good at testing my hormones and managing the anxiety I was feeling as my hormones started to do the dip.
A couple of years in, I had to end that relationship after a substitute doctor in the office jokingly asked if I was going to kill myself as he tossed a prescription for Ativan at me with a wink. This was right after I had just sobbed about feeling so overwhelmed by the menopause symptoms I was having.
And oh, the symptoms!
There were several reputable websites I browsed that agreed on a list of 34 symptoms of menopause. It was nice to have the reference because for the next few years, I had a new symptom every 30 days. One would go away and a new one would appear like clockwork.
Besides irregular or missed periods, I had noticeable hair loss, rapid body hair growth, joint pain, mood swings, loss of libido, vaginal dryness, and insomnia. I also had ongoing hot flashes (still do), horrendous brain fog, and gained 25-30 pounds in just two months.
My symptoms were debilitating enough for me to reach out to an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in hormones, at a well-known medical facility. She ran all the hormone tests and did genetic screenings because menopause before 40 is considered unusual. In fact, it has a name: premature ovarian insufficiency. After testing, there was no identifiable reason why menopause came early for me.
Personally, but not provably, I believe a birth control patch I used after giving birth contributed to the early failure of my ovaries. After using it for a few years, news broke that it contained way more estrogen than originally reported. I can no longer find these stories online and no doctor I met with appeared to care about that part of my medical history.
The Scary Days
The endocrinologist decided to start me on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) using estrogen and progesterone. I went home feeling hopeful for the first time in years. But within hours of swallowing my first tablets, my ovaries felt like they might implode in my body. A few days later is when the panic attacks started. I woke one night from a dead sleep feeling absolute and sheer terror.
The panic attacks were so traumatic that eight years later my guts still churn just thinking about it. Unfortunately, the panic continued the entire time I was on HRT. My follow-up visit with the endocrinologist resulted in her discharging me with a note that I should seek mental and behavioral health services.
In the even darker times that followed, I searched long and hard for other women’s stories about menopause hell to prove to at least myself that I wasn’t crazy. I found just a handful of stories but only on random forums I located because, as a writer, I’m good at keyword research.
Women on these forums were sharing nightmares far worse than mine. Multiple posts detailed how women were committed to mental institutions because no one knew how to acknowledge, let alone address, their severe menopause symptoms. After everything I had experienced in my own transition to menopause, their stories were both believable and incredibly heartbreaking to me.
In my own life, no one wanted to hear about the constant anxiety that plagued me or the other symptoms that made it difficult to get through each day. I could see my friends look at me with pity then walk away, praying a menopause like that wouldn’t happen to them. I have no family history of early or complicated menopause; my own mom barely noticed any changes before her periods stopped for good.
Severe anxiety, depression, and panic nearly took me out. These symptoms lasted more than nine months, even with medications, and they helped me realize how people considering suicide must feel when it seems as if there’s no way out of a bad situation.
I did a lot of research about how long all of this madness would last, and it turns out that perimenopause, the transitional time before your menstrual cycle ends permanently, can last up to 10 years. I often thought, “I’ll never make it that long.”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
As I approached the summer of my eighth perimenopausal year, I found an OB/GYN who claimed to specialize in menopause. The first thing she said to me was, “You’re not crazy. Everything you think is happening is really happening.”
It was a huge weight off my shoulders.
Ironically, in the weeks leading up to my appointment with this doctor, my symptoms had started to decrease on their own. The best she could offer was some hormone tests that showed my testosterone was too high, and some low-dose birth control, which I declined. I’ve since discovered I can’t take any type of hormone—not even melatonin—without experiencing some level of panic. What I haven’t discovered is why.
My former endocrinologist wrote me off as having mental problems without investigating the relationship between HRT and the side effects I had. But there was some relief in knowing that others had gone through the worst of the worst and come out on the other side, even if I had to dig deep in unknown forums to find those affirmations.
My menstrual cycle finally stopped last year, when I was 48—10 whole years after they first went wonky. I spent three of those years waiting to see if I’d get a period, as I was only having one per year by then. Every symptom, other than the hot flashes, has resolved. There’s been no anxiety, no panic, and no depression since my hormones leveled out.
But I can still remember those nights of panic like they happened yesterday. I also still struggle to lose any of the weight I gained despite eating a reasonable diet and walking three miles most days. So, I’m left trying to navigate a post-menstrual body which oddly makes it seem like I’m carrying a child I can no longer have, although I’m still relatively young.
I tell my story to any woman who will listen because I never heard anyone talk about a difficult menopause before my own experience. So many people are still shocked to learn things can go so badly. As I write content for medical websites for a living, I also make sure to add information about both the physical and mental side effects of menopause, so women have a chance to prepare, or at least understand what they are going through when it happens.
For the sake of others following after me, I hope more people start talking about menopause and what could actually happen during this natural transition of life. If you’re in the throes of a bad menopause now, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel for sure. It’s always worth your time to seek medical advice, even when it seems like you’re the only advocate you have in your corner—because you’re not crazy, menopause is.
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