“Sandy, I just feel so out of it – discombobulated – like I’m not myself and I really think there is something wrong with me. Sometimes, I think I’m going crazy – and my husband agrees with me,” my dear friend Mary Ellen said to me over the phone one morning. “I feel guilty because all I do is whine to my family and friends about it. None of them want to hear me whine, and they don’t understand or know how to help me.” I could tell that she was almost in a state of panic because of how she was feeling – but more so – because she couldn’t understand why she was feeling this way.
Her life, like so many women in their fifties, had taken its twists and turns. She had had a partial hysterectomy two years prior to turning fifty along with a few other health issues. The usual family problems had cropped up and created unexpected turmoil, parents and relatives were dying or dealing with illnesses, and they had recently sold their family home and were downsizing their lives. Although these could all individually be considered trying, nerve-racking situations, she felt – and so did her husband – that they shouldn’t be affecting her, this drastically.
My response to her was the same that a dear friend had given to me when I turned fifty, “It sounds like you may be in menopause,” to which Mary Ellen replied, “No, I just had blood work done 6-8 months ago and it didn’t show that I was in menopause.”
What most women do not understand is that there are three stages of menopause: perimenopause (or pre-menopause) – menopause – post-menopause.
Some people use pre-menopause and perimenopause interchangeably. Some use it to define the time when a woman is just starting to experience irregular periods but is showing no signs of classic menopausal symptoms like hot flashes or vaginal dryness. Others use pre-menopause to refer to a longer span of time prior to perimenopause, perhaps as early as your mid-thirties. If your doctor uses this term, ask how he or she defines it.
Again, different people define this in slightly different ways. Some consider it to be just the transitional time before menstruation stops. Others extend the definition past your final menstrual period for one to two years. While the average timeframe for perimenopause is about four years, it can last up to ten years and still be considered normal. During this time your ovaries gradually stop releasing eggs and producing estrogen and other hormones (progesterone, androgen, and testosterone). In the years before your final period, fluctuations of hormones occur and your periods become erratic. At times, estrogen levels may be higher, which may trigger symptoms similar to premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Both before and for a time after your last period, when estrogen levels decrease, you may experience symptoms* like hot flashes, vaginal dryness, diminished concentration and mood swings.
Technically, menopause refers to a specific event – the date of your last period.
Doctors pinpoint your final period once you haven’t had one in a year. At that point, you no longer have to worry about periods or getting pregnant. In popular culture, the term is used more loosely to mean the entire process – three of the four stages including perimenopause through post-menopause.
Post-menopause begins with your final period and lasts the rest of your life. While the signs of menopause taper off over a year or two, you are at increased risk for longer term health problems related to low estrogen* and need to work with your doctor to manage them.
There is also another form of menopause. When you hear the term, “surgical menopause”, this is actually a reference to an occurrence of hysterectomy* menopause. When a woman has a hysterectomy, one or both of her ovaries will be removed, as well as the uterus and fallopian tubes. When this happens, the woman is thrust abruptly into menopause*, which can bring on devastating symptoms* immediately. In fact, women who deal with hysterectomy menopause are hit much harder by the symptoms of menopause* than women who go into menopause naturally. The hot flashes* are much more intense, the night sweats* more frequent while lasting longer, the level of depression* significant, and so on. In addition, surgical menopause places a woman at greater risk of osteoporosis* and heart disease. Interestingly, the exact reasons for this increase in symptom severity are simply not known.
I began asking her questions: Do you feel out of it? Like you’re out of control over your body, thoughts and emotions? Are you on an emotional rollercoaster? Are you irritable and tired all the time? Are you having problems sleeping? Are you hot when everyone else says it’s cold? Has your sex drive decreased?
Things began to click as we continued talking about what I had already begun to experience when I turned fifty. And as we talked, she confided the fact that she had not been taking vitamins regularly and that her own health had been put on the back burner for years. We ended the conversation with the glaring incontrovertible fact that it was time for her to put Mary Ellen first!
Why is it that we, as women, put ourselves last? Why do we deny or feel less than we are about this time of change in our lives – when it should be celebrated? What created this pattern in us that gets passed down from generation to generation? The most important question is – how do we stop the cycle?
Mary Ellen called me later that same day and told me how relieved she was after our conversation. “Until I talked to you, I really thought something was wrong with me, mentally. Menopause had never even entered my mind, somehow I thought I wasn’t old enough or maybe I was just avoiding the inevitable. Now, I have hope because there is something I can do about it. I am going to see my gynecologist and get a blood test and I bought vitamins and did some research on natural supplements I can take to relieve my symptoms. Now I don’t have to feel guilty for feeling the way I do – now I can embrace it and understand it. Do you think there are other women out there that are feeling this way? Are they just as confused, scared and lost as I was?”
My answer to her was, “Yes – millions.”
Are you one of those millions of women? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I would love to hear from you.
Sandra Levitin is the Founder/CEO/Editor of Kalön Women, an online magazine for women forty plus. Her first book, “Learning How to Hop…Again” is due to be released in 2011.
Sandra’s experience and leadership capabilities for the past 30 years led her to be a top sales trainer for several national and international companies. As a top leader in her field, she moved companies into guiding their training efforts toward the topics of: Developing a Success Blueprint ▪ Creating a Personal Brand ▪ Evaluating “First Impressions” ▪ The Art of Selling ▪ How to Convey Who You Are and What You Do.
After making a tough decision, Sandra decided to leave the corporate environment at 50 and fulfill a 15 year dream that started with a friend who died from breast cancer before they could see it through together. Kalön Women launched in November 2008.
Sandra is a Mid-Life Strategist who specializes in supporting women through the myriad of life changes after forty.