The aim is to empower and encourage better mental and physical health outcomes for those impacted by the menopause.
Studies have shown that the voices of people of colour are less likely to be heard so to redress this, we host inter-generational dialogues in a safe, supportive, confidential space where everyone gets an opportunity to have a say, and their contributions are acknowledged and appreciated.
My menopause experience is proving to be a tough journey. Having said that, I also happen to know many people who have more or less sailed through it with minimum symptoms. Take my mother for example, she never experienced hot flushes or food cravings but had mood swings.
I live and thrive with depression and panic disorder, but they have bought along a friend – snack cravings. I can be engrossed in a good book and out of the blue a desire to munch takes over or I only need to walk near to the kitchen and popcorn lures me in. I wouldn’t mind but my mouth waters for unhealthy popcorn loaded with artificial flavours, sugars and salt. When the popcorn isn’t calling me it’s Terry’s Chocolate Orange and who knew Shortbread, Jamaica Ginger Cake, Rich Tea Biscuits, Coconut spirals, and Maltesers are so moorish.
My love of fruit is strong but they don’t love me – they trigger IBS crises. But my love affair is so strong that I hide the amount of fruit I eat to avoid my family nagging me, so I can’t understand this sudden desire to replace fruit with excessive quantities of unhealthy snacks.
I don’t like it. I feel and see the damage snacks are doing to my body (regular IBS crisis episodes, expanding waistline, and the needle on the scales rapidly inching further clockwise). But the snack cupboard still is my favourite destination.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2020 briefly saved me from myself. Carnival is my therapy. This year I made up my mind that a broken knee was not going to stop my flow. Life’s stresses on pause I partied like my life depended on it. Conventional Mas – I was there, Canboulay- I was there, Breakfast Party – I was there, J’ouvert morning, Monday and Tuesday Big Mas Competition – I was there. Lastlap – well I wasn’t there because my knee had other plans.
But “all good things come to an end” and on Ash Wednesday my reign of pleasures did just that. Not because carnival was over – there were lots of post carnival parties to self-medicated on. Instead a personal situation caused me deep emotional pain, and by deep, I mean deep. So deep that once back home depression raised its head ‘remember me’ it said, ‘I’m back and for company I’ve brought along a friend – Snack Cravings’.
Over time I was able to dig into my ever-ready bag of coping tricks and managed to get the depression under control, but the snack cravings wouldn’t leave me alone.
I realised how bad it was when my shopping basket had 6 Terry’s Chocolate Oranges – they were on sale; 2 Dairy Milk bars – they were buy one get one free so why resist the offer; a tin of Family Circle Biscuits – just in case middle daughter comes home; an Apple Crumble – to go with the custard I bought last week; Party Rings – youngest daughter loves those; 2 variety packs of Crisps – the grandchildren may visit; Coconut Thins –I wonder what they would taste like; and two blocks of Mature Cheddar Cheese, a tub of Cream Cheese, and a pack of Wensleydale Cheese. Cheese? yes Cheese but I don’t even like cheese, I’m lactose intolerant, it gives me headaches and nausea, and causes nasal congestion. I need to escape my snack craving friend.
The last couple of months have been a roller coaster of emotions. The HRT patch I have been using for over 2 years has been discontinued and the new one I am taking does not agree with me. From anxiety, to swollen limbs and feeling lethargic I have decided to change it – I think I am lucky, as I have something good to compare it to.
It the 2nd time a brand of HRT I have been taking has been discontinued… pharmaceutical companies really should be made aware of the impact this has on a woman. The one I was taking was discontinued last year, but I had enough in reserve to see me through…until 2 months ago. I will admit I left it pretty close to when I had almost run out – call it hope that it was just a blip in manufacturing, or denial that my body did not want to try something else as what I was taking worked for me.
I have also handed in my notice at work…why? Several reasons; I commute over an hour each way to and from work, I have a long day from a 9am start to a 6pm finish and have been doing this for 5 years.
I have been thinking for over a year that it is time for a change and it is time I focus more on me, my health and finding a job that allows me to do that. I live in central London, so my future commute should be easy.
At first I thought “what have I done?”, but then I thought life is for living and a woman going through the menopause should not feel held back and scared.
The menopause can be so debilitating, but I want to change that for me and find out “what can I do?” to help me (and others) break down the taboo that is the menopause.
For a while I have been thinking does my ethnicity, lifestyle, mental attitude play a part in my menopause symptoms? I have to use different products for my hair and for my skin. Should I be looking into what different races use, the attitudes towards the menopause in different countries and the diet of different cultures?
I feel like I am at the start of a new chapter in my life – a slight sadness regarding letting go of some things, but excited to take steps in a new direction, learn and to see what that brings.
It is 7.15am on Tuesday morning – handbag – check; mobile phone – check; flask with tea – check; bottle with water – check; car keys – check, everything is laid out neatly on the counter ready for me to pick them up and dash off to the station. I bend to do up my shoe laces and suddenly remember the car-park. Thankfully one of the joys of modern technology means that I can purchase a ticket via the mobile phone app so laces done up, I grab my stuff and go.
At the station I purchase a train ticket, pick up a copy of the Metro head up the stairs and over the bridge to get to platform 2. On the train I spend the time in reading, doing the crossword and sudoku.
At work I peruse my things to do list only to realise that it’s the deadline for submission of the funding application I had been procrastinating over last week. So, with calculator in hand I continue the work on the budget swearing under my breath because I find working those detailed budgets that funders ask for to be such a tedious exercise.
My thought processes get interrupted by a colleague who is in such severe pain that I stop what I am doing and offer to drive them to the nearest hospital. We get there, and after many many hours they are discharged and dosed up with powerful pain relief. That wonderful invention called google maps means that I confidently offer to take them home.
We are inching along in slow moving rush hour traffic and an urge to wee takes over. I turn up the volume on the radio and hum hoping that the distraction will quell the urgency of my bladder. The nearer GPS says we are to our destination the louder the wee in my bladder takes on the persona of Queen and sings “I WANT TO BREAK FREE”.
We are now on the right road and the singing in the bladder is at a deafening level, so I hum even louder (which sounded more like groaning) waking my colleague from their drug induced stupor. I explain my toilet urgency, and they give me their house keys telling me that the toilet is at the top of the stairs.
The wee in the bladder is now channeling Diana Ross and bellows “THE TIME HAS COME FOR ME TO BREAK OUT OF THIS SHELL, I HAVE TO SHOUT THAT I’M COMING OUT, I’M COMING OUT, I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW, I WILL LET IT SHOW”. I plea with it to hold on for a couple more seconds and pull onto the roadside parking space dashing into the house, up the stairs, and on the toilet, making a mental note to invest in a Shewee and Tena Lady (other brands are available).
I say my good byes and make the journey homeward, but as I approach my car in the station carpark I see the dreaded yellow sticker envelope, and my heart sinks. I had completely forgot to pay for the parking and ended up with a £50.00 fine.
The next day I phone my colleague to check up on their health only to be told that when they looked out of their window that morning they found one of those hateful yellow sticker envelopes on their car. Turns out that in my haste to get to the toilet I had parked the car with one of the wheels resting 2inches on the grass verge. That’s another £50.00 fine.
Fast forward to Friday, and I leave work on a high because it’s the weekend. The train is trudging along and I am flicking through the Evening Standard when it suddenly it dawns on me that I have once again forgot to purchase a parking ticket. The rest of the journey sees me fluctuating between anxiety, annoyance and frustration, and I argue with myself for being so forgetful. By the time the train comes into the platform I am close to tears and I quickly scan the windscreen for the yellow sticker envelope but there is none. I breathe a sigh of relief, and thank my luck stars that I got away with it because paying £100.00 in fines in four days is more than enough – menopause is costly.
For me the onset of menopause at 52 was a complete shock because:
- I was busy living my life – I had never really found the time in life for reflection. I was busy raising my family and I took on other people’s problems.
- My mother lost her life to breast cancer at the age of 47 and I questioned whether she had actually experienced the menopause. Now reflecting on this question my original assumption could have been wrong because in my experience black women of that generation just did not talk about such things. My mother like me was always busy with the business of life.
- I assumed wrongly that the menopause was all about the visitation of old age and hot flushes which I have now discovered may only be part of the journey. There was information but to be honest this was at the back of my mind.
I must have had the perimenopause(1) a few years beforehand because my periods had been super heavy, I was gaining weight so I introduced regular walking usually smashing the daily 10,000 steps recommended by most fitness experts. I remembered saying to a friend that I am more active now but there does not seem to be any reduction in my waist line.
My first real introduction to the menopause came in the form of mood swings one minute I would be fine and having one of those belly laughs and the next minute I was “vex” or just angry for no apparent reason. I also suffered from memory loss – I sometimes had no idea what I had planned to do on a daily basis and would forget information within seconds of it being relayed to me. I also had what has been affectionately called “low mood” and experienced pain in my joints as well as poor coordination. I did not like the new me and I was falling apart at the seams and guess what “no hot flushes”. I had developed strategies to cover memory loss and I was completely unaware of my mood swings until my family told me about their concerns. I thought “what the fuck is this? “what is happening to me?” I questioned whether I would be ok? It was a frightening and lonely place. I was also very angry.
I started to withdraw into myself, I started to love my own company because it meant that I was not being judged. In my relationship we both felt lonely for what was. I liked living in my own head and I could hear myself saying “ leave me alone”. I no longer wanted to help or hear other people’s problems, I was studying for yet another qualification and struggling to write, to retain information, I wanted to cocoon myself from the world. I have always been a glass over full sort of woman, I liked to laugh out loud, go out, join in discussions and generally always got excited about life or a new project. It was a shock because my symptoms were completely different from what I had expected.
Sometimes we are blessed, my friends started talking about their symptoms and although there are differences there was an “aha” moment, a relief that I was not on my own. A couple of my friends who were at the end of it said that I will be different but ok and that they had experienced a new sense of freedom in their outlook on life, others spoke about a more liberating sexual relationships with their partners so I have something to look forward to.
A friend told me about an interview with Lorraine Kelly where Carol Vordermnan spoke about her struggles with the menopause. I read the information and then decided at that point that I wanted the same medication that Carol was taking:
- Because I wanted my life back.
- I no longer wanted to suffer in silence.
- I wanted my glass over full again and
- I did not want to turn into a grumpy old lady.
I was blessed – I had an hour appointment with a doctor who specialised in women’s health which resulted in:
- A 6th month programme of CBT counselling.
- Introduction to a 6 month exercise programme at my local gym.
- The usage of a fairly low dose of HRT because of my high blood pressure and family history of breast cancer.
How am I now? Menopause has helped me to pause my life every now and reflect more. I have more clarity “I see life now”. I spend quality time with myself and I am happy in my own mind and company. I have renegotiated how I live and enjoy the quality of the experience with my family and friends. I continue to help/ support people because that is who I am but I am more aware of how much I take on and manage my energy better. My old self is transforming and I am slowly welcoming in a new person who I am getting to know. I am aware that the HRT is holding back the full effect of the menopause and I know it is a temporary measure.
I continue to find the menopause very challenging as it impacts every aspect of my life. It is still unpredictable and I am unsure of what is around the corner, e.g to produce good quality work I now have to sleep well which is a new facet of my life.
It is particularly challenging for black women because we do not have any champions or role models within society. All of the women who are currently speaking out about the memophase are not representative of our community. We are re- educating our partners, our families and some of us are still juggling the needs of small children, grandchildren, older parents and young people whilst experiencing the impact of the menopause. It is a unique time, a long time, it is a challenge because we are the trail blazers, for many the matriarchs of our families and how we address this issue will influence the next generation of menopausal women.
My initial fear was provoked by me simply not understanding how the menopause would impact my life and how it would show up for me. If I were advising my younger self I would say read up about all aspects of the female life cycle. My life has grown organically and I had no idea how my life could change because the reduction in hormone levels. There are a number of potential side effects associated with HRT and the decision to use this method of treatment was not taken lightly. It is very much an individual choice and if I was to be honest if my memory had not been a big feature for me I might have reconsidered.
(1) – Perimenopause, or menopause transition, begins several years before menopause. It’s the time when the ovaries gradually begin to make less estrogen. It usually starts in a woman’s 40s, but can start in her 30s or even earlier. Perimenopause lasts up until menopause, when the ovaries stop releasing eggs.
I wake up suddenly, eyes wide open, limbs cramped, and it feels like I had been sleeping on a water bed that’s accidentally sprung a leak. My body is acting as though it’s been awake for ages, but my poor tired brain is still in sleep mode. I peep at the clock through squinted eyes, mind you it’s not a digital clock and my tired brain is struggling to work out if it’s the long hand that is near to the 12 of if it’s the short hand, and if so, then which hand is at the 4.
Through my daze they both look the same size. I blink a few times but still can’t focus and then I remember the phone – that very useful piece of modern equipment. Just a slight touch of the button at the base of the phone displays the time, so I roll over with arms outstretched to reach for it. Ah, such wonderful dryness.
But the euphoria is short-lived as I get entangled in the damp pyjamas and head scarf I somehow managed to disrobe from during the night. It must have been when I had the last heat burst, but I vaguely recollect it happening, mainly because I have become so used to a routine of heat burst followed by pyjamas and head scarf off, then as I cool down I put them back on, then off again, and on again rotating through the extra set of night clothes on the bedside.
I still want to know the time, so my hand reaches for the phone – it’s 4.02am which for most people is considered quite early. Then almost as suddenly as the heat came, the cold shivers start and goosebumps take over every pore.
But I am prepared, there is a dry change of clothing on the bedside table which I quickly put on as I toss the wet pyjamas and headscarf on to the floor. I pat down the bed to find the driest spot, and find a person size patch of dryness that I climb into pulling the duvet over me for that extra warm and cosy feeling – Such delightful bliss!
My knowledge of menopause up until recently was that it is a relief for women from their monthly periods – No more mood swings, no more “it’s that time of the month”, no more embarrassing moments if caught short, and I am sure there are many young women who are not yet going through the menopause thinking the same.
If you are in tuned with your partner and she had regular periods you would anticipate those times and tread carefully. But to my surprise being with a partner who is going through the menopause has made me realise that it does not necessarily offer relief – it just creates different issues.
Thankfully for the both of us she voices those issues. As a result I am aware of the night sweats, constant hot flushes (which she describes as internal combustion that melts latex), joint pains, headaches, depression, anxiety – it just seems endless. Then there is the brain fog and sometimes even forgetfulness.
But what can I do?
Just be understanding, be supportive, be patient. Fan her when she gets too hot. In other words do the little things that means a lot to her. Get her hot or cold drinks, because sometimes she just can’t get them herself. I have also made the effort to be more informed about menopause and so should everyone and anyone who has a menopausal partner in their life. Trust me it helps.
I’m hoping that this will be third time lucky, because I have attempted to write this blog on two previous occasions today but didn’t get the timings right.
The first time around I opened the notebook with my early morning musings, turned down the volume on the radio, plugged in the laptop even though the battery was showing 84% (I hope I am not the only person who charges an almost full battery just in case it runs flat), and took a sip of cold water. That last bit – the cold water is part of my latest experimentation because desperation means that I am willing to try just about anything. You see, I am trying to figure out if cold water can somehow reduce the intensity of hot flushes, but on this occasion, it had no effect.
No sooner do I hover my fingers over the keyboard in the style of a Pitman trained typist, that I get the dreaded tremble in my feet followed by what can only be described as a wave of hot lava rushing upwards through my body. That is immediately accompanied by sweat. The beads on the brow turn to a trickle meandering their way downwards, some take a pit stop on the eyelashes, others settle in the dip on my upper lip where a moustache is threatening to grow, and the rest continue downwards to the neck where they pick up speed, unite with their mates on the chest and create a wet squelchy patch under the bust. Some of their friends gallop down the spine and stop once they have created a soggy bottom, but the most annoying of all are the tiny droplets dripping off the palms and fingers threatening to land on the keyboard.
I have encountered too many (phony) technicians who use the excuse of water in the charging port as their diagnosis for any type of phone malfunction. So I defer the typing and replace it with a bout of vigorous fanning – who knew a 2” square notebook could produce so much breeze.
Fanning at a frenzy, I look over and see my copy of “Becoming Michelle Obama” and open it to the bookmarked page and soon get lost in her story, two chapters later something suddenly clicks in my brain – I was in the midst of doing something else before I got distracted, I was going to write a blog. My fingers resume the touch typist position and I start typing the heading, and immediately that oh so familiar foot tremble starts, followed by the rapid lava rush and the race between the beads of sweat. This time I start using “Becoming Michelle Obama” to fan, but it’s a bit awkward so I take off the sleeve and fan with that instead.
I finally cool down, pick back up the book and read two pages. I use the term ‘read’ loosely because what I really did was scan my eyes across some words. Then I notice that the sleeve is still separated from the book which jogged my memory and it dawned on me that I originally set out to write this blog.
Yet again, I poise the touch typist fingers over the keyboard, but this time the brain fog gets the better of me and I have no idea what aspect of the menopause I intended to write about. I stare at the computer for a minute and decide that maybe it’s not third time lucky after all.
Black women belong to two underrepresented minority groups and the political, environmental and social landscape adversely and disproportionately affects their physical, mental and emotional state of being; yet there is inadequate evidence based interventions that holistically promotes their optimum health and wellness. Not only do they struggle to get access to quality health care, but little research is undertaken and acknowledgement given to some of the basics of the black female physicality. e.g., the unique experiences of the menopause are under researched, there are insufficient specific support groups, and medical professionals treating the symptoms too often ignore cultural sensitivities.
Often, disenfranchised Black women are rendered socio-culturally invisible by the state, so the Our Conversation group of intergenerational black women set out to mobilise and unify a wider community of like-minded women to leverage their collective voices and power, and take leadership/ownership for addressing the issues that affect their mental and physical health outcomes.
Through the strengthening and unification of voices Our Conversation are tackling some of the most pressing gender and ethnicity focussed inequalities. It also provide a platform to enable younger generations of black females to share their lived experiences, and acquire knowledge from the traditions, time-tested learnings, observations and refinements of older generations.
The strategic intervention of this project with its reassertion of rights, normalising of black women’s experiences, and development of healthy sustainable lifestyle choices, provides an opportunity to reduce stress; learn resilience; and take ownership and responsibility for influencing mainstream policy and strategies.