After the initial shock diagnosis, the processing of grief and loss for many young women begins. The unexpected termination of a young woman’s menstrual cycle is, in a way, like a death. It cannot be revived, and that realisation opens the floodgates of lost hopes and dreams.
My emotional processing – the 5 stages of grief
When there is an ending in your life, like the death of a loved one or a major crisis, you kind of float through a sea of overwhelming emotions. Any type of life change involves loss at some level. The “five stages of grief” model by Kübler-Ross helps with understanding the range of emotions you can experience around the change. These emotions are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They are just some of the coping mechanisms that you might move through as you manage your situation, but you won’t move through each stage neatly and one at a time. Instead, you might dwell in different stages at different times, move back to previous stages, or even skip stages. In other words, there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
My mother recently told me she was 40 years old when she had her last period, so I presume her perimenopause must have started around age 35. I had just turned 40 when my elevated FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) test confirmed menopause. I was shocked and thought, “This can’t be happening to me.” I believed I was fit and healthy, and I didn’t smoke or drink, so how did I get menopause so early? I was still thinking of maybe having another child, so I just didn’t want to believe the menopause transition was happening. I even went back to my doctor three months later to check again, only to get the same diagnosis. I suppose a part of me thought if I pretended the change wasn’t really happening then just maybe it would all go away. I was in denial. It took me some time to fully absorb the diagnosis.
I have become aware of the taboo in our society regarding candid discussions about women’s menstrual cycles and menopause. Menopause isn’t restricted to older women in their 50s, but stereotyping by society and healthcare professionals means that many young women go undiagnosed for many years because they don’t fit the traditional menopause image. We should encourage more open and honest discussions about menopause because it is a life changer. For all women going through menopause, young or old, it can have an enormous impact on their lives and take women to the edges of sanity and their ability to cope.
Like many other women, I believed that menopause only happens to women over 50. In fact, I now know that perimenopause can start at 40, and for 1 in 100 women, that journey begins in their 30s or 20s. Women in their teens can also experience menopause, although this is rare. There are a variety of causes of early menopause such as surgery, cancer treatments, ovarian failure, genetics, or illnesses; but in some instances, there simply isn’t a known reason.
The first symptom I noticed was a change in my mood—this all-consuming f*#king anger. I found myself getting needlessly irritated as if looking for someone or something to blame for my out-of-control body. I often misdirected the anger towards others: my poor son, family, friends, and colleagues. The night sweats didn’t help the situation either because I always felt tired and irritated over another night of broken sleep. I don’t get hot flushes but I know women who do, and they get them frequently during the day, often making them feel self-conscious. All the physical symptoms of menopause are exhausting.
I found myself bargaining with time just like many other women do. I tried to stop or at least slow some of the symptoms. I looked into a variety of diets and exercises, and they do play an important role—just not in stopping the onset of menopause. Unfortunately, there are many willing companies peddling all sorts of vitamin mixtures, herbal tonics, and “natural” hormone alternatives as effective menopause remedies. Save your money because the reality is you can’t bargain with Mother Nature for more time.
After the anger and my attempt at intervening, then came the depression. As the reality of the change began to set in, I realized that trying to halt or slow the menopause transition was never going to work. When young women get to this stage, they become well aware of the losses associated with this transition and the hopes they will have to leave behind. At this stage, many women are forced to contemplate and possibly re-evaluate their life purpose, needs, wants, and even the desire for motherhood. For me there was a deep sadness (mixed with ongoing fatigue), an awareness that I have to let go and allow the flow of change to happen.
You will learn much about yourself on this journey, and soon enough you will acknowledge the bravery that acceptance takes.
“I can’t fight it, so I may as well prepare for it as best I can.” For me, acceptance took time. I often returned to denial or fluctuated between denial and bargaining for more time. I realized that fighting the change was not going to make it go away. I accepted that my body is no longer the same. Dreams and hopes also had to change. You can’t keep fighting change, as depression will set in. Left untreated, depression soon becomes all-consuming, a deep dark place that keeps hold of the feeling of hopelessness. I’m not suggesting that acceptance is some happy space but rather a resigned attitude towards the change and a sense that you now just need to move forward the best way you can.
IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY MESSAGE
Some self-care tips:
- DO NOT suffer in silence
- Reach out and seek support from others. Speak to your partner, family or friends, or a more formal support group of women who can relate.
- Make this a time of self-nurturing with massages, health spas, or anything that pampers your body.
- Take time out daily for meditation to relax the mind and rest the body.
- Keep a journal and reflect deeply on what you want to feel and achieve as you move forward with your life.
- Make this a time of going deep within. Reflect on what has been lost and the new that WILL be found.
- This can also be the perfect opportunity for a life-changing journey or pilgrimage with girlfriends to seek out your soul’s longing.
So ladies, let’s now talk.
Tell us about your journey. How have you, or would like to honour your new life path?
With love & gratitude
Dr. Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1969.