Written by Jane Hill

Health

The fleece of despair

Whether it’s by our mums, sisters, friends or Judy Blume, we all get told the period facts. But what about the other side? Jane Hill gives us the lowdown on the perimenopause and it ain’t pretty.

menopause lane

When I was 12 a booklet appeared in my pants drawer. It had a yellow and pink cover and was written by someone called Dr. White. It was about the things that the girls at school talked about: periods, sanitary towels, belts, loops and bleeding.

I didn’t know how it had got there. I felt an odd mix of guilt and disgust so I hid the booklet at the bottom of the drawer, under all the pants, and tried to forget about it.

It was only when my mother asked me if I’d read it that I realised she’d put it in my drawer. So I retrieved the booklet and, like the conscientious child that I was, read every word and studied every diagram. When my first period eventually arrived, three long years later, I was completely prepared.

But though I was well-prepared for the start of my periods, the ending of them – the messy, drawn-out process that should properly be called the perimenopause – took me by surprise. I don’t mean I was surprised by it happening, but by how it happened; what it felt like; how it changed me.

Until it happened to me, this is what I knew – or thought I knew – about the menopause. I thought that when I was 50 I’d have some hot flushes and some mood swings and then my periods would stop. I’d probably start wearing scarves and reading glasses at around the same time.

If pressed a bit further I might have remembered the woman I once worked with who used to keep a fan in her desk drawer. Or that year when I lived at home post-university when my mother would sometimes walk down to the bottom of the garden and stand there alone for a while.

In the summer that I was 44 I flew to America to stay with a friend. I touched down at Newark Airport on a very hot day, feeling odd. Later that evening my period started two weeks early. I was baffled as I’d had nearly 30 years of clockwork-regular periods. My friend, a no-nonsense American woman a few years older than me, whisked me off to a drug store so I could buy some Always and said: “You’re 44. It’s probably the perimenopause.”

I had never heard that word before.

How had I never heard that word before?

Why had nobody told me?

Why hadn’t my mum put a booklet in my pants drawer?

I Googled “perimenopause” and discovered that I faced at least five to 10 years of those symptoms I’d heard of – the hot flushes, the mood swings – and potentially many more.

Some years ago the thermostat broke on my car’s heating system. At random times the car would start to heat up and keep getting hotter and hotter. Nothing could stop it short of pulling off the road and turning the engine off for a while. That’s exactly what a hot flush is like. One night a flush started just as I went onstage at a comedy club. I stumbled through my routine, plucking words out of the air, acutely self-conscious about my red face, my sweating, my incoherence.

Then there was the formication, which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. As Wikipedia puts it: “Formication is the medical term for a sensation that exactly resembles that of small insects crawling on (or under) the skin,” helpfully adding: “Not to be confused with fornication.” Between that and the hot flushes, there were nights in bed when I just wanted to claw off all my skin.

The mood swings were awful, both for me and my very supportive partner, whom I’d met only a year before the whole process began. The switchback from tears to anger to black despair and back to calm resignation is an exhausting one to ride, especially when it all happens within the space of half an hour.

As for my periods, sometimes I’d get two weeks of bleeding so heavy I could barely stand, followed by a month with virtually no bleeding but intense stabbing pains that were worse than I’d ever felt. And of course all of this needs checking out. While my GP and I both knew it was almost certainly due to the perimenopause, you ignore weird gynaecological occurrences at your peril.

She sent me for an ultrasound scan (I wanted to ask for the picture so I could post it on Facebook to see how many people congratulated me without realising it was empty). I had to have an extra smear test, conducted by the doctor rather than the nurse, which led to the worst thing that has ever been said to me in a doctor’s surgery: “You’re quite tall, aren’t you? I’ll just go and get a longer speculum.”

All of these things are horrible, painful, uncomfortable, frustrating and embarrassing. But the thing that nearly floored me was the grief.

When I started my periods, my mother told me something like: “It means that you’re now a woman.” So somehow my mind told me that if starting your periods makes you a woman, ending them stops you being a woman.

I don’t have children but it’s not something that has ever been an issue. I wasn’t in mourning for the loss of my ability to have a child, it was something deeper: the loss of promise, the loss of potential. Maybe the loss of sex appeal, however hard I tried to think about the gorgeousness of Helen Mirren.

I felt that I had lost myself. I didn’t know who I was. What was the point of me?

I didn’t even know how to dress. Now that I no longer possessed sexual potential, what was the point of my curves? And as I steadily put on weight (another delightful symptom of the perimenopause) I found myself shrouding my figure in unattractive clothes.

The low point came when I bought a beige polka dot fleece in the Millets’ sale, telling myself it would be warm, comfy and practical. The moment I put it on I realised the mistake I’d made. It was the fleece of despair; the menopause in the form of a garment.

fleece of despair

The fleece of despair in all its glory.

When I was in my mid-teens I might be in a shop looking at clothes or makeup or records and I would sometimes get an extraordinary feeling of excitement, a physical sensation: a sudden shivery rush as if the world was about to open out to me with all its joy and potential and possibility. How I felt amid the disruption of the perimenopause was the precise opposite. It felt like life was closing down.

I turned 50 last year and to celebrate I had a period on my 50th birthday, my first in about six months and neatly timed to coincide with the fancy spa break my partner had sent me on. Tricky when you’re in a pair of paper pants on a massage table.

The websites tell me that I’ve not properly reached the menopause until it’s a full year after my last period. I know I’m nearly there. I feel calmer and happier now, I haven’t had a hot flush or a case of formication in a couple of years and the mood swings, while still there, are less scary than they were.

I’m still not sure of the point of me. I still don’t know how to dress my new heavier figure but I’m getting there. East and White Stuff make some very forgiving clothes, and my nearby Millets has closed down. I’ve even started wearing scarves.

I look back at the last six years, and the words I’ve written above, and I feel as if I’ve been self-indulgent. How could something so natural be so awful? How did I let this utterly normal process derail my life and my emotions so completely?

But it did, and it was horrible. I wish I’d had a friend who was going through the same thing at the same time.

We don’t talk to each other enough about the menopause. We just go “eeew” and shut our ears and hope it never happens. This is my attempt to rectify that.

@janehill64

For JoJo Smith, the menopause was the start of a new chapter. Read about her experience here.

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Written by Jane Hill

Jane Hill is a novelist who also does standup comedy. When she’s not doing either of those, she works for the BBC on local radio projects. She lives with her partner in rural Leicestershire and once reached the Mastermind semi-finals.