Why we should speak out about the menopause – vaginal dryness and all

The face of the menopause

I started this off as a comment to a post on Magnificent Midlife, a fantastic site full of help for menopausal women. But as I went on, I realised I had more to say than should fit in a comment.

It began last week, with a tweet from Goldie magazine asking about opinions on workplace training on the menopause following a discussion on Mumsnet.

Just like the Mumsnet discussion, there were many differing opinions about which menopause symptoms should be discussed at work, mainly a reduced sex drive and vaginal dryness.

In a thought-provoking post, Magnificent Midlife expanded on her argument. You can read it on the link – and I recommend it – but the basics are that we need to change the way menopause is presented and that listing all the symptoms on a work email risked frightening women about what is happening to them and alienating potential allies.

“Whatever we do to end the taboo, let’s do it with sensitivity, balance and discretion so we bring everyone along with us,” she ends.

There is so much I agree with this – and yet…

There are many, many positive aspects to the menopause, which I have written about and tweet about regularly.

Most days now, I feel invincible in a way I never did before. I am braver, stronger, more confident, more content – all the things we associate with young people but which, in truth, they're not. Or at least, they weren’t with me..

I can’t wait for the day my periods stop for good. Forget wearing purple, my wardrobe will be the purest white ever seen. And after rushing out to the pharmacist before it closed on New Year’s Eve for a pregnancy test, I also look forward to no more worries each month!!

Also, I am evangelical about lifestyle playing a huge part in our wellbeing. Exercise and eating healthily are all ways we can love our body and treat it well. I liken it to a car – you don’t put cheap petrol in it, let it sit for years on end, and then expect it to last forever. It won't and your body won’t (the majority of us. There is always the Dot Cotton that smokes like a trooper and lives to their 90s or beyond.)

But sometimes this isn’t enough. I exercise, run, eat a good, balanced diet – and yet I still suffered terribly over the last 18 months. Looking back, I can see many menopause symptoms creeping into my life in the years before that: hair loss, anxiety and, yes, vaginal dryness. I wish I’d known about them earlier (especially when trichologists told me they may have been able to rescue my hairline somewhat if I’d acted earlier.)

My last year has been filled with periods of crushing paranoia, mood swings, depression… I speak out about it because, as with anyone who suffers these things, it is not my fault. It is my body having a party with my hormones and I want other people to know that.

I know many other women who say the same - until they received HRT, their lives were becoming increasingly difficult. Friends have confided they truly felt suicidal at times. “I felt I was losing my mind,” is a common refrain.

Many of them say knowing this is menopause and that some day soon it will stop has been a huge help.

Menopause also hits women all over the world. Research shows that cultures that anecdotally don't get menopause symptoms, such as hot flushes, actually do, but their culture is to stay quiet and say nothing. Their lifestyle may make some aspects easier, but it isn’t a magic cure-all.

(* The main photo is the one I submitted for Behind the Woman…’s fantastic campaign. Go and join her and send your menopause pic.)

But, like Magnificent Midlife, that doesn’t mean I want to see the headlines screaming about the “hell” of menopause. Because it doesn’t have to be hell – and the reason it doesn’t have to be hell is that once women are educated about what is happening to them (vaginal dryness and all) they can take action to put it right. Whether that’s through HRT, changing your lifestyle, exercise routine, diet, meditating – so long as it makes life better and doesn’t harm you, go for it.

However, we can only do that if we know all the information. At the moment, though, women's health “down there” is a taboo subject and that drives me crazy. I really don’t like programmes like the All New Full Monty, where we're celebrated for showing our bodies, because ultimately, they are just bodies and they shouldn’t have any stigma around them. They’re not a statement on who we are or something to be ashamed of. And what happens to them shouldn’t be something we are ashamed of neither.

It is only by fighting these taboos that we can combat the sniggers and titters at vaginal dryness and the likes being in a work email. We have to be open about it in exactly the same way we were in the 1980s and 1990s, when TV shows started showing how to put a condom on bananas to combat HIV. I well remember the outcry when condoms were mentioned on daytime TV. But that knowledge saved lives.

After having the discussion on Twitter about vaginal dryness, I looked it up because I knew so little. It’s not just about sex. Did you know it can leave you feeling sore and painful all day? Or that you may need to pee more often or keep getting UTIs? I didn’t have a scooby about any of this.

And if my colleague is going through that, I want to be able to sympathise, not tut because she’s at the toilet AGAIN and there’s a mountain of work to get through and we’re right on deadline. (Yes, of course I should be more tolerant to begin with, but human nature and the stress and pressure of modern life means 99% of us aren’t.)

I also worry about being sensitive to other people. But I worry because I’ve seen women being told to stay quiet, not speak out, for fear of upsetting someone’s sensibilities. And the result has been years – centuries – of women’s needs being ignored.

Women are told to “trust the system”, that it will all work out. But history has shown us that it rarely does. As Caroline Criado Perez’s excellent Invisible Women shows, staying quiet means we fade into the background and our needs – such as the need to have a window open during a hot flush – get ignored.

It isn’t that long since women’s mood swings were put down to hysteria. How many women were sectioned in Victorian times when they really had post-natal depression or were menopausal? Women being open has helped changed that.

That’s why I speak out about menopause and all its symptoms. Not because I want to upset my colleague at work or scare women or make them dread the menopause.

As I say to them, every woman is different and their symptoms will be different. Quite a lot – my mam and Magnificent Midlife, for example – will sail through it without any symptom. Others, like me, will try everything and still need HRT.

If I hadn’t appeared on the BBC’s Health: Truth or Scare, I’d still be floundering trying to get help. So I speak out because I want women to know what is happening to them and to understand it.

To show them that menopause and its symptoms are a natural part of a woman’s life, just like puberty and giving birth. And like those times, sometimes some women need a bit more help.

But also like these times, menopause is only a part of life. It isn’t the end. It’s a new beginning and it’s the start of an incredible time… So let’s use this knowledge to change menopausal women’s lives for the better.

What do you think? Should we speak out about menopause, even if it it’s delicate, or is it better to be discreet about some aspects? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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