The signs had been there for several months. I would wake up dripping sweat even though there’s a bedside fan on full blast. One minute I’d be rage cleaning, and the next I was crying on the couch elbow deep in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Some mornings I’d start the day literally growling at my family, and by evening I’d be damn near skipping around the house. Or vice versa.
I didn’t start to put the pieces together, however, until I started getting my period 2-3 times a month.
That seems a little odd, right?
Yeah, I thought so too.
I’d heard about the hot flashes and the mood swings. But those were always mentioned alongside menopause. And since I’m still getting my period just as often (or more frequently!) than before, I’m definitely not in menopause. So WTF is going on?
Perimenopause is going on, that’s what.
Until recently, though, I had never heard the word, let alone knew what it was.
When I asked the nurse practitioner at a recent annual exam, she didn’t know much about it either. She confirmed that I wasn’t in menopause (which I knew). Just to be safe, she checked my hormone levels and did an ultrasound. Nothing weird there.
But something was just not right.
Her recommendation? Talk to my mom. Maybe if I knew when she went through menopause, I could get an estimate on when I might go through menopause and then work backward from there. My mom couldn’t even remember when she went through menopause and had never heard of perimenopause, which is just further proof that we’ve been kept in the dark for generations.
“You’re hearing what I’m hearing, ‘Nobody ever told me this, my mother never told me this,’ and I had the same experiences many years ago with my mother,” Dr. Lila Nachtigall, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine who has been treating perimenopausal women for 50 years, told the New York Times.
I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re in the dark about perimenopause. I mean, menopause itself is still filled with cliches and shrouded in shame. In fact, Dr. Susan Mattern, a professor of history at the University of Georgia and author of “The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause,” told the New York Times that until the 19th century, menopause was referred to as “women’s hell,” “green old age” and “death of sex.”
I mean, WTAF. Women’s hell? Death of sex? Green old age? What does that even mean?!
“I actually think it’s extraordinarily important to change the conversation. Because so much of what you hear about perimenopause is spoken about in an anti-feminist and ageist way,” said Dr. Lucy Hutner, a reproductive psychiatrist in New York.
Here’s the deal. The average age of menopause – defined as a year without a period – is 51, and the average age of beginning perimenopause – or the indefinite period of time leading up to menopause – is 47. Experts note that the symptoms can start earlier or later, however. I’m 43 and I can tell you with some certainty that I am feeling the symptoms something fierce.
Yet despite the fact that perimenopause can last for several years, few healthcare providers understand it. According to the New York Times, less than 7% of medical residents surveyed said they felt adequately prepared to help women manage menopause. That’s ridiculous. And sexist AF.
We’ve got entire industries built around erectile dysfunction, yet doctors can’t help women through menopause or perimenopause. Which only makes us feel like there must be something wrong with us. As one woman told the New York Times, “her family doctor keeps telling her that her symptoms can’t be perimenopause because she’s still having her period sometimes. She said she’s ‘given up trying to educate her.’”
It’s even worse for Black women. The Washington Post has reported that Black women “have a higher risk of experiencing hot flashes but are less likely to be offered effective hormone replacement therapy.”
As if the symptoms weren’t bad enough, the lack of knowledge and medical guidance are downright maddening. We need information. We need research and funding and healthcare providers who can tell us that it’s “just stress” or that we’re “too young for menopause.” We need help. And we need to know we’re not alone in this hot and sweaty wild ride.
Just because perimenopause – and the eventual transition to menopause – are natural and normal, that doesn’t mean we have to suffer through it in silence. Keep talking about it with your friends. You aren’t alone and you aren’t losing your mind. Talk to your doctor until you get the information and help you need. And if your doctor can’t give that to you, it might be time time to find a new doctor.