This is the first in a series of conversations with women in transition. When women claim space for their story, share it and then let it go, they mirror back to other women the messy magnificence of menopause. It’s a portal to understand ourselves and the world better. We will all walk this journey of menopause at some stage of our lives; better to share it holding the hand of another.
I first met PD in June 2014 when she was 49 years old, working in a high stress managerial position. Two years later she was forced to leave her job due to a traumatic nervous breakdown with overwhelming anxiety, night panic attacks and a growing sense of isolation.
BR: Can you remember what was the main trigger for your breakdown?
PD: I was under a massive amount of stress at work and I wasn’t doing anything to support my own self-care. My symptoms were spiraling out of control, the worst was waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. Medication was a way of managing and it was at this time I started using alcohol and tobacco to calm me down. It was a shock that meditation and yoga were totally ineffective as in the past I had been a dedicated practitioner. I remember spending 3 days in my room feeling too vulnerable and anxious to be in the world. That time was touch and go for me. I felt like I was close to dying.
What was the response of your doctors?
The doctors told me my symptoms were a result of past trauma that it wasn’t physiological, that I was mentally unwell and I had a disease. My blood tests came back normal, hormones were ok. There was very little interest in or exploration of my biochemistry. That was when I decided to dedicate myself to understanding from a biochemical point of view what was going on with my brain, nervous system and hormones and then to learn how I could manage my symptoms through self-care.
Was there a turning point when you realised you were in the midst of perimenopause?
It wasn’t until I had a Dutch salivary hormone test and smartDNA genomic wellness test that the picture started forming. My nervous system was being triggered to a large extent by hormone imbalance – very high estrogen, non existent progesterone, high cortisol and low DHEA, an adrenal hormone. I also had genetic vulnerabilities around clearing estrogen from my body. That helped explain why I had such debilitating PMS and periods that would often wipe out whole weekends.
It seems like you are very driven to understand more about your health, that there was a point when self-mastery collided with the right information.
Yes, I realised pretty early on that it was up to me to do the work and the self discovery. I started researching the link between genetics and neurotransmitters like GABA, dopamine and adrenaline and realised genetically I was compromised in the way I metabolised these molecules in the brain. It made sense to me that alcohol was my go to because of its calming effect on receptors in the brain. When I started taking supplemental progesterone, amino acids and extra nutrients, I began to feel more balanced and way less reactive than before.
What else did you do?
I started prioritising my own self-care. I changed how I was eating, started to exercise. Before I couldn’t relax enough to meditate but I spent weeks at the edge of my fathers bed meditating whilst he was struggling with a life threatening illness. So even in the midst of my family trauma, I was still managing to function way better than before.
It was at his bedside that the realisation finally landed, that the little girl in me was addicted to the flight, fight, freeze nervous system overdrive. But now I was more resourced to make this one all important choice: to own up, grow up and show up for myself as a mature, present woman in order to be available for my father in the death process.
How would you describe Perimenopause for you?
It has been very distressing and traumatic, exhausting but empowering in so many ways. I took the time to learn, understand and educate myself how these dramatic highs and lows of estrogen and progesterone have a role to play in my night time panic attacks and anxiety. I give my body way more credit for getting me here all these years knowing what I know now.
How do you feel about menopause and where are you at now?
I haven’t had a period for a few months now. Strangely, I welcome this new feeling of hot flushes as I see them as anxiety/panic in another disguise. They are messengers of too much stress and overwhelm in my life. I lean into them, noticing where and when they tell me I’m off balance and what I need to do. Hot flushes are like a power surge; its energy, it’s tangible, its uncomfortable, it makes me move and breathe. I feel alive and empowered to manage my own biochemistry rather than it controlling me, freeing me up to be more of who I want to be in the world.
The gift of journeying through perimenopause to menopause is that I am letting go of the trauma cycle of my youth, the addiction to stress and self-abandonment. I have a healthier relationship with my body that’s not in addictions. It’s like a worn out skin that I’m shedding, transforming the tired old caregiver role to create space to care for myself. This is the real journey: our capacity to transform our relationship with ourselves, stepping into more maturity and wisdom for the next phase of life and death.