By Glow Living Member Natalie Nickel Kavanaugh
Recently when opening Facebook, a memory came up from 2009. I posted that I had gained 15 lbs seemingly overnight. Even though I wasn’t doing anything differently, I suddenly had a muffin top and couldn’t button my jeans. I was 46 years so I thought middle age. Ugh, middle age. Along with the weight gain, I started to experience severe anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. I made an appointment with my GP to discuss the anxiety and he recommended I see a shrink. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and during my first visit, he diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and prescribed an antidepressant for anxiety and a benzodiazepine for insomnia. I left his office thinking, ok, now I know what is wrong with me. I have a mental disorder.
I didn’t advertise that I was on psych meds. People were being prescribed antidepressants left and right but I felt embarrassed. They did seem to help. I felt less anxiety and slept better. Although, I continued to gain weight and it was all in my stomach. There were days when my stomach was so bloated, I looked 5 months pregnant. During my annual Advanced Gynecology appointment I told my doctor about my symptoms and she said I was probably in perimenopause, the gradual transition when the ovaries begin to make less estrogen. I took the FSH blood test and yes, my estrogen levels were low. I was on the journey through menopause and it could take years.
I asked my mom about menopause and she said it was no big deal. She had a hysterectomy, went on hormone replacement, and was just fine. My sisters are a decade older than me so I asked them. Neither one had a problem. None of my friends my age seemed to be suffering. Each woman experiences different symptoms. Some have no symptoms at all. I seemed to have every symptom. I grew up thinking that when we go through menopause, we dry up like raisins, put on our elastic waist pants, let our hair go gray and stop wearing makeup. Although my mom said it was no big deal, that is precisely what she did. It was the end of her sexuality. I still felt young and sexy and had a daughter in kindergarten. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
I plodded along for several years feeling pretty much awful but telling myself that this is what happens to every woman. Oddly every post-menopausal woman I talked to about it didn’t seem to have much advice. Others didn’t want to talk about it. I even had a female coworker make a snide remark about another female coworker who was suffering through the transition. Rather than it be a right of passage that we all support each other through, it seemed like it was a taboo topic. Perhaps that was just the women I talked to but even my ob/gyn seemed uncomfortable. I could tell she just didn’t know what to say, as if its all just a mystery. She did tell me she watched a businesswoman, a CEO, fall apart. Oh great, I thought. Even the powerful get taken out by this. Weight gain, irritability, depression, anxiety, peeing when you laugh or cough (incontinence), hot flashes and night sweats, heart palpitations, memory issues – PMS on steroids – that could potentially last years.
The hot flashes started in 2014. I had heard about them but didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t glow and flush, I turned bright red and sweat would drip down my face. I would wake up every night at 3 am sopping wet and cold. On top of that, I started experiencing memory lapses and would forget what I was saying mid-sentence. I was achy and bloated and miserable. I was interviewing for a job at the time. I remember being in an interview when a bead of sweat rolled down the side of my cheek. I didn’t get that job or any other job during that time. It’s like I had a flashing sign over my head that said “Menopausal Woman”. My last period was epic. I had an ovarian cyst that burst and the pain was excruciating. My lady parts decided to end with an explosion. Fitting for the five-year build up.
I tried black cohosh, flaxseed, herbal teas, and acupuncture. I practiced yoga, meditated, walked, and swam. I used clary sage, peppermint oil, lavender, geranium, basil, and ylang-ylang. I carried crystals. They helped somewhat but not completely. I was still very symptomatic even after my period ended in 2014. For two more years I suffered. Finally, last December 2016, I decided I needed to try a different approach. I was still taking antidepressants and benzos. They were prescribed, I did not abuse them. After a while, though they tend to stop working because our bodies build up resistance and, to top it off, we become physically addicted to them. I certainly did not want to take a higher dose which is what my doctor suggested. I was also drinking more wine than ever. The vicious circle of feeling horrible, drinking, taking psych meds, and feeling horrible again was taking over my life. All of it had to stop. I started the new year by cleansing my body of everything. I weaned myself off of the psych meds which was very difficult. I quit drinking. I quit coffee as well. I didn’t sleep for weeks but I was determined to get all the toxic substances out of my body. I started taking D3, Magnesium, and B12. As suddenly as the weight came on, it melted off. I lost 27 lbs in 3 months.
All the symptoms melted away as well except for the hot flashes and night sweats. I tried to cope with the hot flashes but my quality of life was pretty bad. Dripping sweat all the time is not fun! I went on a very low-dose birth control pill that I take every other day. It is a combo of estrogen and progestin. Bioidenticals don’t work for me because they contain soy and I can’t take soy. Now, apart from the pill, I am off meds and alcohol and have cut back considerably on caffeine. It is wonderful. I feel like I have my life back! People tell me how great I look. I feel like I made it through to the other side and am able to tell women about it. I wish I had known all of the things I know now before the journey began. When our bodies go through this change, we have to be kind to ourselves and our bodies, almost as if we are pregnant. Beer, wine, and cocktails are empty calories and can actually slow down our metabolism. I’m sure my evening vino was wreaking havoc, making me bloated and the hot flashes worse. Alcohol and coffee can add to irritability, anxiety, anger, rage, and depression. Even two glasses or two cups of coffee per day can be too much. I’m sure an occasional glass or cup is fine, but I feel so great I decided to stop indefinitely. Taking psych meds can be helpful but add their own level of problems if we are addictive personalities. Doctors should be aware and careful when prescribing. Our bodies are changing, hormone levels are changing. Substances can add to everything getting out of balance.
Women need to embrace this time. We need to talk to each other and compare notes. It’s a different experience for all of us but we can learn from each other. It’s not the end of our womanhood, it’s the beginning of the second half of our lives. We are breaking free of the bondage of periods and worrying about getting pregnant. It’s a time to rejoice! We don’t have to get old and dry up like raisins and it’s certainly not a mental disorder. I look forward to a time when menopausal and post-menopausal women are revered. We are incredibly strong and wise and sexy. I’m even thinking of letting my hair go gray. Elastic waist pants? Only if they are yoga pants.