Updated: Feb 28
This week we talk to two incredible women, both strong and smart and brave and human. There is a lot of conversation about the menopause at the moment. Positive talk, reframing it in our minds as a new opportunity, a new chapter and a rebirth. And it is this for an increasing amount of women. But we live in a world where research is not equal. Our understanding of the symptoms and treatment of menopause is painfully retarded by the lack of understanding of the impacts from a male dominated research sector who don't see the subject matter as of priority importance. Did you know that one drug was found to have a great curative effect on PMS cramping and period pain but couldn't get funding to follow the signs to their scientific conclusion. That drug was viagra.
These two stories show the polarised experiences of menopause, from one walk in the park doddle, to another agonising and protracted diagnosis and treatment. Please share this post with your male and female friends. It shows the breath of experience between two fit, healthy and highly intelligent women who both run phenomenal businesses.
...when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid
/hɪˈstɛrɪk(ə)l affected by or deriving from wildly uncontrolled emotion. "Janet became hysterical and began screaming"
The nervous disease originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus; literally "of the womb," from Latin hystericus "of the womb," from Greek hysterikos "of the womb, suffering in the womb," from hystera "womb," from PIE *udtero-, variant of *udero- "abdomen, womb, stomach"
A huge debt of gratitude to Birgitta Curtin and Nicola Byrne, two firm and fabulous friends for sharing their stories with Another Mother World.
BIRGITTA CURTIN, THE BURREN SMOKEHOUSE
Birgitta, when did you first become aware of changes that were brought about by the beginning of the menopause?
Probably around 49, 50, around then I think, there was no one key moment.
And what were the first signs.
Hot flashes, maybe hormonal swings a bit, mood changes, having said that, nothing major. Cramps, I did have cramps in my feet and legs, but that may not have been menopausal, it may have been age. I know our magnesium levels can deplete and as a result, I'm a big fan of taking magnesium either as a capsule or a spray oil to relieve that joint pain.
Were the hot flashes at night time?
Yes, they were, but they really weren't a big deal. Once I increased my exercise I saw a really big improvement. I've alway been into fitness but I needed that extra intensity at that time to deal with the symptoms I was having. For me there is a complete correlation between general wellness, sleep and exercise during that time.
Did you have to take medication?
No, never ever. I think nutrition plays a big part. I am passionate about the quality of the food we eat, everything has to made from scratch, no processed foods. I take plenty of omega 3 and 6 oil, I'm in a privileged position, I founded The Burren Smokehouse, which uses only organic and wild salmon, so it's easy for me to eat nature's medicine every day. Nuts, walnuts and almonds, I always include them in my diet. It must be said that I always try to avoid administering antibiotics to both myself and children and could count on one hand the times the family have had to resort to that. I think that makes your body stronger to heal itself, it has to work a little harder without those foreign agents in your system. Touch wood, I have been really lucky.
The fact that I didn't have a huge issue with menopause may be linked to the quality of my diet throughout my life, but of course genetics have a huge part to play. My mother never had any bother that we know of. But also I had four natural births and I breastfed, all of that helps when it comes to menopause. Breastfeeding helps with hormonal releases and management, particularly oxytocin.
So how long did the period of menopause related symptoms last?
So, wow, let me think, maybe around 48, my periods started getting lighter, I'm guessing maybe four, four and a half years from start to finish, it was wonderful.
So for you it was a really positive experience?
Absolutely, I mean I had to work on it, this is a natural progression. I would have asked my older sisters about their experiences, one of them would have taken a natural supplement,
but no medication. It's probably genetics, but we all live a very healthy life. It's not all roses, running a business, there are continuous stresses but I wouldn't have had extreme stress.
Do you feel different out the other side than before?
It's led to a more even life, not to have to go through periods every month. They were never really a problem for me, a certain amount of pain but nothing dramatic, the mood would go down and I would be tired, but that's all over now. I have only positive impacts to report.
BIRGITTA CURTIN, THE BURREN SMOKEHOUSE
NICOLA BYRNE, RISKEYE, CLOUD 90, 11890
Lets start by clarifying that your gynecological history is complicated. When did things get even more complicated?
I've been treated for endometriosis for thirty years, but we discovered, only recently, that there was another metriosis called Adenomyosis, its in the same family, but it's a completely separate condition. It occurs where there is an extra layer between the muscle of the womb and the lining of the womb which bleeds into itself, it's invisible until you cut into the womb so although, throughout adulthood I've been having bits of my insides removed, it was never discovered and it never cured the pain. I had had three normal healthy childbirths so no-one even suspected that there was an issue.
So when did your situation start to advanced?
I was managing and medicating the pain for about ten days out of every month and we're not talking nurofen or solpadeine here, I was prescribed pills that were in the opiate family, heavy artillary. When I was about forty five I started to experience night sweats, I would wake up and there was a well of water between my breasts, it was an intense and weird feeling. Around that time I also started grinding my teeth, and waking up with my nails so embedded into the palm of my hands that I was bleeding. I'm a sleepwalker, so I just assumed it was a little accompaniment to the sweats and let it go. It finally culminated in complete memory loss. I'd be mid sentence and I'd forget what I was saying. I'd lost the language, the names, the nouns, everything. All my recent memory was gone, it wasn't like 'Why did I come upstairs?' It's very different to that, more fundamental. I felt my jaw didn't remember the language and how to form it. Fifteen minutes trying to remember the word 'cup'. I had previously had a photographic memory for numbers, you call me out a ten digit number and I could hold it in my head all day and the day after. I couldn't read and repeat a two digit number, straight after you'd said it, they simply wouldn't stay in my brain. It all came to a head because of the teeth grinding, there's a little bone in your ear that gets damaged by extreme grinding. Advised by a friend, I went and had a brain scan with a specialist in Belfast that she was seeing. According to him, teeth grinding is often an early indicator of menopause. I went back to my own gynecologist and told him all my symptoms including the teeth grinding. He told me that none of them sounded normal as menopause symptoms - I asked him to tell my what normal is. He gave me a list 36 symptoms and told said that the five I'd just mentioned weren't on the list. Disheartened, undiagnosed and now chronically debilitated, my anxiety levels were going up, and by this stage, I couldn't go out in public.
Nicola, you must have been terrified?
I was convinced I was loosing my mind but I wasn't terrified. I was so sick that I hadn't noticed where I'd got to. It happens so slowly with a creeping acceptance and it's only when you look back that you realise that this slow descent had been happening for months and months. I'd had some horrible social situations with intensely heavy bleeding. I really thought I had miscarried or that something was really wrong. Other women were saying, well that's normal. So all the symptoms individually others could relate to but no-one was suffering all of them like me. The other big clue for me, a weird one, was that I would get goose pimples down one leg and not the other. Which I now know is due to a drop in my oestrogen levels. My doctor told me that that was medically and clinically impossible, to which I replied - have a look at my legs.
It turns out that the teeth grinding was how we finally cracked it. I've had the same gynecologist for a quarter of a century, he's taken out my insides, my fallopian tubes, he's cleaned out my endometriosis, he has my complete medical history. He sent me for a blood test, and the results came back 'normal'. He then sent me for an ovarian scan. The nurse, with a surprised look on her face, asked if I was in to donate eggs, she'd never seen anyone of my age so fertile. This irony amidst a sense of everything I knew myself to be, falling apart, so I'm a baby making machine and you can't tell me there's anything wrong?
I started crying and left, I felt that no-one could hear or understand me. Thankfully, my consultant was listening and persistent and asked for an in depth report of the days I felt worst. I told him I was at my worst, I'd lost my confidence, I'd lost my way, there was no point to life. I didn't want to get up in the morning, I'd no energy, I'd lost all my inner me and couldn't even see it in glimpses.
Everybody was telling me I was depressed, I needed to walk more, it's just the time of life. And all the time I was telling myself, this isn't right there's something very wrong going on here. I knew my mental health was really good, I've got great self awareness, I'd gone through my divorce and I was really happy, I knew I was happy. We changed how we did the blood tests, we decided to do a test every week for four weeks. Everything came back normal although it was acknowledged that I was peri-menopausal.
At this point, I was not only demotivated, I was incredibly short tempered to the point of being beyond aggressive. I'm normally disruptive as a person, everyone expects that of me, but the level of aggression was asylum worthy, it didn't even take a trigger. The nails digging into my palms at night was like a pent up anger. I've never really felt angry about anything but now, I was hysterically angry. I couldn't figure out why my fuse was set at zero. It was like having extreme road rage without being in a car. You just wanted to take a baseball bat a smash and smash and smash until you felt better but you knew you never would. So my consultant, recognising that there could be a crime committed, said, whenever you feel like that, go into the Coombe and we'll do bloods every day for the whole month. After fourteen days he said to me that nothing was showing.
I felt done. I know I looked fine, but I wasn't. I was making stupid decisions and I'm not a stupid person. As a last resort, he wrote me a prescription for oestrogen. He told me, Nicola, you're at the stage three endometriosis, if you start taking oestrogen now, you'll be having a hysterectomy within twelve months. The minute I started taking the oestrogen in patch form, everything normalised instantly. After two years of oestrogen, as predicted, the hysterectomy had to happen. What had finally helped one issue, was seriously aggravating the other to the point where, once again, I couldn't function. The hysterectomy brought its own complications but it needed to happen.
What has irritated me more than anything throughout this whole process was that nobody told me. They tell you about puberty, they tell you about childbirth but nobody tells you about the menopause. Nobody mentioned that we're the first generation of women to work through the menopause and still be expected to function normally. Nobody knows the impact, nobody knows the repercussions. We're all living it as if it's normal, it may be natural, but it's not normal. I'm a particularly high functioning person in terms of mental acuity, I can move between a lot of things and hold them all simultaneously. Before the oestrogen, my capacity went down to 30%, I lost my language skills, I lost my numerical skills, I lost my car.
Now, I'm back to 85% on a really good day. Because I still have ovaries, I can't control or predict my body's natural oestrogen production, I have to watch out for the goose bumps and monitor and self medicate with patches.
Once I get to full menopause, my consultant will remove my ovaries and I'll be on to the next stage. The most shocking thing for me was the loss of confidence. That's so not me. Oestrogen helps confidence, and when its not there, the confidence goes with it. Apparently they are studying this in rats at the moment. That's really terrifying. After a hysterectomy you're exhausted and you're looking at a two year full recovery. It is a vital organ, (in a woman) and all your blood passes through it, so when they take it out, your body has to find a new way to do things.
Women need to know how bad it can get. This is not to say that everyone will experience it but some do. When I spoke publicly about my experience recently a woman fell into arms sobbing afterwards. I know your story she said, it's mine too, they gave me valium. I asked how long for and she told me she's been on it for ten years. Exactly the same story, normal blood tests, couldn't find anything wrong. It's not right.
For me, no amount of hot yoga or healthy diet could fix this, it had to be oestrogen. If I was anyone else other than me, having gone through this, I'd have scuttled back home and given up. And I don't know what's ahead of me, what other conspiracies my body has in in store for me.
Here's my advice, If you work in an office and a perfectly lovely and reasonable woman aged 45-55 suddenly becomes ratty and irrational, give them a bit of slack, it might not be their fault. This is not about excusing bad behaviour, but life and women's bodies are complex. Women hide it, who wants to be seen as the crazy one. If I had been a pilot, medical science would have indicated that I'm fit to fly, but I'd have grounded myself.
NICOLA BYRNE, RISKEYE, CLOUD 90, 11890
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