I got my first period when I was ten years old and in fifth grade. Suffice it to say, I didn’t know what the heck was going on.
That’s not quite true: I knew enough to understand that the blood I found in the toilet on that November afternoon was probably my period. I knew enough to go find my mom and ask for help. I didn’t understand why this was happening to my body when I still felt like a kid — and I had no clue what was going to happen next.
That’s kind of how I’ve felt for the past few years as I’ve entered perimenopause. The big difference is that even when I was a young-for-my-age girl getting her period for the first time, it felt like there were many more resources available than there are now. Experiencing perimenopause has mostly felt like flying blind — and I know that I’m not alone.
When I got my period, there was no internet, but there was an abundance of support out there for me. First of all, there was my mom, my best friend’s mom, my best friend’s big sister, all of whom were able to fill me in on the details of having a monthly period — the good, the bad, the gory. These ladies had a lot to say on the subject of menstruation, that’s for sure.
There were also many easy-to-find books on the subject, including What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls, which is probably terribly outdated by today’s standards, but which I dog-eared, underlined, and read over and over until I felt I had a handle on what the hell was happening to my own body.
I had resources, support and knowledge, along with wise women around me who could tell me in vivid detail and with confidence what it means to be a menstruating young woman. It felt like there were structures in place in society — rituals of sorts for this rite-of-passage.
This is not the case right now. I feel lost and I feel clueless.
First, let’s talk about support. Basically, it feels like the women who’ve gone through menopause don’t want to talk about it or have basically forgotten the experience.
Take my mom, for example. Despite the fact that my mother went through perimenopause and menopause already, she barely remembers it. She doesn’t remember if her periods were irregular, if she had heavy bleeding, if sex was different, if she had other odd symptoms.
She remembers the hot flashes (I do too — she wasn’t shy about complaining about them), but the rest was a bit of a blur to her, probably because she was busy working full-time and being a single mom to her two daughters, all while dealing with hot flashes. I get it — who wants to recollect that stuff?
Other women of her generation don’t really talk about stuff like that, so I’m not about to call my great aunt or my best friend’s mom. I have girlfriends who are going through perimenopause like me, but they are just as clueless as I am. They are probably the best resources out there so far, though. I’ve noticed in general that this generation of women is much more ready and willing to discuss menopause than my mom’s generation (go Gen X!).
Still, it feels like the wild west out there in terms of getting helpful, accurate information about what’s happening to my body, what will happen to my body in the future, and what I can do to manage the bizarre, uncomfortable changes that are happening.
So far, the medical providers I’ve seen haven’t been much help either, and I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. I started noticing what I would consider perimenopause symptoms when I was about 42. The main thing I observed was that sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night with wet hair. I put two and two together and realized that I was probably having hot flashes. I planned to see a gynecologist about this, and to discuss menopause in general... THEN the pandemic hit.
During the pandemic, my hot flashes started to get worse, and would also now come in the middle of the day, at random times.
Plus, they were coupled with awful sleep, especially the week before my period came. PMS started to mean that it was impossible to fall asleep — I felt like a live wire at bedtime. Then, I’d sleep for a few hours, only to find myself wide awake at 4 or 5 am. It was as though my body was lacking whatever ingredient (a hormone probably!) that made it possible to fall back asleep for the first 42 years of my life.
Finally, two years after I first decided it would be good to talk to a gynecologist about my symptoms, the pandemic was receding and I made an appointment with a new gynecologist, one who supposedly specialized in menopause. I was 44 years old, and had been having symptoms for two years or so.
After doing an exam, she asked me if I had any questions or concerns. I’ll never forget how our conversation went: “
Well, I have been experiencing some perimenopause symptoms,” I said, going on to describe my hot flashes, insomnia and migraines.
The doctor raised her eyebrows, and looked down at my chart. “You’re too young to be in perimenopause,” she said.
I fumbled saying something along the lines of that for now, I was going to try to exercise more and go to sleep earlier, and consider things like birth control pills and/or HRT further down the road, if needed. “Well, if your symptoms are this bad now, you’re going to have an awful time as you get closer to 50,” she said.
No one wants to talk about dry vaginas and post-coital bleeding, and this was not something I wanted to think about, let alone discuss with anyone. Plus, the bleeding made me sure that I was dying of some kind of cancer, despite a normal pap smear and pelvic exam a few months before.
Thankfully, this part of my saga has a happier ending. I made an appointment with a new gynecologist, who was lovely. She didn’t bat an eye when I told her I was experiencing signs of perimenopause. When I told her that the last gynecologist I’d been to had told me I was too young to be in perimenopause, I swear I saw her roll her eyes a little.
She looked at my previous pap smear results, gave me an exam, and assured me that the bleeding was likely from friction caused by dryness—and yes, this could be a symptom of perimenopause. She offered me a sample of lube, and sent me on my way.
I finally feel like maybe I’m starting to get more of a handle on the perimenopause thing. But I still feel kind of like I’ve been tossed out to sea. There’s this sense that if something else unusual happens to my body, I’m going to have to go back to square one — trying to figure out if this is some kind of peculiar perimenopause thing, and what (if anything) needs to happen next.
I guess I can take heart in knowing — at least in my own circles — that I’m not the only one who feels this way. My only hope is that the fact that Gen X is starting to talk about this stuff more openly means that we’ve paved the way for the next generation of middle-aged women to have a somewhat better experience — one with clearer info, more approachable, knowledgeable providers and tons more loving support.
Wendy Wisner is a writer and lactation consultant (IBCLC) whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Family Circle, ELLE, ABC News, Parents Magazine, Scary Mommy, Healthline, Fit Pregnancy, Your Teen Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at www.wendywisner.com.