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The Silence and Stigma Around Menopause and Mental Health Must End

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If you’re struggling with self-judgment, check out The Mighty’s No Shame group. It’s a safe space to share how you’re feeling with other people who get it.

Honesty. It’s the entire backbone of my autism blog. Being honest even when it hurts may help others, but it also makes you vulnerable and could alienate you, so honesty comes with some risk. Honesty can have both good and bad consequences, but pretending, lying and hiding have consequences, too. Sometimes, honesty can help someone else which makes your vulnerability, at times, feel somewhat selfish.

Stepping out of my autism lane and being honest about a new topic in this article is risky, but I believe it’s worth the risk. This is not a cry for help or a “look at me” or a “feel bad for me” post, this is an honest, hopeful and what I hope will be helpful, post for someone else.

This winter really sucked. Yeah, I know it wasn’t terribly cold, we had virtually no snow and there was not some catastrophic event in my family to quantify a high ranking on the suck meter, but it sucked nonetheless. There were a few minor setbacks. My 89-year-old dad’s spinal surgery was hard on him and my family. There was another annoying, but gratefully benign, breast biopsy that made me second guess my personal medical choices moving forward. A payroll/contract issue with my employer that caused me to stop doing what I love for three and a half weeks until it was sorted out. My kids not needing me in the way they used to need me, and then toss in a little seasonal affective disorder (SAD) with some major hormonal changes. And finally, top it off with a global pandemic and you have yourself a genuine bona fide “depressive episode.”

Yep, that’s what my doctor called it, a “depressive episode brought on by seasonal affective disorder and perimenopause/menopause.” Mother Nature is kind of an asshole.

I am typically a happy, albeit stressed and anxious person. I love to help others, be a go-to and make sure everyone feels happy, loved and accepted. A friend once referred to me as “uber-compassionate and an overthinker.” Pretty good description, but in the throes of depression, it can be a terrible combination. Regardless of whether those qualities are either good or detrimental, it was very difficult to be anything that even resembled myself deep down in the rabbit hole I dug and set up home in for months. And the fact that I had so much… my health, three amazing kids, my family, friends, a job I love, a home, food, etc. made the guilt of how I felt so much worse, that I burrowed even deeper into my hole.

For most of two months, I would wake up, paste a smile on my face, pack my kids’ lunches, take them to the bus and then crawl right back into bed. I wasn’t needed in the way I used to be needed by them, so it was much easier for me to slip away and welcome the winter darkness of my bedroom. It was a new, unsettling feeling, this burrowing, but the heaviness of my wintertime comforter seemed to complement the heaviness I felt in my entire body, so I all too easily accepted and welcomed this new feeling. Sleep was my best friend. Waking hours were my enemy. I did not eat much, I did not put makeup on, I did not vacuum (we have a very hairy dog so, yeah, this is gross), I did not “care” because caring took too much energy, energy that seemed to have blown away with the autumn leaves.

I either withdrew from people or when I was around others, I pretended I was “fine” or minimized my mood by calling it a “funk.” I would post happy, fun Facebook pics and make excuses (or be grateful when I had a legit excuse) to miss social gatherings. The thought of smiling and pretending sent me right back to bed. I would feel heartbroken and angry when friends who I have always supported didn’t seem to support me. Then, when one would call, I would either pretend again or push them away. None of it made sense, none of it felt like me because I was not me.

Only my husband and one of my girlfriends knew how really bad it was, but it was mostly my husband who saw the worst of it. He didn’t understand it. He didn’t recognize me. He wanted to “fix” me. He would go from feeling helpless to feeling frustrated I couldn’t just be happy on an unseasonably warm February day. Although this “depressive episode” was triggered by the season, a suddenly sunny, warm day didn’t just magically “fix” it or me. It was when I lost a significant amount of weight and my husband threatened to hospitalize me for nourishment, that I realized I couldn’t do this alone. It was then I reached out for help.

After some talk therapy and medication, I’m feeling better. Still not where I want to be, but better than where I was. Why am I sharing this on such a public forum? Because when I eventually did confide to a few friends (who are all my age or thereabouts), they were like, “OMG, me too!” Or, “I totally get it.” Or, “I’ve been in that hole too,” but, they were also pretending to be “fine” (damn I hate that word) for the sake of others.

Why do we women hide at a time when we so desperately need to be found? Why do we say we are “fine,” when we feel so insignificant? Why don’t we let others in when we are trying so hard to get out?

One doctor told me we are quick to point the finger at hormones and mood swings when women are pregnant. Hormones are also blamed for the havoc they wreak on our body and our psyche following pregnancy, causing some women to struggle terribly with postpartum depression, yet there is so little in the literature (or that is discussed publicly) about what hormones do to women’s mental and emotional health upon entering menopause. Sure, we have the funny memes about sticking our head in the freezer due to hot flashes, and we can relate to the angry outbursts Kitty has on “That 70’s Show,” but what about the depression that hits just as we women are entering a new phase of our lives? One where our kids are finding their own paths and we are trying to find a new path for ourselves to travel without their constant companionship. No memes about menopause, hormones and depression because it’s not really f***ing funny.

So, like I said, this is not a “poor me” moment, this is not a “look at me” moment, this is an honest “look at us” moment. For all of us women approaching that age when life (empty nest, aging parents, career change, reconnecting with your spouse, etc.) and biology are throwing all kinds of shit at you, you are not alone.

Please, please don’t crawl under the covers or go down the rabbit hole by yourself. If you need time in the hole alone, I get it, but please take your phone with you and after you have some time to yourself, call or text another woman, because I promise you, she has been in that hole before and she might just know the way out. More importantly, don’t be ashamed or guilt-ridden about how you are feeling, or “how much you have” or feel weak that you can’t “snap out of it” because although the chemistry in your brain may be wreaking this havoc, it is not all in your head.

Just like other illnesses, if you have depression or anxiety, a therapist, a doctor or a psychiatrist can provide you with tools, strategies and possibly some medication that will help you pull yourself out of the hole and feel like yourself again.

For those who may roll their eyes or mock this post, all I can say is I hope if one day you end up in that hole, you have a partner, a family member, a friend, a support person who will not dismiss or overlook your absence, but who will believe you, find you and stretch out their hand to the bottom of the hole where you have taken up residence and help you find the way out.

You don’t need to comment or like this, just share it with someone who might be down in the hole alone by shining a light on them, reaching out your hand and reminding them they are not alone.

For those who are hurting or isolated or depressed, please stop hiding. Look up and let someone see you because I promise, many will see themselves reflected in your eyes.

Original photo by author

Originally published: May 1, 2020
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