I’m sure that to many of you, perimenopause feels like something that is light-years away. You might still be on birth control, or maybe you’ve had a child or two. The last thing you are thinking about is what will happen in another 15 to 20 years.
Well, I’m not here to scare you, but instead to throw my arm around your shoulder and give you a girl-to-girl heads up about what’s to come. I’m 53 and have been in peri since 2014.
Yup, seven years and still going strong. I’ll tell you what you might not know and what I wish I knew when I was your age.
What is perimenopause?
Perimenopause is the time when your body starts its transition into full-on menopause, marking the end of your reproductive years. It can vary greatly in terms of how long it lasts (although the average is about four years) and at what age you start noticing symptoms—as early as your mid-30s, or possibly sometime in your 40s.
What are the symptoms of perimenopause?
Websites tell you to expect “changes” during perimenopause, but they don’t define what those changes may look like. If you look up perimenopause online, you’ll find symptoms that include things like irregular periods, hot flashes, sleep problems, mood changes, urinal leakage, and vaginal dryness.
Okay, you think, I can handle that.
No one tells you how far the pendulum swings with some of these symptoms. Plus, there are many other symptoms that you don’t find on WebMD or Mayo Clinic. But I’ll tell you the no-holds-barred truth about how I’ve experienced the symptoms of perimenopause.
When I entered perimenopause
In my 20s I was on birth control and had that incredible locked-in 28-day cycle. Between my children’s births in my early 30s, I was back on the pill and enjoyed the predictability of Aunt Flo’s arrival. I got off the pill after my second baby because my tubes were tied.
For the rest of my 30s and early 40s, my cycle varied a bit. But when I hit my mid 40s, things started to go haywire. I was in no way prepared by my friends, family, or my gynecologist.
For starters, my cycles became short, like 22-24 days. I sometimes had two periods in one month, which sucked. My mother had a hysterectomy in her early 40s, so I couldn’t look at her history to see how long perimenopause may last for me.
About three years ago, I had a 50-day cycle and was thrilled. I thought for sure I was *this close* to menopause and could say au revoir to shark week. But, alas, the subsequent two cycles were 16 and 19 days, respectively. I had no idea that my cycle lengths could swing so wildly at totally random times.
My symptoms of perimenopause so far
Before perimenopause, I was fortunate to have gone decades with little or no premenstrual breast tenderness. Then out of nowhere, my boobs became crazy tender and sore before my period, and sometimes the pain continued right through to my next cycle. I never knew breast pain could last so long and still be normal. I used to tell my husband not to even *think* about my chest, or I will indeed feel it and suffer. This phenomenon ended out of nowhere, just as it started.
Not only has the duration between my cycles changed, but the cramp intensity took an uptick as well. My cramps became so painful for about a year that I had to take twice as much acetaminophen as before to make it through the day. (I know, I know, acetaminophen is no match for cramps, but I can’t take Advil because of stomach issues.) Thank goodness that phase has passed.
You know that moodiness you feel while you’re PMSing? Yeah, well, that comes and goes randomly now; I’m my own version of Jekyll and Hyde. In mere hours, I have gone from crying at car commercials to despising my husband for chewing food.
Hot flashes start at your feet and then work their way up your body until you are a human fireplace. Fortunately, they only last a minute or two for me. Unfortunately, I had them for two weeks, twice. There is no rhyme or reason for this.
I put on six pounds in about three months though I made no changes to my eating and workout routine. Other fun stuff that defines perimenopause are constipation, brain fog, insomnia, fatigue, and Lord only knows what else.
Learning to trust my gut and go with the flow
I’d always been lucky that day two was the only heavy day of my cycle. But then, for a couple of cycles during perimenopause, clots and clumps of blood came out when I was peeing, even though I’d had a super tampon in for about an hour. TMI?
The first time I saw the clots, I thought I was hemorrhaging, so I called my gynecologist’s office to ask about the blobs. The nurse spoke calmly and explained the rule of thumb: if you soak through one maxi pad an hour for four hours, you should call the office. After that, they would instruct you to go to the emergency room.
But it’s been years since I’ve used maxi pads! And even if I did wear one, who has time to go to the bathroom hourly to check on the situation? So, on the phone, I asked the nurse what they’d do for me in the emergency room. She said, “Frankly, I don’t know.”
I ran out to get maxi pads and tried my best to check them once an hour. I did not hit the rule of thumb, which comforted me — then and during future wild bleeding incidents. I decided to trust my gut that I would instinctively know if something were wrong.
The bottom line: You can’t know exactly what to expect
All of these things were either startling, upsetting, surprising, or frustrating. I had to learn to go with the, ahem, flow. I discovered that female hormones are some insane puppeteers and that the strings pulled were my physical and mental selves—and that I had no choice but to accept that. Our bodies change; it’s okay and normal.
The takeaway for me, that I am now passing on to you, my friends, is that this craziness is, in fact, par for the course. I encourage you to discuss your perimenopause symptoms with your girlfriends, cousins, or the lady behind you at the grocery store who is quickly pulling her hair up in a hairband and fanning the back of her neck with her hand even though it’s chilly in the store.
The men in your life will not get it. At all. But feel free to use your “crazy hormones” card to gain their sympathy and have them fold the laundry, do the dishes, get take-out or skip sex. But shhh, you didn’t hear that from me.