For a long while I didn’t realise it was menopause that was impacting my energy and moods. I had been managing the CFS successfully (when I say successfully I mean I was functioning at about 80% of the pre CFS me, working again 4 days a week as a Business Analyst, doing exercise of the non-cardio variety, sleeping averagely, keeping positive despite the residual fear of illness). I was used to the ups and downs. ‘Managing’ meant finding a path somewhere in the middle that meant I could function as close to normal as possible.
I once read that people who have suffered with CFS subconsciously do a body check about every 3 minutes, checking pain levels and locations, energy levels and head fog. It’s fear of returning to the bedridden phase, and hardly surprising. But on top of an immune system that’s stuck in over active mode, it can’t be good to be over-actively monitoring the entire body, and the worry that comes with that.
I know that every time I get legitimately tired (by normal things that make everybody have a day when they feel below par) I will catch myself analysing. There will be a moment when fear passes through me like a wave of nausea, panic and dread all combined. I find the fact that I am ‘unsafe’ resides just below the surface and it sneaks in to remind me at irregular intervals. This can’t be a good thing to have lurking. I have, however, become quite good at dismissing it. Once life has been stripped back to the bones whereby all daily activities and thoughts and motivations cease in favour of just trying to get out of bed, you develop a way of living one day at a time and have a new sense of what’s truly important. You also have a sense of what the worst that can happen is! I don’t know if a therapist would say these things are good or bad but I doubt there is any therapy that can change it; I am strong and a survivor, I carry with me the good things I learned from the worst of the CFS…. I take time out, I walk in nature, I meditate, I greet the day with a smile, I am conscious of food choices and I play with my dog. But it is also a cold hard fact that I am unsafe. My body is crazy sensitive, it doesn’t react to medications, pollution, chemicals or stress the same way as other people’s bodies. It doesn’t always remember how to sleep, or it wants to sleep all the time. It won’t allow me to do all that I would like to do (although how much of this is based on my fear of pushing the boundaries back to the way I did things pre CFS is up for debate). Life is still good, don’t get me wrong. I know it could be far worse, and is for many people. I am thankful for the learning that has come from the challenges.
But it did seem unfair when menopause came (early) and threatened the precarious balance again. It’s hard enough I think to get your head around not having children. I used to ask myself ‘if I am not a Mum, who am I’. This was pre CFS and I think in hindsight the push to be ‘someone’ (if not a Mum) was a contributor to the burn out. They say that an emotional trauma combined with over exercise (I was in a new country, knew no one and exercise filled the hours) as well as some kind of infection is the trigger for CFS. The body is compromised and fighting on multiple fronts, then gets stuck fighting even when the infection has gone. From there it’s just a vicious circle, the anxiety of feeling drained and depleted piling on top of emotional trauma and over exercise… then the body starts screaming for sugar to get it moving, and giving it sugar of course only makes matters worse. The adrenals get completely out of whack, as do hormones potentially already out of whack from fertility treatment (I did fertility treatment for 4 years in a marriage prior to moving to Australia).
The first sign for me was that I started sleeping most of my weekend just to be able to get through the working week. I was dragging myself around, totally lifeless. The doctor initially sent me for iron injections (straight into my behind, ouch!). Iron wasn’t the only low reading, everything was dangerously low, but I guess you have to start somewhere, and CFS is a long time coming as a diagnosis (at least 6 months) because everything else must be ruled out first, from thyroid to cancer.
Anyhow….. two years later I was about 50% better. There had been 5 long months where I was in bed (and completely out to it) for all but 3 hours a day. When I think back now to that time it is kind of surreal. I remember the heaviest sleeps I have ever had, that went on for hours but never waking feeling better for it. I remember hearing cars coming down the driveway… (I was in a newish relationship – which was tricky – and my partner had a rural property on 80 acres of peace and quiet)… I remember hearing the dogs barking and thinking to myself I must move. I would will my body to move and my eyes to open but it just wouldn’t happen. It must have been like being in a coma, where you can hear things happening around you but are not able to show any signs of acknowledgement. It was really scary. I would be in this almost unconscious state so often, and on my own in the middle of nowhere, I knew I was vulnerable but I could not do a thing about it. Thank god for the dogs 🙂
Three years later, the relationship ended just as I was about to start back into the workforce. I moved into my own rented accommodation in the nearest small country town and begun working from home as an editor. Over the last year I had learnt how to make jewellery, taking a course to test my brain and see how I went. I loved the creativity and so I bolstered my editing wage with selling jewellery, then eventually (once I had some confidence in what my body could do) I worked part time in a women’s fashion store in the town also. As much as anything this was to get me out of the house and interacting with people again. It never ceases to amaze me that, when you look back, you can see that what you needed came to you when you needed it most. Not always the way you might have chosen it (I certainly didn’t want the upset of another failed relationship at a time when I was tentatively introducing more activities back into my life) but somehow you are shown the way, even if it is the path of more challenges. It’s our own unique journey… and it is as it should be.
Eventually I moved back to Melbourne and was well enough to go back to work as a Business Analyst. There were two or three years where my body functioned really well. Then I started to notice a few worrying signs but I put it down to the fact that I was carrying a heavy load on a rather challenging project. I was really enjoying it but it was one of those ‘all this to do in the shortest time possible, with the fewest resources possible’ kind of projects. Then I got my heart broken, big time (including a miscarriage that came out of the blue). And it was winter….. I retreated and I started to feel jaded and exhausted. I stopped doing all the things that I needed to do for maintenance for a while. I worked, I lay on the couch, I worked again. I noticed I felt hot quite often. My doctor did the blood tests and told me I wasn’t in peri-menopause yet. I put the mood swings down to a heart that was refusing to mend quickly and day after day without sunshine! But the moods got worse, horrible dark patches that struck suddenly and were all consuming. Even though I was back doing all the right things, eating well, taking my supplements, doing yoga and meditation, I seemed to have no control over these episodes of self-loathing that would strike every 3 or 4 weeks. I really didn’t look in the mirror for about two years, you know, I put my makeup on in the mornings in a robotic fashion, avoiding eye contact with myself. I was numb or angry, totally at the mercy of the waves that washed over me. I tried DHEA and Melatonin again but both made me feel unwell and neither made any sort of significant difference (I had taken these during the CFS but never got the results that others seemed to get, or at least I had a terrible time until my body accepted them to a degree). Then suddenly I had stomach issues, severe bloating, pain and what appeared to be the onset of food allergies. Everything was tested and scanned. I spent a lot of time researching stomach problems and food allergies. About a year into this my doctor retired and I had to pick a new doctor at the clinic. He started off by doing blood tests to gauge my levels (I thought for the CFS). When I went in for the results he said ‘ok, all is completely representative of post menopause’. My mouth opened and closed, then opened again and I asked him if he had just said ‘post’. He confirmed that he had, most definitely. I had just finished my period a week prior to this, on time as usual. When I told him this he said ‘well you won’t be having another one’…. and he was right. I had just turned 48 years old.
So, what to expect if you have or are managing CFS at menopause time? Well for me all I can say is that the symptoms were easily confused, or easily attributed to the very normal ups and downs of ongoing CFS. It certainly compromised the things that I had fought hard to get back on an even keel after the worst of the CFS. At first I was frustrated in myself for letting things slip but in hindsight I realise that it wasn’t my fault, it was out of my hands as such because it was menopause making its impact. I knew that things had started, the hot flushes were certainly a sign, but I thought that menopause would go on for years and I was still at the beginning. When I look back now, I think it had been happening for years; firstly confused by the after effects of fertility treatment (I went through severe bleeding episodes after I stopped fertility treatment), and then by the CFS. What I thought was the beginning was actually nearer to the end.
Energy levels certainly take a dive, and I think this is the most worrying symptom and the one you need to address quickly. I’ve gone back to Co-enzyme Q10 and I’m trying Maca tablets and Chinese green tea (Matcha) also. I’ve gone sugar and dairy free as much as humanly possible. I’ve switched to using coconut or almond products but I do still eat some fruit (seems crazy not too). I’m eating a high protein diet, I’ve omitted wheat/gluten and I’ve switched to the ancient grains such as quinoa and tapioca. For the flushes and moods I take a natural supplement called Harmony, as well as vit B6 (which makes a real difference). I try to up the dosage of both of these when I sense the mood swing is approaching (but I don’t always get it right). I still take magnesium for the aches and pains, turmeric for inflammation, a good fish oil and I’ve now started taking Calcium.
I find getting outside and walking, taking photos, having a picnic, lying on the grass with the dog and watching the clouds go by… doing the things I love to do, make the best difference of all. Distraction therapy!
When the symptoms are at their worst you just need to take it a day at a time. There is frustration. It is a time of change and it’s not all pleasant. You may suddenly feel old, see physical signs of aging, and there is an adjustment to not feeling attractive any longer, feeling invisible on the street lol. Weight goes on in specific places and what you used to do to combat it probably won’t work the same. At a time when you would like to loosen up on food, eat a little more of what you like without being too critical on yourself, you might actually find – like me – that you develop food allergies and your diet becomes more restrictive. It’s a balancing act with the weight; I’ve read that there are more women in their 40s and 50s with eating disorders than there are girls in their teens. This seems appalling. Looking gaunt in menopause is a really bad choice. Bone mass is extra important, you need to stay strong, maintain good posture… looking brittle and under nourished is additionally aging.
The hot flushes can be a real pain (especially at work) and your confidence can take a beating. I found a heavy duty deodorant called Driclor which I use sparingly and only when really necessary through the worst of the flushes. Just as an aside, even now if I have sugar or dairy to any degree (even just a slip up for a day or two) then I notice the flushes return.
Hopefully you have a loving and supportive partner, as well as other women around you who you know well and who are going through the same challenges and re-adjustments. Talk to someone, whom ever you are comfortable talking to. Make light of it. The dog and I have a great laugh when we’re trying to get out the door for a walk and I’m like ‘just a minute I forgot the keys, just a minute I’m having a flush, just a minute I need the loo again…. right, now, what were we doing?!’
If you have, or have had CFS, I hope there is something in my story that you can relate to. Take a look at the keys to great health, as well as the supplements, recipes and healthy food advice in the Nourish Me section. Don’t forget about your peace of mind, so important during this time. I hope you will find plenty of inspiration here too 🙂
The phases of a women are not scripted, nor universal. No one can predict or describe for you how things are going to be. There are surprises and learning curves and sometimes it is not until years later, looking back, that you realise exactly what was happening and what you were up against at that time. The phases can be harsh sometimes, make you wish you felt like you used to, make you long for the old you (meaning the younger you!), make you question the meaning of it all and feel resentful if you have not been afforded a transition through all the glorious phases of women hood. But at the end of the day, we come through stronger and smarter and, with a little bit of conscious attitude, sassier too. We learn to love ourselves no matter what.
If you’ve found ways to successfully traverse the CFS and menopause uphill climb, then please share with us all 🙂