First, let’s be clear about what we’re talking — or rather, not talking — about.

According to WebMD, menopause is defined as “the time that marks the end of (a woman’s) menstrual cycles…after (a woman has) gone 12 months without a menstrual period.”

Perimenopause literally means the time before menopause, and typically starts some time in a woman’s ‘40s, but can start as early as her ‘30s. This is the time we’re talking about, and it’s good to be clear because the menopause jokes typically involve symptoms that can start 10 to 15 years before actual menopause hits.

We can put that at the top of the list of things I didn’t know about this whole transitional time in my life when I started experiencing symptoms two and a half years ago, when I was 45 years old.

I had had a few experiences with night sweats (repeated episodes of extreme perspiration that may soak your night clothes or bedding), so I knew I was on the cusp. Night sweats and hot flashes are a part of the cultural conversation about menopause, and one of the few accurate and common pieces of information we all seem to know about.

When I started hearing strange noises in my home, I chalked it up to magpies on the roof or maybe a raccoon or two outside. But then it progressed, getting worse over the course of three weeks until I became convinced that someone was trying to get in, then that someone was actually in my home, then after a month of this I started seeing strange shadows out of the corner of my eye.

Before I knew what had happened to my once-level head, I became convinced that aliens were preparing to abduct me. It’s okay to laugh – it’s ridiculous to think about now. But at the time, I was terrified. I was frightened to go to sleep at night, which just added to my growing anxiety – something I had never experienced. I thought I was going crazy. And that was the worst feeling of all.

I was lucky to have the wherewithal to reach out for help, and I was additionally lucky that the woman I reached out to pointed me in the direction of Jade Wimberly at Lux Wellness Center in Carbondale. Jade is a Naturopathic Doctor, and I booked an appointment with her at her next availability.

Less than five minutes into my initial consultation, she was smiling at me. I wasn’t crazy. I was experiencing my first off-the-beaten-path symptom of perimenopause.

To make a long story short, I left her office with a list of dietary changes, two supplements, and a tincture to help me get through the next few weeks while my system balanced out.

After a year of managing my symptoms naturopathically, I posted about my experiences on my Facebook page. Eleven of my friends PM’d me to share their stories. The most shocking part? Four of those women had had the exact same thing happen to them, alien-abduction fear and all.

It started me down the path of trying to figure out why, with women being 51 percent of the population, a veil is drawn over this time in our lives? More importantly, I wanted to start making sure that other women didn’t have to experience the fear and anxiety that I did, when there are so very many resources available, if we know the right questions to ask.

Breaking the Silence

For this piece, I reached out to women who are currently experiencing or have experienced perimenopause/menopause, (it’s worth noting that the stigma surrounding menopause is still so strong that over half of the women interviewed declined to have their names used). I found some common ground that surprised me, even though it falls in line with my own story.

Only one of the seven women I interviewed had spoken to their mother about what her experiences with menopause had been. There is not a strong correlation between one generation’s experience to the next, except for the age at which symptoms begin, and if a mother has experienced endometriosis.

Over half of their mothers had hysterectomies, for various reasons, and so their experiences were vastly different than what their mothers would have experienced at all.

But it shone a light on the larger issue: we have been taught by example to handle this quietly, almost silently.

It all led to the same result: we each reached out to friends, co-workers, and sisters for help and to find out anything we could about what we were going through. And while that can be a way to find emotional support, it isn’t always the best source for information.

One of the issues I discussed with Jade, specifically for this piece, was the fact that frequently the symptoms can present as other illnesses or issues, for instance depression, weight gain around the middle, lethargy, anxiety, and lack of sex drive.

An antidepressant is not going to offset the onset of perimenopause, and can therefore prolong suffering. It’s important to make sure that you are speaking with a doctor or naturopath who has experiences with women’s health specifically in order to make sure that they, and you, are asking the right questions. And it’s equally important to have the facts readily available, to make informed decisions about your health.

So what should you be on the lookout for? Symptoms can vary from woman to woman, but the most common include (but are not limited to): trouble sleeping, hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, irritability, excessive worry, anxiety, problems concentrating, feelings of low self esteem, loss of memory, auditory hallucinations, joint aches, weight gain, lower libido, fatigue, irregular periods, and urine leakage when coughing or sneezing. Fun stuff.

But remember – there are ways to manage and mitigate the symptoms you are experiencing, whether through naturopathic methods or bio-identical hormones. The women I spoke to have used every method from essential oils, meditation, and acupuncture, to artificial hormone therapy.

Talk to your naturopath or doctor, and do not suffer in silence.  Because the fact is, you may not need to suffer at all. Two years into my own transition, and using entirely homeopathic treatments, I live relatively symptom free.

When I asked women for the one piece of advice they wish they had gotten that they’d like to pass along, one central idea rang true: that you are not alone. That every woman will experience this in her life, God-willing, and it is a natural part of what happens to us.

There is nothing to be ashamed of or frightened by – you won’t wake up one morning and find yourself a crone, undesirable and lacking in vitality. And it can be the beginning of a beautiful time in your life – a time with no worry about periods or pregnancy, or scheduling vacations around your cycle, and you can wear white pants any day of the month!

And my advice? Talk about it. We can shake off this stigma, and not pass it on to our daughters and students and nieces and friends. We can reclaim this time as merely a transition we go through to get to the next place in our lives. And we can continue to grow fearlessly into the women we are meant to be.

Words of wisdom from some wise women

“It is a beautiful gift. I have loved the process, gaining wisdom … stepping into my power.”

“When I was pregnant, I felt beautiful in my body! I feel that way all the time now…”

“It’s normal, don’t stress or fight it just go with the flow (PUN INTENDED)”

“Know your body. Ask questions and advocate for yourself.”

“I’m only at the beginning of it but I’m just rolling with it. When I can listen to my body and reflect, I can guide myself towards the means of healing and balance that is needed, whether that be through diet and lifestyle or by seeking outside help. When changes occur, I allow and reflect, making way for the process to unfold as naturally as possible.”

“The shift in my body and hormones mirrors this shift of energy required to move into a phase of more wisdom. It is less about pouring energy into family, business, others and more about deeply nurturing the inner spirit to do what it came here to do.”