No periods for four months. Bloody dawn chorus again. Love birdsong but not at four-thirty every sodding morning. Turned 50, so is it the menopause? The average age is 51 and the definition is no periods for a year. Before that, you are perimenopausal – hormones all over the place, periods stopping and starting. Yup, they came back with a vengeance, two in two weeks, Super Tampax and pads couldn’t stem Aunty Flo.
Saw a leaflet for a menopause awareness event, picked it up and ignored it. Can you imagine? Sitting around talking about it. What if someone I know is there? Maybe, it’s just stress. After all I’m only 50, still young. I think of myself as 38 on a good day, 98 on others. An email pops up from the new wellbeing centre, Core Clapton. Tonight is the menopause event, perhaps I should go. It’s a wet Monday night. It’s only around the corner. It’s an excuse to get out of the house, avoid the torture of generating conversation with a grunting teenager, if he comes down for dinner.
So with hood up, I skulk around the corner. Did they have to put such a big sign in the window? Twenty or so women. Black, white, Asian. Phew, don’t know any of them. HRT cake is being served at the back alongside more enticing treats. A panel of a psychologist, a doctor and a sex shop manager are introduced. The psychologist is an earnest young woman who specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and her mum has gone through the menopause. The bearded male doctor is in his 30s and seems a bit shy. The sex shop manager is a bubbly woman with bushy black hair and a low cut dress. She is encouraging us to visit her women-only sex shop because she says the menopause doesn’t mean your sex life is over, in fact, it could take off.
Bizarrely, while they are going through their presentations, a 20-something young man is filming it all on an I-pad. Why? Makes me feel uncomfortable but don’t want to make a fuss. When it’s opened up to Q and A’s, he asks if there’s any information for kids as he remembers his mum suddenly being really stroppy when he was a teenager. Maybe that’s what’s going on at home. A Tsunamic surge of hormones hitting the coast from two directions.
It turns out they are offering a 12-week free course. It’s funded by Hackney Learning Trust. Well, it’ll get me out of the house on a Monday night, although on one of them I’ve already booked to see Venus in Fur, a play about female sexuality. The sex shop manager would be proud of me.
The leader of the course is on a crusade to break the taboo of the menopause, start a public conversation. There are more than four million women in the UK between the ages of 45-51 experiencing the menopause. About 80% of women in the UK will experience the impact of menopausal symptoms, at least 45% will find the symptoms distressing. Mothers prepare you for your periods but no one prepares you for the menopause. Nobody talks about it. Not even your women friends. Our leader is quite political about it. Says it could be seen as a positive change of life, no periods, kids leaving home, more freedom and she says older women should be revered as wise, as they are in some cultures. She blames the media and advertising industry for the emphasis on perpetual youth. How many older women role models are there? She asks. Joan Bakewell, Navratilova. Answers on a postcard . . . or tweets, please. Nobody talks about the menopause because there’s nothing sexy about it . . . or so it seems.
It’s a small, supportive group, around eight of us turn up regularly. We share things quickly – don’t even know their surnames but know about their sex lives and symptoms. Some symptoms I didn’t realise were linked to the menopause, anxiety, insomnia, depression, mood swings, hair loss, itching, bloating, rage, memory loss, night sweats, changes in appetite, sexual and culinary. And of course, hot flushes.
The course covers CBT, breathing exercises, mindfulness, nutrition, flower remedies, stress management, problem solving, biology and sexuality. They allow a nurse in to talk about the benefits of HRT but generally they advocate a non-medical approach. Excellent handouts and a newsletter are provided.
On a cold December night, week eight of the course, we gather in Hoxton Square, Shoreditch at Sh!, the women’s sex shop for our special Christmas outing. It opened 25 years ago and used to be down a back street with darkened windows. Now its entrance is clear glass and tasteful. There’s a good turn-out. We’re offered mince pies and mulled wine while we stand around a display of dildos. A pink one with ears looks like a rabbit – apparently, it keeps your clit happy at the same time as your vagina. Sweet. Our leader says you have to stay active down below to avoid vaginal atrophy, even if it means DIY.
We’re led downstairs to sit in a semi-circle, surrounded by whips, chains and a Santa’s little helper outfit on a mannequin. The sex shop manager welcomes us. The ice-breaker is to declare what you call your vagina, lady garden, front bottom, missy, punaani – Jamaican patois, in case you didn’t know.
The sex shop manager passes around photos of plaster moulds of vaginas that were done by an artist. It shows a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Men famously compare their dicks but how many vaginas have you seen? Vaginal dryness can be an issue post-menopause, so the manager makes us try out a huge range of lubricants – on the back of our hands – including some that are edible. One tastes of banana. We move on to vibrators – all fully loaded with batteries, black ones, pink ones, ribbed, penis shaped. Again, we try these in our hands or on our stomachs. Apart from one woman, who didn’t understand or hear the instruction and gets a bit carried away.
The vibrators get larger and larger until one brings tears to the eyes. It’s called a magic wand and was brought out by a Japanese company as a massager in the 1960s. A sex therapist promoted it as a sex toy and sales rocketed. Apparently, the company tried to dissociate itself from one of its bestsellers.
After lots of giggling and whooping, our host lets us wander around the shop, trying things out. She recommends love balls to pop up your fanny to improve your pelvic floor muscles, if nothing else, and a potion called ‘On’ to spice up your sex life – it causes blood to rush to your clitoris and lasts about 45 minutes. Wey-hey girls!
With a 20% discount on the night, most of us go home with something for the weekend.
It was our last session this week. Time to reflect. What could be an existential crisis could also be a time of positive change, looking after yourself, not worrying about what other people think of you, stepping out on a Monday night. Meeting a diverse group of supportive, wise women has been a delight. We plan to meet up every other week at the ongoing support group. A lifeline at a very tricky and often lonely time of life for a lot of women.
Thanks to everyone at Hands Inc. and its funders. I hope they get the funding to roll out beyond Hackney.
Nicola: Workshop participant October 2017 – January 2018
Follow Nicola @nicolawadehill