Zsuzsa Farrell: Some like it hot, but I’m not a big fan

It's hard to act cool when the hot flushes strike
It's hard to act cool when the hot flushes strike
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At the start of June, I celebrated my 50th birthday by drinking codeine out of a champagne glass.

It was a day I’ll never forget. (Unless I get memory loss, just one of the two dozen symptoms of the menopause, the subject of this article. So if you’re easily offended by explicit language about bodily fluids, hormones and sex, stop reading now.)

One of my best friends called me on Skype to wish me happy birthday. I could hardly open my mouth to reply because it was still half numb from anaesthetic injections. One of my back teeth had to be extracted and my dentist only had time to do it on my birthday. Perfect timing. Good job I hadn’t planned a big party to mark the start of my official decline into decrepitude.

“Happy birthday Honey!”

“Bank you berry buch.”

“How do you feel?”

She didn’t mean my tooth but me turning 50. She’s a month younger than me so she was genuinely curious. I think she wanted to be emotionally prepared for her own big day.

“I’m losing things I shouldn’t be losing and getting things I shouldn’t be getting. I’m losing my hair, teeth, firm skin, muscle mass and bone density. I’m getting hot flushes, mood swings, itchy skin, heart palpitations, belly fat, extra chins and problems sleeping.

“The only good thing about the menopause so far was that I stopped having my period for six months. But guess what? The other day it just started again.”

Then she told me about her own recent lab test results. She had digestion and urinary tract problems – both could be symptoms of menopause.

“Gosh, we sound like a couple of old grannies!”

I’ve a few close friends who are the same age as me. As far as I remember, we started talking about our changing bodies a few years ago. These conversations were always quite therapeutic. It was reassuring to know that they’d experienced similar things.

“My appetite isn’t the same as it used to be. I want less sex and more Jaffa cakes.” “My period used to be like a Swiss clock. Now it’s more like an EasyJet flight, one out of three arrives late.”“Isn’t it unfair that my upper body is getting sweatier while my vagina is getting dryer?” “If it wasn’t for my mood swings I wouldn’t get any exercise at all.” “The box said it was two pounds of chocolate. So why did I put on ten pounds?” “My hot flushes are a major contributor to global warming.”

In some ways I was lucky. My hot flushes lasted for less than a month. But that month was hellish.

The nights went like this: Too hot – blanket off. Too cold – blanket back on. Hot again – stick foot out of blanket. Hear a creepy noise (we live in Leith) – stick foot back in.

The days were an emotional rollercoaster, the lowest point being the bottom of the Mariana trench and the highest being the summit of Mount Everest. I often cried and felt anxious with no particular reason. The hardest thing to cope with though was my weight gain. As my clothes ‘shrunk’ so did my self-esteem.

Up until five years ago I could lose weight easily. I just had to cut back on bread and pasta for a few weeks and I was back to my ideal shape. Not any more. Since I moved to Scotland four years ago I’ve put on two stone. It’s not just the menopause to blame, it’s the macaroni pies.

Since January this year I started a rigorous diet, cutting back on refined carbs including bread, pasta, anything with wheat, white rice and potatoes. I stopped eating anything with added sugar, I stopped eating jam, honey, peanut butter and even bananas. I basically ate fruit and veg only. I also started going to the gym three times a week. In two months (which felt like two years) I lost a measly stone.

Then we went to Venice for a romantic long weekend to celebrate Gerry’s 60th birthday. In four days half of that stone was back again. Sophia Loren was spot-on when she said “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” (Except she had a waist.)

I was so pissed off, I went to see my GP. She was very reassuring. She told me how to cope with the symptoms. She approved of the things I was doing. She said exercise was vital to fight mood swings and weight gain. So was a balanced diet high in fibre, low in saturated fats, sugar, refined carbs and salt. Herbal remedies and teas could have a soothing effect. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could help alleviate symptoms and protect women’s bones from osteoporosis. There were great water-based lubricants if you get a bit dry down there. Mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy could help deal with anxiety and low self-esteem.

But in my own experience, the best thing for low self-esteem is a loving partner. One who tells you every day that he loves you just the way you are.