I was standing before an academic panel in WIT, preparing for the last practice run at the presentation of my final dissertation on food applications using seaweed. I had been studying and working for many years in preparation for this. I am committed to lifelong learning, but this one was a hard slog. I was now, I hoped, on the verge of acquiring a level 9 qualification in Business in Enterprise Development. I took a deep breath, tried not to let the nerves get to me. I could feel heat rising uncontrollably from out of nowhere. Sweat gathered rapidly on my face, my body. I quickly realised that it wasn’t the nerves causing this outbreak. I took a deep breath, did my best to carry on regardless; to speak with a confidence and focus belying the chaotic banter going through my head.
Have they noticed yet? I wondered.
Of course they had noticed.
Do I look absolutely insane?
Well. Yes. A bit. My entire body felt like one bright bright red blush. There was sweat literally dripping down my very alarmed face.
Am I managing to hold it together… am I making sense?
Barely. I was hurtling headlong through the presentation, trying to articulate my findings in the middle of the very distracting internal dialogue.
That unfortunate experience was in 2012. Thankfully my menopause goblin behaved during the markings presentation a few days later. I achieved my goal – a post-graduate diploma – and took comfort in knowing that all the hard work and stress had paid off. I heaved a sigh of relief that the randomness of nature hadn’t tripped me up when it really mattered.
Like many things in life, it’s the good stuff we tend to remember. The pressures and hardship my studies involved were swept aside in the sense of achievement, the pride I felt in being awarded an academic qualification on par with an MA. If I join the ranks of women who describe how quickly you forget, for example, the pain of childbirth; how the positive aspects of a reward in the shape of a cherished newborn so outweigh the negative that many of us choose to go on and put ourselves through it all over again, I wasn’t so sure if I could embrace this other natural coming-of-age with the same joyful memory lapse.
At first glimpse menopause doesn’t offer much by way of reward. Menopause is a monster that takes no prisoners, has no regard for social niceties. My menopause was at its rampant worst as I was in the middle of my European and general election campaigns. Advice from my mother carried me through that challenging time. Just carry on, she said, don’t let it stop you. Go through it. I did just that. At many times I did not live up to my name as I stumbled on like a grace-less baby elephant. I was sometimes awkward and overwhelmed, but somehow survived in the wilderness. By the time I was elected to the Seanad my symptoms had abated, I was out the other side.
I have come through on many levels, but catching my breath at the end of it all, while I look back on menopause with less than rose-tinted glasses, I do see positive aspects. If menopause is like every woman’s Voldemort, the she-who-shall-not-be-named of women of a certain age; going through it brings you face to face with your own biology. My youngest daughter is 19 now, and while my child-rearing days have, by choice, been behind me for some time, there was a certain sadness, a degree of letting-go in moving into the post- menstruation part of my life here as a creature on this earth.
So too was there a certain sense of liberty though, of stepping up, of leaning-in to this new phase. Of course there was psychological baggage I had to deal with. Maybe a big reason why menopause is still discussed in somewhat hushed tones, is because it is such a symbolic manifestation of ageing. For myself, it was the first time in my life it actually really dawned on me that my time on this planet is finite. That might seem an odd observation when I have spent a big part of my working life actively campaigning and fighting to try to save our fragile planet. I am genuinely committed to that cause, but even though I have spoken and pleaded and been involved in activism to spread the message that we all need to work together to preserve something far more precious than a bank of possessions for our children to inherit, I had, I think, subconsciously assumed I’d be around to witness it all.
Menopause brought it home to me in a stark yet enlightening way that I too am truly, physically, biologically, a part of the circle of life. I hope and believe that my children will live way way beyond me. The changes in my body remind me of how limited our time is. It also reminds me, however, of the importance and urgency of living in the now, and doing everything I can, every single day, to make a positive, meaningful mark on the world.