Looking back I see a woman, driven by hormones, burning her life down

Actor Juliet Cowan found going through the menopause bruising and bewildering, but she emerged feeling more powerful and having “grown into myself”. 

Juliet Cowan

For women like me, who are only just processing the impact of the peri-menopause and menopause on our lives, it can feel like pieces of a jigsaw slowly slotting together. But this was a jigsaw I never even knew was in the house, let alone one I was in the middle of.

This wasn’t a memory lapse, it was sheer ignorance. When you are a child, you are constantly warned about the effects puberty hormones will be wreaking on your lives in just a few years and even armed with this knowledge, that transition is enormous. But the coughs and mumbles, the tiny snippets of (mis)information we receive about the menopause means that it often comes in like a wrecking ball, naked, wild eyed Miley Cyrus and all.

My peri-menopausal monster

The seismic shift in hormones leaving my body resulted in my becoming Like Quirinus Quirrell in Harry Potter. The front of my head was being run by semi-normal woman, whilst at the back there was the peri-menopausal monster that I unwittingly kept under my (very hot and sweaty) hat.

The oestrogen that had enabled me to try and please everybody (I say try, I often failed massively) was no longer my driving force. My inner Voldemort could no longer be contained under my hat. I didn’t want it to, be. I was fed up and felt incapable of doing the right thing. I threw my life up in the air, left my husband in a very impulsive way that hurt a lot of people and damaged my children.

Two big differences

There are two large differences between between the hormonal changes we experience as pubescents versus those that affect us in menopause (there isn’t even a whole word for us, we are menopausal women or banshees). One is education. As a child I was talked to about the changes that would occur in my body, physical emotional and behavioural. As a culture we discuss it and as an education system we explore it. It is only now that I am the other side of my menopause that I am even a little better armed with knowledge about what was and is going on in my body.

Struggling with my own menopause symptoms, I went to my GP asking to go to the menopause clinic. My GP told me flatly that the menopause was all about oestrogen and there was no point. Flatlining in confidence as I was at the time, I took this and left the surgery.

The second is life circumstances. Yes, I had gerbils and chores and school as a teenager and I would have been mortified if my parents had caught me shoplifting or having sex, but I didn’t have people who depended on me. I didn’t have a job that I had to deliver with verve and confidence and energy.

The stakes are higher

What I am saying is that I think in middle age the stakes are higher. The spinning plates are more numerous. It is harder to rectify any damage done by menopausal mayhem.

I left my marriage and to be fair, I think I only did what most middle aged women dream of doing. It isn’t just because men get even grumpier as they get older, it is more that women just don’t care (give a fuck) in the way they used to when they had their oestrogen goggles on.

Massive hormone changes can be time-stamped against significant changes in life and are interwoven with such tumult like cause and effect.

With menopause, changes are often so gradual that without awareness and education it’s only when you look back that you begin to understand how life altered when you didn’t realise what was going on.

Symptoms of the peri-menopause include hot flushes, trouble sleeping, low confidence and anxiety, however, it’s easy to attribute these to other factors like stress and burnout. As a busy working actor with a family, I just thought this was normal. I had absolutely no awareness of what the peri-menopause was when it began to affect me. Looking back at this time, I see a woman, driven by hormones, who burned down her life.

Emerging more powerful

Having said all this, going through the menopause is often a very late baptism of fire and one from which most women emerge in a very powerful way. Now that I have lost my oestrogen goggles, the hormonal scales have fallen from my eyes and I think I see more clearly.

I feel more whole and in control of my life than before, this might be growing up but I also feel I have grown into myself. I still have relationships and dependents and troubles but I have more tools in my box to deal with them. I think I am kinder not only to others but to myself having been through a sort of middle aged adolescence.

I was a borderline emo teenager, I read French philosophers and kept rodents and felt totally adrift. I constantly told those around me to ‘fuck off and leave me alone’. Often what I really meant, please help me, I don’t know how to do this by myself.

Before and during my menopause I felt an intense pressure to make everything ok, not only for myself but for those around me, but inside I was screaming ‘fuck off and leave me alone.’ I couldn’t cope, I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t know how to ask for help so that when I did it was easy to fob me off.

Seeing ourselves on screen

As an actor I really try and counteract the often stereotypical portrayal of middle aged women. On screen our representation is all too often fleeting and shallow. My heart sinks as I see yet another woman my age rounded up into the pen of-nagger, shagger, moaner, control freak, tipsy, dipsy and occasionally lala. We are the unacceptable face of the tummy tubbies. I really feel that this is starting to change, I know, and also see represented incredible, funny, clever, nuanced women. Our stories are beginning to be told and they are not just stories of pain, there is everything to say about the rich lives that have been lived by all women my age. Everyone has a story and I feel like this part of mine has just begun.

Middle-aged women can re-claim mid-life tropes. Without our ‘oestrogen goggles’ we can start to say “no” more. Mid-life is the age of creativity and adventure, without the assumed responsibility of ‘women as caregivers and caretakers’ in the oestrogen fuelled years.

Once the oestrogen goggles are gone thanks to the menopause, saying “no” gets easier. I have faced loss and am much more willing to draw a line around what I genuinely want and feel.

I’ve learned from working with the wonderful Daisy May Cooper (in ‘Am I Being Unreasonable’, currently airing on the BBC) that we should embrace our uniqueness and not be afraid about being specific in our ideas and realities.

CREDIT: Juliet Cowan’s debut comedy show ‘F*ck Off And Leave Me

Alone’ (60 mins) is being held at Vault Festival on Sunday 19th February (8:40pm), Saturday 18th March (7:20pm) and Sunday 19th March (8:40pm). For tickets, visit https://vaultfestival.com/events/fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone/

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