Arwa Damon, a senior international correspondent at CNN, is fearlessly navigating a new stage in her life earlier than expected. It is one cloaked in unwarranted stigma, that all women will face at some point – menopause.
“I’m 43 years old and I’m going through menopause. At least that’s what my gynecologist told me based on my hormone levels. I had suspected I was in perimenopause (the phase before menopause, which has similar symptoms and that can last four to eight years), since to officially be in menopause, menstruation should have stopped for one year. Mine hasn’t, which makes all of this even more confusing.
Either way, I am going through the second massive hormonal change that my body will experience, and I am stunningly less prepared for it than I was more than 30 years ago when I went through my first. I am far from being the only one – many of us have no idea what’s going on, what to expect, or how to navigate through this. Most women will experience menopause in their early 50s. There are usually three stages: perimenopause, menopause, and then postmenopause. That’s when the symptoms – fatigue, forgetfulness, mood swings, and depression, among others – will start to taper off as your hormone levels stay regularly low. That’s the phase you will be in for the rest of your life.
I had anticipated going through this on the younger side, since my mother had as well. My basic knowledge was that there would be hot flashes and no more periods… and that would be that. It did not once cross my mind to research it. And before you say that I should have known better and been prepared, you’re right. I am a senior correspondent for CNN. I have spent nearly two decades covering war; a career which has taught me to always be as well-equipped as possible for the unexpected. I will, however, argue that in this case, a larger portion of the burden lies with society itself. We embrace the start of fertility – “Congratulations, you are a woman now!” is the cringeworthy phrase most of us hear when we start menstruating – and we stigmatize the end of it. That stigma has resulted in women not even realizing what we need to know and when we need to know it. For too many of us, our choice to talk about it is taken away by a society that considers it a taboo topic. We don’t need to be handled with kid gloves as we go through this. We’ve been dealing with the inconveniences and pain of our reproductive parts for all of our fertile lives. We’re tough.
I am struck by the absurdity of it all – how something that half the population will go through is never really discussed. It’s not just about us with ovaries being prepared, but preparing those around us. More importantly, I am horrified thinking about those without access to the treatment options I have to ease this transition. Who is talking to women in developing countries or refugee camps – where there is often a big push to educate about menstruation – about menopause? The more research I do, the more I realize that had I been armed with information beforehand, I might have recognized the symptoms that are not so well known. I might have gone to the gynecologist sooner, before experiencing weeks of hot flashes and night sweats. I might have recognized that my brain fog and, more importantly, debilitating fatigue, were possible indicators. I might not have attributed lost sleep solely to the stress I felt about how the pandemic was affecting my charity, Inara, which I co-founded in 2015 in Beirut to help Syrian refugee children get access to medical care. Instead, I spent months exhaustively fighting through it, clueless and out of touch with my body.
Recently, I was stunned while speaking to an older friend of mine about her experience. She had no idea that not going on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could result in vaginal dryness and painful sex, and suffered the consequences. Studies into women’s reproductive health are woefully behind those of men’s health. It’s almost as if science and medicine are as willing to discard us as society when we can no longer bear children. I’ve heard awful stories about how many practitioners are too willing to dismiss symptoms or misdiagnose us. And while the causes of hot flashes are still unknown, what we do know is that estrogen – the hormone that ebbs away as we age – is linked to the health of just about every single one of our body parts, from our hearts to our hair.
For many women, menopause is a traumatic and trying phase of life, physically and emotionally. No amount of anti-aging cream or Botox can slow down what is happening within our bodies. Many of us can remember when we first got on the rollercoaster we call hormones. We’re back on that same ride. Only this time, turned upside down, without the safety belt. We’re told we should be embarrassed, as our skin takes on a new sag, nails go brittle, and hair starts thinning. Our hormone levels are all over the place. Much like going through never-ending PMS, we are plagued with mood changes, depression, anger, and anxiety. Those emotions aren’t necessarily only due to fluctuating or lowering estrogen levels, but also with everything that “menopause” invokes, from society telling us that we are worthless now that we are no longer fertile, to the realization that we are at the halfway point of life. That maybe we have lived more than we have left to live.
I, for one, have been taking stock of my life, feeling like I should have done more. Then I sit myself down for a lecture on how all I can do is be better at my job, fight harder for my charity, and have bigger adventures. I’ve started HRT. I’ve found that physical activity helps reduce my hot flashes. I’m dressing in layers that are easy to unzip for a cooling blast. Moisturizers are my new catnip. The impact of menopause can be lessened if we are aware and better educated. There are treatment and lifestyle changes we can make ahead of time to lessen the impact on our looks, and, more importantly, our health and mental well-being. Menopause is wretched, there is no way around that. But no matter how awkward and unpleasant this transition is, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Only we – those of us with and without ovaries – can change the narrative and the experience. I’m starting with changing mine.”
As told to Caterina Minthe
Originally published in the March 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia