They’re the words no one wants to hear.
“You have a problem with your white blood cell count.”
The setting is somewhat incongruous. I’m not in a medical clinic. It’s an airport lounge.
Ironically, I’m with columnists Jane Caro and Catherine Fox, drinking a glass of wine to celebrate strong women, after speaking on a panel at a leadership lunch in Adelaide.
Feeling weak, I ask the nurse for an appointment with the doctor. All I want to do is go home and hug my children. As we board the plane, I begin to catastrophise.
Clearly, it’s terminal: my uncle died from leukaemia at the age of 14; my grandmother from lymphoma at 35.
I’ve felt like shit for months. This is my destiny.
At home, I check my insurance, plan a funeral and write the eulogy (yes, I am a control freak).
Then, I do what every doctor says you shouldn’t: google the hell out of “low white blood cell count”.
There’s everything, from infections to cancer. Of course, I assume the latter.
Over the next 48 hours, I reassess my life. Why am I addicted to busyness? What is it I’m trying to escape? Have I brought this on myself?
The answer is written all over the doctor’s face.
“Look at these levels,” he says, pointing to the full blood count.
He’s not referring to the white cells, which are apparently “a little lower than usual, but nothing to worry about”.
It’s the FSH, or follicle-stimulating hormone, levels: “You’re post-menopausal,” he says.
I feel like one of those women who doesn’t realise she’s pregnant until the baby pops out.
(A banjo plays in the background: “Ah just thought ah was just putting on a bit of weight!” Brandyne giggles. “Ah think ah’ll call him Bodean, after his Daddy, also mah brother…”)
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Sure, I’d been bone-achingly tired, surly and snappy, down and depressed.
But I had no idea I’d already gone through menopause.
I knew my periods had stopped, but I thought that was because of an endometrial ablation back in 2009.
This is an operation to cauterise the lining of your uterus, to treat abnormal bleeding.
Or, as one friend puts it, “You had your cu*t burned out? That’s hard core.” (See, “control freak”…)
While I thought I was in peri-menopause, I had no idea it was all over red rover.
Never before has a woman been so happy to go through ‘the change’.
“So I’m not dying,” I say to the doctor, delightedly. “Just no longer reproducing!”
“Yes,” he smiles, then frowns: “Now, stop doing so much. The lower levels of progesterone can cause issues with everything from anxiety to digestion, and adrenal fatigue is affecting your ability to manage stress.”
Now it all makes sense.
Often I’m exhausted but can’t sleep, because of the coursing cortisol.
If the kids start to fight, I cry, “Stop! I can’t handle it anymore!”
And I wake at 3am, worrying about whether I’ve turned off the oven.
Put simply, I just can’t handle the pace anymore.
Some speak of the symptoms as a fug of unspoken dread: “Am I dying?”
I can confidently say “no” but this is what it feels like.
It’s easy to catastrophise menopause. It’s certainly no picnic. But it’s better than the other change: death.
Walking to my car, I bump in to one of the other mums from the school.
She has a huge cut on her forehead, held together with stitches.
“I was up late last night, after work all day and putting the kids to bed, writing out Christmas cards, when I passed out and cracked my head on the side of the kitchen bench,” she says.
I grab her arm: “You’re doing too much,” I say, earnestly. “Slow down.”
This is what the writer Mrs. Woog said to me – in yet another airport lounge – a couple of months ago.
“Just say no,” she said, peering at my wearied visage. “Only say ‘yes’ to things that will make you happy.”
These are the words every menopausal woman needs to hear.