Menopause shouldn’t be a secret or mystery, and you

When I was in my early teens, my mother went through stages of being uncharacteristically angry and sometimes tearful for no apparent reason after a lifetime of being pretty mild-mannered and cheerful. She would walk around fanning her face, complaining about how hot and stuffy it was. It was the middle of winter and we lived in the Black Forest in Germany. I put it down to just one more weird thing parents did and never thought to ask her what was going on.

I forgot all about this over the years as I had children myself. I stopped menstruating after getting ​​an IUD in my early 40s and felt the liberation that comes with one less item of body maintenance.

And then, earlier this year, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. I was bloated and tired, and no matter what I tried – less alcohol, more exercise, black coffee, no coffee – I felt exhausted and washed out. When I finally saw a doctor, two large fibroids were detected, and after a week of dread and excruciating pain I had an abdominal hysterectomy.

During the course of a slow recovery, I had conversations with a lot of women – about our bodies, about what it means to age well, and what constitutes healthy living – and what kept coming up again and again were two questions: did I still have my ovaries (I did), and had I entered perimenopause (turns out I had).

It also turns out that half the population goes through a huge biological and psychological change right around the time when there should be nothing stopping you from being at the peak of your career. As professional women in our 40s and 50s we have been told we can do anything. And then along comes menopause with symptoms that are irritating at best, and debilitating in some cases. Up to a quarter of menopausal women experience severe symptoms that can lead to long-term absences from work or even early retirement.

In Australia there has been slightly more media coverage recently as the New South Wales government in November opened two menopause health hubs with two more due to open next year, but menopause still isn’t a mainstream issue to talk about. Like puberty or pregnancy, it is a transition to a new phase of life, but it’s not one that is usually celebrated. Most women dread it. It has been sold to us as the ultimate expiration date for relevance and visibility.

This week we publish stories on how to live better with menopause, the impact is has on Australia’s labour market, alongside some personal experiences.

Menopause shouldn’t be a secret, it shouldn’t be a mystery and you shouldn’t have to put up with it in silence if you’re struggling. I often lie awake at night, waiting for the hot flush and racing heart to pass, drifting in and out of sleep. I observe the changes in my body and my mind with curiosity and tenderness. Kristin Scott Thomas’s glorious speech in Fleabag gives me hope:

We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years, and then just when you feel you are making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes. The fucking menopause comes and it is the most … wonderful fucking thing in the world. Yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get fucking hot and no one cares, but then you’re free. No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person. In business.”

Reinventing menopause might go too far. But maybe we can shift the debate towards solutions, educating women and doctors alike, and maybe we can find a new way of thinking, and talking, about this time of change.

Svetlana Stankovic is deputy opinion editor for Guardian Australia

What was your experience going through menopause? Tell us in the comments.