It’s World Menopause Month this month, and World Menopause Day on Wednesday! We talk to Sarah Connor, a freelance content writer who has become an advocate, an educator, and a campaigner for awareness about menopause.
The founder of Menopause Over Martinis*, which sees people host dinners to discuss menopause, Sarah is also a guest speaker who facilitates discussions in workplaces about helping employees who are dealing with menopause.
Hi Sarah! Do we not talk about menopause enough?
We haven’t until recently. And for some, it’s still taboo. If I’d known enough by the time I entered perimenopause, it wouldn’t have taken me months to work out what was happening. My health wouldn’t have suffered so much. It wouldn’t have been such a worrying, confusing time.
What did you know about menopause?
I thought it meant my periods would stop overnight sometime in my 60s. I’d heard about hot flushes, but I just pictured my mum pulling a roast out of the oven on a summer’s day and saying ‘is it hot in here or is it just me?’, and I didn’t relate it to hormones. So I didn’t get information about menopause, and I’d never heard the word perimenopause.
I wrote a story last year about perimenopause being the period of time that lasts from when your menstrual cycle first becomes erratic, up to the point when you’ve gone 12 months without having a period, with 45 being the average age of onset. Before that I didn’t know what perimenopause was! I was shocked that the average length of perimenopause is four years.
Yeah, perimenopause can last two to 10 years. I’m 51 now. I was 46 when it started and these hormonal changes can kick in anytime from someone’s late 30s or early 40s.
Part of me doesn’t want to know too many details about menopause, because I don’t want to freak myself out!
Well, everyone’s experience is different and you may not be impacted. About 20% of people have severe symptoms like I did, and about 20% don’t experience symptoms apart from their periods stopping. About 60% of people experience moderate changes and symptoms.
What were your symptoms?
Insomnia, anxiety, nausea, low mood, no joy, tearfulness, panic attacks, the feeling of ants crawling under my skin, low blood pressure… My GP referred me to a cardiologist, counsellor and hypnotherapist, and tried me on anti-depressants.
Anti-depressants and counselling didn’t work but, through the hypnotherapist, I learned to use my mind and breath to reduce the anxiety and get back to sleep at night. That helped. But I still didn’t know it was perimenopause. It was three months of going down rabbit holes before I saw the meno clinic.
The meno clinic?
Someone who knew me well said ‘it sounds hormonal, have you seen the menopause clinic?’. I thought ‘What! A menopause clinic?! It’s the [private] Wellington Menopause Clinic, and there are other menopause clinics around the country.
The Australasian Menopause Society website lists by region around 35 specialists who are members of the society. And there are other specialists in NZ too. By specialists, I mean GPs or specialists with menopause training, or who have specialist knowledge and are up with the latest research, range of solutions and lifestyle changes worth exploring.
How did the menopause clinic help you?
HRT [hormone replacement therapy], now called MHT [menopausal hormone therapy] from the meno clinic helped me turn a corner. Oestrogen patches every day, and progesterone capsules for two weeks of every month. My meno doc said I needed to address the root cause: fluctuating and low hormones.
I tried melatonin and magnesium with mixed results. I tried not working, self-care, doing less in a day, sleep hygiene, yoga, meditation – and using my breath to lessen the anxiety. Many of those things helped, and still do, but HRT was what pulled me out of a dark, unjoyful, unsustainable place.
It was good to know that how I felt was normal, that I wasn’t going crazy, didn’t have an anxiety disorder or a cardiac condition, and could still work and care for my family. I’m still on HRT four years on. Even on HRT, my periods are getting shorter and lighter.
I’m probably in late perimenopause now. The only way to truly know where I’m at [with menopause] is to stop HRT. I’m not planning to be on it forever, and also not planning to ditch it too soon. Also, HRT isn’t a silver bullet and not everyone needs it.
Do you still have symptoms?
Not significant symptoms. I wake up in the night sometimes but I haven’t had anxiety, the fluctuating moods etc since starting HRT. I’ve also got so many more tools. I know about sleep hygiene, how much I can fit into a day, what I can and can’t take on, and how I manage stress.
I imagine things got expensive treatment-wise?
Yeah. My health insurance was for specialist cover. It covered a cardiologist, but disappointingly not the menopause clinic. I also had to pay for a counsellor, a hypnotherapist, multiple GP visits. The menopause clinic cost $270 for the first consult and $100 for a follow-up.
It’s a shame that many women wouldn’t be able to access care like this.
Absolutely. I was incredibly lucky that older female friends could teach me about perimenopause. And I had a supportive, curious partner, and open, understanding children. They were eight and eleven then, and I told them that I’d work out what was going on so that they didn’t worry unnecessarily.
Once I worked out it was hormone-related, my kids were heading for puberty and I wanted them to understand that hormonal changes happen through our lives: puberty, pregnancy and menopause.
How did all this impact you work-wise?
As a freelance content writer, I was working with two organisations. I told them I needed some time off work temporarily. I didn’t know the anxiety was hormone-related at the start, but once I did, I told them. Their support was hugely helpful because I could talk to them about things like feeling anxious, or needing a deadline extension.
Tell me about Menopause Over Martinis*.
It started when I had eight female friends over for a potluck dinner party to talk about menopause. I started having these with close friends, and older friends who had been really supportive, then it became a mix of friends who brought their friends. Then I realised this couldn’t take over my dining table every Saturday night!
I created a website (menopauseovermartinis.org) so others could host their own dinners. I attended friends’ dinners and I attended a community dinner in my Wellington ‘hood for 60 women. And it grew from there.
Do you keep tabs on the number of Menopause Over Martinis* dinner events?
Nope. I want it to be easy for people to access the dinner invitation [template], facts, resources and tips for hosts and guests, all free on my website – and my asking hosts to do admin for me might put them off holding an event. But I know people around NZ, and from Sydney and London, have held dinners.
One Wellington woman just hosted two dinners two Fridays in a row because so many friends wanted to come. Now Menopause over Martinis* has grown into the workplace and community events I facilitate, podcasts I’ve been on, and convos with strangers in planes and at kids’ birthday parties.
I love the title ‘Menopause Over Martinis’ because that sounds empowering and fun!
Yeah! It was a play on the concept of Death Over Dinner. I thought if people can get together over dinner to talk about death and dying, surely people can get together and talk about another taboo: women’s hormones.
When Menopause Over Martinis* became more than that first dinner, I asked friends if I should change the name. They said ‘No! It’s catchy, novel, fun’. Menopause Over Milo doesn’t have the same ring to it!
The Martinis* with a * is my way of saying martinis are obviously optional. But the idea of a martini or mocktail over dinner sounded more celebratory than a cup of tea, the ‘m’ was necessary for alliteration, and I’ve always liked the shape of martini glasses!
That makes me think about Kristin Scott Thomas’s character in the TV show Fleabag. While drinking a martini, she says menopause is “the most wonderful f**king thing… you’re free. No longer a slave. No longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person”.
I love that scene. I hadn’t seen the series but a friend sent me the clip on YouTube about a year after I hosted my first dinner.
Menopause Over Martinis* has a Facebook page?
Yes. I moderated a Facebook group with the same name for 2.5 years and had 3700 members, with people posting every day, and members and myself responding. That became too much work so I set up a ‘page’ (facebook.com/menopauseovermartinis). The current 1,000+ followers can’t post content and questions anymore, but can comment on and share my posts.
How will you mark World Menopause Day on Wednesday?
I’m part of Wellington group Frocks on Bikes, and in the evening we’ll bike from the waterfront to Auntie Social bar in Newtown. We’ll have a martini or mocktail and I’ll start the convo, do a quiz I’ve written and do give aways with spot prizes. Feel free to join us (details here).
And anyone anywhere might want to have a martini or mocktail after work on Wednesday! What could people do that day in the workplace?
You could say to colleagues ‘hey it’s World Menopause Day, let’s have some morning tea and I’ll bake some melting moments biscuits – and yes, that’s wordplay! You can access my conversation-starters here.
And you’ve written a menopause quiz?
Yes! I managed to get some of my questions in Stuff’s quiz then realised quizzes would be a great way to reach people. Wellington quiz company Gee Quiz, which stages trivia quiz nights, will roll out some of my quiz questions from World Menopause Day, then in pubs across the country over the next few months.
I’ve got GP practice managers putting menopause posters on their noticeboards. And I’ve collaborated with Health TV, which screens health-related videos in doctors’ officers, hospitals and A&E waiting rooms.
For World Menopause Month, and hopefully beyond, they’ll screen some facts I’ve shared about menopause: a topic they’ve never covered before. I’ve also collaborated with a Wellington designer and two outdoor-ad companies to create six outdoor ads which will feature in 26 shopping malls in nine towns – and on Locky Docks [the bike-locking-and-charging stations] nationwide.
Each ad features a different message that everyone needs to know about menopause: one basic thing being that it’s a normal stage of life, like puberty but in reverse, and everyone experiences it differently.
That’s a lot of volunteer work! What drives you?
According to the 2018 Census, there are 363,000 women in New Zealand right now who are 45-55. Given some women start menopause earlier and later than that, that’s 363,000+ women likely going through menopause right now. It wouldn’t feel right to know what I know and do nothing.
Does menopause have upsides?
Absolutely! When older women talked to me about what they love about being post-menopausal, it gave me enormous hope. Often people were realigning their lives. They talked about having more energy than ever. About having more capacity to do new things, start businesses, retrain, study.
There are no more periods, no more hormonal ups and downs throughout the month. They’re wearing white clothing without thinking twice about it. They’re loving not spending money on period products.
They’re caring less about what other people think, and caring more about what they want to care about and do. And that’s something good to know about and to celebrate!
See menopauseovermartinis.org for resources including ways to host an event for World Menopause Day on Wednesday!