Yes, the menopause is hell. But when it's over you feel sexier than ever!
22:31 GMT, 14 March 2012
There are many obvious reasons why growing old was never going to be easy for me — among them the creaking joints and crows’ feet, the chances missed and choices not taken.
But the main reason I approached ageing with trepidation is that I never had a role model for how it should and could be.
My own mother loathed the ageing process. Coloured by our culture which fetishises the cult of youth above all else, she encouraged me to dread the passage of time.
Life is sweet: Barney Bardsley says she has a new sense of wellbeing post menopause
Not for one instant would I imagine there could be positives to growing older. In her youth, Mum was ravishingly beautiful.
She found the loss of her beauty in her 50s traumatic. And it was the menopause in particular which proved a horrible time for her.
I think she felt it was at this point that men who had paid her so much attention during her younger life didn’t give her so much as a second glance any more.
Personally, I don’t have beauty as an excuse; I have never been beautiful. My disappointment on turning 50 was of a different nature.
Nonetheless, like my mother before me, I found the menopause to be a searing experience. When I was 51, I wrote an article about The Change. At the time, my hormonal confusion was at its height.
I had aching muscles, insomnia, hot flushes, mood swings and heart palpitations — a different symptom for every day of the week.
Eager for corroboration, I started talking to other women at the same life stage.
'One of the biggest gains of coming through the menopause is finding oneself again'
Some breezed happily through the whole thing, but many shared with me the multiple challenges and conflicts with which mid-life and the menopause can slap you in the face.
The resulting article excited more response than anything I have written in 30 years of journalism. My conclusion was that at 50, women are up against it.
Work, family, relationships — it all feels like one giant squeeze. Our adolescent children are demanding, and so are our geriatric parents, who are living longer.
If we are married, the strain of coupledom can be overwhelming.
If there is one thing that can be said with confidence of the menopause, it is this: it forces you into strange and unnerving territory where nothing feels the same any more, whether it is your own body, or your connection to the people and the world around you.
It is a cauldron of change.
Hot flushes: Like most women, Barney dreaded the symptoms of the menopause (posed by model)
Back then, in a state of ‘hormonal agitation’ — as my acupuncturist put it (I’d say ‘mad as a March hare’) — I could never have imagined things would change again, that the dark tunnel of mid-life would open into a landscape of infinite and new possibilities.
My menopause lasted five years — from the first rumblings of unease at 49 to the climax of hormonal disruption at 51, followed by a gradual waning of symptoms through my early 50s as the inner storm subsided.
Now 55, it is just over a year since my last period — the official marker of a completed menopause — and I feel something that is unfamiliar and somewhat unexpected.
I am experiencing a profound sense of wellbeing.
Now I come to think of it, when I did my research for my last article about the menopause, it was always the older women who were the most inspiring — because they were so much more positive. It’s only now that I realise why.
My friend Carole, 65, summed it up like this when she told me: ‘One of the biggest gains of coming through the menopause is finding oneself again.’
'Menopause knocks a woman’s self-confidence, since notions of sexuality seem bound up with fecundity and youth'
It’s something I would have shrugged off before, but now I know exactly what she means.
So many years of a woman’s life are spent treading the wheel of duty — as a daughter, girlfriend, wife, mother and worker — all bound in by the monthly cycle of hormonal ebb and flow, that post-menopause gives a new and enormous sense of freedom.
Another friend in her mid-50s remarked: ‘Life without periods is so expansive.
‘You have so much more time because you never lose your energy or your days to menstruation.’ And that’s the thing, the most obvious — essential — marker of contentment is a physical one.
It feels as if my body is my own again, after being on loan for years to the weird processes of puberty, pregnancy and menopause.
I have never been a pill-popper or addicted to anything more than a large and refreshing glass of white wine in the evening.
But the sudden, drastic dip in oestrogen which comes at mid-life felt like withdrawal from a powerful drug — and five years of cold turkey is no picnic: dry mouth and dry eyes, a suddenly accelerated heartbeat, a body temperature flushing high then swooping low.
I’d have a rush of feeling good followed by a tidal wave of gloom and irritation, and endless sleepless nights. In short, it was no fun. No fun at all. Four years on, it is different now.
Shining examples: Oscar winners Meryl Streep, left, and Helen Mirren prove older women can still be glamorous and successful
I am under no illusions here: I have the body of a 55-year-old, with all the creases, sags, bumps and crinkles that entails.
But it is also a contented body. I lost weight during the menopause: I grew thin and tired.
Now I have curves again — around the bosom, belly and hips, and there is a sense of strength returning, a kind of sly and sensual delight in being who I am. My sleep is better, and there are no more hot sweats.
My appetite is lusty, for good food and strong drink.
I am back at yoga class — I avoided it when my joints ached with what the GP described as ‘menopausal arthralgia’.
My eyes are not as dry, and my hair has stopped falling out by the combful. The dental abscesses, a sure sign of a depleted immune system, have gone.
A new sense of balance has put a spring in my step — a kind of subtle but palpable inner radiance. I may look no different, but I feel better, and that’s what counts.
This must be what the anthropologist Margaret Mead called ‘post-menopausal zest’. Whatever it is, I like it.
'Wherever you look, there are older women brimming with zest and good humour, busy making waves in the world'
When I was pregnant, something strange happened to my brain: A life-long book lover, I stopped reading.
Then at menopause, I had absolutely no appetite for books.
I must have the kind of brain that resents hormonal interference. Now that I am flushed clean of oestrogen and progesterone, I read like a woman possessed.
My capacity for new learning is prodigious. I am studying Hungarian, meditation, yoga and singing, and I have stopped the teaching work which leeched my energy to concentrate on what I love best: reading and writing.
A mid-life crisis forces you to consider your world, and, if you have any sense, make it fit you better, rather than the other way round. Considerations of success and failure are far less crucial than when I was young. Happiness — and solvency –— is what counts now.
As for matters of the heart, things did not turn out the way I expected. I met my husband in my 30s and was with him for 15 years, ten of them consumed by the cancer that killed him. Since then, I have been on my own.
Menopause knocks a woman’s self-confidence, since notions of sexuality seem bound up with fecundity and youth.
But I have discovered, to my delight, that there is a rich sensuality to being an older woman.
New lease of life: Women often feel more energised after 'the change' (posed by model)
I feel a renewed and earthy pleasure in the sights, tastes and sounds around me, and in the deepening friendships which sustain me.
If a new partner comes along, I will be happy.
If not, I will be happy too.
My duties of care are over for now: both my parents are dead and my daughter, at nearly 20, is fully-fledged.
It’s time for me.
And these days, it is not hard to find examples of successful older women. In politics there is US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is 64, and German chancellor Angela Merkel, 57.
In showbusiness there is Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, who is radiant at 62; Helen Mirren, a sexy 66; and national treasure Judi Dench, still twinkling at 77.
Wherever you look, there are older women brimming with zest and good humour, busy making waves in the world.
I do not believe women become invisible after 50. Far from it.
The sense of stability and self-awareness that arrives after the menopause is powerful, for the individual and for the culture to which a woman belongs.
As for me, I feel a great sense of optimism, and I’m full of energy and merriment. It is something like being young again, but with a few more wrinkles . . . and a lot less worry.