The beginning of an adventure
It is World Menopause Day —18 October 2020 — which has given me 'pause' to reflect back to November 2014. I’d arrived in Mexico aged 49 years, with my partner and our son, who was five at the time. Prior to this the UK was my home. Now curious and ready ready for adventure, I pried myself from the arms of my best friend, gasping for breath between tears as I boarded a flight to Mexico City from a cold, grey and quiet Heathrow Airport.
After a week in Mexico City we headed for the town that is now our home. The first few months were busy, looking at houses to rent; sorting out a school; meeting my partners work colleagues and exploring the local area. For the first time in many years my partner got to spend Christmas with his family. We drank tequila, ate tamales, quesadillas, barbacoa and many other culinary delights.
It all gets a bit too much
Then January came, everyone left the house and I stayed in hibernation: reading; not wanting to go out; feeling low; shy; fatigued; exceptionally hot with an undercurrent of rage thrown in. The dark cloud would lift and just as quickly return. I forced myself to start a teaching English as a foreign course, got a job in a school, felt terrified, wanted to dig a hole and dive into it. I often felt lost and overwhelmed.
I thought I was in the process of adapting to a new culture. Then I had a fragment of a distant memory. My mum, carrying a small hand embroidered handkerchief to dab the sweat from her eyebrows catching it before it dripped into her eyes. She’d wipe the back of her neck, put the handkerchief away and we’d say, ‘you’re always sweaty and hot mum’. She never replied. Never spoke about what was happening. In that moment I knew what it was: menopause. The silence around menopause still prevails. It remains a taboo subject.
I’m not alone in missing the signs. Even when we do know, it can be hard to find the support you need. Shocking considering that by 2025 there will be 1 billion women at some stage of menopause across the globe. That’s 12% of the entire population of the world. The severity will vary but many of us will experience symptoms that affect the quality of our lives.
The search was on
I put on my big girl pants and set about finding other women living abroad who could relate to what I was going through. What I found were international groups, meet ups, and menopause groups. But what I wanted was all of that rolled into one — because what I was going through was a transition within a transition. I needed to connect to women of my age, not nimble young things with lots of teeth and big smiles living life oblivious of what was to come. I just couldn’t find what I was searching for.
The Menopausal Expat is Born
I was curious now. I found myself constantly vacillating between menopause and expat life. I was trying to make the most of a COVID lockdown-inspired hair cut when it came to me: I should create a community in support of menopausal women. It would be a place to share our experiences, learn about menopause and optimise this powerful time of change and transition.
Five things that make an international menopause complex
Kim Travers, a member of our growing community from the US, currently living in Oman explains: “I don't have a primary care physician whom I see regularly, and my current life rhythms mean the topic doesn't come up when I'm with friends. So I haven't talked about it with very many people”.
When you're living abroad while also facing menopause you are in essence dealing with two sets of complex circumstances that, when combined, create a special kind of 'cocktail of challenges'. These are just a few of the challenges you may need to consider:
Finding the right health care and support during menopause can be difficult in your passport country. Now imagine living in a system that you are not familiar with or one where you don't speak the language. Navigating the medical system, figuring out who to see and understanding what your options are can be almost impossible.
Making connections and finding friends is crucial to integrating to a new place and culture. As a newcomer with menopause you could be experiencing fatigue, having mood swings and may have even lost your confidence. None of these things are conducive to forming new relationships.
Identity is a question we often grapple with when living outside of our own culture. You may already find yourself asking "what is my identity in relation to this country?" Now add menopause to the mix and you may find yourself in an identity crisis, trying to figure out who it is that you're becoming in the next phase of your life.
Finding meaning in life —be that personal or career orientated — is something that many women begin to think about during menopause. You'll find yourself asking questions like: "what is it that I really want to do/make/be for myself?" Just like moving to a new country, you're now also being faced with another huge opportunity and challenge. This double whammy can leave women feeling lost and overwhelmed.
Working on an assignment in a company where the culture is different to what you are familiar with may lead to you feeling a doubly challenged professionally. And you may not be able to talk to colleagues about menopause.
For these reasons and many more that that will reveal themselves as we learn more about living a global menopause, it is vitally important that women going through perimenopause and menopause can find access to support.
I’m sure there are women reading this who have been feeling isolated, have been wondering where to turn, how to talk about menopause, or dealing with insomnia or one of menopause's other 30-plus symptoms.
To them I say: The Menopausal Expat is here to help us support each other and to provide information and access to global experts. We can’t stop this train from arriving at the platform, nor can we opt out of getting onboard, but we can influence what the destination looks like.
Mavis Musindo, from Zimbabwe, currently lives in Ethiopia as a member of our community her advice is: “Take time to educate yourself about Menopause before it hits. When it does come embrace it and stay positive. Network and share with others in the same boat. It has taught me to embrace aging sooner than I imagined because it brought joint/back issues for me. I have chosen to inform others about this stage of a woman's life so they can be prepared when it arrives.”
Hearing each other's stories helps us to understand that we are not alone on this journey.
Jane Ordaz is The Menopausal Expat, Coach and licensed practitioner of Adapt and Succeed.