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Confined by my Cage of Confidence

First written in 2018, this piece drew a lot of attention on my blog and explores my slow realisation of how much my mental health was being affected by menopause - more precisely, being in Perimenopause. A term I had not heard until then and a stage of life that was not really spoken about as I was growing up. I have come a long way in my understanding since but would like to acknowledge where I started by re-posting this on #WorldMenopauseDay 2020.

This year started with less of a bang, more of a half-hearted fizz and a pop really. Never ones for big New Year’s parties we had plans in place for the usual few relatives and friends to come round for a take away and to play some board games. Not exactly the most exciting plans for new year's eve, but a way to mark the passage of time and to wish everyone success for the next chapter ahead.  Such is the ritual that we all have adopted, singling out this date as one for celebration and reflection. Well, best laid plans were not to be this year as the day before our electrics failed and, despite the best efforts of a guy prepared to come out and work over the holiday weekend, we cancelled our plans and functioned with candles and jumpers.

So it was against this background that I had time to reflect upon life choices as part of that annual, usually farcical process of making New Year resolutions.  This New Year, I thought, I'm going to be 50. I decided then that it was going to be my year for myself, for my goals. I was going to be slimmer and try to find some 'me time' amongst the busy work and family schedule. No weight goal in mind, just a vague idea about dropping a dress size maybe. I was a size 22 at the time and no matter how much make-up and glittery accessories I might add, there was no escaping the fact that I was short and fat. Short – I’ve come to terms with, but it was about time that I faced the fat issue.  So I actively cut down on all the things that we all know are bad for us and tried to do more exercise. I’ve always known what to do to lose weight, but I had to be in the right place mentally to start the journey.

However, the next few months brought unforeseen developments.  It seemed that as soon as I had decided to modify my eating habits something switched on in my brain and I had episodes of a loss of appetite along with a rough patch of dizzy spells. Though pleased that I was losing weight, the growing nagging feeling was there, wondering why I felt dizzy and off my food.  When I eventually had the courage to talk it all over with a doctor, it transpired that I was anaemic, my blood pressure was high and I was peri-menopausal.  A trio of trouble.

I've since discovered just how much this trio has chipped away at my physical health and mental well-being. A bit of internet research gave me some information and reassurance - though I should say, this is a dangerous path to take as it sets off all sorts of unnecessary alarm bells about symptoms real and imagined. However, armed with a little knowledge and the support of some friends encouraging me to actually keep seeking medical advice, I began to tackle some of the symptoms and start feeling better.

Tiredness had seeped into all aspects of my life, acting like a domino effect on mood, rational thought, patience and ability to function day-to-day. Now, I see that the steps I took to get a better night’s sleep had far reaching effects. Whilst in the midst of fitful sleep the early hours became familiar beasts to be slain: the midnight attempt to switch off, the 2 a.m worries for the next day ahead, the 4 a.m mental checklist to tick off, the 5 a.m visit to the bathroom, the 6 a.m acceptance that its almost time to get up anyway! With all that going on, it didn’t occur to me that this tiredness was causing my low mood and crumbling of self-confidence.

I’ve always thought of myself as an organised person, in control, able to do many things and certainly more than capable of juggling work and home life and family commitments. Not for the first part of this year though. All that came tumbling down, like the shifting walls of a sandcastle as the waves of daily demands washed over me. What was happening to me? With my former persona of being a strong woman came the unwritten rule that I didn’t stop to tell anyone how I really felt anyway. I was too busy – there was always a job to be completed, something that I needed to do to help the kids or to support other relatives, a meeting or admin job to complete for the local community group that I belong to. Well, when the tiredness and dizzy spells were at their worst, I think I broke. I felt like a cage was constructing itself around me, putting up barriers to hinder me from functioning as before. To put it succinctly, somewhere along the way I lost my confidence.

Now the concept of confidence is a curious thing – it can disappear in the blink of an eye but takes so long to claw it back again to its former glory. I found myself doubting my abilities and questioning decisions that I had to make. On one occasion, when a lot was happening in the same week, I told friends that I was spiralling out of control. Overwhelmed by circumstance without my previous rock of mental stability to stand upon, ‘spiralling’ was a good description. But asking for their help was a good move, as instead of being dismissed as irrational or silly, I was given space, time and support.

Reflecting upon this time, throws up a contradiction. In the last six months I have lost weight to the point that I am now starting to fit into some size 16 clothes – quite an achievement, from 3 sizes bigger at Christmas. With that achievement, I have received an increasing number of compliments from friends and work colleagues, enough that I began to believe what was being said and to start constructing a more positive self-image. The contradiction, however, is that I simultaneously lost confidence with the aspects that are not on display – daily decisions that I made beneath the façade of that capable, middle-aged Mum. Questions would swim in and out of my head frequently: “Should I continue with my job? Does this outfit really look okay on me or will people think that I am trying to dress like a woman half my age?”

That resolution at the start of the year was to make time for me and in making that pledge, I think it gave me cause to look at myself, question my abilities, my accomplishments and more importantly, look at where I am heading and evaluate if I should continue in this way. I haven’t found the answers to these questions and at times, I think I have regretted asking them. I am still struggling to break out of my confidence cage but I feel that I have located the key. I have come to appreciate advice given by those who care and notice when I’ve been having a bad day. I’ve recognised that there is a way to go on my self-confidence but that I actively need to keep asking for help and finding the courage to take the more difficult steps, as the ones that appear easy and cause the least ripples at the time, are often only temporary fixes and end up leading down a pathway to a larger storm.

Photograph by Stuart Honnor - Ambleside, Lake District 2015

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