Jo Turner, Angela Croad and Adell Finn, members of the West Midlands PA Forum, share their perspectives on creating and running a menopause support group
The West Midlands PA Forum’s 2021 health and wellness programme included an online session about menopause, which looked at the positive side of what can be a very difficult time for a lot of women. The session was very well received, which led Dan Skermer (founder of the PA Forum) to create a member-led support group for all those interested in taking the conversation further. On 18 October 2021, World Menopause Day, the PA Forum’s Menopause: Let’s Keep Talking group was launched, run by Angela Croad, Adell Finn and Jo Turner.
The online group meets bi-monthly to share stories, resources and tips. It is an informal, confidential space open to anyone wishing to join a supportive community to help each other navigate the menopause journey. Discussions have included workplace practices, health services, signs and symptoms, HRT and alternative therapies, and having difficult conversations with family, friends and colleagues. The community has grown along the way – some members attend each session, some as and when, and others attend as a one-off. All are welcome at any time, and those who have joined have found true value in connecting with like-minded souls.
2023 will see the community continue to meet regularly. The sessions will focus on topics such as exercise, nutrition, medicine, sleep and mindfulness – to provide a holistic approach for the group throughout the year, and to invite some specialist guest speakers. The group also hope to explore taking the conversation further into the administrative community and beyond.
A frozen shoulder in the summer of 2020 took me off to see a physiotherapist, who told me of a potential link between the pain and discomfort I was experiencing and menopause. At age 48, menopause wasn’t something at the forefront of my mind – maybe it should have been – so I did my research. I bought some books, talked to friends, watched TV Programmes (thanks, Davina McCall) and followed news items and campaigns. I discovered the term ‘perimenopause’, something I now feel I have been ‘going through’ since my early forties. It explained a lot of what I’d been feeling for years – a loss of self, struggles with mental health, mood changes, a loss of confidence and some physical symptoms.
Engaging with the PA Forum’s session in 2021 inspired me to find out even more to help me deal with the changes I was going through and to cope with my ‘menopause moments’. I jumped at the chance to get involved with the PA Forum’s support group. I’m certainly no expert, but I find there’s power in connecting with and learning from others, developing friendships and empowering each other to get the help needed. I’ve learned a great deal listening to the varied experiences of the group – it gave me the confidence to visit the doctor, who started me on HRT (not everyone’s choice, I know, but it works for me), and introduced me to the huge amount of resources and support out there.
Our plans for this year
Over the next 12 months, we will continue this valued support for everyone who wants to join the conversation; we’ll deep-dive into focussed topics and open our eyes to what resource works for us as individuals. I will also be supporting my employer to create a menopause policy and useful practices across the workplace.
I’ve loved being involved with the group, developing my friendships with Angela and Adell, creating a platform for others to share and talk and laugh and cry, and inspiring them to shout about what they’re going through. If I could share three things with others from what I’ve learned over the last year, they would be:
- Find your community of support, be it with friends, an online group, a menopause café within your area, or at work. You’ll take comfort from knowing you’re not alone.
- Whatever stage you’re at on your menopause journey – learn, learn, learn. Arm yourself with the resources to help you get through it. Read, listen, talk – educate yourself.
- Give yourself a break and come to terms with what’s happening – menopause is a major physiological change and acceptance is the first step.
My personal experience with menopause started at around the age of 45. I felt I wasn’t coping with everyday things that in the past had been a breeze. I wasn’t sleeping well. I felt lethargic. My motivation, to do anything, was low. I was emotional, but not over anything in particular. My heart would race, but I was relaxed watching TV. If I didn’t write things down or set reminders, I would completely forget things. My mouth felt like it was permanently on fire! I became annoyed about trivial things, but to me, they were REALLY annoying.
I would ask my husband or children a question, and they would answer me, but I wouldn’t remember, and 5 minutes later, I would ask the same question, which really annoyed them, so they would snap at me and I would get upset and feel like I was going mad! And the list goes on. Not once did I think, ‘I bet this is down to the menopause’.
We didn’t learn about menopause at school. It had never been a conversation that I’d had with my mother, or any other female in my life, so when I attended the menopause session through the PA Forum, I felt like suddenly, everything made so much sense, like someone had removed a blindfold and I could see clearly for the first time!
The power of support
Following that ‘eureka’ moment, I sat down with my husband and teenage children and explained exactly what was happening to me, how I’d been feeling and struggling but trying my hardest to fight it because I knew I wasn’t behaving ‘like I should or used to.’ There were tears, there was laughter, but knowing that I had the love, support and understanding of the most important people in my life made me feel like a huge dark cloud had lifted, and so when Daniel reached out regarding a potential support group, I knew I had to be involved. The thought of anyone going through this and feeling how I had been feeling made me so sad, and if starting a group only helped one person, it would still be so worth it!
I can’t tell you how much I look forward to our bi-monthly sessions and how much I get out of it personally. When I think how the group has evolved from the very first session in October 2021, it just fills my heart with pride. It’s amazing to see how people have emerged from their shells and now embrace this next phase of their lives, which we like to refer to as our ‘Second Spring’.
Initially, the majority of the group were nervous to speak and share their experiences, but they now offer advice and tips to others, and I do genuinely believe that this has come from the trusting and safe space that Jo, Adell and I provide. I also believe that the fact we all three were open and honest, and laid ourselves bare from day one, meant that others felt free to do the same.
Jo, Adell and I always make it clear that if anyone needs support in between those sessions, they can reach out to any one of us. We have made the sessions slightly more structured by reaching out to attendees a week before the sessions to see if there are any topics in particular that individuals would like to discuss, as we are conscious that we want everyone to get as much out of these sessions as possible.
Bringing the discussion into the workplace
I approached my HR Team at Higgs LLP (my workplace) to share with them my involvement with the menopause group and discovered that ‘menopause support within the workplace’ was also an initiative that they were working on for our firm – music to my ears!
We now have a menopause policy within our firm and a shared space full of tips and links for all Higgs LLP colleagues to access. We have adapted our restroom facilities to enable women to have the necessary support when needed. We run regular webinar sessions and lunch and learn sessions to ensure that we are doing our utmost to make the subject of menopause ‘normal’. The firm also paid for me to attend a menopause training course, and I’m unbelievably proud to be the Menopause Champion for Higgs LLP.
I had been feeling somewhat out of sorts for a while when I signed up to the online menopause session in 2021. Things that wouldn’t normally bother me suddenly were bothering me. I would feel anxious, irked, frustrated and short-tempered by minor things, my libido was low, I had broken sleep and weight gain and my hair was thinning, along with brain fog. As an EA, I write notes, but it became even more important that I wrote everything down both for home and work, as I would forget.
I started to suffer from some bad anxiety and panic attacks for absolutely no reason whatsoever. One Saturday, driving to the supermarket, I’d just about got to the car park when I started hyperventilating and being sick. Fortunately, two passers-by came to help me, but it was not a nice display of myself in public. The panic kept escalating because I was worried about what people were thinking of me. I can just be sitting at home or at work and not particularly stressed, and I can feel the anxiety start to build. When you have never suffered from anxiety or panic attacks before, it is scary, especially when you don’t understand why you’re experiencing this.
I did not know Jo and Angela very well before we formed the menopause support group, and I truly feel very blessed to have made genuine, heartfelt friendships with them and all the women who attend the sessions. We laugh and cry with happiness, frustration, or sadness if a difficult time is being had, and this is OK. We ensure we have created a trusted environment to do this. My mom and sister had a tough time with menopause, but I didn’t understand what they were going through at the time, as I was quite young. My mom’s generation (she is now in her eighties and my sister in her sixties) didn’t really talk about these things as we do today.
Sharing our stories
The members of the group share articles, books to read, websites and apps, and beauty tips for hair, nails and skin. We keep the sessions very informal, as none of us professes to be an expert in this field, but we can listen and share our experiences, good and bad, and thus be supportive of each other in a safe and trusted environment. If just one person is helped or finds comfort from this group, then that’s fantastic. There are some members of the group that attend regularly whilst some attend for what they need at that particular time in their life, and this is absolutely fine. The three of us are also available for anyone who wishes to reach out to one of us separately.
Whilst my family and friends have been supportive of me, I have also been grateful to my previous and current employers who encouraged me and inspired me to set up a menopause group (with a previous employer) for staff in a trusted environment. Even though I no longer work there, we are still on a WhatsApp group and continue to support each other.
I am inspired by our members with how positive everyone is even when they may not feel that way. We hope our members find the sessions as helpful and inspiring as we do and think of us not just as a group of members, but as friends.
We can all be guilty at times of being too hard on ourselves, and it’s very easy to focus on the negatives instead of all the positive things that we do and bring to others.
Menopause can make this a lot harder, but if you are thinking of reaching out, please rest assured, whether you’ve yet to reach menopause, are going through it, or have come triumphantly out the other side, it’s comforting to know that you’re not on your own!
All of our journeys will be different, and we will each have our tales to tell, but coming together, listening, sharing and understanding, through good times and bad, can only make us stronger.
It is so uplifting to be able to share and embrace this time of our lives with like-minded women, so if any of the above resonates with you or makes you think of a family member or friend, please do join us for a virtual coffee or friendly chat. We guarantee a laugh or two along the way!