I was recently invited to speak at ‘For the Love of Writing Festival’.
It was produced by The Society of Women Writers Victoria, Australia and recorded via Zoom. This is a video of the entire presentation. If you’re interested in the writing process, take a look at the first 10-15 mins. If you’re more interested in women’s hormonal health and what’s in the book, then start at 13:30.
Here’s a rough transcript of the video:
Thanks Caroline and to the Society of Women Writers Victoria for inviting me to speak today, it’s wonderful to be part of an event that includes a cast of such stellar women. Happy 50th anniversary to you, I’ve loved watching the event from afar on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
My name is Susanne Mitchell and I’m a writer, media producer and mother of two young adults.
As a young child I fell in love with storytelling at bedtime, snuggled up with warm milk and Kenneth Grahame’s much loved characters from The Wind in the Willows, Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger and their adventures on the riverbank. A.A Milne’s characters of Pooh and Piglet in the Hundred Acre Wood featured heavily plus the many tales of Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Dr.Seuss, the list goes on.
My love of reading led to a love of writing.
I penned my first stories in primary school and went on to write scripts at film school in London. They were terrible I’m sure and slammed out through the keys of my ancient Imperial typewriter.
Living in a top floor bedsit as a poor student, I felt the hunger to communicate and the romance of the written word, living on toast and baked beans, tea and hand rolled cigarettes.
But as much as I loved writing, I didn’t pursue the written word seriously until my forties when my work started to require copy and content for clients.
Fast forward a decade (2021) and I’ve written three of my own books, one junior fiction novel featuring a feisty 11-year-old protagonist called Bridget Spaghetti that Allen & Unwin almost published. They loved it but said their list was weighty that year and they suggested I take it to overseas publishing houses.
But life lurched sideways at that point as I faced some personal difficulties and so it remains on a shelf, gathering dust. Later, other projects became more important while life kept me busy earning money and raising small to medium sized humans.
Since then, I’ve tried my hand at non-fiction, taking a recklessly self-funded (I remortgaged my home, not something I would recommend) and took a year out to write a non-fiction book called The Naked Truth About YOU, Unlock the Secret to a Kick-Arse Life.
This second book of mine began, in my naivety, the wrong way around. I started with the book, and after many rounds of edits with my long suffering editor Jessica Perini, 28 chapters and 100,000 words later, I realised I needed to write a proposal and build an audience if any agents or publishers were to take me, as an unpublished writer seriously.
I mean Susanne, who the hell are you and why should we bother to read your manuscript? I’ve learned that you’re nobody without an audience.
Around this time last year (April 2020) I was working on building an audience and also on my proposal with another editor in the USA, Candace Johnson.
Candace has good experience on the publishing side of the fence and was doing what all good editors do, encouraging me yet whipping my arse a bit and guiding me to create a document that covered all the areas expected in a non-fiction book proposal.
Now I don’t know how much you know about a book proposal but basically it’s a full length business plan that outlines how your book is going to make an agent or publishing house worth taking the punt on investing in you.
My proposal for that book is 85 pages and 35,000 words and includes an overview of the project, my biography and credibility to write it.
Plus possible endorsements and influencers who may help sell it, my target market broken down into detailed segments and a full marketing plan. Add to that chapter summaries, sample chapters and a lot of bluff and bravado.
Why I wrote the book:
Then I found myself sidetracked with this, my third book, published a few weeks ago (January 19th 2021), called The Naked Truth About PERIMENOPAUSE. It was never actually meant to be a book, and began as a personal fight to get help when my hormones deserted me.
It fast progressed to an investigation of the challenges that women face in the treatment of our hormonal health. And the lesser known options, that aren’t so easily available to us. There’s a lot more at play than it seems.
This is how it started: I decided to knock out something on the side of my work on the proposal, something that I could give away, that had value for my target audience.
While working out what to write about, a colleague in my co-work office, who is an experienced marketer, asked me to define my target readers biggest headache.
Pff! Easy I said. I immediately came up with a bunch of problems all related to women like me. Mid-life Generation-X, stretched between work, raising kids, caring for elderly parents, being everything to everyone else yet haunted by who we might have been as we stare 50 in the face.
He raised an eyebrow as I flicked on the kettle and continued. I said; ‘you know the reality of trying to do it all for so long has hit us hard and our discontent grows, often exacerbated the onset of health and hormone issues, reading glasses and sagging jawlines’.
He said ‘Susanne, you need to offer readers a headache pill that fixes an immediate problem, not a vitamin pill. What’s a problem you’ve recently faced?’
And there it was, staring me in my just-turned-50 face.
My very real and very recent battle with perimenopause (which is the period prior to menopause) and finding the answers and help I needed. I wish I had known back then what I’ve since discovered.
So I figured I would write this up as a short report, something that offered useful tips and information that I could give away in return for an email address. I call it empire building and I’m not that good at it, because three weeks later, I was still writing and had sent it to my long-suffering editor, Jess.
She sent it back with encouraging notes to write more. As a mid-life woman, she wanted the full story. Weeks turned to months as I wrote and researched what has now become this book.
I encountered medical politics through my research and wished, many times, that I were actually a trained investigative journalist, used to challenging people for answers.
But I’m not. I’m a creative storyteller, a branding specialist and content creator. A kitchen sink philosopher, who loves to discuss knowledge, wisdom and understanding life over cups of tea. But I’m not an academic.
So reading medical papers, taking medical advice and reporting it to my readers in a way that made sense, was a challenge.
But the information I uncovered made me feel responsible, as a woman, to complete the book and get it out into the world as soon as possible.
Like birthing a child, it’s taken me 9 months. From the seed of an idea, growing and nurturing the project, writing and re-writing, at times being steamrolled by medics, way cleverer than me, who (by the way) don’t really like lay-people writing about their science and challenging the evidence, it was a labour love and much frustration at times.
In fact, I got to a point in August last year (2020), where I figured it was as good as I could do. I knew there was more to it, because I’d found other, conflicting opinions; indeed my own experience conflicted with much of the evidence that had been presented.
But I couldn’t find a way through the medical glass ceiling, so believing I had done my best, I quietly uploaded the book to Amazon prior to a publicity-and-book launch.
One day later, hours before a meeting with my friend and publicist Valerie McIver, I received an email response, from a doctor, a breast cancer surgeon, researcher and respected author of a paper I’d read back at the beginning.
And there it was: the glass ceiling cracked open enough for someone to reach out a hand to guide my enquiry further.
A whole new world opened up in my search for answers and the breast cancer surgeon referred me to a hormone specialist, both of them doing work that challenged conventional medical thinking.
Both encouraged me to enquire further. So I took the book down and entered months more of research and rewrites. I had presentations and more papers, information on random control trials and observational studies. It was in good shape by November last year and into final edits.
Authors are human too, we need encouragement and love:
Now I didn’t give this book to my partner Nick, to read until it was finished. After crucifying him with my other book through the writing process, I’d steered clear of running chapters past him, instead utilising the four editors I knew who were all in their mid-life years. I figured he was over hearing about my menopause struggles and the frustrations of the research and writing process.
After reading it in one sitting he said;
‘I’m so proud of you for following this through, it’s an excellent book. Men need to read this too! If only I’d understood it better, and had your book on hand, I could have been so much more supportive!’
I blubbed a bit after hearing that from him, I must admit. Writing is a very emotional experience for me.
So, after test readers gave me positive feedback but complained that they didn’t like reading on electronic devices, I decided to produce a print and e-book, as well as a free PDF giveaway of the first two chapters.
What happens when you finish the editing process:
As we went through the layout process in December, waiting anxiously for proof copies, I put on a new hat, one of publisher, brand and web designer, self-publicist, social media maven, video producer, camerawoman, blogger, and so on. It didn’t matter so much that Christmas was cancelled this year, with the Northern Beaches of Sydney in lockdown, as I worked through trying to meet my book launch deadline.
It’s a very big hat to wear, even for someone used to marketing and generating interest in a brand. Some days it swaps me, others I throw it in the air with glee and enjoy the process, but I’m not going to lie, many of you will already know how heavy that post-launch hat can be to wear. And I’ve employed the services of some brilliant women to help me in this part of the process.
So that’s enough about me and my personal book-writing rollercoaster ride.
What’s in the book?
Let’s talk about the hormonal rollercoaster ride that many women enter through their late thirties, 40s and early 50s.
We should not stay silent and must find a voice to tell it like it is.
I was lucky enough to have various doctors, professors and a hormone specialist Dr. Angela DeRosa advise me through the book on all things medical. Dr DeRosa wrote me a foreword too, in it she said some really good things. I could read a short excerpt?
Let me find it. And my glasses (reading from the book):
Angela wrote, “I’ve found a kindred spirit in Susanne, as she provides women with much-needed information and coping strategies. I laughed, I cried, I peed my pants a little when I read this book!
I also got enraged again after hearing her struggle to understand and fight to access all the things that prevent women from getting the proper care and hormones they need. Men get their penis drugs and all the testosterone they require, we get psych meds and excuses.”
Chapter 1. The Nuggets of Truth
In this chapter I discuss the challenges I faced in researching and reporting on medical evidence and advice. And how my endeavour to find the truth about the best ways to treat the transition to menopause was subject to so many different opinions. I introduce the various medical specialists I sought help from and tell some of the story that I’ve already outlined to you.
Chapter 2. Menopause. Kill Me Now
In this chapter I give an overview of menopause, discuss the common symptoms and look at what influences symptoms. There’s some jokes and fun scattered through the book, the humour essential to bring light to what can feel very dark to some women.
Chapter 3. Be Prepared, Not Alarmed: My Story
Here I share my struggle to understand what was happening to me through my forties. And then what happened when I finally, at the age of 49 realised I’d spent most of that decade fighting and trying to treat symptoms that were most likely to be hormone deficiency. And how surprised I was to have understood so little about menopause.
I thought it was something that would hit somewhere in my 50s which seemed like a long way away. And then it knocked me over with full force at the end of perimenopause and I was floored.
My quality of life ditched, my energy and cognitive function deserted me and I lost my sense of self, I gained weight, needed bigger clothes and my self confidence disappeared. I became a hot mess of confusion. I share how I overcame that and the surprising things I learned about hormones, especially testosterone.
It’s quite hard to share the embarrassing moments, I even thought I had dementia at times, my brain function was that poor and the times where I bled like a scene in a horror movie. But in my search for the truth, I must tell the truth even if it makes me blush, and it does.
Some say it’s courageous. I don’t feel very courageous to be honest, but I do feel outraged so perhaps that helps me to be brave here in sharing my story honestly.
Chapter 4. Haywire Hormones
(I read an excerpt) When your hormones go haywire they become horrormones. When we first experience their full-force through our teenage years we may suffer pimples and protrusions and sometimes smell like off-cheese, but opportunities await us and the world is at our feet. Plus we know everything.
During your fertile years you’re up, you’re down, you bleed and you’re like, ‘I love you, I hate you, I’m sorry it’s my period, I’m hormonal so if you aren’t coffee, chocolate, wine or Cheezos I’m going to need you to f*ck off.’ You think ‘I’ll get to menopause and all of this will go away.’
Then your hormones pack up and run off with your period and you’re still, ‘I love you, I hate you, I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what I’m doing in here, when did I get so fat and who the hell am I?’ It’s like they ditch the party but leave behind their bad ’80s shoulder pads and mood swings. It starts to dawn on us that we don’t know everything after all.
In this chapter I take readers through our sex hormones and look at what they actually do, which helps to make sense of why many of us struggle as they peak and then ditch through our transition to menopause. Hormone deficiency can be debilitating and cause a devastating domino effect on our personal and working relationships.
I also introduce testosterone and look at why it is such an important hormone. There’s an explanation of the difference between synthetic and bioidentical hormones in here too. I’ve also added thyroid in, because by the age of 50, one in three women will have a thyroid disorder, but it is rarely diagnosed. Something we need to be aware of.
Chapter 5. HRT is not the Devil’s Work
In this chapter we look at why HRT has such a bad press, dispel the myths and look at new evidence and assess the associated risks. I share other hormone therapy options with readers, what I have tried and been prescribed and how I was saved from the asylum. There’s also discussion on the very real gender bias in medicine and an explanation of why it’s important we have access to compounded bioidentical hormone therapies.
Here’s an interesting excerpt (I read from the book)
The Australian Medical Society (AMS) does not endorse prescribing compounded bioidentical hormones, which leaves many doctors only prescribing big pharma products to patients. Are we lacking in training and the education of our healthcare providers in women’s hormonal health?
Do drug companies unduly influence our doctors in what they prescribe? Is it possible they influence the medical societies that we rely on for truthful reporting? This is worth a ponder when looking for treatment.
Ok so this leads to an interesting part, a discussion around conflict of interest in the medical profession. It’s in a section I titled:
Interlude – Important Information to Ponder
Here I shine the spotlight on conflicts of interest in the narrative of medicine and define some of the roles in this play. We must understand how medicine is funded and remain aware of potential conflicts for this can have a knock- on effect to our individual healthcare needs.
Chapter 6. Not Just Vital for Boy Bands – Testosterone
This is a defining chapter in the book and this hormone is rarely discussed as we hit menopause. It’s extremely important and it makes me really mad that it isn’t part of the current narrative of treating menopause.
My view is considered controversial here, but it comes from a very personal experience and is backed up firmly with clinical research.
So I take readers through testosterone therapy and reveal what I learned from my determined enquiries, how useful it was to me in managing brain fog and other debilitating symptoms like fatigue.
I reveal why it’s not mainstream, share how I managed to score some (legally) and the results I experienced. You don’t want to miss this chapter, it’s full of information you won’t find on menopause society websites.
Chapter 7. Alternatives to Hormone Therapies
Not everyone can safely use hormone therapies and there are many alternative options. I walk readers through non-hormone prescription medications, melatonin, offer the low-down on herbal supplements including some interesting results on maca root. I also suggest ways to be more proactive with your menopause journey.
There’s a clear example of taking a naturopathic approach. Basically it’s your body, your choice in how you manage your menopause.
Chapter 8. Your Body Is a Temple
Here we look at options for supporting your mind, body and spirit through this major and often disruptive process of change. From the best types of exercise to the benefits of cognitive behaviour therapy, ways to manage stress, make better food choices and sleep better. Basically I offer tips for worshipping at the altar of your body.
Chapter 9. What to Take to Your Doctor
Our doctors can (often unknowingly) present a major hurdle to women looking for help with menopausal symptoms. We need more training of our doctors in this area full stop. My doctor admitted he didn’t know enough, saying it’s very basic training in this through med. school.
Our doctors need to acquire more knowledge about our hormonal health if we are going to make headway with more progressive and earlier treatment of perimenopause.
I’m sick of hearing how women are ignored or treated without compassion when struggling through these years. We need some radical change in this area.
I’ve seen GP’s, doctors who specialise in women’s health, endocrinologists and even a professor specialising in women’s hormones in search of a way to manage my debilitating symptoms. Sharing my experience, I offer some super useful tips on how to find a good doctor and make your experience with medical professionals a good one.
I give readers a checklist of things to take in with them and questions to ask. If you’ve read this book, you’ll be knowledgeable and prepared to help you get what you need from your doctor.
Chapter 10. Let’s Embrace the Renewal Years
In my final chapter I encourage all women to collectively support each other so we can all rock our lives through midlife and beyond.
I reveal the handful of other species where the female survives beyond her reproductive years and the reason we aging human females are essential and valuable contributors to the world at large. Why we need to garner more respect.
If you’re a woman (or if you love one) then you need to read this. I need to share it with you. Together we can change the world around us and support each other to reimagine our midlife years.
That’s my book in a nutshell. It’s been one hell of an adventure.
Now it’s published, my biggest challenge is finding the courage to keep pushing it out there, managing interviews with the media which make me very nervous. Plus there are big hurdles like actually getting women to read it, building a social media presence and dealing with the knock backs that being ‘out there’ inevitably brings.
Tips for any budding writers:
Editors are worth their weight in gold. You can find an editor in Australia/NZ via The Institute of Professional Editors Limited.
I believe they are an essential writing tool. We need editors to stretch our writing chops, not only to correct copy, but to help structure a book, to offer valuable notes, fresh eyes and perspective. I worked with four different editors on this book, three as developmental and copy editors and my fourth as a proof editor and doyenne of layout and e-book production.
I can’t say I’d recommend working with more than one developmental/copy editor, but my first editor Jessica Perini was already inundated with work and passed me on to Caroline Webber (our esteemed writers festival director) who helped enormously but also ran tight on time as my deadline extended with all the new research, information and rewrites.
So I pulled in Candace Johnson from the US who helped me as I battled academic papers and ways to convey differences of medical opinion and in discussing conflicts of interest without pointing dangerous fingers. In fact it went to a lawyer after that, through a brilliant organisation called The Arts Law Centre of Australia.
They provide low cost specialised legal advice, education and resources to Australian artists and arts organisations across all art forms, on a wide range of arts related legal and business matters.
My pro-bono lawyer is an ABC TV lawyer who really knew his stuff and made me pull in some areas of the book to safeguard me from potential defamation suits. When real people feature, and things are challenged, care is required. I can’t tell you any more or I’d have to kill you.
But seriously, it’s strange how almost everyone who helped and supported me (other than my lawyer) were mid-life women in varying stages of peri- or postmenopause with experiences to share. Their support and belief in the project were so important in helping me to see it through to a final product.
I’ll finish on a final excerpt from my book, after the discussion around the few species where the female survives beyond her reproductive years. And hope you’ll all be motivated to grab a copy and have a read:
So is menopause a key to our success as a species? I think we can claim a strong argument for that. That’s a great reason to embrace your renewal years and to push healthcare professionals for the treatment that’s right for you.
You aren’t just doing it for yourself, but for humankind.
By embracing our personal transition and sharing our experience, strength and hope, we become advocates for change within society. We are better placed to lobby and challenge health professionals and workplaces for more understanding and less prejudice.
But we also empower our societies; women, especially the wiser older women, are surely the bedrock of all societies.
The loss of our menstrual years should offer us freedom. It’s time to consider what else we can let go of, along with the tampons and period pain, to embrace the next part of our lives. Let’s start believing it’s a beginning and not an end, starting today.
Please join me and other women in the discussion, as we share our wisdom, strength and experience around not just menopause, but all things woman and life in general, in my Facebook Group – Secret Menses Business.
I’d love to get to know you there.