I'll be the first to admit that this sounds like a totally ridiculous question. Read any list of menopause symptoms and you'll basically get the sense that your body and brain go completely to pieces, so how could you not know? But in spite of my pretty extensive knowledge about menopause and its attendant woes, I have to tell you from personal experience that it can be confusing.
First, let's review: "menopause" means you have not had a menstrual period for at least 12 months. "Perimenopause" is the time period leading up to that point, and is when everything starts to get wonky. Perimenopause is relatively quick for some women - the average is four years - but for others it can go on for much longer. Perimenopause is when periods get irregular and hot flashes start. Insomnia, moods swings and other symptoms can start to crop up, too.
Full disclosure, I've been in perimenopause for a few years, but it was very unclear to me at the beginning. When my periods starting getting irregular I variously thought it might be due to stress, my IUD or weight loss. I'd have bouts of hot flashes and night sweats that would go away for a while and then return. I have a family and a job and a full plate, so was I experiencing mood swings or just the stress of having overextended myself? Currently I haven't had a period in 2 ½ months and have no idea if I'll have another. Perhaps I will and this uncertainty will go on for several more years. Or maybe I'm truly done and won't officially know it for another 7½ months. It's a little crazy-making, to be honest.
The average age for menopause is 51, but perimenopause can start in your early 40s. If you are experiencing menopause symptoms very early or have any cause for concern, talk to your doctor. Heck, talk to your doctor no matter what, but there are serious medical conditions, including ovarian cancer and thyroid issues, that can present some of the same symptoms as perimenopause, so it's important to get checked out if anything feels not quite right. Otherwise, hang on for the ride and definitely find other women to talk to and commiserate with -we all go through this and there's no reason to go it alone.