Menopause hit my vanity first. It began with a photograph – me out with friends – only something wasn’t quite right. Was that me or Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I? I couldn’t quite tell.
The more I stared at the photo, the more I realised that it was my hairline that was wrong. It was further back than it should have been. Strange. Must have been how I was holding my head.
Except the next photo showed the same thing. And the next. And then, looking in the mirror, I could see a distinct patch. A – oh my God! – bald patch.
I went to the doctor, who kindly informed me I had male pattern baldness – yes, honestly – and ordered blood tests for my iron levels before informing me that if there was nothing wrong with them, there was nothing they could do. (There wasn’t.)
So I changed hairstyles.
A few months later, I began getting pains in my legs. Real, strong, aching, pains that felt as if my very marrow was being tortured. Pains so strong they woke me up.
I went to the doctor (another one in my surgery, this being the NHS) and he prescribed Vitamin D.
“How are you otherwise?” he asked. “How’s your general wellbeing? Periods still coming?”
“Oh, that’s brilliant,” I replied. “Haven’t had one for months now. It’s great. I feel fantastic. It’s just these aching legs.”
“Are you still sexually active? You could be pregnant. Just remember that…”
Cue a run to the pharmacist for a pregnancy test. On New Year’s Eve. Followed by relief.
But the Vit D seemed to do its job and my aches dropped down to bearable levels. I mean, didn’t everyone my age make a wee: “Ooof,” when they stood up because their joints are a little sore? And slouching over a computer all day was bound to make shoulders tense.
Palpitations and a trip to hospital
Fast-forward several months and I was training for the Great North Run. I’d got up to ten miles without stopping – a major miracle for a woman who was always last at cross-country at school – but every now and then, I’d get small heart palpitations. They never happened when I was running – far from it, I felt strong and powerful then – but I’d get a flutter just strong enough for me to place my hand up to my heart to try and quell it.
The GP ordered me to stop training and to have a stress test, in which you get tested on a treadmill while all wired up to a heart monitor.
I’d committed to running the GNR to raise money for Guide Dogs and not being able to train, or know if I’d even be able to compete, really wasn’t helping the anxiety I was feeling at times.
In fact, the palpitations and the anxiety freaked me out so much I ended in A&E one night after work, convinced that I was having a heart attack. After several hours, the lovely doctor basically asked if it was a family trait to “worry” about their health and sent me on my way, adding that he saw no reason I shouldn’t get back to training.
As my husband and I walked home, I fretted non-stop about wasting the doctor’s time and adding to the stress and strain on the NHS. I also made a mental note to double-check everything I’d done at work that day.
Anger, anxiety and angst
Double-checking – treble-checking – my work was beginning to become the norm. I’m a journalist, a job I love. But I was starting to worry that I was losing my touch. Young people would arrive at meetings with their laptops; I’d have my journalist’s notebook and a cup of tea. What an antique they must think of me.
And there was that time I didn’t spot a mistake until it went on our website – what if that happened again only worse and we were sued? The fact that no-one else had spotted it – or that the one person who had hadn’t thought it was worth mentioning – riled me up more and I could feel myself getting angry with him.
In fact, getting angry with people was becoming more and more normal. Bloody people on the Tube who wouldn’t move to let you out; bloody Theresa May; bloody Jeremy Corbyn; bloody influencers; bloody so-called-friends on social media; bloody husband; bloody family, and BLOODY TUDOR CRISPS FOR NO LONGER MAKING GAMMON FLAVOUR.
I started to wake up at 2am, angry at a person I felt had slighted me, or a news story, or myself. I went from “live and let live” to wanting them all to hurt. To hurt a lot.
When I wasn’t angry, I was worried. Frantically worried that something bad was going to happen. Fear gripped me so tightly that I couldn’t breathe at times. Then I’d berate myself: drama queen; how dare I feel down when I had a roof over my head and others were sleeping on the streets? No wonder people were talking about me behind my back – behaving like this on top of the anger and ALL the mistakes I was making at work.
I had to pull myself together, which I would, once I had a bit more energy. I must be eating so badly to be so constantly tired. Even my fingers were fatigued. And itchy. My whole body was itchy. I must be missing some vitamins.
Hot flushes and realisation
But at least I no longer had to worry about periods. God, menopause was wonderful, wasn’t it? Periods vanishing for months on end – it was a bit of a bummer when they returned, true, but they were so light and no longer painful that I couldn’t complain – and yeah, these hot flushes were a bit of a pain, but I didn’t get too many and so long as a window was open, I was fine. Loving it…
True the hot flushes were growing in number and sometimes left me having to stop what I was doing to sit down and quell a panic attack. But that was fine. It was just the menopause and I was, after all, a hypochondriac. The A&E doctor had told me… I bet he was telling everyone about the bloody stupid woman he’d had in one night…
After two days of debilitating hot-flush attacks, my husband decided I needed something, so he took to Google. That was when I discovered what menopause truly was, that night, when he went through a symptoms-checker and discovered that everything I had been going through for the last three to four years was on it.
The hot flushes, itchiness, rage, paranoia, fear, aches, palpitations, hair loss – it all had one simple answer: menopause. And I had never known.
It was a lightbulb moment that, once I had started HRT, I wrote about for 50Sense. The response was amazing – and still is. Years on and I still get so many women (and their husbands, partners and families) writing to say they felt just the same way. And like me, they’d never known it was all menopause related.
This is why I began the Pausitivity KnowYourMenopause campaign. We want posters displaying menopause symptoms in every GP and health centre in the UK.
Too many women have contacted me to say they were also ignorant of what menopause could entail outwith hot flushes and irregular periods. And none of them were aware of the psychological symptoms.
Women need to know what menopause can mean – and so does the rest of society, because how we feel impacts on all those around us. By highlighting symptoms on a poster, we can break the taboo that stops us talking about menopause and empower women to have the conversations they need to be having.
Looking back on my “menopause self”, I feel as if I’m looking back on a different person. It’s hard to believe that scared, frightened, tired, angry woman was me. I still have my ups and downs – we’re still trying to find the right HRT combination – but most days I feel good. Some days I feel bloody invincible and if this is what life is like post-menopause, bring it on.
But most of all, I feel passionately that no other woman should have to go through what I went through. I’m channelling all my menopause strength into making life better for the next woman. And so long as I’m doing that, I don’t feel as if the last few years of suffering have been in vain.