My mum can’t remember when she started menopause. Her memory is shot (more on why that may be later). It’s only through some sleuthing that I’ve been able to figure it out, at least roughly. I have a clear memory of my mum talking to an auntie and this auntie – who is always up for trying the latest thing – telling my mum about what I now know to be some sort of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) cream. I remember the Spice Girls having just debuted, so it was around 1996 and I must’ve been about 19 or 20, which made my mum about 49. Knowing my mum, if she was talking to someone about peri-menopause symptoms, she’d probably been having them for some time, suffering silently, particularly because it was even worse back then in terms of cultural understanding. Also my mum doesn’t like to worry people so keeps health issues to herself, much to the annoyance of her four children. I also remember my mum saying at some point in my young adult life that she realised she was probably fighting so horribly with her brother for whom she was working, because she was menopausal. She worked for him briefly when I was about 15, so that would’ve made her 43. Just call me Miss Marple.
In December I turned 46 and my first memory of having a night sweat is between two and three years ago – bingo! Similar age to when my mum might’ve started. The pandemic has played havoc on time so I think I was having them before the pandemic but I can’t be certain. The reason I open this essay in this way is that I think it is essential to find out your family history so you can look out for signs and act early. Night sweats were the first inkling that something was going on. My periods were the same, regular, and I don’t recall many other obvious changes. But that’s what makes peri-menopause is so insidious. The symptoms are varied and sometimes begin subtly. They differ from woman to woman, some getting them all, some getting only a few or even none. Looking back I now understand that I was also experiencing other symptoms, emotional not physical, but the combination of being in a pandemic and then my kids leaving home mislead me to think those were the reasons for my low mood (let’s call it what it is – depression) and anxiety and sadness and fear and panic.
Like many, I’d had a difficult couple of years. For most of 2020 I didn’t work and didn’t get any financial help from the government. But I was surprisingly happy. My kids were home with me, I was being creative and keeping really busy – I wrote/filmed/edited/launched two online courses during that time, I was really active on social media, connecting with people through art and self-expression, I sold paintings, I worked on new business ideas. It wasn’t until the end of 2020/beginning of 2021 that I started to feel really bad. Work had actually started to return although I was in the hole financially and had to dig myself out. I’d also decided that I had to leave London. I couldn’t be there anymore. Financially it was killing me. I wanted to buy a house again but was living in a really expensive area giving all my money to the landlord of a flat I didn’t even like, so that I could be in a city to work and make more money to pay my landlord. That’s how it felt. I’d been looking at flats by the sea for a few years, with the intention of having one for the weekends, not to live permanently, but the pandemic came along and suddenly I had to get out. My son was about to start university and daughter was about to finish. I didn’t have to be in London anymore.
I couldn’t convince my boyfriend to leave – he had an office job and even though he’d been working from home since March 2020, it was likely he’d return to the office soon. He also couldn’t yet see the appeal of leaving London, his friends and the life he’d built. We began fighting a lot. You can’t even call it fighting. It was more that I retreated. He and lots of others I knew seemed to be ok (I have to say that most of them were on paid furlough or getting plenty of financial support from the government which may have helped then feel better quicker) but I still felt awful. Emotionally flat. The world looked bleak. I didn’t feel hope for the future. Everything seemed pointless. For someone who’s always been positive and optimistic this was alarming. I didn’t recognise myself. I’m not someone who just gives up but that’s kind of what I did. I was someone who did big things, I took risks, I moved countries, I started businesses, I said yes to things. To give you some perspective: when I was about 26 I moved with my (now ex) husband from Los Angeles, where we were living, to Seoul, South Korea for his job as a broadcaster in the US Army. Our children were small, Ella was three and a half and Johnny was only two months. During the two years we lived there, I started a children’s clothing business (Spike & Ella), traipsing round the huge fabric markets in Seoul with Ella in a pushchair and Johnny strapped to my chest, trying to negotiate deals on fabric even though I didn’t speak the language. I found a small family run factory (run by the lovely Mr Yi) to make my samples and eventually to fulfil orders, I enlisted a Korean speaking friend to translate for me in meetings, I built a website, I designed lookbooks, clothing labels, packaging, I got showroom reps in the big markets in the US – Dallas, LA, New York – and I ran a fucking business in a foreign country when I was basically a child taking care of children! I don’t share this to brag, but to explain that this is who I am. At my core I am a grafter. I’m ambitious and entrepreneurial and passionate and optimistic.
Peri-menopause has changed who I am. Although my work life has so far been less affected thankfully, in my personal life I feel like a different, less capable person. I hope to return to my former self, hopefully an even more improved version, but right now I don’t even recognise myself. I liken it to feeling like a marble sculpture which over time is being chipped away at, teeny tiny bits chiseled off in the tiniest increments so that it’s barely even noticeable. But then two years later, the sculpture looks completely different. When I talk of the insidiousness of peri-menopause I’m talking about how subtle the changes can be and how they can often be attributed to other circumstances in your life. I thought I was shutting down in my relationship because of outside circumstances and I thought my partner didn’t understand that I had been so deeply affected by the pandemic. I felt like a failure. In 2020/2021 we broke up three times. The first time initiated by me in an emotional outburst that I recall so vividly. Wracked with tears, I was convinced we weren’t right for each other. We got back together again, but the following year he ended it and I didn’t fight it. We got back together again. Finally in February 2021 when I couldn’t see the future clearly anymore, he left me again and again I didn’t fight it. I actually thought it was what I wanted. I was tired of having to feel bad about feeling bad. But I also understand how I wasn’t a joy to be around. Almost immediately I decided to leave London and pursue my dream to live by the sea. Within a month I’d found a flat near Margate. At first I felt liberated but after a few weeks I woke up and realised that something wasn’t right. I was an emotional wreck. I literally couldn’t stop crying for about two weeks. I couldn’t talk to anyone without crying. I became obsessed with getting my boyfriend back.
Fast forward a year and if you follow me on social media, you’ll know my boyfriend moved to the seaside with me (and absolutely loves it), he now works from home full-time, and we bought a house. The difference now is that I recognise that a lot of what happened over the last few years was exacerbated by my change in hormones. It’s all linked so intricately that it’s been hard to unpick. The pandemic had an effect on me, my children leaving home had an effect on me, my temporary loss of work had an effect on me and maybe it was the perfect storm with peri-menopause thrown into the mix as well. What finally led me to call the doctor and have a blood test was the change in periods last year. Sometimes I’d have two a month, followed by three months without one. I had bloods taken and was told that they would indicate if I was peri/menopausal. The (male) doctor said that if the bloods didn’t indicate menopause then we could chat further about why I might be experiencing these changes. When I called for the results, the nurse said the note from the doctor said simply “menopause”.That was it. I laughed. “And?” I said. “What now?” I was told by health care professionals to go away and decide what I wanted to do. Read about treatments or just change my diet and make sure I exercise. Really? That’s it? I was shocked. I thought they would advise me, offer guidance but nope.
I didn’t do anything. Work became really busy (halleluah!) and I just got on with it, as women tend to do. It was only when I hadn’t had a period for a full six months that I called the doctor again. I’d found myself having conversations about HRT with women on set who were a few years older than me. A makeup artist I work with is in her early fifties and said she started taking it at my age and it changed her life (for the record she looks amazing and is always a joy to be around). I started to do a bit of research and I also suddenly became fully aware of how bad I was feeling. A different bad to two years ago. Not depressed, but still emotionally flat. But I also experience ever changing combinations of the following at various points in a day: anxiety, indecisiveness, heart palpitations, disorganisation, messiness, forgetfulness, feeling spaced out, panicked, inability to think clearly, argumentative, difficulty focusing, quick to anger, tired. The list goes on.I do still feel joy and elation at times – particularly when I’m running (I’ve developed a craving for running, something about the burning off energy). It’s like now that I’ve accepted this is real, it has all come into such sharp focus. I’m not imagining it, this isn’t ‘normal’, I do deserve treatment. What I’m trying not to do is my usual excuse making. “Of course you’re stressed/anxious, you have a lot going on, blah blah blah”. I’m writing a book and have a very tight deadline ( I should be writing it now…), I’m planning a number of shoots over the next couple of months, at the end of the month we’re moving into the new house which is still a building site, I’m planning various work and family trips, and on and on. But I used to be able to handle this. Remember the Seoul story? I did all that with two small kids in tow!
So I’ve decided to go on HRT. Unfortunately I got my prescription just in time for the UK shortage! You have to laugh really. It was front page news literally the day I spoke to the women’s health nurse. So my first prescription cannot be filled right now. The good news is, more women are seeking help in the form of Hormone Replacement Therapy. The bad news is the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t prepared and can’t produce it quick enough! With a family history of breast cancer I do need to be more careful as there are links to cancer for some women and some treatments. But I’ve decided to accept the risk. My mum didn’t use treatment back in the nineties. Women were scared by the research linking it to breast cancer and her mother had died from it in her sixties. My mum’s decision coloured my own and is partially why I didn’t seek treatment earlier. It is also because there is so little information out there in the UK. Growing up and until very recently if I’m honest, I thought menopause was hot flashes and mood swings. “Women go a bit crazy” is the general narrative.
There has been a movement in recent years amongst women, now speaking openly about it – this is why I’m writing this. But the national healthcare system is seriously behind. Davina McCall’s recent documentary on Channel 4 and another she did two years ago shone a light on many aspects women may not know and has made so many women, myself included, feel seen and heard. We are not imagining it and we don’t have to just put up with it. A fact I found interesting/alarming was scientific evidence suggesting that if we don’t replace lost hormones in the earlier stages of menopause, there can be irreparable damage to memory. At the beginning, when I spoke about my mum’s memory loss, it’s hard not to wonder if her decision to not take treatment has affected her memory, which is not good. There could be many contributing factors but for me, who already struggled with a less than perfect memory, this stood out.
The fact that peri-menopause can go on for up to ten years before menopause itself arrives and we are expected to just deal with it, is quite shocking. (Once you have had no period for 12 months you are considered to be in menopause). And it is also why it can be difficult for women to pinpoint. Am I? Aren’t I? Is it the weather, the economy, the state of the world, the stress of my job? Raising a family? The difference for me has been that I’ve always managed to handle all those things, until now. I’m not expecting HRT to be a magic pill although some women say it literally saved their lives. It may take some time to get the treatment right, but I am so looking forward to the prospect of feeling like myself again. I’d love to hear your stories if you’ve been going through it or have words of wisdom to share with me and other readers. Thanks for reading. Comment below x