Many people have at least some awareness of the physical effects of menopause, such as hot flushes and night sweats. But the emotional impact of entering this phase of life is often overlooked.
These emotions can be particularly complex if you are one of the estimated one percent of women under 40 who find themselves facing this unwanted milestone. Known as premature menopause, it can be hard to deal with the maelstrom of emotions that come with it, particularly at a time when a woman may be at the peak of her career, raising a young family, or perhaps both.
Ali Harris had a full hysterectomy aged 39 after years of debilitating endometriosis. Her ovaries were removed as part of the operation, taking her into menopause.
It took nine months for doctors to finally hit on the right HRT to help ease Ali’s symptoms. “It relieved the ‘wanting to kill everybody’ feeling, and the horrible sweating, which was a nightmare,” she said. But the medication did not make a huge difference when it came to Ali’s long-term depression.
She said: “I think that because I’ve had depression for so long, I didn’t believe it would make me miraculously happy. It just helped those symptoms.” Ali added: “I think my depression got worse after the hysterectomy. I’ve always had it after a failed suicide attempt as a teenager. It never goes away. I’m a high-functioning depressive – if you met me, you wouldn’t think I have depression at all.”
At the time, Ali was raising her 12-year-old daughter, caring for her elderly father and her work involved looking after adults with learning disabilities. She said: “I had quite a lot on my plate, which doesn’t give you time to really think.
“I just buried myself, kept taking my antidepressants and kept my head down and hoping that would work.”
Having rejected the idea of talking therapy, Ali discovered the answer to her emotional turmoil lay just outside the door of her Cotswolds’ home.
She said: “I took up gardening after the hysterectomy. And that was quite soothing. I just spent hours out in my garden, replanting everything. There were probably a few swear words out there as well, especially at the weeds.”
Ali, now 55, added: “It wasn’t about me or my husband. I was just literally focusing on the soil and planting. It stopped me overthinking about the minutiae of life.”
Although her menopause was not medically-induced like Ali’s, Lauren Chiren’s slide into menopause also happened in the midst of stressful circumstances.
Lauren was in a senior executive position in financial services when, aged 37, she gave birth to her son, who spent time in intensive care. It was around this time that Lauren’s partner left.
Lauren returned to work after maternity leave, but found she was struggling. She said: “I started having some really crazy times at work where I was super emotional. I was reacting to situations really badly. I got very paranoid, second guessed everything everyone was saying to me, my trust went in everybody.”
A colleague even went as far as to suggest that Lauren would be happier working elsewhere. “Any self-confidence and self-esteem I had evaporated at that point,” she said.
Fearing she had early onset dementia, Lauren left her job, only to be told by her GP that she was going through menopause, which was likely to have started when she gave birth. Lauren said: “By that point, I was an absolute gibbering wreck. I had got to the point where I thought I was going to end up sitting in a home and other people would be bringing up my son.
“Finding out that I’ve ‘just’ gone through menopause was a sense of relief and jubilation, and frustration and anger that I hadn’t known what menopause was.”
Lauren channeled that frustration and anger into something positive and started holding free menopause socials and free courses to help prepare women for this change. She also started a business training financial institutions, including Lloyds TSB and Deutsch Bank, about menopause in the workplace.
She added: “I can’t let another person stumble into menopause, not knowing what it is, not knowing how to adapt, not knowing how to get support. I’ve made it my mission to do everything I possibly can to make sure nobody goes through what I went through.”
While Ali and Lauren had to balance the challenges of menopause and motherhood, for other women, premature menopause can rob them of the chance of starting a family.
Alyx Stewart was placed into medically-induced menopause at 35 to protect her ovaries during breast cancer treatment. Alyx elected not to have her eggs harvested prior to chemotherapy because the drugs required would have fed the cancer growth. Her medical history meant she would be unlikely to adopt, something which came as a great emotional blow to Alyx and husband James.
Driven by a desire to feel useful and valued, Alyx left her career as an orthoptist and started the Centre For Cancer Nutrition & Cancer Cookery School, helping cancer patients to adapt recipes and ingredients to agree with treatment side-effects. “If I can ease someone else’s journey and provide a bit of joy – that fills my heart,” she says.
Alyx also took up dragon boat racing with a team of breast cancer survivors, something she describes as ‘a real godsend’.
She said: “This was all so new and something I’d never done before and initially that helped me think of something other than my own issues. Dragon boating was all I could talk about. It gave me a purpose.
“To paddle effectively as a team, I needed to be present and thinking about technique the whole session. This really helped me get out of my head.
“As I age, the no children issue does still raise its head as I have concerns about who will look after us. The other girls in the team can see immediately when I am down or a bit off and will pull me aside for a chat. It helps being connected with other women in the same situation.”
Alyx added: “I am now one of the team coaches and a dragon boat helm – taking up both roles has again directed my thoughts in another direction.
“For me, it all comes down to distraction. Not that I have pushed dealing with early menopause away, it is still there. But it plays a much lesser role in my life.”
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