Josie, 58, is a nurse who lives in London. She’s married to Johnny and has 3 grown-up children. Here, she shares the huge psychological impact of her menopause symptoms.
Hot flushes were among the most embarrassing symptoms of my menopause, but they were only part of the story.
The hot flushes began 5 years ago, just as I’d started a new job in the NHS, which meant I had to lead a lot of meetings. I needed to feel confident, but the flushes made me turn bright red and I’d suddenly be soaked in sweat. It was so noticeable that I had to explain to my colleagues that I was menopausal.
I know the menopause is a normal stage of life, but it’s not discussed in public nearly enough (although this has changed a bit recently), and I found it embarrassing. Admitting to being menopausal at work seemed to have some stigma attached to it at the time, and I worried a bit that my colleagues might think I was over the hill.
‘I was so anxious and lost my confidence’
Around the same time, I started to suffer from terrible anxiety – I was worrying about absolutely everything and waking up in the night. It was strange, as I’d never been a worrier before.
I didn’t even want to see my friends, and I cut myself off socially. It coincided with my youngest child leaving home and my 14-year-old dog dying, and I just felt like everything was coming to an end. I felt the joy of life had gone.
I also felt like my confidence had disappeared overnight – something else I’d never experienced before. I’d always been a confident person: I enjoyed managing people at work and loved being a busy mother running a family. Suddenly, I wasn’t confident in either role, and I felt my identity was changing.
‘My GP said I was depressed – but I wanted HRT’
Eventually, I became so anxious that I went to see my GP, who said I was depressed and prescribed antidepressants.
But I felt like I’d been fobbed off, and I only took the tablets for a few days as they made me feel so out of it. I was convinced that my mood was connected to all the hormonal upheaval I was going through, rather than depression.
I really wanted to try hormone replacement therapy (HRT), as friends and other health professionals at work had told me how effective it could be. But the GPs I saw discouraged me because of the risk of breast cancer: they said that because my mother had breast cancer, I was at high risk. But I knew this wasn’t true, as she didn’t get it until she was in her mid 70s [older women are at higher risk, regardless of any particular genes].
I’d also read that the risk of breast cancer with HRT was lower than originally thought when research studies had been published in the early 2000s, and that the different preparations used nowadays are much safer. It was very frustrating to hit a brick wall.
‘Lifestyle changes didn’t solve my menopause symptoms’
For a while, I tried lifestyle changes to manage my symptoms. I tried exercising more – going to the gym and taking long daily walks – but while it may have helped my heart and bones, it did nothing to help my menopause symptoms.
It was the same with the cooling wraps I bought: they helped relieve my hot flushes when they happened and gave some temporary relief, but they didn’t stop them coming.
Herbal supplements didn’t work for me either. When I asked friends for advice, they all kept suggesting HRT.
‘I felt forgetful, fidgety and like my skin and hair were drying up’
Meanwhile, my menopause symptoms continued to plague me. I was increasingly forgetful – unless I wrote everything down straight away I seemed to have no memory of it. I found this extremely worrying and was concerned I’d make a mistake at work.
I also had restless legs. I was fidgety and wanted to move them all the time – it was actually quite maddening. I also noticed my heart would pound with palpitations sometimes, as if it had speeded up.
My normally thick hair started to thin and my skin became dry. I felt my vagina had dried up like a prune and this put me off having sex. All in all, I felt like I was falling apart. It sounds dramatic, but my menopause seemed to be affecting every aspect of my life – and the psychological aspects were the worst.
‘HRT changed my life for the better’
Eventually, I went back to my GP and asked him to put me on HRT, as I was a mess. He agreed to prescribe patches, and a cream for my vaginal dryness and burning.
I can’t emphasise enough how much HRT changed my life for the better. I felt normal again, and more positive about life in general. The anxiety, insomnia and hot flushes all went, as did the vaginal dryness, restless legs and heart palpitations.
I’ve been on HRT for 4 years now and I don’t have any plans to stop at the moment. Why put up with menopause symptoms when there’s an easy solution?
‘Menopause isn’t just about hot flushes – be aware of other symptoms’
My advice to other women is to realise that the menopause isn’t just about hot flushes: hormonal changes can cause a wide range of symptoms. For me, this included anxiety, insomnia, loss of confidence, heart palpitations and restless legs.
I’d advise anyone who’s having these symptoms to ask for HRT, if lifestyle changes don’t work for them. Most menopause symptoms are caused by a drop in hormones, and HRT replaces what you’re lacking. You can read the NICE menopause guidelines before speaking to your doctor, and discuss whether the benefits outweigh the risks for you.