‘The menopause nearly destroyed me’

It can break marriages, end careers and even lead to suicide. Anna Moore speaks to women whose debilitating symptoms went ignored and finds out what it took to get their lives back on track

When Joan Wallace came off the contraceptive pill in April 2018, she was 56, a happy, active mother and grandmother who’d been newly married for just one year. She enjoyed her job in a primary school working with special needs children and was a keen gardener and sun worshipper who loved a holiday. Joan had no history of depression or any other mental health problem.

She’d taken the pill on a repeat prescription for the best part of 40 years, breaking only to have children. When a doctor advised that there was now little chance she would get pregnant Joan stopped taking it, not expecting too much of a change. ‘Now I think the pill had kept me well, kept me balanced,’ says Joan, 60, who lives near Glasgow. ‘When I stopped taking it, I lost all the oestrogen and progestogen in an instant.’ Very quickly, her life imploded.

menopause

Insomnia was the first effect. ‘My mind wouldn’t stop when I went to bed,’ she says. ‘I started waking early and not being able to get back to sleep. Then I stopped sleeping altogether. I was regularly going three days without sleep. On every third day, I had to miss work as I was so exhausted.’

In July, Joan saw her GP and asked if this could be her hormones. Might HRT help? The GP asked if Joan experienced hot flushes. (She didn’t.) In that case, said the GP, it couldn’t be hormonal and HRT wouldn’t make a difference. Instead she was advised to ‘monitor’ her symptoms.

Joan began to feel she was losing her mind. She tried acupuncture, reiki, hypnosis, and spoke with every GP at her practice, but was met with the same response. Instead of HRT being considered, she was prescribed medication such as sleeping pills, antidepressants and Diazepam, and put on a waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy.

Muddled, foggy, exhausted, Joan left her job, stopped eating – losing three stone in total – in fact, stopped doing everything. Her body was aching, her hair was falling out. ‘I couldn’t recognise myself any more. I kept the blinds down. I wanted it to be dark. I didn’t want to leave the house. I switched off my phone,’ she says. Her daughter was so worried that she took Joan to A&E where blood tests along with MRI and CT scans found nothing. Joan booked a private appointment with a neurologist as she feared early onset dementia, but the consultant assured her this wasn’t the case. Just nine months after stopping the pill Joan says, ‘I was a shell of myself. I felt lost, empty, weak and I didn’t know why. I was putting my family through hell. I decided I didn’t want to live.’

And the only thing to have changed in Joan’s life which might begin to explain this rapid descent was that coming off the pill had plunged her into instant menopause.

The fact that this wasn’t picked up comes as no surprise to Diane Danzebrink, founder of Menopause Support, which offers evidence-based information about the menopause, as well as a thriving online forum. Diane launched it in 2015 after recovering from her own rock bottom – one that sounds very similar to Joan’s. Aged 45, a hysterectomy had sent her into a surgical menopause yet no one had warned Diane what she might expect. ‘I knew I wouldn’t get periods and I might get hot flushes, but I certainly didn’t know there were more than 30 other possible symptoms.’ These range from insomnia and panic disorder to joint pain, headaches and electric shock sensations.

Within months Diane was paralysed by anxiety that seemed to have come from nowhere. After a terrifying moment where she came within a hair’s breadth of driving her car into the path of an oncoming lorry, Diane found herself sitting in front of a doctor who carefully explained the impact of menopause on mental health.

‘Within days of taking HRT, life didn’t seem quite so hopeless,’ says Diane. ‘As I started getting better, I couldn’t believe that I was the only person this had happened to. I set up a website to find others.’ (Some women feel a difference within days of taking HRT, others weeks, so doctors recommend waiting three months before assessing impact.)

For many women on the forum, the menopause has brought total rupture, dividing lives into ‘before’ and ‘after’. ‘Some have lost careers or marriages,’ says Diane. ‘Many have been told by their doctors that their symptoms can’t be hormone related as they are still having periods or they aren’t experiencing hot flushes.’ In truth, the years before menopause, the perimenopause – where hormones can be in freefall, or on a rollercoaster of peaks and troughs – can be equally challenging. Perhaps it’s not surprising that in the UK women in their early 50s have the highest risk of suicide compared to women in other age groups.

Joan was nearly one of them. Six months after she had first seen her GP about insomnia, the practice contacted her to say they had discussed her case at a group meeting and decided to prescribe her HRT patches. ‘But it came too late,’ she says. ‘By then I was a total mess. I hardly bothered with the patches and couldn’t keep track of putting them on. I’d given up.’ Days later, in January 2019, Joan used all her prescription pills in an attempt to take her own life. Her husband found her unconscious in bed when he returned from work. Joan was rushed to hospital then spent four months in a psychiatric unit. When she was discharged she was in the care of a crisis team and on multiple medications. The hormone patches were long forgotten.

Joan, husband Michael and grandson Joseph, just months after her attempted suicide

It took another year of managing one day at a time before Joan found Menopause Support online and started making sense of her story. In June 2021, she returned to her surgery and saw a new doctor, someone who had just completed a menopause course. ‘He really listened and said, “HRT can only benefit you,”’ says Joan. ‘I could have cried.’ He prescribed HRT in a gel and tablet.

‘Within a few weeks, the pains in my body had gone,’ she says. ‘My hair was growing back, my nails were stronger. I wanted to go out again, I was calling my friends. Three months later, my husband and I went on holiday for the first time in three years and it was amazing. I’m totally different now. I’m me. I’m slowly weaning myself off all the other medication. But when I look at what I’ve been through I just feel devastated and so angry. I was badly let down.’ She has complained to the health ombudsman and is awaiting a judgment.

Lesley Heaney, 60, lives with similar bitter regrets. She believes her menopause destroyed her marriage. At 46, she and her husband had been happily married for 16 years. Their one teenage child was shortly to leave the nest, their mortgage was almost paid and they could look forward to an easier life. ‘We’d been planning to go on the Orient Express. We had time to travel, money to spend on the house, time for us,’ says Lesley, who lives in Birmingham.

Lesley’s marriage couldn’t withstand the changes in her feelings brought on by menopause

Despite this, she found herself increasingly anxious. Her job as a complaints manager for a bank had always been stressful but she used to thrive on the adrenaline. ‘Now, when I was asked to take on projects, I was upset because I felt afraid of making mistakes. I constantly doubted my ability. I’d forget people’s names. I’d repeatedly recheck everything I wrote.’

A visit to the GP gave Lesley no reason to believe that shifting hormones could be a cause. She was still having periods and there was no mention of perimenopause – Lesley had never heard of it. And in subsequent trips to the GP, she was offered antidepressants as a first-line treatment.

Her changing mood took its toll at home. ‘Quite frankly, I became awful to live with,’ she says. ‘My husband is a good man, he did nothing wrong, but I remember him saying, “You come home from work, slam your bag on the table and start moaning straight away.” I’d always been easy-going – I’d joke about anything – but now I moaned all the time.

‘Everything irritated me so I got into the pattern of coming home, going upstairs, drinking wine and watching TV while my husband stayed downstairs. I lost my sex drive. I actually told him in one moment of madness to go and find it elsewhere as it wasn’t going to happen again. I made him feel worthless, unlovable – and he wasn’t any of those things.’

The couple tried counselling. ‘I remember our counsellor saying we needed to rediscover what had made us fall in love. How do you do that when you don’t want to be in the same room together? It seemed hopeless.

‘I knew there was something very wrong with me but didn’t know how to fix it,’ Lesley continues. ‘I used to go running and cry and cry, then I’d get back and cry in the shower. After two years of this, I knew I had to get out of there. It wasn’t that I couldn’t live with him any more, it was that I couldn’t live with myself living with him. It wasn’t fair.’ But walking out on her marriage made no sense to anyone they knew. ‘Our friends, family, everyone was shocked, no one saw it coming,’ she says. And her husband was devastated. ‘The only time I saw him angry was just before I left. He shouted at me, “You’ve taken away my future.” I felt guilty for years.’

Around the same time, Lesley was made redundant and found a civilian role in the police force. ‘In my own flat, my own space, with a job that had no responsibilities, I levelled out a bit,’ she says. ‘At work I was the new girl at the bottom, allowed to ask questions. In my old job, I was at a senior level and asking questions made me look incompetent.’ A chance discussion with a new colleague finally shed light on what had happened. ‘I told her about the past few years and she said, “You do realise that the menopause can change your feelings and your thinking? Maybe that’s what made you miserable.” It was an epiphany. The more I learned about the menopause the more I realised that my marriage had ended needlessly.’

Lesley began attending a menopause support group through work and also started her own on Facebook. Initially, she avoided HRT because her GP had told her it was linked to breast cancer. It was only after meeting the menopause expert Dr Louise Newson at an event that she changed her mind, and began taking progesterone tablets, oestrogen gel and testosterone gel. ‘My sex drive came back, my mood chilled, my pains went away,’ she says. A year later, in 2019, Lesley met her partner Jarrod through online dating. They married just over 12 months later. ‘We’re very happy,’ she says. ‘I’m sure if I’d been the person I was before taking HRT, it would not have lasted.’ Lesley remains on good terms with her ex-husband; he lives in the family home that she half owns.

For Sarah Goodwin, 49, menopause cost her a career she loved. She had been a teacher all her working life. ‘From the age of 14, it was all I wanted to do,’ says Sarah, who lives with her partner and two teenage daughters. ‘I loved making a difference – that moment when the penny drops and a child realises they can do something. I loved the pupil-teacher relationship.’

At 46, she began feeling differently. ‘It was partly brain fog,’ says Sarah. ‘I could be in the middle of teaching, a child would put their hand up and I couldn’t remember their name. I’d always prided myself on the fact that I could walk into any class and by lunchtime know what every child was called.’

But memory lapses weren’t her only concern. Sarah had been at the same school for nine years, yet she was finding it increasingly hard to cope. ‘I was having moods like I’d never experienced before,’ says Sarah. ‘I was always upset, overthinking, taking everything to heart. Anger and rage were always bubbling beneath the surface. I wasn’t able to sleep well, I’d wake early feeling sick. I’d go to work feeling anxious. I was living on my nerves, overwhelmed by everything.’

For a long time Sarah blamed her job, the school, the senior management and ‘pressure to get results’. She began taking sick leave and was called to a meeting with the head and her union rep to review her absence. ‘At the meeting, I broke down in tears,’ she says. ‘The head was older than me, I’d known her for years and built up a very good relationship. She said, “You should go to the doctor. I think this is the menopause.”’

Sarah’s symptoms were diagnosed only after she’d left the teaching job she loved

Sarah strongly doubted it but did consult her GP who said that the problem must be ‘work related’ rather than ‘hormonal’ since her periods were regular. ‘I was so angry with the head at the time,’ says Sarah. ‘I was convinced my problems were caused by her expectations and the stress she was putting me under.’ Sarah chose not to return to work. There was no ‘last day’, no goodbyes to the children. It was another year before she felt ready to try again, this time taking a part-time job as a teaching assistant in another school. ‘There was no pressure on me, no responsibility but I felt just the same – tearful, anxious, overwhelmed.’ She took long-term sick leave, just as she had before.

By now, Sarah was feeling this way much of the time. ‘My mood was so low, I wanted to hide and cry.’ At an appointment with a different GP, Sarah broke down in tears. ‘My periods had become less regular, the GP thought this could be the perimenopause and prescribed HRT patches. I’ve only been on them for a month now but I’m already more energised, my aches and pains have gone, my mood isn’t so heavy. There are difficult days, but I feel lighter. Looking back, my problems at work were internal. The head teacher was right.

‘When I think how my job ended, I just feel sad – and upset with myself for not being better informed about what the menopause can bring. The information isn’t out there, we don’t talk about it enough. Even the doctors can get it wrong. So much is wasted. It has to change.’

For more information and support go to menopausesupport.co.uk

YOUR HEALTH, YOUR RIGHTS

The YOU magazine campaign wants to give women the chance to be heard. What has been your experience with healthcare? What changes do you want to see? Send us your thoughts at youmail@mailonsunday.co.uk