Menopause, when women’s periods stop and they are unable to conceive naturally, typically occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.
In hit series ‘Fleabag’, the natural ageing process is described as a “horrendous” time where “Your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get f***ing hot and no-one cares.” Three-quarters of menopausal and post-menopausal women say symptoms made them change their lives, with over half saying it strongly affected their life.
But what’s it like to go through the menopause decades before you’re expected to?
When Denise Harding went through early menopause at the age of 32, she could never have imagined the toll it would take on her body and her mental health.
Now 57, the mum-of-four says she was “horrified” by the experience of menopause in her early thirties, which occurred weeks after a hysterectomy she had in order to stop her having severely painful periods – a surgery which involves the removal of the womb.
Certain cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can also bring on early menopause, and the process can also happen naturally, although it is rare: just 1% of women under 40 and 0.1% of women of women under 30 are affected, according to stats from the Lister Fertility Clinic.
Harding regrets her decision to have her womb removed, stressing she was “never warned” about the effects of early menopause – particularly at a time in her life where she was caring for four young children.
The life-altering symptoms started with regular panic attacks and anxiety symptoms – which left Harding feeling like she was “going mad”.
Shortly after followed all the telltale signs of menopause: hot flushes, sleeplessness, and, out of nowhere, incontinence.
“It’s a really taboo subject – you keep wetting yourself,” she says. “You don’t want to go out and socialise because it’s so embarrassing. I couldn’t go anywhere without wearing a pad in my knickers.”
What’s more, she was left with a continuous “brain fog”.
Forced to navigate a problem typically associated with middle age, Harding found the experience “isolating”.
“My friends were still having babies, while I felt barren” she says. Her only support system she had was her mother – who was going through her own menopause at the time.
As a 32-year-old woman, no one understands why you need to sit down when you’re out in public,” she adds.
Harding held out for over two years before, aged 35, she decided to go on hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
She was on the medication for a decade, despite the risks associated with taking HRT, which are said to be higher if you take it for a prolonged period of time. “Because I was so young they didn’t know what to do with me,” she explains of why she stayed on the treatment so long.
Harding – who is 5”3 and has a petite frame – saw her weight rocket from nine and a half stone to twelve stone – affecting her self esteem. Poignantly, there are no photographs of her from the decade she was on HRT because she couldn’t bear to have them taken. Yet, at the time Harding resolved she’d “rather be fat” than experience menopause symptoms.
She was reminded of just how bad her menopause symptoms were ten years later, when she was left with no choice but to come off HRT because of a blood pressure scare.
Menopause came back with a vengeance: including the incontinence and waking up in the night drenched in sweat from a hot flush. With sex the last thing she wanted to do, Harding moved into a separate bedroom from her husband. It was only when she went on bio-identical hormone replacement – a natural alternative to HRT – years later, prescribed by Dr Shirin Lakhani at Elite Aesthetics, that she felt normal again.
“I’ve finally got my life back,” she says.
Harding’s daughter, who is now 32 herself, experience the same crippling period pains her mother did – but doctors have thankfully offered different options to help treat her.
Looking back, Harding says she would never have undergone the hysterectomy which started her menopause in the first place. However, she wants women in her position to know they have options.
“You shouldn’t have to suffer through menopause,” she advises. “Make sure you draw attention to what you’re going through and remember there are alternative solutions out there.”
For those suffering through menopause, The British Menopause Society offers education, information and guidance to help navigate the process.