Advertisement

'Going through early menopause at 15 made me feel like a failure'

Jess Moore, now 31, went through the menopause at 15, so later on, her two sisters lovingly offered to donate their eggs to her

As a teenager, Jess Moore, now 31, from London, realised her body was different from her friends' and her sisters'. When she was diagnosed with early menopause at only 15, it was the start of an emotional journey towards accepting herself and her loss of fertility...

Jess Moore (left) pictured with her two sisters Laura (centre) and Ciera (right), who donated their eggs to her for future fertility treatment. (Supplied)
Jess Moore (left) pictured with her two sisters Laura (centre) and Ciera (right), who donated their eggs to her for future fertility treatment. (Supplied)

It hit me in a moment of pure panic. I must be pregnant. The fact that I was 12 and hadn’t even kissed a boy didn’t slow down my racing heart. Why else would my periods have stopped?

Rushing to talk to my mum, I had no idea that my body was hiding an even bigger, more devastating secret – one that would take another three years to come to light.

My first period came when I was on a school trip to Legoland – not ideal but with two older sisters, Laura, now 37, and Ciera, 32, I knew all about them and managed to keep my cool.

It wasn’t the easiest introduction to womanhood. For three months my periods were so heavy that I’d wake up to blood all over my bed. Until month four when there was nothing. A month later and still waiting, the panic kicked in.

"Jess," Mum said, looking right into my eyes when I told her. "Have you had sex?"

When I replied, "No, of course not," I could see the relief on her face. "It's normal to be irregular when your periods start," she reassured me, with a hug. "Let’s wait a while and if it’s still the same, we’ll go to the doctor."

Jess Moore, pictured with her mum, who has been a huge source of support to her. (Supplied)
Jess Moore, pictured with her mum, who has been a huge source of support to her. (Supplied)

Two months later, the GP was so unconcerned she gave me the contraceptive pill and sent me on my way.

I struggled with confusion and shame. I knew my body wasn’t doing what it was meant to. At the same time the adults, the experts, told me everything was fine, so I thought, 'I’ll take these pills for six months, and then my periods will come back. Everything will be okay.'

But it wasn’t. I suffered from horrendous breakthrough bleeding and terrible pain. I tried to cling to the fact that in a way this was helping me, getting my body back to the cycle I was meant to have.

Something strange happening

After six months of taking pills, I waited anxiously for a period but it never came. Lying in bed, I felt dread in the pit of my stomach. Every teenager worries that there is something weird and different about them, but I was sure of it.

It didn’t help that I could see the same worry on Mum’s face. "Has you period started?" she’d ask lightly, as if it was an afterthought. But as the months went by, I knew she was growing concerned.

As a teenager, every month it seemed like something new and awful was happening to my body.

I didn’t blame her. Every month it seemed like something new and awful was happening to me.

I struggled with exhaustion. Dragging myself home from school each day, I’d fall asleep, only waking again for dinner, then going right back to bed. I never felt rested.

My concentration span was really poor and I was constantly asking friends what'd happened in the last class. My mood swings were so awful too that I’m amazed my friends or sisters still talked to me.

I knew deep down, beneath my shame and embarrassment, that something was very wrong, something that made me different from all the other girls I knew.

Jess Moore went into shock when she was diagnosed with early menopause or 'premature ovarian failure' at 15, now termed 'premature ovarian insufficiency' (POI). (Supplied)
Jess Moore went into shock when she was diagnosed with early menopause or 'premature ovarian failure' at 15, now termed 'premature ovarian insufficiency' (POI). (Supplied)

Then finally, in 2008 when I was 15, after my mum had fought for over two years for a specialist to see me, I found out the truth.

I went to a specialist unit at the University College Hospital in London, to have blood tests and an ultrasound. Then I sat, tired and nervous, watching the consultant sketch a uterus. I didn’t understand when he explained that I had a low number of eggs in my ovaries. That didn’t sound particularly bad to me, but when he said the words ‘premature ovarian failure’ I went into complete shock.

My emotions shut down. I couldn’t deal with the situation and I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

Part of me understood this meant that I was going through the menopause at 15, but it was too much to take in. A defence mechanism kicked in and somehow I couldn’t listen to the bombshell news the doctor was giving me.

My emotions shut down. I couldn’t deal with the situation and I certainly wasn’t going to talk about it. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.

Shame and embarrassment

At home that evening, I went straight to bed and refused to talk to Mum or Dad. The next day at school I looked like the same Jess I’d been the day before, but something fundamental had changed inside me.

It felt like my body was failing and so was I. I somehow felt less of a person, knowing my body was incapable of doing what my sisters’ and my friends’ bodies could. I was different. I felt 'broken'.

I somehow felt less of a person, knowing my body was incapable of doing what my sisters’ and my friends’ bodies could. I was different. I felt 'broken'.

I saw the specialist every six months and tried various contraceptive pills, some of which had awful side effects. All the while, new symptoms came, each more embarrassing than the last. By the age of 16, when I was doing my GCSEs I had vaginal atrophy, which caused dryness. Sitting in the exam hall for hours at a time was agony. But I didn’t tell anyone, not even my doctors, because ignoring my latest symptoms made my diagnosis seem less real.

I took up the hospital’s offer of therapy at 16 but after three sessions they said I wasn’t ready – and they were right. I couldn't bear to talk about what was happening to me.

Jess Moore says early menopause affected her so deeply, she is now on a mission to help other women. Jess holding: Menopause: Bring It On! sign. (Supplied)
Jess Moore says early menopause affected her so deeply, she is now on a mission to help others. (Supplied)

Affecting my love life

The question of fertility was the most painful. Even as a teenager, the fear that a guy wouldn’t accept me because I couldn’t have children was constantly on my mind. Still, at 18, I tried to be open with my boyfriend of four months. It didn’t seem fair not to tell him.

After practising endlessly in the mirror, I forced out the words: "I’ve gone through the menopause, I’m infertile." Of course, the poor guy didn’t know what to say. We broke up soon after and I didn’t blame him. I couldn’t expect a positive reaction from him when I hated what was going on inside my own body.

After practising endlessly in the mirror, I forced out the words: 'I’ve gone through the menopause, I’m infertile.'

After my A levels, I got a job as a nursery nurse, then became a teacher. I worked through the hot flushes and brain fog until, at 23, and with my bone density deteriorating, my doctor started me on HRT.

It was tough – the HRT hormones meant that for weeks I couldn’t bear to even put on a bra because my breasts were so tender. Thankfully, after a few months, the hot flashes weren’t so intense, and as my brain fog lifted, my concentration improved. I even started to think, 'Is this what a normal woman feels like?'

Facing infertility

But the biggest issue, my infertility, still loomed over everything. I’d always known that I wanted to be a mum. I felt like I was born maternal. I just wanted to take care of people.

In my early twenties, I could channel this feeling into my job as a teacher, which I loved. But as time went on, I couldn’t let myself think about it. I pushed the longing down and tried to keep busy. If I kept doing that, I could ignore the desperation to be a mum.

Random people would cheerfully ask who I was seeing and when would I be starting a family? My heart would sink.

It wasn’t easy. Random people would cheerfully ask who I was seeing and when would I be starting a family? My heart would sink and I’d deflect with an awkward laugh and quickly change the subject, but it always hurt.

At 25, a decade after I was diagnosed, I finally felt ready to mention the fertility issue to my doctor. I couldn’t push the thoughts of motherhood away any longer. I needed to know what my options were. It felt like a huge and positive step, even though it was terrifying.

Jess Moore, pictured with her sisters Laura and Ciera, who helped her as she struggled with feelings of 'shame and failure' over the years. (Supplied)
Jess Moore, pictured with her sisters Laura (centre) and Ciera (right), who helped her as she struggled with feelings of 'shame and failure' over the years. (Supplied)

A gift from my sisters

My sisters' response to the news that I’d been referred to a fertility clinic was amazing. "Jess, we’re coming and want to donate our eggs to you," my eldest sister Laura immediately told me.

I was overwhelmed. For a decade they’d silently supported me, waiting patiently for me to be ready to talk. Then as soon as I needed them, they were there, without hesitation.

Their emotional support was much needed too. Hearing that the NHS wouldn’t fund egg retrieval and freezing was devastating. My parents offered to cover the £10,000 and 23 of both my sisters’ eggs were frozen, but it felt like another judgement on me and my failing body, another layer of guilt piling on top of the pain.

We had 23 of my sisters’ eggs frozen. I was so grateful, but it felt like another judgement on me and my failing body, another layer of guilt.

The doctor explained that while there was no guarantee of success, if I went through IVF with donor eggs now before the age of 32, the chances of having a baby were higher than if I waited until I was older [*see expert view below]. But he made it clear every situation is different. I could use all 23 eggs but still not end up with a baby.

The harsh truth

On one hand, I appreciated his honesty. I didn’t want to fool myself that this was some magical answer, but knowing that there were no guarantees made watching my sisters go through the injections and retrievals even harder. While they were clearly happy to be doing something practical to help me after all these years, I struggled with guilt over what I was putting their bodies through.

I needed to think through exactly what it would mean to have a child that was biologically one of my sisters'.

I also had to look beyond what was happening each day at the clinic, to imagine a future where there was actually was a baby. I needed to think through exactly what it would mean to have a child that was biologically one of my sisters'.

"If I use one of your eggs and have a baby, it’ll be your child that I’d be bringing up," I said nervously to them both one day. "Jess," my sister Ciera replied immediately. "It won’t be our child because they are now your eggs. They’re not part of us any more."

Laura instantly agreed. "Who cares whose egg it is Jess and whose genetics? It will be part of our family but it will be your baby."

Jess Moore, with her sisters and mum, who helped her throughout her health issues. (Supplied)
Jess Moore, with her sisters and mum, who have helped her throughout her health issues. (Supplied)

I was so relieved. They weren’t pretending just to make me feel better, it was obvious that they’d gone into this with their eyes open. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have such incredible sisters.

I also realised then that the shame I used to feel was slowly melting away. I was no longer blaming my body as much for 'failing' me like I’d done for years. I decided the time had come for me to be open about what I was going through.

Sharing my secret

First, I told my colleagues. Instead of being embarrassed, people were helpful. At last, I could ask for a fan for hot flushes, and people understood why a baby announcement might upset me. It was such a relief to feel that I could finally be my real self at work.

The next step was even scarier – I created an Instagram account (Sweaty.forgetful.me) to help raise awareness of POI. Above the words 'This. Is. Me' I posted two pictures and wrote, 'It’s a really big step for me to start this page, and to be able to talk about and share my life with other people, so please can you show some love. Help me spread as much awareness as I can.'

At last, I could ask for a fan for my hot flushes and people understood why a baby announcement might upset me. It was such a relief to finally be my real self.

I was so terrified that after clicking ‘Share’ I turned my phone off for 24 hours. But instead of the judgement I’d feared, I was met with loving support. Scared teenagers who’d just been diagnosed asked me for advice and women shared tips on menopause medication.

By then the official name of early menopause had changed from ‘premature ovarian failure’ to ‘premature ovarian insufficiency’ (POI) – a small but important change, as the language helped remove some of the stigma.

Accepting my body

Every time I spoke or wrote about POI, I felt lighter. As I learnt more about what was happening to my body, I came closer to acceptance.

Being part of an online support community helped me shake off even more of the shame. I never went back to counselling, though I recognise this works for some people, but sharing experiences became my therapy.

I feel sad when I think back to how scared, lonely and ashamed I was at 15. Now I'm ready to face the future and help anyone else I can.

I still have bad days, when hot flushes embarrass me in a bar or brain fog means I forget what I’m doing. I have my 23 frozen eggs on stand-by but IVF treatments are expensive and right now there isn’t a partner in my life. I don’t know what my next steps will be.

I do feel sad when I think back to how scared, lonely and ashamed I was at 15, but I’m ready to make the most of the present, face the future and help anyone else I can along the way.

High tech lab equipment used in the in vitro fertilization process
Donor eggs can be used if, like in Jess's case, the ovaries stop producing eggs at an early age (premature ovarian insufficiency). (Getty Images)

Egg donation – expert view

*According to Rachel Cutting, Director of Compliance and Information at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), "Donor eggs can be used if the body is no longer able to produce eggs, such as when the ovaries stop producing eggs at a very early age, known as 'premature ovarian insufficiency' (POI). Donors in the UK usually need to be under the age of 36. This means their eggs will be healthy and therefore the chance of a woman having a baby is good, depending on the individual’s health and history."