Since 2018, Meg Mathews has been one of the UK’s foremost menopause campaigners, determined to use her profile to end the stigma surrounding it. In her column for Stella magazine, she reveals what she’s learnt. This week she writes a letter to her 40-year-old self.
Looking back to when I was 40, I think I actually only had five or six days of my monthly cycle that were ‘good days’. My hormones affected everything. For the rest of the month I would struggle with bad anxiety. I cancelled so many plans and used so many excuses that my best friends started calling me contrary. I was known for bailing last minute.
Some days I felt like I couldn’t cope. I was in the public eye a lot back then and often invited to restaurant openings and red-carpet events. In all honesty I would dread doing these things because I didn’t want people to judge me. I felt terrible on the inside, crippled with anxiety and feelings of doubt and dread. In hindsight I was going through perimenopause alone, with no one to talk to. I struggled to express my feelings because I had no idea that I was struggling with hormones and a drop in oestrogen. My friends didn’t understand what I was going through and neither did I. I thought my ’80s and ’90s party days had caught up with me. I put it down to my mental health and worried I had early dementia - I feared my partying had killed my brain cells. I could barely string a sentence together, I felt tongue tied and had a foggy brain most days.
Fifteen years ago nobody talked about perimenopause or menopause and I was naive about it. This was before social media or apps to monitor your menstrual cycle. I’m sure if I had known what was happening and been offered HRT I wouldn't have struggled half as much as I did.
I kept a diary at the time and reading it now it’s all so clear to me.
When I did make it out of the house and to a social event, I calmed my nerves with alcohol. A few drinks would make me feel better but it would soon get out of control and ultimately make me feel worse. I’d worry terribly the next day about what I had done or how I had been photographed or how I looked. I’ve mentioned before but it was in an AA meeting that a lady pulled me to one side and said she thought I was going through the menopause. I thought she was mad. I was too young…!
From that moment I decided to read up about perimenopause and get as much information as I could. It was difficult as nobody was talking about it. I would watch all the soaps back then and it was never talked about. Nobody wrote about it in their autobiographies, it wasn’t ever mentioned in magazines. It even felt like my doctor had very little information at the time. Luckily it’s easier now and the conversation has really picked up. I now openly talk about my experience and encourage other women to speak up too. The more we open the conversation, the more help will become available.
I have found Instagram to be a lifesaver. The community I have built on my account is incredible and I have connected with so many fantastic women online. If you use Instagram I recommend you follow The Perimenopause Doctor @drshahzadiharper and Dr Naomi Potter @drmenopausecare – these women have changed my life.
When I started looking for books about menopause I struggled to find anything that wasn’t 10 inches thick. I found them daunting and I wanted something that was easy to digest and read in bite-sized chunks. That’s why I wrote my own book, The New Hot: Taking on the Menopause with Attitude and Style. I made it pink, easy to read and wrote honestly about my experiences and how to access help. Another brilliant book is The Perimenopause Solution: Take Control of Your Hormones Before They Take Control of You by Emma Bardwell and Shahzadi Harper.
Hormones play such a huge part in our make-up. Once I got them under control, in my case with HRT, everything was so much easier. From managing my anxiety to sleeping better, stopping night sweats, clearing my foggy brain and helping with my osteoporosis... I could go on and on!
Historically HRT has a bad reputation. I’ve written a lot about it in my column and in my book. Years ago HRT was synthetic and was associated with cancer. Nowadays most HRT formulations are derived from the yam and are natural. It’s nothing to be afraid of, and it’s been a game changer for me. My advice to anyone considering HRT is to do your own research before speaking to your GP. Know the facts and the different forms available.
Once I started talking to my friends everything felt better. When it clicked in my head that menopause is something that happens to all of us women eventually, it made it feel easier to open up the conversation. I do still have a handful of friends who are in denial and don’t think the menopause will ever affect them, but the fact is periods end eventually. Menopause affects everyone differently and some lucky women don’t feel all the symptoms. I sadly suffered with 32 of the 34 symptoms but I do know women who have had a relatively easy time of it.
Knowledge is power. I wish I had been prepared. It’s common for women to start feeling changes between the ages of 40 and 45. It might be lack of libido, exhaustion, overwhelm, anxiety, foggy brain etc. You might put this down to the pandemic, life being stressful or being overworked, but it's important to jot down how you are feeling. Literally write it all down.
When it comes to hormones it’s all about prevention. If you can access help and speak to a specialist in the early stages of perimenopause you can start to balance your hormones. Don't settle for five or six good days a month like I did.
It still saddens me that most GPs only have three hours’ menopause training. If you go to your appointment armed with the facts and the names of different HRT options your doctor can look them up on the computer and see what is available on the NHS.
I booked a private appointment with my gynaecologist to see what options were out there. I then took this information to my GP and asked what was available on the NHS. Don’t feel embarrassed to request a menopause specialist or ask to see a different doctor if the first one you see can’t help you. General practitioners are not gynaecologists so they may not be up to speed with the latest developments. They have to deal with everything from an ingrown toenail to the flu! It’s worth noting that if you are over the age of 45 you don’t need a blood test for HRT. Look up the British Menopause Society or The Nice Guide online to get the latest information.
You can always ask to go to an NHS menopause clinic if you are struggling with your GP. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.