Dark moods, anxiety, brain fog – I thought I had dementia but it was the menopause, says Ulrika Jonsson

I FEEL ashamed that I knew so ­little eight years ago.

As a woman who had endured periods from the age of 14 and carried and given birth to four children, it turns out I was pretty clueless about the menopause by the time Mother Nature nudged me towards those early “perimenopausal” stages.

There I was, aged 46, gradually watching my children gaining their own independence and I was looking forward to entering a new phase — when I would have the time and energy to concentrate on myself more.

I thought I’d have the chance to figure out who I was away from the children, domesticity and a ­successful career.

And then, utterly unexpectedly, I started to gain weight around my midriff. I was confused.

Swimming was my jam and I was a serious swimmer — no fewer than three hours a week. I was active, never sat still, always on the move.

And yet, I noticed the muscles in my arms and my once well-defined shoulders were beginning to slacken.

That extra layer of soft, yielding skin around my stomach and hips, that “middle-age spread” — where had that come from?

But perhaps most urgent was my forgetfulness and absent-mindedness alongside this unexpected weight gain.

Normally as sharp as a tack, someone who took pride in remembering things when other people’s faces were vacant, I suddenly found it hard to recall all manner of things.

I was becoming a family joke and it plagued me

Names were one thing but complete blanks were quite another.

It really perturbed me. I found myself searching for words mid- sentence. In my mind’s eye it felt like complete darkness in front of me — I had no visual prompts for the words I was searching for.

Alongside this came the trips in and out of rooms, up and down the stairs with absolutely no recollection of what I was doing or what I needed.

My children taunted me. The ­person they’d looked to for answers suddenly didn’t know what she was saying or why she had come into their room.

I was becoming a family joke and it plagued me.

Who knows if it was this that ­triggered my dark moods, or my dark moods triggering the forgetfulness, but my demeanour became downcast and gloomy.

I remember lying in bed at night feeling as if my entire body was descending into a cloudy and murky state. That’s when anxiety set in.

Sure, I had been anxious about things in life before but this felt like a whole other condition.

The anxiety enveloped me entirely, causing my heart to race and my mind to be bombarded with negative and panicky thoughts — so much so that I would nearly lose my breath.

All these symptoms assaulted me in a matter of months, or perhaps just weeks. I’m ashamed to say there was no way in the world I had associated them with the onset of the ­menopause.

My limited knowledge about it amounted to someone having hot flushes and heightened ­emotions.

I recall my mother telling me how she would wake up soaking wet with sweat in the middle of the night, and sometimes she would be on the phone to me imparting her emotional instability — revealing how she had cried for seemingly no reason.

It’s only thanks to recent public discourse and increasing awareness about the subject, and campaigns such as in The Sun’s Fabulous, that we are finally paying greater attention to the ­menopause and, most importantly, educating ­ourselves

It is with huge regret that despite this I was dismissive of what she was going through. I guess I was concentrating on my own family, ­juggling plates and trying to manage a career.

I felt that this was very much something she was going through and it wasn’t “relevant” to me.

Well, ladies and gentleman, the menopause is relevant to all of us. It’s only thanks to recent public discourse and increasing awareness about the subject, and campaigns such as in The Sun’s Fabulous, that we are finally paying greater attention to the ­menopause and, most importantly, educating ­ourselves.

Fabulous Menopause Matters

An estimated one in five of the UK’s population are currently experiencing it.

Yet the menopause is still whispered in hush tones like it’s something to be embarrassed about. 

The stigma attached to the transition means women have been suffering in silence for centuries. 

The Sun are determined to change that, launching the Fabulous Menopause Matters campaign to give the taboo a long-awaited kick, and get women the support they need.

The campaign has three aims:

  • To make HRT free in England
  • To get every workplace to have a menopause policy to provide support
  • To bust taboos around the menopause

The campaign has been backed by a host of influential figures including Baroness Karren Brady CBE, celebrities Lisa Snowdon, Jane Moore, Michelle Heaton, Zoe Hardman, Saira Khan, Trisha Goddard, as well as Dr Louise Newson, Carolyn Harris MP, Jess Phillips MP, Caroline Nokes MP and Rachel Maclean MP. 

Exclusive research commissioned by Fabulous, which surveyed 2,000 British women aged 45-65 who are going through or have been through the menopause, found that 49% of women suffered feelings of depression, while 7% felt suicidal while going through the menopause. 

50% of respondents said there is not enough support out there for menopausal women, which is simply not good enough. It’s time to change that. 

If you are fool enough to think that it only affects women, remember that the men around those women will also be affected, and they too will need some knowledge.

If you think it’s nothing you need to worry about yet, you’ll possibly stumble into the same trap I did.

I was 46 and mistakenly thought I didn’t have to worry about the ­menopause until my early 60s.

I don’t know where I got that idea from but suspect it very much stems from our lack of conversation about it and our collective dismissal of women once they’re past childbearing age.

Once women reach a certain age we like to ­consign them to some dark corner of society where we don’t have to bother with them again.

Historically, many became invisible and were forgotten about.

I was 46 and mistakenly thought I didn’t have to worry about the ­menopause until my early 60s

Perhaps because we didn’t ever hear their stories, because they didn’t share their experiences — no one wants to talk about dry vaginas and tiredness — maybe that’s why none of us were alert to the ­menopause in the way in which we are now.

Let’s not make any bones about it — the menopause is not a disease.
It may be for that reason that we’ve been expected to accept and endure it.

Little wonder, then, that women have suffered in silence, kept ­themselves to themselves, perhaps not even shared their experiences with their friends.

And yet we now understand that it can affect women in such a profound and significant way that it can be debilitating and incapacitating.

I kept my symptoms to myself until I started to believe I might have early-onset dementia.

I finally confided in a close friend who is a few years older and she smiled, put her arm around me and said: “No, love, it’s just the start of the menopause.” I was dumbfounded. For me, it felt like a very cruel last blow from Mother Nature.

I felt I’d already paid my dues by having children and periods and all that comes with that. I thought this was my time to reclaim my body.

Take control and finally enjoy some certainty about it.

But, oh, no, apparently my hormones had different plans.

I kept my symptoms to myself until I started to believe I might have early-onset dementia

I found that the anxiety reduced my confidence and that, in turn, increased my anxiety.

I didn’t recognise myself any more and I began to retreat. In some form or another I probably withdrew from my husband.

When I tried to explain how I felt, despite being a caring man, he was probably as perplexed as I was and I felt he wasn’t understanding.

But then, if I couldn’t understand myself, how could I expect someone else to?
I railed against all of this.

I felt I wasn’t ready for the menopause. I was ill-prepared and felt I didn’t deserve it.

Yet, I turned to my mum who I knew was taking HRT and had, in recent years, got a new lease of life. I wanted some of what she was on.

For me, bioidentical HRT seemed the most natural answer.

Medics analyse your blood and see what hormones you’re lacking and those you may have an excess of and then give you a natural remedy in the form of creams, lozenges or ­vaginal pessaries.

It was no surprise, then, that I was lacking in progesterone — the “calming” hormone — among other things.

What is the menopause and what age does it usually start?

Menopause is a natural part of ageing, which usually happens when a woman is between the age of 45 and 55.

In the UK, the average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51.

It occurs when oestrogen levels in the body start to decline.

During this time periods become less frequent or they can suddenly stop, and after menopause occurs women will be unable to become pregnant naturally.

Around one in 100 women experience menopause before the age of 40, and this is known as premature ovarian insufficiency or premature menopause.

Many celebrities have spoken out about their own experiences, including Lisa Snowdon, Davina McCall, Michelle Heaton and Zoe Hardman. 

What are the symptoms?

Menopausal symptoms can start months or years before your periods stop, and can last until four years or longer after your last period.

Symptoms include:

  • Hot flushes
  • Changing or irregular periods
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Anxiety and loss of confidence
  • Low mood, irritability and depression
  • Night sweats
  • Vaginal dryness or discomfort during sex
  • Reduced libido (sex drive)
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • Weight gain
  • Bladder control

It took a while for my doctor and I to get the balance right but I feel pretty damn good nowadays. What shocked and upset me was that this process of HRT is not ­available on the NHS — I had to get it privately.

There is HRT available on the NHS but you still need to pay for your prescription and, although it is much improved since my mum first needed it, it is still not tailor-made for individuals — but almost a case of one- size-fits-all.

And when this is such a personal, singular condition, it affects every woman in different ways.

I felt lucky, in many respects, because when I was first experiencing symptoms, I wasn’t having to go in to an office and be confronted by people every day.

Much of the work I do is from home and I was able to deal with my symptoms away from others.

I don’t want women to feel alone and suffer in silence.

But what about women who are forced to endure hot flushes, memory loss, brain fog, anxiety, etc, in a work environment? How on earth do they cope?

I’m aware that some women sail through the menopause. Well done to you. Enjoy it. But for the rest of us the story is quite different.

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve only had a couple of hot flushes (because not all women get them) but all the other experiences I’ve had have shocked and surprised me.

I see it as my role to keep the ­conversation about menopause alive and kicking. I don’t want women to feel alone and suffer in silence.

But equally, I want us to spread the word. I want us to have the­ ­conversation with our children and family members, in order to ­normalise this stage in life, which is going to affect so many of us — half the population, in fact.

I want my children to understand what it’s like to go through this because my girls will have to endure it and my boys will doubtless have contact or ­relationships with women who will, too.

I felt I wasn’t ready for the menopause. I was ill-prepared and felt I didn’t deserve it

And that’s the thing. We need to take everyone with us on this journey of education and campaigning.

Men need to be brought into the fold. It must feel very alienating for them to watch their wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters and aunts undergo this big change.

Let’s talk menopause. Let’s bring about positive change to make it a more equitable experience for all women.

Let’s not leave anyone behind. This requires change and together we can do it.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could make menopause matter?

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