The menopause diaries

Our founder, Joeli Brearley, talks about her experience of being perimenopausal and why things need to change:

I am forty three and three quarters; an involuntary dog owner, and mother of two boys. I like takeaways and watching Strictly Come Dancing in my decade-old pyjamas (which have a hole in the crotch), and I am peri-menopausal.


The signs started about 3 years ago. Periods of fatigue, headaches and brain fog that could last for up to 2 weeks a month. Jaw ache. Dizzy spells. Crippling anxiety. Waking up soaked in sweat that would trickle down my cleavage and pool under my breasts. Heavy periods that would lead me to regularly bleed through my clothing. Obviously, I blamed myself – I wasn’t eating properly, I mustn’t be exercising enough, perhaps I was allergic to dairy. So, I went to see a nutritionist who concluded I had low levels of vitamin D and charged me £900 for the privilege. But the symptoms persisted. 


After doing some reading and watching the Davina documentaries, I spoke to my doctor and suggested I might be perimenopausal. She listened attentively and suggested a blood test to determine my hormone levels. The test came back all clear – ‘There are no signs of perimenopause,’ she said, and suggested I go on the mini pill to calm my periods. I dutifully followed the instructions, only 2 months later I found myself having non-stop heavy periods and I was utterly, morbidly, miserable. The progesterone-only mini pill may look pretty innocent but it can pack a lively punch of despair if your body has unidentified progesterone prejudice. It turns out mine has – who knew?! And so, I threw the packet in the bin and requested another doctor’s appointment. 


Now, I don’t know about you but if you want a non-urgent doctor’s appointment where I live it takes THIRTY DAYS. No shade on the doctors, it’s not their fault. Though there was this one time, where my back went into spasm and I was lying on my living room floor and couldn’t actually move. Thankfully I had my phone, so I called my doctor’s surgery and the receptionist told me I had to register my complaint on-line, ‘I don’t think you understand,’ I said, ‘I am at home, on my own, lying on the floor and I can’t actually get up.’  The woman on the end of the phone was adamant: ‘Yes, we still need to triage you through the website, so log your complaint and I am sure someone will get back to you today as it does sound like an emergency.’ 6 months later I still haven’t had a call back. Thankfully a chiropractor who lives 4 days away came to my rescue, or I could still be lying there. 


Anyway, having decided that I must be perimenopausal and still feeling completely crackers, I decided I needed to take matters into my own hands. A friend recommended I contact the Newson Clinic, so I registered my interest on their website. They too had a waiting list. Meanwhile, the doctors decided another blood test was the solution to all my ailes, which, of course, resulted in another call to tell me everything was just fine and dandy. I started to wonder if it was in fact depression and so I logged another non-urgent appointment at the doctors. A few days later I mentioned how I was feeling to a mum friend who happens to be a GP. She explained that blood tests don’t actually tell you anything conclusive as hormone levels leap around like giddy little crickets. She suggested that I put my foot down with the doctors and demand HRT. Thirty days later the doctor called and I sobbed down the phone. I pleaded with her to give me the hormones my body was clearly craving. She ummed and ahhed, ‘If you were 44 then there wouldn’t be a problem and I could prescribe it for you right away,’ she said. I couldn’t quite contain my frustration. ‘I’m 43!’ I groaned. ‘’I have zero medical training, but I am pretty confident that all female bodies are not the same, and some women start the menopause earlier than others. You can’t be seriously suggesting that it isn’t medically possible for a woman to be perimenopausal before 44?’’ There was a short silence. ‘’Okay’’ she said, ‘’I will sign the prescription off but another doctor will also need to sign it due to your age. The HRT should be at the chemist in 4 days.’’ Again, I waited. I went to the chemist but there was no prescription. I went back the following day but there was no prescription. I went back again and the pharmacist checked on the system to see what was going on. ‘Your prescription has been rejected by the doctor’s surgery,’ she said. 


I called the doctor and registered for another non-urgent appointment. The notification came through to expect a call in 30 days. 


Thankfully, a few days later the Newson Clinic notified me that I was at the top of the waiting list and I could book my appointment. Although I didn’t have £300 sloshing around in my bank account to pay for it, I decided it was worth running up my overdraft if it meant getting the help I desperately needed. The brilliant doctor listened attentively, asked a few questions and concluded I was absolutely, undoubtedly, categorically perimenopausal and prescribed oestrogen gel and body identical progesterone. I started off with two pumps of the gel and quickly switched up to 3. I am now on 4. The progesterone was a little challenging to take for someone as un-organised as me. Two weeks on and two weeks off, I knew I would forget, so when the doctor finally called back I asked if I could have the mirena coil fitted. This was a BIG mistake. Huge. The coil and my uterus were deeply disturbed with this new partnership. I cried uncontrollably and was so exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed for 2 days. I called 111 and pleaded that they get it out. They said I needed to log the issue with my doctor. This time it would be a 12 day wait to remove it. Again, I decided to take matters into my own hands and researched how to remove it myself. It turns out that removing a coil is pretty straightforward as long as you can get purchase on the strings which dangle down your vaginal canal. I tried and tried over a number of days, repeatedly thrusting my fingers up my vagina towards my cervix, but no such luck. I could feel the strings but I couldn’t grab them to pull the contraption out of my uterus. Either the strings or my fingers were just too short. My friend turned up with a pair of rubber gloves offering her assistance. I decided this might be crossing an irreversible frontier in our friendship and declined her very generous offer. Finally, after a long 12-day wait, my appointment at the doctors arrived, but when I explained what the coil was doing to me, I was told this wasn’t possible and there must be something else wrong. I stood my ground and they agreed to remove it. I’ve since discovered that the mirena coil is synthetic progesterone, rather than body identical progesterone. And whilst most women have no side effects and it is completely safe, some women, like me, are intolerant of this type of progesterone and it can cause psychological, physical and metabolic issues. I asked the doctor if they could prescribe me with body-identical progesterone the same as what the Newson clinic had given me, but they refused. 


I started to feel better. The mirena coil was out, the HRT was doing its magic and I was back on body identical progesterone (good for my mind, not so good for my wallet), but I was still getting some of the headaches and exhaustion. The Newson Clinic suggested I try testosterone. My doctor had told me that testosterone was only for women who had no sex drive. The Newson Clinic disagreed and said it could help with a number of my symptoms. I started rubbing a baked-bean size amount of testosterone into my thigh every evening.


Lasses, I’m here to tell you that it’s working. The headaches, brain fog, night sweats and anxiety have almost entirely vanished. I used to map my professional and personal life against my menstrual cycle, knowing there would be periods of time where I was rendered useless, but for the last 6 weeks, I haven’t had a single symptom – not one! Which is completely unheard of. 


This isn’t a post to push the virtues of private clinics. It’s a post to vent my frustration that women’s health continues to be sidelined by our medical system. Looking back, I was gaslit, ignored and jilted by a medical system that views women’s health as somehow unworthy of our serious attention. Despite the ‘Davina-effect’ where more women are requesting HRT and identifying symptoms earlier, my personal experience is still a black hole in both attention to this subject and an understanding of the symptoms and treatment. I am forever grateful to the Newson Clinic for listening and providing me with what I needed, but what about the millions of women who don’t have access to the money needed to pay for this? Over a year on from the ‘Davina-effect’ there is still so much more to do to make treatment and diagnosis work for all women. 


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