Menopause reality: I was frightened and didn’t know why. My GP told me I was crazy

Hearing other women’s experiences of menopause can be a powerful support at a time when many of us feel confused and isolated. In the first in a series, Christina Robert shares her story

The only way I can describe it is that it felt like another energy source had been switched on inside my body, like an engine that was over-revving for 16 hours out of 24. Then there were the moments where I was also dragged down by despair. But mostly it was the extra engine.

That and the night frights. Every so often, I would wake up at odd hours with my heart pounding. Twice I was convinced there was someone in the house.

The worst was when my husband was away and I woke up at around two in the morning to see a man with a blue mohawk climbing in through my bedroom window. I can still see his dark jeans and his black leather jacket.

I rushed out into the hallway and held my door shut, screaming for my children to call the police. My 16-year-old dutifully went to get his mobile and rang 999.

That gave me a moment to get my bearings. How could anyone climb into my bedroom window when I lived four stories up, on a busy street?  “Wait,” I said. “Tell them it might be a mistake.”

He ended the call. I still held tight to the door knob. No one other than Spiderman could have climbed in that window, and yet the image had been so vivid, I was scared to go back in and double check.

Both my children were now standing on the stairs looking me, frightened themselves. I was 47 years old. I was the responsible adult. Finally, I opened the door. No one was there. My window was closed. I told them it must have been a bad dream.

I couldn’t find a reason for my behaviour

The next day I became the brunt of a few family jokes. It was funny and then again it wasn’t.

I went to see a shrink, who told me I was having a mid-life crisis. I analysed my life for possible upsets: our 16-year-old had just returned from three years at boarding school. Maybe it was that.

Then there was the fact that a column that I had really enjoyed writing had come to an end after five years. Maybe it was that.

Also, my husband was in the middle of a big project and had been emotionally unavailable for weeks. Maybe it was that. But no – those things didn’t add up to this.

I was prescribed an anti-depressant

I finally went to my GP. He seemed to understand my condition immediately. He told me that women in my state came into his office every week. Then he suggested my marriage was probably in trouble and prescribed an anti-depressant.

Three weeks in, I still felt terrible. The only thing the SSRI had done was cut me off from some part of myself that I wanted back. I stopped taking them.

With no magic pills. I was stuck. My anxiety was now so bad that I was becoming agoraphobic. Something had to give.

I wanted my mother. The only problem is that my mother lives in New York. I got out my credit card and booked a flight for the next day. With the help of several Xanax [tranquillisers], thankfully also prescribed by my GP, I managed the trip.

That first night in NYC, I woke up with my heart pounding again. The next day I telephoned a few American girlfriends to tell them I was in town and that I was probably going to need to be admitted into some kind of institution. One by one, they told me to go and get my hormones checked.

They seemed to know exactly how I was feeling and said the same thing had happened to them. Hormones? Really? But I hadn’t had any hot flushes; I was seeing men with blue hair.

One of them gave me the number of Dr Michelle Warren, Medical Director of the Center for Menopause at Columbia University. The next day the fates intervened, and miraculously an appointment opened up.

When I finally met the receptionist who had been fielding my desperate calls, I apologised for hounding her. She looked up casually and said, “Honey, don’t think twice. It happens all the time. Women crawl in here on their knees.”

….on their knees…

HRT made me feel normal again

So at 47 I began taking HRT. There was no debate: I was begging for the stuff. Within three days I began to feel the difference. Within a month I felt like myself again.

Meanwhile a friend from San Francisco sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal on peri-menopause. That article listed every single one of my symptoms, including the Freddie Krueger night frights. Thinking of the women who were tumbling into my GP’s office every week, I forwarded the article and told my British doctor I was feeling much better. He never replied.

I now have a female GP.

We should be the generation that is open about menopause

The reason I am telling this story is because – no one told it to me. I had no idea that at some point in my mid to late-forties I might begin to feel like I was losing my mind.

When I returned to the UK, I opened up to my friends here about the whole experience and discovered that many of them were suffering in silence. Some were depressed, some were anxious, some were both. I heard about a woman in Somerset who had been too scared to leave her house for a year.

My British mother-in-law, who I respect enormously, is horrified at the thought of anyone writing about menopause. She thinks it is part of the Kardashian-isation of our culture. It isn’t. This is potentially life/marriage/job saving, medical information that needs to be shared.

Because of my experience, my sister-in-law was prepared when it happened to her and in turn she was able to help her friends when they started to feel like Bernie Ecclestone had parked an F1 engine in their nervous system.

The other day a woman I didn’t even know thanked me on the street. She said she would never have had her hormones checked if I hadn’t told my story to a friend of hers.

Here’s the bottom line: menopause and peri-menopause can seriously mess with our lives, and a lot of doctors still don’t get it. There are, however, many that do. Find one of those.

Dr Warren estimates that one-third of women will “drop to their knees” due to fluctuations in hormones in mid-life. That is one in three of our daughters, sisters, wives and girlfriends. Hormone health matters. Pass it on.