Where are you at in your menopause journey?
I’m perimenopausal. My symptoms began four years ago. I had always had quite severe PMS but it felt constant and then accelerated when my father died.
At the time, I had just embarked on a new relationship after 15 years of being a single mum. My daughter was doing her A-levels and applying for university and I had started in a GP partnership that I’d wanted for a long time. The symptoms couldn’t have come at a worse time. I felt constant fatigue, joint pain and stiffness in the morning, a loss of confidence, anxiety, weight gain (I’d always struggled with my weight and have food anxiety). For the first time in my life, I had to get up in the night to use the bathroom. It was a horrendous combination. I felt vulnerable and most certainly not sexy!
What has been the most challenging thing to deal with?
The emotional hit and constant fatigue of the perimenopause was a drain and shock to me. I was constantly eating for comfort and for energy but it wasn’t working. Also, I wasn’t ready for how my confidence would suffer – particularly when I was trying to make a new relationship work personally and professionally. Suddenly feeling old, feeling unattractive, feeling emotional, all of these aspects contributed to me losing a sense of myself and feeling insecure.
Have there been any positive symptoms?
Sometimes when you’re tired and irritable you haven’t got room to take crap and I realised I’d made a huge mistake in rushing into this relationship.
I re-evaluated my life, my priorities and finally asked myself the question “what do I want?”. How do I want to live the next stage of my life? What do I want to achieve? As a woman you’re often used to putting everyone else first, especially in the Pakistani Muslim culture that I’d grown up in.
Finally, I started to feel free and take charge of my life and to make changes. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t overnight but I had to do it for myself, for my daughter and our future.
Suddenly feeling old, feeling unattractive, feeling emotional, all of these aspects contributed to me losing a sense of myself and feeling insecure.
I have seen me become the woman who I am today, and that is something I am incredibly proud of. Now I run my own clinic, I am a menopause doctor; I make a difference to hundreds of womens’ lives by bringing all my skills from my GP life and from my own experiences. Would I have done this if I hadn’t been circumstantially pushed? It’s difficult to say.
What are the things that are getting you through?
Pretty soon after experiencing my first perimenopausal symptoms, I started taking HRT. I personally wouldn’t have coped without it. I had to regroup, regain my independence and setting up my clinic became more than just a choice. HRT gave me back my energy, my ability to focus, my joints stopped aching and I felt able to concentrate. I have always valued my intellect and memory and the effect of perimenopausal ‘brain fog’ had been frustrating.
Did you seek any advice from experts, friends or family?
I saw my own GP, who was very understanding and supportive. I was very lucky in this aspect of my experience – not all women have the good fortune of having access to a women’s health expert or menopause doctor, not all women have the experience and knowledge when it comes to their own health.
I have had the benefit of training with Dr Nick Panay, Professor John Studd and Miss Joan Pitkin, all amazing gynaecologists and I have taken a little bit from each of them and others to help me create The Harper Clinic. They have been an invaluable support to me in terms of my career and my life beyond.
What was the best advice you received?
The biggest help I had was the reassurance that I wasn’t going mad. Everything fell into place after that. Another interesting piece of medical advice I received was that on top of taking HRT – which entailed oestrogen and progesterone replacement – additional testosterone was something that truly made a difference to my day-to-day experience. I would call it the final piece of the jigsaw and it’s something I recommend to a lot of the women who come to see me, women who complain that it feels as if something’s still missing and they can’t put their finger on what it is.
What do you say to other women about the menopause?
I say the menopause really isn’t the end – not by a long shot – although it is often depicted in that way by some. Start thinking about it early, start prepping for it and don’t be scared.
On a personal level, this stage has been the best few years of my life, even though I’ve been juggling ageing parents, bereavement, my daughter going off to uni and personal issues.
Perimenopause for me is a time of ascent. As my daughter said to me in the birthday card she gave me, “Mum, it’s your time to shine”.
I’ve regained my power and never felt more proud to be a woman, I’m the most confident I’ve ever been, the most sexy, the most at home in my own skin. Any pandering to society’s perceptions of a “middle aged woman” or compromise in terms of personality is finished for me.
Perimenopause for me is a time of ascent. As my daughter said to me in the birthday card she gave me, “Mum, it’s your time to shine”. That’s what I tell the women who come to see me at my clinic. That’s when I feel most empowered… or MPowered!
Find more about Dr Harper at The Harper Clinic, and find her on Instagram @drshahzadiharper and @theharperclinic.