Menopause & Me: Saska Graville

Saska
Despite a career in women’s magazines, the co-founder of MPowered Women was clueless about the perimenopause, and blindsided when symptoms hit. Thanks to HRT, Saska has her anxiety and daily feelings of doom under control, and is determined to break the taboos around menopause and help other women power through it.

Your age and stage?

I’m 52 and perimenopausal. I keep thinking I must be through it and then I get another random period.

When did your symptoms start?

They snuck up on me when I was 49. Despite a career in women’s magazines, I was totally clueless about the perimenopause years. I assumed that hot flushes would strike in my 50s, and had no idea A) of all the many other symptoms, and B) that the perimenopause can affect you for years before your periods stop.

What were your symptoms?

The worst things were a constant anxiety and sense of foreboding. I had changed careers after 10 years at Red magazine, and moved to a PR agency, and I assumed my loss of confidence was because I’d made a huge mistake. It was as if, overnight, I lost my work mojo. Brain fog descended and I was unable to concentrate and get to grips with the new work world I found myself in. I felt completely and utterly out of my depth, it was awful.

Looking back, I realise I was affected in other ways too, like driving. I lost my nerve completely on holiday in Greece and refused to do any of the driving because it was hilly. I’ve been driving since I was 17 and never had problems with hill starts before!

There were also other things like insomnia and ‘irritable legs’ when I went to bed and headaches, but they were minor compared to the anxiety. I’m yet to have a single hot flush.

Now that I know what I’m dealing with and I can manage the symptoms, I really do feel these are some of the best years of our lives.

What was the most challenging thing to deal with?

I’ve always loved work and my career, and was devastated to suddenly feel overwhelmed and unhappy. It was like losing my sense of self. It made me feel so stupid and incompetent. Along with the constant sense of foreboding, I’d have ‘fight or flight’ panics throughout the working day, triggered by anything that felt too hard or challenging.

Dealing with daily anxiety and loss of confidence was incredibly stressful, not just for me, but for my partner. He was brilliantly supportive, but it undoubtedly put a strain on our relationship. All I could think about was how difficult my work days were. I remember one morning, lying back on the bed and sobbing because I didn’t feel I could go to the office. I’ve never done that in 25+ years of working. My partner couldn’t understand why I’d turned from confident to fearful overnight.

Were there any positive symptoms?

Certainly not at the time! In retrospect, it’s forced me to be healthier than I was 10 years ago. Perimenopause has made me a cheap date when it comes to alcohol, so for once in my adult life, I can tick ‘social drinking’ on a medical form and not feel a bit of a fraud. I’ve also really upped my exercise, because it makes me feel so much better both physically and mentally.

I’ve also realised that menopause isn’t some kind of ending, it’s a beginning. Now that I know what I’m dealing with and I can manage the symptoms, I really do feel these are some of the best years of our lives. I’m more determined and focused than I have been for years – I’m not done yet!

What got you through?

HRT was a gamechanger for me, but it took 12 months for me to start taking it because my local GP practice was hopeless. A family member had had breast cancer and I was wary about HRT because – like many women – I was put off by the myths about cancer. I wanted advice from my GP, but was told there was no ‘women’s health’ expert at the surgery who could talk to me in depth about the issue. I spent a year trying other lifestyle measures – including vitamins and acupuncture – before insisting that my GP referred me to an NHS menopause clinic, where I could have a proper HRT chat. Within five minutes, a wonderful consultant had reassured me and I started on HRT that day. In a matter of weeks I felt my old self returning.

By this time, I had left the PR agency job and moved to another role as editor in chief at a major retailer. I often wonder, if I’d gone on HRT a year earlier, would I still be in PR? I suspect I would have dealt with the challenges of a new career in completely different ways.

What advice did you seek?

I thought – naively – that my local GP would provide all the answers. It was only because I was persistent that I got a referral to a specialist clinic at Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital in West London, where the advice was wonderful. I was lucky, I had a job that allowed me the flexibility to keep going back to the GP, and I can be pushy if I need to be, but many women would find that difficult.

With all other health milestones in a woman’s life, like periods, sex and contraception, we are educated, but menopause is still a taboo. That has to change.

The best advice you received?

The specialist at Queen Charlotte and Chelsea talked me through the facts about HRT, which made the choice to start taking it a no-brainer for me. There’s so much confusion and scaremongering about it, I felt relieved to finally have advice from someone who I could trust.

The specialist at Queen Charlotte and Chelsea talked me through the facts about HRT, which made the choice to start taking it a no-brainer for me. There’s so much confusion and scaremongering about it, I felt relieved to finally have advice from someone who I could trust.

What you wish you’d known?

Looking back, I wasted a year worrying about taking HRT, and enduring the ongoing anxiety and brain fog that took over my life. If I’d known the facts from the start, I would have gone on it straight away.

What you say to other women about the menopause?

If your GP isn’t helpful, insist that they refer you to a specialist clinic. They are few and far between, but they do exist. We also all have a responsibility to look after our own health and wellbeing at this time of life, to exercise, cut down on alcohol and get lots of sleep.

Your thoughts on this time of a woman’s life?

I’ve been lucky, HRT has really helped me and I feel back to my old self. For other women, there are far greater physical and mental challenges. What’s crazy is that we go into this time of life so naive about the hormonal changes and their effects. With all other health milestones in a woman’s life, like periods, sex and contraception, we are educated, but menopause is still a taboo. That has to change.

Once you can deal with the health challenges, this is a brilliant time of a woman’s life. We are confident in who we are and have (almost) conquered the demons of our younger years. It’s our third act.

Your menopause was…

Bloody challenging to start with and a massive shock. I feel like an idiot for not being better prepared and aware of what my perimenopause years had in store.

You feel MPowered when…

I’ve done a full week’s worth of exercise (yoga, weights and spinning), I’ve gone easy on the wine and I’ve slept properly. Feeling happier and healthier in my own skin has given me the confidence and focus to embrace my midlife years. I really am not done yet, the best is yet to come.

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