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Three women break the taboo surrounding the menopause

By Stephanie Bell

It is known to drive some women mad while others are fortunate enough to get away with little more than the occasional hot flush and a feeling of being a bit more tired than usual.

The menopause or "change of life" - which marks the end of menstruation - usually hits around the age of 50 and he degrees by which each women will suffer vary considerably. Yet there is surprisingly still a huge lack of awareness of the symptoms as well as a reluctance to talk about it.

The fact it's a taboo topic means women continue to lack information so that their symptoms - especially if they are severe - do take them by surprise and many struggle to cope while feeling unable to discuss what can be quite major physical and emotional changes. Here, three women tell us about their experiences.

‘I found a list of 32 symptoms on Google and realised I’d 26 of them’

Local artist Deirdre Robb certainly had no idea of what lay ahead when she was hit full force by a frightening array of symptoms, when the menopauses started for her at the relatively early age of 45.

Deirdre, now 51 and a mum-of-four, was so taken aback by the onslaught both emotionally and physically that she has created a hard-hitting art exhibition to try and shatter some of the taboos which surround the menopause.

Using sculptures, illustrations, photography, video and performance work she has put together a full sensory experience for visitors at her exhibition simply entitled Menopause.

It is a raw and honest piece of work which is not for the squeamish and was created to reflect the changes brought on by the withdrawal symptoms of oestrogen from a woman's body.

Blood features heavily in all the pieces, which was part of Deirdre's plan, to help create dialogue with both men and women about the impact of the menopause on a woman's life.

Married to Geordie (56), a photographer, Deirdre who lives in Belfast came to art late in life, studying for her Masters Degree in Applied Arts when she was 33 after raising her four children - twins Maria and Samantha (29), James (28) and Mitchell (25).

She has gained a reputation internationally as well as locally for boldly tackling tough issues and it was her own harsh experience of her menopause which led her to focus on this not often talked about female issue.

"I just remember waking up one morning and feeling very lonely and isolated and that I had no one to talk to about it. I was afraid of some things that were happening to me," she says.

"I didn't know what to expect. No one told me about it. I think one of the main reasons I did the exhibition was to share it with my daughters so that they wouldn't be in the same position.

"I also wanted to break the taboo, so that women can be a bit more open about it and share stories and, hopefully make it less intimidating.

"I turned to Google and I found a list of 32 symptoms and I was able to tick 26 of those boxes.

"That was a huge shock for me as well as finding out that it can last up to 15 years - and I'm now seven years into it.

"I've been unlucky. I know it is different for everyone and not all women will get it this hard but I think it is important to be aware and talking about it can make such a difference."

Deirdre believes that by opening it up as a topic for discussion and by recognising menopause as a significant life transition for women then hopefully it will elicit better support from society as a whole.

She was taken by surprise at how it impacted on her emotions and recalls crying at the death in EastEnders of the character Pat Butcher "as if it was my own mum who had died".

"That was frightening, as I reacted like a demon and it was as though I had no control over my emotions," she says.

Her periods stopping - the one aspect of the menopause most women welcome - also hit Deirdre hard emotionally and she describes it as experiencing grief. "I felt like it was the death of something in my body and that made me feel as if I was getting old," she says.

"It can be really intimidating and isolating. My body is going through this transition and yet I don't feel any different than I did when I was 25.

"We have this big obsession about periods and can't wait until we don't have them any more, and then when they stop you want them back again.

"That's how I felt and there was a sense of loss, but I think once I understood what I was feeling, I could understand it more and deal with it better.

"I think we have an emphasis on youth and women going through the menopause feel it means they are getting older and that is hard to deal with and it's wrong. I found the more I talked about it, the easier it was.

"That was one of the great things about the exhibition, because it wasn't just women who got talking about it, but men, too. They opened up about what their wives were going through."

The physical symptoms also took her by surprise.

Hair loss was a shock, as was new facial hair growth, hot flushes and palpitations, which in turn caused her anxiety.

Deirdre feels so strongly about the need to support other women that she started a blog last week - bleedingwomens - through which she hopes those going through it will share their stories and get information to support them.

There will be another opportunity to view Deirdre's work on the Menopause at Creative Exchange Studios this Friday and Saturday - for more details visit at Belfast Open Studios.

'Women look younger now so talking about it is admitting your real age'

Mandy Baxter (51), a mum-of-two from Portadown, who is manager of the Marie Curie shop in Dungannon, feels lucky to have experienced just minor symptoms as she enters the menopause.

Again, Mandy had no idea what to expect although, as she turned 50 she was very aware this was the time of her life when the change would strike.

Mandy's main fear was hot flushes and night sweats, which she was aware of because she knew of other women her age struggling with both of these very common menopause symptoms.

She says: "That was my idea of the menopause - terrible night sweats and hot flushes. I would have women coming into the shop and they would be all hot and flushed and refer to it as having a tropical moment.

"I could tell how uncomfortable they were and many times they would apologise and have to step outside to try and cool down in the air."

Mandy, who has two boys Jordon (31) and Jake (22), had been experiencing a lot of muscle and joint pain, especially in her elbows and knees.

She struggled for almost a year with it before going to her GP six months ago, when she was astonished to be told her pain could be part of the menopause.

She had a hormone test and it was confirmed that she was going through the menopause.

She recalls: "It never once occurred to me that the joint and muscle pain were part and parcel of the menopause; that was a complete surprise.

"I was also quite shocked to be told that I was going through the menopause as I had no idea, as I wasn't having any night sweats and hot flushes.

"My sleep also had become very broken, which I now know to be another symptom.

"I just feel a lot more tired than usual, but I'm not suffering too badly and, so far, I've been very lucky."

Mandy agrees with Deirdre that women do feel uncomfortable talking about the menopause because they see it as confirmation that they are ageing.

She says: "I think these days women in their 50s don't look their age and look a lot younger than maybe women our age did about 30 years ago.

"But by talking about the menopause it's like an admission that you are getting older and none of us wants to feel that. In our heads we are not in our 50s and we don't want to be reminded of it.

"I'm quite proud of the fact that I am 51.

"I don't feel in my head that I am, although my body certainly reminds me of it.

"Again, I'm lucky, because admitting you are in your 50s can be difficult for some women, although it doesn't bother me."

'Since cutting sugar out of my diet, I haven't had a single night sweat'

Jenny Grainger (47), from Crossgar, is mum to Georgia (20). She is a Life Coach and runs Fresh Start Coaching with her partner, Eoin Scolard (58).

Jenny has been preparing herself mentally and physically for the menopause for five years after reading a book by an American author who specialised in women's wellness.

Her symptoms started two years ago when she began having night sweats and irregular periods.

She says: "I read a book called The Wisdom of Menopause by Dr Christian Northup who takes a holistic approach to women's health, and this huge tome of a book dealt with the medical side as well as the spiritual and emotional changes which you can expect.

"I just thought, 'I am going to be going through this journey,' and so I read the book to try and prepare myself.

"I have been introducing some lifestyle changes which I believe have really helped and which is why my symptoms are not too bad."

Jenny stopped drinking alcohol two years ago, as it can play havoc with your hormones, and, this summer, she also cut sugar out of her diet which she says has completely stopped the night sweats and any PMS symptoms she was having.

As someone with a sweet tooth, she dreaded cutting out sugar but says she has found a website of recipes - - which has allowed her to continue to enjoy sweet food without any sugar.

She has also dealt with the emotional aspect of the menopause by focusing on reducing stress in her life.

And she is convinced that making changes to her diet, by eating mainly fruit and vegetables, has also made a big difference.

She says: "I've just tried to create more balance in my life and I know it is helping. The night sweats were terrible. I would have had to change my sheets during the night and maybe my pyjamas twice and, since cutting sugar out of my diet this summer, I haven't had a single night sweat.

"I really believe the changes I have made have had an incredible difference. It is early days, but hopefully I will continue to get through it without too many other symptoms."

  • Jenny is running a Woman's Balance Day on November 1 in Belfast. Visit for more information

What to expect... and where to get help coping with those symptoms

  • Symptoms of the menopause can vary considerably from one person to the next
  • Around 80% of women experience the most common symptoms of hot flushes and night sweats
  • For some women it can be a very unsettling time in their life, while others will go through it with no problems
  • The menopause is the time when a woman's monthly period stops, because as women age they slowly run out of eggs
  • The average age for starting the menopause is 52, but for some of the symptoms, it can start between the ages of 45 and 55
  • In extreme cases, medical conditions can cause it to happen much earlier, sometimes to women in their 20s. This is known as premature ovarian failure
  • Changes in hormone levels can produce different symptoms. As well as hot flushes and night sweats, some women suffer emotional symptoms such as depression, tiredness, lack of energy and a reduced interest in sex
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can be prescribed by your GP to help control menopausal symptoms, but it can slightly increase the risk of developing other conditions such as breast cancer, deep vein thrombosis, stroke and heart disease
  • Changing your diet and doing more exercise can also help with symptoms
  • The NHS website is full of information and tips. Visit

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