Meg Mathews: I thought I was going mad but it was the menopause
Thinking she had social anxiety and chronic fatigue, Meg Mathews was surprised to find out it was actually the menopause. She tells Katie Byrne about her mission to get women thinking and talking about the 'taboo topic' and why she thinks GPs in the UK and Ireland should be better trained
It's hard to imagine Meg Mathews, the former wife of Oasis star Noel Gallagher and a key member of the Primrose Hill party set of the nineties, suffering from social anxiety. Yet for three months in 2015, the 53-year-old wasn't able to leave her house.
The mother-of-one was chronically anxious and physically and mentally exhausted. Her joints ached, her head throbbed and the antidepressants her GP prescribed weren't working. When things went from bad to worse, she told her friends that she had glandular fever and started to decline all invites and requests for get-togethers.
The former music PR was at a loss to understand what was happening to her. She wondered did she have chronic fatigue syndrome or ME. She worried that she was losing her mind.
A few months later, during an AA meeting, she stood up and told the room that she thought she was "going mad". It was a low point, but what she didn't know at the time is that it was a turning point too.
"This woman came up to me afterwards," she recalls, "and she said, 'Meg, you're not going mad... you're going through the menopause'."
At first Meg fobbed her off. She thought the menopause only affected "grey-haired grannies with walking sticks". But then she read about the symptoms and suddenly the night sweats, the loss of libido and the swollen and tender breasts began to make sense.
She went back to her GP who this time prescribed oestrogen and testosterone. Four days later her night sweats stopped. Two weeks later, her anxiety began to dissipate.
"It was just the hormone levels," she says. "Everything was so low. It was like an engine without the petrol and the oil. It just wasn't working very well."
Meg says she was happy that she finally had a diagnosis - and a treatment - but she was angry too. Why weren't GPs better trained to identify symptoms and discuss treatment options? Why weren't women talking about the menopause?
"It's going to happen to every single woman and there is no structure in place in Ireland, in the UK - anywhere in the world - for it," she says. "Why? Because there is this stigma and this taboo and it has just got to go."
It was during that first GP visit that Meg decided she was going to raise awareness of the menopause and try to break down the stigma that surrounds it. "I thought, I'm going to write a blog and just tell it as it is."
But first she spoke to the people closest to her. She remembers sitting her daughter Anais (now 19), her then-partner and her two business partners in a circle and printing off a list of the symptoms she was experiencing and the medication she had been prescribed. "My partner was a hypochondriac at the time so all he wanted to see was the side-effects of everything I was taking. My two (business) partners were like, 'Oh my God, I can relate - that's my mum!'"
Meg and her partner "split up half-way through" her menopause journey. She says he didn't understand what she was going through. Anais also found it difficult to adjust to her mother's mood swings, but she soon got to grips with it.
The mother and daughter produced a searingly honest segment for BBC Breakfast earlier this year in which they discussed how the menopause affected their family life.
The wise-beyond-her-years teen says she remembers her mother being "really stressed out" and "very over-emotional" before offering some matter-of-fact advice to other menopausal mothers. "You need to tell your children about it because if you don't they'll just think you're having a mental breakdown."
"She's very vocal about the way I was," says Meg about the segment. "I don't remember being like that but the more I hear from her, I can relate to it. At the time I was saying 'Your room is really untidy!' But her room wasn't really untidy. It was the rage going on in me. I just wanted something to give out about.
"If you're feeling a bit tearful or exhausted or you want to go to bed early, just say it," she adds. "You don't have to be the martyr. You can just say, 'I'm not cooking tea tonight - you're all having Marmite on toast'."
Looking back, Meg thinks she was experiencing perimenopausal symptoms in her early forties. "I had days when I thought, Oh my God I don't feel right - I felt vulnerable, a bit weird," she recalls.
The symptoms might have made more sense, she says, if she had known that there was a phase that preceded the menopause.
She brings up a recent talk that she gave to staff at BBC World News. "There were 300 or 400 very intelligent journalists in the room. I asked them to put their hands up if they knew what the perimenopause was and nobody knew.
"But I'm not surprised because I didn't know and I consider myself to be a woman of the world... well, I hope so."
Meg wants to get women thinking and talking about the perimenopause and the menopause on her online platform, megsmenopause.com, and no topic is off bounds.
It's much the same when we chat. She talks about brain fog. "You think you've got dementia - I'm always losing something and it's there, where I left it." She talks about vaginal dryness and soreness. "The lining of the cervix becomes paper-thin and that's why sex becomes so painful," she explains, "and that's why women stop going for smears." She talks about lack of libido - or "desire" as she prefers to put it; the "phenomenal" effects of a vaginal rejuvenation procedure that she underwent and, of course, HRT.
These days Meg rubs a few pumps of Oestrogel on her inner thigh after her shower ("it goes straight into the blood stream and just makes the brain fire up again") and she says testosterone cream gives her an extra pep in her step.
Her diet and lifestyle also play a part. She starts every day with two glasses of warm water with lemon to "stimulate the liver" and then she uses the Calm app to do a morning stretch, a breathing exercise and 10 minutes of guided mediation. "This keeps me grounded and in the moment," she says.
There was a time when Meg spent hundreds on health supplements. "Maca powder, wheatgrass, hyaluronic acid, any type of mushroom…"
But when the costs began to add up she got in touch with a laboratory and began working on her own, cost-effective formulation. Meno Blend is described as containing "optimum levels of key actives - perfect for support during and after the menopause" and she whisks up one sachet with non-dairy milk every lunchtime.
People often ask her how she avoided the waist-widening and weight gain that goes hand in glove with the menopause and she attributes it to regular strength training and a teetotal diet.
The former gadabout gave up alcohol, drugs and cigarettes 13 years ago. There have been a couple of lapses here and there ("I'm human!", she says) but, for the most part, her Primrose Hill party days are well behind her.
"At this age everything is slowing down so we need to be careful," she says. "You might get home and pour yourself a glass of wine, then you have another glass and then you sit down and you have another glass and then you turn on the TV and it's a bottle an evening before you even know it.
"And then you feel so s*** the next day that all you want to eat is rubbish food. You don't wake up with a hangover and want to eat fruit salad. You want to eat an egg and bacon sandwich. That's where it takes you!"
Menopausal women are more at risk of heart disease and stroke, she adds, so she's more conscious than ever about what she puts into her body. And since a DEXA scan revealed that she has osteoporosis, she's determined to increase her bone density with resistance exercise and strength training.
A few years ago, in the depths of the menopause, Meg was going through what she describes as the worst time of her life. Now on the other side, she says she's never felt happier.
"I feel more comfortable in my skin now than I have in my whole life," she says. "I feel grounded, I feel positive, I feel like I have a message and a purpose.
"I've had a lot of luck and a lot of chances to do interesting things," she adds. "But this is the thing that I'm most passionate about. This is the one that gives me the most purpose."
Meg Matthews is a headline speaker at The M Word: Ireland's first Menopause Summit, which takes place in The Radisson St Helen's, Dublin, on Friday, October 11. See www.themwordevent.com for more