The symptoms came gradually, and then all at once. They hit me like a wall at the age of 42, although I had started seeing the trappings of menopause a year earlier. The bleeding was particularly worrying, I began bleeding very badly all the time and I couldn’t work or leave the house. I was hospitalised because of it. I felt anxious all the time and there was this sense of sadness that hung over me, I couldn’t shake it.
Before all of this, I was a really confident person and I was seeing a lot of success in my psychotherapy business. I was really healthy and active, and life was good.
Then the hormonal changes began and at first, I tried non-medical methods of coping. I changed my diet, tried acupuncture, I tried everything. But sometimes you just need to accept that your body needs something you can’t give it naturally. I don’t know why I let myself suffer longer than I should have.
But the physical symptoms were starting to hinder me from working and getting on with my life. I developed vertigo and insomnia, which happens when your oestrogen levels drop during menopause, and the heavy, constant bleeding was so bad. I’m self-employed and single, so I have zero support and I started to realise that my future was actually at risk. That was really scary.
When I reached out for medical help, I was told it was all in my head. This came as a real shock. The doctors in Northern Ireland, where I live, just didn’t believe me. They said I was too young to be going through menopause.
The guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises doctors to diagnose perimenopause or menopause in women over 45, so I was being told: “You can’t possibly feel that way.”
They tried to give me other types of contraception and antidepressants. I’m a psychotherapist, I knew I was not depressed and I said I needed hormones, not antidepressants. They sent me to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist for my vertigo, even though it is a common symptom of menopause.
Asking for HRT was like begging for a Class A drug. In the end, I had to go to a private hospital in England to get treatment and paid to get hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Within the first 24 to 48 hours of taking my first dose of Oestrogel, a topical gel that contains oestrogen and is absorbed through the skin, I felt like a different person. HRT gave me my life back, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it is my Holy Grail. I’ve been using it for three and a half years now, and I feel really good, stable and even fitter than before.
But last September was the first time I started being affected by the HRT shortage. Disruptions in the supply chain, manufacturing problems and suppliers not keeping pace with increased demand for HRT have led to the current situation. I was down with Covid and had to renew my prescription, which I could do online. I usually get a text message informing me when it’s ready to collect and I could have gotten a family member to pick it up for me. But the text message didn’t come.
I rang the pharmacy and they said they didn’t have any in stock and didn’t know when it would be back. They didn’t know what to give me – I actually had to tell them that there is an almost identical HRT spray that they could give me as an alternative, so I was able to get that. But they could only prescribe me three spritzes of the spray a day instead of the six I needed, so some of my symptoms came back because I wasn’t topping my body up with the amount of hormones it needed.
At Christmas, I had to pay more than £100 to buy it privately through a specialist, but at least I had it. But by the end of January, it was out of stock again. I drove to 14 pharmacies in one day to try and get some, but no luck. Luckily, a friend who is post-menopausal had six months’ worth of Oestrogel and was kind enough to pass me a bottle in the carpark of a supermarket. It’s becoming an increasingly common experience among women who are desperately looking for HRT to swap different forms of it or share their prescriptions.
I put in another prescription two weeks ago and managed to get some, but I’m having to ration it because of the shortage. Right now, I have about three weeks’ worth of HRT. Women are online everyday checking if it’s back in stock and running to the chemist to get some the second it becomes available, and it is all pretty stressful.
If I can’t get my next prescription and the spray is also unavailable, I am worried about how I’ll cope. The worst symptom for me is the insomnia. Oestrogen helps you sleep and stay asleep, so a common symptom of menopause is not being able to. Before I started HRT, I was waking up in the middle of the night with a sense of dread. That, and the bleeding are my main concerns if I can’t get HRT.
But more than that, I’m afraid of losing my business if I can’t function because of menopause symptoms. I love my work and it’s the best job in the world, but without it I can’t put food on the table. When nobody would listen to me three and half years ago, it was a really frightening idea that I might not be able to get the help I need and would have to stop working.
I’m going to Barcelona next week, and they sell HRT over the counter in pharmacies over there. I’m definitely planning to pick up a few tubes while I’m there – but it should really be more easily available and accessible here in the UK. Lots of women aren’t in the position to be able to afford to buy HRT through a specialist or go overseas to get it, and they shouldn’t have to.
I don’t want any woman to have to go through the treatment and suffering I went through, so I now specialise as a menopause psychotherapist and advocate for better training among GPs and for HRT to be made more widely available.
What needs to happen now is that suppliers need to produce a lot more HRT, because it is in higher demand as women are more educated about the benefits. Also, all GPs should receive specific medical training about menopause, because at the moment the level of knowledge and expertise is so low among GPs and there are so few specialists in the UK. Women want to feel good as we age and we deserve better.
As told to Kate Ng
Leigh Campbell is a psychotherapist and menopause coach based in Northern Ireland.