BBC NI’s Marie-Louise Connolly talks candidly about her menopause experience

Once talked about in hushed tones, the menopause is casting off its shroud of embarassment. BBC NI’s Marie-Louise Connolly tells HELEN MCGURK it’s about time

Saturday, 3rd July 2021, 7:00 am
Marie-Louise Connolly
Marie-Louise Connolly

In a recent, candid early morning tweet, BBC Northern Ireland’s health correspondent Marie-Louise Connolly wrote: “4.27am wide awake — yet I’m exhausted. Night sweats. Sofa surfing. Anxious. Craving sleep. Heavy fuzzy head. Forgetful. Hot. Tomorrow/today is looming. MLC is still in here…I want to tweet this.”

The 52-year-old admits she was hesitant about the tweet detailing her menopause symptoms, but in retrospect is so glad she did as it “triggered a huge positive reaction”.

Indeed, her tweet was welcomed by a flurry of women including Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who added that although her own symptoms were mild compared to some others, she hoped to “unwrap the menopause mystery and ditch the stigma”.

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Ms O’Neill said: “Like so many women hot flushes are a permanent feature of my day. The more we talk about it, the more we help end the stigma.”

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong replied: “Riding the Menopause rollercoaster is wild craic when it’s already warm. My internal furnace likes to kick in at the most inopportune moments. Such fun.”

And Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew said: “We need to end the stigma and help more people understand the challenges. Lots of gifted women give up work because of it.”

For years women have suffered in silence – but many are now speaking out and supporting each other through what was once squeamishly referred to as ‘the change’.

Formerly a highly taboo subject, the menopause has undergone something of a rebrand. The shift may have occurred when Mariella Frostrup presented a BBC One prime-time programme called The Truth About the Menopause in 2018. Not only was it upfront about the downsides of the end of fertility – mood swings, anxiety, brain fog, loss of libido, sleeplessness, dry skin, but it also scientifically tested a range of methods for combating its effects.

Since then social media, magazines and TV channels are awash with women talking about the end of their fertile years. Celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Gillian Anderson, Angelina Jolie, Davina McCall (who said the symptoms of menopause reminded her of when she was an addict) have shared their personal stories, even the Countess of Wessex has spoken about her own experience, describing losing her train of thought on royal engagements and feeling as if somebody had taken her brain out.

Marie-Louise, who did a series on the menopause for BBC NI three years ago, is glad we are talking more openly on the subject.

“It is one of the most natural things that women go through, but my goodness it can be the most traumatic event.

“When a woman is going through the menopause it doesn’t just affect the woman. If they have a partner, it affects them. Whoever you are living with - they are going through it too. It also affects people you are working with.

“Some people say that they become a completely different person. Hopefully women will not be afraid to reach out through their GP to ask for help.”

She added: “I have no regrets about the tweet. It opened up the conversation on menopause with women offering advice on how they are coping, what treatments they find beneficial and sharing their experiences. If me speaking about it helps even one other woman, then that is great.”

Marie-Louise said surgery a couple of years ago triggered her menopause.

“The next day I had to go on HRT, it was a very mild dose. I didn’t really have any symptoms then and I thought I would sail through it.

“About 18 months ago I realised this is the real menopause. First I would say was the night sweats, then lack of sleep, waking up at 3.40 every night.

“The last year has been a year like no other, it has been very stressful for everybody and we have been living through a time like no other. I was working very hard, I was reporting and writing a lot, but I had this brain fog, almost like a constant headache and I just kept putting it down to stress with working round the clock as health correspondent.

“I was doing very stressful interviews, talking constantly about death and people being in hospital, very heavy, gloomy things. But all the while in the background, if I wakened I thought it was because I had had a hard day, but then it was the night sweats and I knew that wasn’t normal.

“Last August it was a bit quieter and I just crashed physically and mentally, I hit a brick wall. I do think it was partly through work, but also I wasn’t looking after myself and I had another gynae issue that landed me in hospital. I remember describing to a lovely nurse that I had this terrible pressure across my chest, I felt very anxious. All the tests came back clear and later on this nurse said all the symptoms I described, the pressure and the heaviness, she said that’s a symptom (of menopause), but I didn’t know that.”

Marie-Louise believes it is really important we talk to men and boys about menopause and she is very open with her own family.

“My 17-year-old son is very familiar with the word ‘menopause’ and that’s the way it should be. My 21-year-old daughter Niamh suggested I talk about it, she said ‘mum, you have such a platform’. I asked her if she would be embarrassed and she said ‘absolutely not, I’d be really proud if you did it’.

Politicians and businesses are making noises about bringing in ‘menopause leave’ – an issue that’s gathering pace since menopausal women are now the fastest growing demographic in the workforce, yet one in four consider leaving her job due to menopausal symptoms.

“When I did the series on menopause in 2018, we went to Manchester because the police service were the first to pass a workplace policy on menopause. At the time companies here said they would put in place a workplace policy, but sadly I don’t think many have,” said Marie-Louise.

She also points to the dearth of services here.

“In Northern Ireland we only have two menopause clinics and they can’t keep up with the demand. It’s almost a Cinderella service.”

A keen runner, Marie-Louise said this has helped a lot. She also runs with a group of women her ‘running tribe’ and they talk and share their experiences of menopause.

“Every woman’s menopause experience is different, but I don’t think you know what’s coming until you are in it.

“I hope I have started a conversation.

“Menopause shouldn’t be hidden, it shouldn’t be embarrassing.”