Writer Christa D’Souza, 57, lives with her partner, Nick Allott, and their two sons. Her new book about menopause, The Hot Topic, is out now. In an exclusive interview with w&h, she opens up about increased libido, her solution to hot flushes as well as her life after menopause…
“I honestly didn’t think that menopause was going to happen to me. I thought I’d be a medical revelation; the woman who never got it.
Then, when it did happen, I wanted to write about it; I wanted to address the hot flushes, the peeing six times a night, and the craziness that you go through in perimenopause. My friends call it the 49-ers club: right before you stop bleeding completely, you experience incredible spikes in hormone levels. Your body is gearing up for one last stab at having a baby, and what I found is that you suddenly think, I’ve got to go out there and get laid; I don’t care by whom or what, but it’s got to happen.’”
The menopause effect
Once you know it, you can see it on other women. They start dressing like they are in their 20s again, wearing glittery eyeshadow, being a bit too drunk at parties. Many women I know – and I was probably one – behaved inappropriately; were a bit over-flirtatious and a bit too drunk. I didn’t act on it, but I have plenty of friends who did, having affairs usually with much younger men.
Then they came to their senses, thinking, ‘What the hell was I doing?’ There are also many women who are walking around so happy they didn’t make that mistake by going to live with the second-rate karate instructor in a dodgy rented flat. But, at the time, I thought it was fantastic. It’s a bit like the sun before it goes behind a cloud; it’s very bright and you are the most beautiful you have ever been. Women can look amazing right before menopause.
The hot flushes happened mostly at night. I’ve always been quite sweaty and, although I can’t believe I was that dim, I didn’t put two and two together. Then I went and got my hormone levels checked and found I had virtually no oestrogen left.
One of the most distressing things was rapidly developing this extra layer that just grew out of nowhere. I have never had back fat, but suddenly I did, and nothing would fit, regardless of what I ate or drank. Having no control over it at all was horrible.
Also, having always been able to sleep on a clothes line, suddenly couldn’t sleep. Even sleeping pills didn’t make a dent. That was terrifying because I need eight hours a night, and when that was taken away, I felt crazy.”
Sex and menopause
This is a tricky one. There are a lot of issues: hormone changes can mean many women get vaginal dryness, so sex can hurt. And then the other thing is a complete lack of desire, which happened to me and I was actually quite shocked by it, particularly after perimenopause, when sex is all you want.
You can go one of two ways. You can say, ‘OK that’s it, I’ve had all my sex.’ I know some women who just decided, ‘That’s it, no more sex anymore.’ Or, you can go on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which, to a certain degree, can allow you to revisit that area of your life. If sex is the cornerstone of your relationship and the desire has waned, hormones are fantastic.
Hormone replacement therapy
“People get muddled up by the phrase ‘bioidentical hormones’. It sounds so organic, but all it really means is that a dose is created for you personally, and it’s made of reconstituted yams, not horses’ urine. They are still HRT.
My reservations about taking hormones were entirely to do with having had breast cancer in 2007. It was only stage one and treated with radiotherapy, but it was oestrogen-positive. Some people think I’m crazy to take hormones.
But I weighed it up. I am taking a small amount. Hormones help with keeping bones healthy and keeping you sane, and they can protect against heart disease and, of course, I have regular check-ups. The thing that swung it for me was one doctor telling me that drinking alcohol has a far worse effect than taking hormones. So I chose to stop drinking instead.
I felt that I had done enough drinking and, actually, once I made the decision to stop, I didn’t find it difficult. Apart from anything else, I just didn’t want to be 60 years old and getting tipsy.”
The power surge
“HRT solved the sleep issue and completely took away the hot flushes within two weeks. It was fantastic and, for me, that is by far the best solution. But if you are suffering, my best advice is: wear fewer clothes and wear them in layers. Also, wear your hair up to keep the back of your neck cool.
HRT also sorted out the extra-weight factor! So now if I feel a few kilos heavier, I know it is just because I’ve been eating too much. Also, I think at this stage we are meant to be a bit heavier. I have gone up a size since a couple of years ago – and maybe that doesn’t matter. Acceptance is a wonderful thing.
There’s a kind of power surge post menopause, meaning loads of energy, focus, and a sharper brain. I find I am more into my work and more into reading books. My concentration is better. I feel that now I can be the person that I probably always meant to be because I am not so worried about the way I look, my weight, my baggy eyes, or the fact that someone didn’t fancy me. At 55, I know that my pulling years are over. And I use the term ‘pulling years’ even for women in a secure relationship, because there is still an element of flirtation. But now I am on the other side, and it’s gone.”
Life after menopause
“But I probably have got another 30 years, and I’d better make something of it: I want to give to the world rather than take, and to make the world a slightly better place. I’ve become a tiny bit less frivolous. And I trust myself more. I’ve been around in this body for so long and my opinion is valid, which I didn’t necessarily feel two years ago. My mother is a good example, at 72, of the late developer. She is a relentlessly optimistic human rights activist, who constantly dashes around and has more energy than my sister and me put together. She is a tremendous inspiration and I am in awe of her.”
Is life after menopause different?
“Yes, it is. At the age of 49, I still got rather offended if people called me a woman rather than a girl, which is mad, I know, but I did. Now, for the first time, I am an older woman. I’m a grown-up. I am not the person I was six years ago, and the difference between 49 and 55 is quite radical. I am five years shy of 60, and that fact can wake me up in the middle of the night sometimes. But it is kind of fabulous, too.”