Dr Shahzadi Harper explain why menopause and midlife is not ‘the end’, but a new beginning.
I run the Harper Clinic in London, working as a menopause doctor. The Harper Clinic takes a holistic approach to menopause and the well being of women – it enables me to fulfil my passion for promoting positivity for women.
I’m convinced I owe a large part my drive and ambition to my mother’s influence, watching her go through her menopause, combined with my time practicing as a GP in Oxford, I often felt ill-equipped to help women who came into the practice in distress with menopause symptoms. It quickly became apparent to me that my own experience of the menopause and my mother’s, translated beyond our family.
I grew up in a large traditional, Muslim family; the eldest of six daughters and two brothers. We were eight siblings, my mother looked after the household, and my father went out to work as a bus driver. So, a female dominant family you could say, and my mother was a bit of a matriarch: fierce, intelligent, sharp, no nonsense! She was incredibly good at mental arithmetic which I must have inherited from her as I was the best in my class at school and was the first in my family to go to university. I may have been a somewhat awkward, chubby, spotty, child, but a very good student!
For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a doctor – I wanted to help people. I studied medicine at University College London and when I graduated, I had an arranged marriage, which was what was expected of me and lived with my husband and family in Manchester.
Soon afterwards my daughter was born, but the marriage was falling apart and i plucked up the strength and left when she was fifteen months old.
From that point onwards, I worked as a GP in Oxford, a single mum, to support myself and my daughter – this was my life for fifteen years.
When my daughter turned sixteen, I decided to try dating. (I had done some dating in the past but not so seriously). Soon I was whisked off my feet and within a year, aged forty-four, I married my second husband.
Months into the marriage my symptoms started and aged forty-five, my father’s death coincided with the acceleration of my perimenopausal symptoms. I’d always had bad PMT but here i was experiencing constant fatigue, joint pains and stiffness each morning, getting up in the night to use the bathroom and weight gain were coupled with what felt like extreme PMT and anxiety.
“I wondered if I was depressed”
I wondered if I was depressed, my libido was low, my brain didn’t feel like it was working. One year into marriage and I felt like a different woman. I worried about getting old, losing my looks, started to lose confidence and feel insecure; and, as our relationship was so new, I worried about the effect this had upon us.
My mother’s experience of menopause was awful and was compounded by her diagnosis of dementia at around the same time. Suddenly, the woman who’d been the rock of the family, who’d had the memory of an elephant, was so vulnerable, having been blindsided by this degenerative disease. Both she and I have always valued our brains and our intelligence so highly, it was really upsetting to watch her decline.
All of this: my mother, my own perimenopause, my five sisters, my daughter, the menopausal and perimenopausal women coming to my GP practice looking for answers, meant training to become a menopause specialist felt like more than just the best path, it was more my calling.
So, in 2015 I set about retraining and pooling all of my skills from my GP life and my experiences together to provide the best service for women! Then my second marriage hit the rocks, I lost everything for the second time and setting up my menopause clinic wasn’t just a choice, it was a necessity.
A new drive
I needed my wits about me and frankly, didn’t have time to take naps or deal with the brain fog, paranoia and anxiety of perimenopause naturally. I began taking HRT at forty-five to be enable me to continue working and thriving in my career, for myself and for my daughter – and it worked. The joint pain that’d plagued me, the brain fog, the feeling like constantly wading through thick treacle, all disappeared with HRT.
Well aware of the risks, I also ensure I exercise regularly, there are cardiovascular problems in my family (albeit more amongst the men), so I eat healthily, I don’t smoke, I barely drink, I look after myself and reduce risks where I can.
Women’s health is incredibly important to me, I can’t stress that enough. We women make up half the population, we are often juggling many roles, mother, carer, sister, daughter, breadwinner; however, we’re all going to go through menopause at some point and I believe it’s best to start taking care of yourself and educate yourself as early as possible.
Making lifestyle choices when you’re younger will pay dividends when perimenopause comes around. Factors like weight will suddenly become more of an issue. Giving up smoking, cutting back on alcohol, managing your weight, all at once can be stressful, don’t wait until it’s too late – that’s my advice.
HRT won’t solve all of your problems and it’s important to be aware of the risks, nonetheless it has helped me. I am where I am because I was determined to thrive, and to empower other women to do so.