Claire Willett, from Oxfordshire always thought she was invincible, from trying every sport as a teenager, through to being an endurance cyclist and a pilates teacher. But, after trying later in life to have a baby it ended up being ‘mother nature’ that really tested her after being diagnosed with premature ovarian insufficiency, and thyroid disease. Despite her diagnoses leaving her with serious health concerns, Claire took the opportunity to learn more about the different types of menopause and its effects so that she could help others through their journey.
I’ve always been ‘Claire the invincible’! Claire the pilates teacher, Claire the endurance cyclist who could do and achieve anything I placed my mind and energy on. Peter Pan in my head, I was going to defy the biological clock in every way. So, when we decided to try for a baby, at 39, of course it was going to be possible. I had my coil removed but I started to worry after it took 140 days for my first period. My GP assured me that it can take a while to ‘come back online’.
A little while after, I ended up in A&E with an ovarian torsion caused by a 10 cm complex cyst. Whilst I was in hospital my consultant decided to check my AMH levels. This is a test done on women under 40 to determine how many follicles they have left. Two months later I walked into my doctor’s office to get the results of my test and the doctor just looked at me, looked at the screen and shook his head. I knew it was going to be bad. And, it was. My ovarian reserve was 0.3 indicating that I was already in menopause. Our world changed that day.
It was a feeling of deep shame and failure
Where was I when this was going on? Was I too busy conquering and achieving, being invincible and not realising that actually, I was 15 years biologically older than my current age? I remember a friend asking “is there nobody you can talk to?” Well, no, they are all 15 years older than me and find menopause funny to talk about. It wasn’t funny for me.
As well as intense ill health with multiple symptoms at the time, it was a feeling of deep shame and failure.
Nobody ever seems to connect all these symptoms
In hindsight, I started perimenopause in my mid 20’s. I had severe night sweats, amongst other symptoms that I thought were normal with a long term relationship. My GP ran some blood tests for diabetes and then said “ open the window or have a lighter duvet. The coil had also masked my symptoms as it had kept my progesterone levels topped up. I had also been experiencing bladder issues for the last few years or so, including urgency.
At first, I thought it was due to weight gain, and then the ovarian cyst. Nobody ever seems to connect all these symptoms, although it did take me 7 years to confess to my GP that I was struggling with my bladder. As your testosterone and oestrogen levels decline, so do the muscle fibres of every part of your body, including your pelvic floor and vaginal wall, causing vaginal atrophy.
I even thought I had early onset dementia
We tried IVF several times. This only added to my cascading health, physically and cognitively. It triggered Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, the symptoms are similar to menopause. At one stage, I even thought I had early onset dementia! I would manage to teach a class, sometimes sitting on my knees due to the intense dizziness. I’d go home and sleep before heading out to another class. My amazing husband changed his work so he could take on most of the house chores just so I could keep my much loved Pilates business alive.
I will never forget the IVF doctor’s parting words with us before being ushered out the back door (so nobody can see the failure list clocking up!) “it’s not IVF you need, it’s HRT”. I do have to thank him though as he urged me to see one of the best menopause specialists in the country and probably beyond, Nick Panay.
During the 4 month waiting list, my life was out of control. There was only one thing I could do and that was to learn as much as I possibly could about menopause and premature ovarian insufficiency (POI), alongside thyroid disease, in order to become my own specialist.
Primary Care, whilst supportive, were not able to address all aspects of treatment for Hashimoto’s plus they didn’t have anyone specifically trained for menopause. I was just not getting any better. I ended up going privately to an endocrinologist who determined that I wasn’t converting the thyroid medication to the active Hormone, T3. I’d already started HRT two months prior under Nick Panays guidance. Within 2 days of taking the correct medication for my thyroid, it was like someone had opened the curtains on my life. I then had to go through a battle to get my medication funded through the NHS, I still live in fear that this may get withdrawn at any time.
I now feel amazing, most of the time
It took a very long time to get my health back on track as I’d become so systemically unwell. Throw a couple of bouts of covid into this, another ovarian cyst resulting in another surgery called an oophorectomy (removal of the ovary) , then my ability to absorb topical oestrogens ceasing after two years and having to opt for surgical implants for testosterone and oestrogen every 6 months, it’s been an interesting journey, but I now feel amazing, most of the time.
Even if you take some form of HRT, whether it’s oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone or thyroid replacement, none of it truly replaces the ebb and flow of what your natural hormones should be doing in order to keep the rest of your body, brain and soul in rhythm. We still have symptoms, we still have to function at a high level in our society. Particularly exhausting for anyone with POI as we’re between ages 13 and 39. We have to occasionally start again with our medication, either because it’s stopped working for us or because there is a UK shortage. The latter is mind blowing.
I’ve re-trained my brain on how to respond to urgency
I still struggle on and off with urgency and frequency to urinate. In part because I’ve recently been diagnosed with adenomyosis and my uterus is putting pressure on my bladder. Now I have most of my hormones under control, my pelvic floor stays engaged for a longer period of time and with the help of a pelvic floor specialist, I’ve re-trained my brain on how to respond to urgency to urinate by counting backwards in multiples of 3’s! It’s about distracting the part of your brain that’s responsible for habits and getting your thinking brain working instead!
During this journey, I have met some amazingly courageous people and learned how to be the best possible version of me. Controlling the elements that are controllable when so much else has been taken away. It’s in constant progress, but isn’t that something we should all be striving for anyway!? I realised a long time ago I had a duty to help other people through this horrendous haze and maze of life. You can’t go through something as big as this without turning it into something positive.
Pilates has been by best friend
During the darkest parts of this journey, pilates has been my best friend, it’s one that can be adapted for any state of mind or physicality I presented that day. I may not have been able to find enough energy to go out on my bike, or even a walk but there was always something I could do pilates wise. Knowing that, gave me some peace. A sense of well being that I was still addressing my metabolism, my nervous system and keeping all my joints maintained at a base level ready for days when I could do more. Pilates is like a wardrobe of life – there is an outfit for every occasion and I wanted others to experience that too.
So, I finally did it! I reached deep into my vulnerable spots and took on a course to become a fully qualified menopause coach, ready to ‘officially’ help others. My new website is in the build process – Menopause Couch© But for now, you can find me at Millstream Pilates.
I’ll be offering courses in the community, as well as private sessions. Blending 10 years of running Millstream Pilates with a full holistic approach to helping women understand their unique menopause journey more clearly and ways in which they can gain help and improve certain aspects of their well being. From managing symptoms, medication, weight, cardio and strength training, sleep, bone health, heart and brain health. It’s all there to help them become invincible!
You can find out more about Claire’s Oxfordshire Pilates studio, which specialises in pilates for menopause, by visiting www.millstreampilates.co.uk. You can also follow Claire on instagram @millstreampilates.
You can find out more about menopause and its effects on the bladder and bowel on our website, see popular articles below.