She was once known as the hard partying queen of Primrose Hill but when she became blindsided by depression and fatigue, she mistook the symptoms for payback for her former life. Now Meg’s mission is to make sure other women realise what’s happening is normal – and they can get help
In her North London home, Meg Mathews stops mid-sentence for one very emotional moment when it suddenly hits her that she’s done something rather incredible.
For a long time, Meg Matthews – who is now 54 – was destined to be only remembered as the poster girl of 90s Britpop, the excess-all-areas wife of Oasis star Noel Gallagher, and the inspiration for the band’s biggest-ever song ‘Wonderwall’. And then everything changed… Styling: Patricia Jones and Emma Lightbrown. Make-up: Rikki Casey
She has written a book, The New Hot: Taking on the Menopause with Attitude and Style, which could be a genuine game-changer. Brutally honest, eye-wateringly detailed, funny, informative and crammed with practical advice on every subject from sex to hormones, skincare to underwear, she has dragged this taboo subject out into the light and turned it into compelling, essential reading.
Her husky voice breaks as she speaks: ‘That makes me feel as though everything I have been through has been for a reason and people will actually see me for who I am now. This means so much to me.’
For a long time, Meg – who is now 54 – was destined to be only remembered as the poster girl of 90s Britpop, the excess-all-areas wife of Oasis star Noel Gallagher, and the inspiration for the band’s biggest-ever song ‘Wonderwall’. With her tousled blonde hair, vintage wardrobe and jet-set lifestyle, she was best friends with Kate Moss and undisputed queen of the decadent North London’s Primrose Hill set. She flitted from private parties with the Rolling Stones, to girls’ spa holidays with Kate, Sadie Frost and Naomi Campbell, to a personal invitation from then Prime Minister Tony Blair to Number 10 Downing Street.
And then everything changed. With the noughties came a multimillion-pound divorce, more hardcore partying and a spiral into drink and drugs, then a realisation in 2008 that she needed to get sober for the sake of her young daughter Anaïs and herself. She became an activist for animal rights and mental health, and quietly helped others around her conquer their addictions, but as far as the public was concerned, she remained defined by her past.
Then, seven years ago, her new life began to collapse when she started to feel exhausted and depressed. In 2014, after prolonged and painful suffering with osteoporosis, her mother Christine died at the age of 73. Meg’s grief intensified her anxiety and depression. She worried about her dad Stanley, a former builder, and her daughter who was then 14 and at school in London.
‘I couldn’t think straight. I was getting headaches, I couldn’t remember where I’d left my house keys, my bag, my phone,’ she recalls. ‘I went to my GP who prescribed antidepressants. I remember saying: “Thank you” and for a short while they helped me cope.’
But things got worse. ‘I would get Anaïs ready for school, then as soon as she left I’d get back into bed and hide. My partner took me to celebrate New Year at an amazing country house in Oxford, but I couldn’t stop crying and insisted he take me home.
‘From then on I hid. I couldn’t leave the house for three months. I was sweating, frightened, anxious and I felt ashamed. When I was partying my mum used to say: “Meg, one day this will all catch up with you” and I was thinking this was it. I thought all those drugs had messed up my brain and my sweats were the toxins coming out of my body. I put on more than a stone and had this fat tyre round my middle that I thought was toxic bloat.
‘I was a total mess. Friends would call asking me to go out and I’d make excuses. I didn’t tell anyone how I felt because I’d look at Facebook and Instagram and everyone seemed really happy.
‘I didn’t want anyone to see me. Before, I always had a real rush choosing what to wear and loved that excitement of getting ready. But sometimes I’d open my wardrobe, look at my clothes, feel exhausted and shut the door. I was in a relationship at the time but I didn’t ever want to have sex. I didn’t know who I was any more.’
Meg with close pal Sadie Frost last year. Seven years ago, Meg’s life began to collapse when she started to feel exhausted and depressed
In the book, Anaïs, now 20, writes about how she felt living through this dark period with her mother. Meg nods: ‘She thought I was having a breakdown. I’d scream at her about her room not being tidy when it was perfectly fine. She once said she liked a certain M&S vegetarian bake and when she came home there were seven in the fridge. She said: “Oh, one for every night of the week”. She and my boyfriend laughed and I just lost the plot.’
At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (she attends religiously), Meg finally spoke about how she felt, blaming herself for her life of debauchery. It was a few months before her 50th birthday. ‘I said: “If this is what my life is now I may as well start drinking again, because at least that might make me feel better.” I meant it.’ Before she got up to leave, she was taken aside by a woman who hugged her, told her she believed she was going through the menopause and gave her a phone number. ‘I thought she was mad. Menopause meant my granny. Not me. But on the way home I kept thinking about what she’d said. I didn’t know anything about the menopause but the penny had dropped. That’s when the journey began.’
I have known Meg since the 90s. I’ve always liked her because, even at the height of her Britpop madness, there was an endearing realness to her and a sense of humour. This is a girl who as a teenager hitchhiked to London from Suffolk (where her parents lived) with all her savings from working in a chip shop, to blow them on a pair of Vivienne Westwood shoes.
Meg with best friends Kate Moss and Fran Cutler, 1998. ‘I don’t regret any of those times but a lot of it you are just putting on a mask’
She famously lived in Supernova Heights in Primrose Hill, but she’d also point out to me squats that she’d lived in back in the 80s. ‘Everybody thought I was a cockney because I’d put on the accent in interviews in the 90s,’ she says. ‘I thought it would make me fit in better. I never really felt that confident. I was always too short and squat to have the perfect look but I worked hard to disguise it. I don’t regret any of those times but a lot of it you are just putting on a mask.’
As a friend Meg is incredibly loyal. Kate, Sadie and the old crew are, she admits, very proud of her Boadicea assault on the world of menopause. I know from experience that if Meg gets to grips with a subject, she will be relentless (back in the day she could spot, name and date any vintage item of clothing, jewellery or footwear from 200 feet). She likes to get into the detail, so it’s no surprise that in her menopause odyssey she not only hunted down experts in HRT, bio-identicals, nutrition and sexual health but experimented with kinesiology (a holistic therapy that tests muscles to establish areas of stress and imbalance in the body), Chinese herbs, yoga, ice-cold baths, having her tongue read, stools analysed and worked with a shaman who ‘cleared her energy’ over the phone.
So what are the symptoms?
Make a note of the ones that resonate with you most and tell your doctor when you go for your first appointment.
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Loss of libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Irregular periods
- Hair loss
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Brittle nails
- Irregular heartbeat
- Changes in body odour
- Bladder problems
- Panic disorders
- Difficulties concentrating
- Mood swings
- Foggy brain
- Breast tenderness
- Joint pain
- Electric shocks
- Burning mouth
- Nausea and digestive problems
- Dental problems
- Muscle tension
- Dry and itchy skin
- Tingling extremities
My mother’s menopause
I didn’t know what was going on with mum at first. I just noticed that her moods and behaviour were getting more erratic. She had always been emotional but this was off the scale. She was so unpredictable: fine one minute, then crying, then angry. She’d talk about me being a hormonal teenager, but my moods were nothing compared to hers!
I talked to a schoolfriend whose mum was also menopausal and I found that being able to label it made things easier. I realised mum needed some support from me and I needed to step up a bit. I stopped taking the moods personally and started doing little things like make her a drink or suggest we went for a walk together as I knew that helped.
I’ve always had a great relationship with my mum but I think going through this together has really strengthened it. We have shifted from parent-child to more of an adult-adult connection. We talk about anything and everything now, and I love seeing how mum has come out on the other side and is now providing support to so many other women. Having said all that, I still hope they have found a cure before I get there!
The advice I would give other children who have a parent going through the menopause would be…
- Be understanding. Read up a bit on the menopause so you know what to expect, and have empathy for how it must feel (it sounded to me like permanent PMT!).
- Talk. If your mum hasn’t mentioned menopause you could open the conversation by saying someone at school’s mum is going through it. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable with conversations but I found the more we talked the easier it got.
- Do little things to help. Mum seemed more tired than normal so I did a bit more around the house.
And yes, she does join in as I laugh about this. But she points out most of that happened before she knew what her problem was or that the solution lay in – among other things – progesterone tablets, testosterone cream and oestrogen gel. ‘I used to rub the gel into my hands after I’d put it on, then I’d cuddle my dog Ziggy. I’d take him for a walk around Primrose Hill and we’d be followed by packs of dogs. I didn’t realise I’d turned him into a mating target.’
Her book contains advice from other experts and various celebrity friends – from the actress Gillian Anderson to television stars such as Davina McCall, Louise Minchin and Dawn French among others – who speak honestly about their experiences. Meg has become quite the warrior. As part of her campaign, she fights for flexible working hours in the office for women ‘who feel they shouldn’t be admitting to any of these issues’ and has given talks for major organisations including the Foreign Office and the NHS.
‘I want to stand up there and shout about it,’ she says. ‘Because all of us – men and women – should know about this. There is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s happening to 13 million women in Britain today. I want it to be something we discuss openly, look at properly and really understand because that is the way we learn to understand ourselves. It amazes me that on the soaps these days there are storylines about rape, domestic violence, LGBTQ issues and so many other things, but you’d never see Bet Lynch having a hot flush behind the bar of the Rovers Return. Why not?’
There is a very poignant reason why Meg is so passionate about the subject. ‘My mum died of osteoporosis,’ she says. ‘I had to watch her in agony as her spine crumbled, her bones fractured and her weight dropped to under five stone. At the beginning of this journey I was scanned and found to be in the early stages of osteoporosis. Since I’ve been taking oestrogen, and with everything I’ve learnt through speaking to experts and asking my doctors to prescribe me other medications, I no longer have any symptoms. The proper use of oestrogen helps and to think that my mum died in the way she did…’ She stops then says, ‘So this book is for her. I know that of everything I’ve ever done she would be so very proud of this. But it’s also for my daughter and every woman out there.
‘Of everything people think they know me for, I want them to know me for this. What makes me happy now is when women tell me I’ve helped them in one way or another. Who knew this is how I’d turn out – me talking to hundreds of people in the Foreign Office – but I’m very grateful because I’ve got my life back and it’s so much better.’
Meg’s menopause manifesto
Like any change, menopause is scary when you don’t know how to deal with it, but I’ve rounded up the country’s top experts to explain what’s happening to you, why and what might help. Every woman is different and what you experience will not be the same as me or anyone else. But you’ll find plenty of tips to help you dodge whatever meno-missiles get thrown at you, so you can come out the other side with your sense of self, style and humour fully intact…
Is this really menopause?
The hormonal fluctuations of early menopause (or perimenopause) can be so varied that many women don’t link them with menopause at all – particularly if they start to appear when you are in your 40s and still having periods. Everyone is different and you may get some, all or none of the symptoms listed above right. I asked menopause specialist and consultant gynaecologist Dr Anne Henderson to explain how something as simple as your ovaries slowing down can trigger such a broad range of effects. ‘There’s literally not a part of the body that doesn’t have some form of oestrogen receptor in it,’ she says, ‘and considering oestrogen generally has hugely positive effects on the body, it’s not surprising that we experience so many negative effects when levels start to fall.’
The big HRT question
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and it has been a complete game-changer for me – I still find it incredible that a bit of gel can make such a difference. It’s not always the best choice for everyone but celebrities such as Lorraine Kelly, Davina McCall, Andrea McLean and Mariella Frostrup were extolling its virtues, as were many female GPs of my age, so I chose to join them.
From Aargh to zzzzz: the secrets to better sleep
- Fact-box text Lack of sleep is a big issue for so many menopausal women – I had terrible sleep problems at first. Now I have digitally detoxed my bedroom (no electronics) and I’ve made it a tranquil place. If menopause is affecting your sleep, try these tips from homeopath and natural health practitioner Caroline Gaskin…
- Take a cool shower before bedtime as this helps reset your thermostat.
- Switch off all screens at 9pm and reduce excess light in the bedroom.
- Try sleep remedies such as valeriana, passiflora and coffea. Add a homeopathic version of the sleep hormone melatonin into the mix.
- Support your liver by reducing alcohol, sugar and refined carbs or taking milk thistle compounds to help with insomnia, hot flushes, night sweats, breast tenderness and headaches.
- Switch to cotton bedding which helps to wick away sweat and keep you cool.
- Choose natural cotton or linen nightwear, which help the skin breathe more easily.
Switch to cotton bedding which helps to wick away sweat and keep you cool
HRT comes in various forms. I considered tablets but decided against them as there is a higher risk of stroke, heart disease and blood clots. I tried the patches but struggled to keep them on (I once found one stuck to my dog’s tail). I have ended up on separate oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone gels (although testosterone isn’t freely available on the NHS).
It is important to talk to your GP and find a solution that suits you. GP Dr Bella Smith explained to me that HRT should be available for women with perimenopausal symptoms, and there’s no time limit – as long as the benefits outweigh the risks you can stay on it as long as you like. She says the benefits include symptom relief (as I found), plus it helps prevent osteoporosis, lowers your risk of colon cancer and heart disease – and is also believed to help protect against dementia. There is, however, evidence that taking some types of HRT can slightly increase the risk of breast cancer.
That first appointment can be intimidating, and anxiety, low mood and forgetfulness can make menopause a challenging topic to discuss. GP and menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson suggests asking if your surgery has a menopause expert you can see, and booking a double appointment. Remember that if you are unhappy with your GP’s response, you can ask to see another or even change surgery. Alternatively, you could consider paying for a private GP or menopause clinic appointment. Once you have a prescription, your GP can usually prescribe the same medication going forward.
How to ease anxiety
I asked Harley Street psychologist Dr Meg Arroll for her advice about why so many women (me included) initially feel as if they are losing their mind. She explains that psychological symptoms can arrive when oestrogen levels fall, and depression and anxiety very often occur together.
‘Talking therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) have been shown to be safe and useful,’ she says, ‘and if you cannot – or prefer not to – take HRT, hypnotherapy, relaxation training and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are worth a try.’
Simple breathing techniques have been shown to help bring calm when you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Counsellor Diane Danzebrink told me: ‘When we breathe out the body can’t help but relax, so simply breathing out for longer than you breathe in, while counting in your head, can be enough to bring us back to control.’
Try this exercise which has been shown to cut the incidence of hot flushes in half. Breathe in through your nose for a count of one, then breathe out from your mouth for a count of three. Imagine you are holding a baby. Relax your shoulders and inhale gently so your abdomen expands. As you exhale, smile, purse your lips and very gently blow over the baby’s hair (so the hair barely moves).
Yes, you will feel sexy again!
When I was younger I had a voracious sexual appetite, but that took a dive when menopause started. Changing hormones affects desire and many women find sex can become uncomfortable. I thought I would never feel that spark again, but things have gradually improved. While I’m not swinging from the chandeliers, I can say that with a bit of work and a bit of effort, there is most definitely light at the end of the tunnel.
Psychosexual therapist Clare Prendergast recommends talking to your partner: ‘Men are often fearful about getting things wrong and making things worse,’ she says, ‘but risk letting them learn alongside you and your sex life can be positively transformed by menopause. If you’re in a long-term relationship, what the two of you have done before probably won’t work now – you are going to need to try new things,’ she adds. ‘Shake it up a bit – try different locations, contexts and timings. Explore new sensations – this can be a wonderful time for discoveries.
‘It’s worth noting that quite often desire will kick in if you just get started. So even if you’re not in the mood, give it a whirl and you might find yourself having a nice time.’
What you eat really does make a difference It might sound odd to hear that someone who used to live on cigarettes, rum and recreational drugs is now fanatical about nutrition, but I’ve realised the impact that healthy food can make on how you feel. Your diet affects your mood, gives you energy and helps protect you against the diseases of ageing. That’s why I now try to eat as well as I can. I’m completely teetotal and I drink lots of water. I chose a plant-based diet with no dairy, gluten or sugar – my treats are blueberries, peanut butter or coconut yogurt. I’m not saying everyone has to go vegan, but the food you put in your mouth takes on a whole new degree of importance when you reach midlife.
Nutritionist Rob Hobson says some foods can even help with menopausal symptoms. He recommends a good mix of the following…
- Plants (beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, berries and soy foods) contain plant chemicals called phytoestrogens, which have a similar (but weaker) effect to human oestrogen and may help to relieve symptoms such as hot flushes.
- Oily fish is a rich source of omega-3 fats which help reduce inflammation in the body and could ease hot flushes.
- Meat, fish, eggs and pulses provide protein to help maintain muscle, which keeps your metabolic rate fired up and helps to tackle weight gain.
- Dairy products and leafy green vegetables are a source of calcium which is vital for bone strength and protecting against osteoporosis.
Try one of these herbal helpers
Before I settled on HRT I tried lots of natural remedies. Nutritional therapist Ailsa Hichens says there are a variety which can get your symptoms under control, but she warns to try one at a time. ‘However tempting it might be to buy up the whole menopause aisle, it’s best to pick a herb you think will work best for the symptoms that worry you most, take it for eight weeks and see if you notice a benefit.’ She suggests the following…
- Ashwagandha helps you cope with stress.
- Agnus castus can balance erratic perimenopausal periods.
- Black cohosh tackles hot flushes and night sweats, helping to boost low moods.
- Ginkgo biloba helps clear a fuzzy head and can boost libido.
- Maca root can boost libido and ease hot flushes and insomnia.
- Sage helps with temperature regulation, and can improve mood and brain fog.
- Sea buckthorn is a rich source of omega-7 fatty acids which helps keep mucus membranes healthy.
Adapted by Louise Atkinson from The New Hot: Taking on the Menopause with Attitude and Style by Meg Mathews, which will be published on 1 October by Vermilion, price £16.99. Order a copy for £11.99 until 4 October at whsmith.co.uk by entering code YOUMEG at checkout. Boo k number: 9781785042539. For terms and conditions go to whsmith.co.uk/terms.