Me and Dot Davies go back a long way. More than 20 years. I’m not the only one who has appreciated the unique talents of this Welsh national treasure over that time.
When we worked with Max Boyce as young TV researchers he would declare: “You’re more than a Dot to me – you’re an exclamation mark!”
When she wowed BBC Radio Four and Five Live listeners as a fresh voice on the action at SW19 every summer Des Lynam christened her Wimbledot.
And each week on the Radio Wales phone-in she continues to impress with the warm yet authoritative way she handles everything that comes through her headphones – from elusive government ministers to members of the public ranting about the contentious issues of the day.
As friends we’ve been through a lot together – bereavements and heartache, fun and adventure, work and play...not to mention umpteen rugby trips from Murrayfield to Melbourne. She’s given me a lovely godson, a shoulder to cry on, and endless laughs.
So we’ve shared a lot. Including, in recent years, the challenges that can come with being a woman in her mid-40s (her) and early 50s (me). In the privacy of WhatsApp groups, cafes, and living rooms we’ve discussed our respective experiences of the build-up to menopause.
The migraines, the insomnia, the anxiety, the aching joints, the confidence dips, the brain fog, the tiredness, the flushes, the rage, the irritation, the tears, the quizzes where you can’t remember the answer but know you once knew it (me) and the early morning waking that turns into a dip in the freezing waters of Penarth (her) – however bad the menopause gets I still haven’t succumbed to wild swimming.
But this week Dot shared those concerns with a bigger audience because the conversations we have in private have to be made public. In the first in a new series of the S4C current affairs programme Y Byd ar Bedwar she tackled the menopause taboo.
I salute her for her courage. It’s a subject that can be steeped in sexism and ageism. The word itself is often used as a pejorative – remember the deputy governor of the Bank of England who applied the term “menopausal” to Britain’s sluggish economy?
It was a crass metaphor that underlined the wider societal misconception that being menopausal means a woman’s sell-by date has expired.
In this context the preposterous concept presented is that our entire identity is built on biological fertility. We have built-in obsolescence. We’re “cultural castrati” is how Irish journalist Suzanne Harrington puts it.
Once the capacity to breed has passed, that’s it ladies. We’re on the hormonal slope to oblivion and we should simply retreat from the world and adjust to our instant old crone status by throwing the Agent Provocateur undies out the window and taking up cross-stitch in a darkened room.
But the menopause is something that every woman will go through – an estimated 13m women in the UK are going through it right now – and society needs to reframe its attitudes to it. Some women fly through it. Others suffer symptoms that affect their family and professional lives and they deserve empathy, support, and practical solutions. It should be fine in the workplace to admit to problems without feeling judged or even incapable.
Like periods, menopause is an entirely natural biological process that is often portrayed as taboo, embarrassing, and vaguely distasteful.
No wonder right up to the broadcast this week Dot was worrying if she had done the right thing in giving an unflinchingly honest account of her own struggles with the perimenopause.
“Three things I never thought I would do – go on camera in a swimsuit...with this curly hair I have. And maybe the biggest thing for me – talking about menopause. I really was thinking about not doing this programme,” she said.
But Dot absolutely did the right thing. Especially in Welsh, where she says there’s even more reticence about discussing it.
In the S4C programme Dot shared her personal story of the impact the perimenopause has had on her life and asked why so much stigma surrounding the subject still remains.
“I was thinking: ‘I don’t want to draw attention to the fact that I’m at the age of menopause’ because, let’s admit, we still have a big problem regarding getting older.
“Especially women. And I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself or my family. It just feels like everyone is embarrassed! But this affects over half the population. We need to have the conversation.”
Swansea East MP Carolyn Harris has certainly spoken up, spearheading a political campaign to improve policy around the menopause. And it’s desperately needed.
A survey conducted by Y Byd ar Bedwar found that more than a third of women said they have considered giving up their work because of their menopause symptoms.
Dot spoke to Alwen Watkin, 53, from Anglesey, who gave up her job as a secondary school head teacher, citing the menopause as one of the reasons she decided to leave.
“I didn’t feel I could perform at my best’,” Alwen explained. “I could go weeks on end without sleeping at all. Tasks I was used to doing took longer to do. And all of a sudden I couldn’t string a sentence together and that was actually frightening because at one point I thought I was going mad.
“The menopause was one of the factors in my decision to give up my career. I didn’t feel I could perform at my best. There’s no understanding of what people were going through either. In the profession that I was in there were a large number of men in leadership roles. People don’t know how to deal with it and I think there may be an element of shame.”
The programme’s survey also revealed 60% of women say their symptoms have had a negative impact on their work with 25% saying they did not feel supported by the workplace while experiencing menopause symptoms.
But it’s not just employers who need educating. Remarkably there are still GPs who prescribe anti-depressants rather than hormone replacement therapy when women arrive in their surgeries suffering the anxiety and low mood issues that are recognised menopausal symptoms.
Dot met women who were at breaking point before they found the support they needed. The trouble is they often had to leave Wales to find it, paying for private treatment in England. There are just four specialist menopause clinics in Wales.
Consultant Helen Bayliss who runs the specialist clinic at Cwm Taf health board says it’s essential that conversation about menopause extends beyond those of us who are going through it.
“If men were to understand menopause as well as we did we wouldn’t have these issues. We wouldn’t have these stigmas – menopause would be talked about in the workplace as well, menopause would be talked about in schools as well,” she says, adding: “All health boards need to understand that menopause is an issue and it’s not going away. Those services need to be at our front door and that everyone can access them.”
Dot opened up about her own experiences in the programme: “About a year ago I developed a pattern; waking up at night, unable to go back to sleep, getting really hot all of a sudden, I was short of patience, just not feeling right. Not really understanding what was happening to me – thinking I’m losing it. Forgetting things, what they call brain fog, which isn’t great when you’re doing live TV and radio! I was getting really stressed.
“Just after talking to a few close friends, and doing my own research, I realised it might be the menopause. But I was 44 at the time and I thought I was too young. So many women are silent for years and enough is enough.”
She’s found those icy dips off the Penarth and west Wales coast do help – research is being done into the benefits of cold water swimming for menopause – but asks if there is anything else that could make a difference: “I want to understand more about HRT - would it help me cope with the symptoms? I feel I’ve done as much as I can in terms of self-care – going swimming in the sea, running, walking, yoga. What more could I do?
“Why is there so much stigma and a lack of knowledge or understanding? I’m 45 now and only now I’m starting to understand that there’s much more to the menopause than getting too hot and sweating at night. Is there hope to improve the support available?
“Hopefully this programme will be a conversation starter, helping the thousands of women in Wales who are suffering silently.”
And in starting that conversation Dot is being a good a friend to those thousands of women as she has been to me.
Y Byd ar Bedwar is available on demand with English subtitles on S4C Clic and BBC iPlayer.
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