Premature Ovarian Failure: Annabel shares her experience of going through menopause aged 15

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Annabel Oakley Watson shares her moving story of being diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure, aged just 15.

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On the 7th of August 2009 I was diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure. I was 15 years old. The doctors concluded there was no obvious explanation or secondary cause for why my ovaries had shut down and failed. A seemingly healthy teenage girl in all other respects, I suddenly became part of the 0.01% of females diagnoses with POF under 20. This is where my involuntary journey to understand what this meant both medically and mentally began.

I spent most of my teenage years in hospitals with my mother anxiously by my side as together we desperately sort answers. My medical records continued to be passed between specialists who never seemed comfortable giving a final diagnosis. I was referred to the leading gynaecologist in my area who simply said that being able to conceive was ‘no longer possible’ - as if I ever actually had the chance. All he did was hand over another dated leaflet about infertility and I left feeling hopeless as he refused to discuss any type of medicinal therapy.

As I was still a child my case was passed onto a paediatric dietician who was finally prepared to help. Just after my 14th birthday I was put on a regular ‘contraceptive pill’ to try and stimulate my ovaries. After trying six different pills it was apparent my body was not responding the way it should have. An ultrasound revealed I had only one ovary that was considerably underdeveloped and with my final set of blood tests it was confirmed that my once sky-high FSH and LSH levels were now dormant. I had experienced my menopause.

You’d think that I would have come to terms with such an absolute diagnosis, but that little bit of faith never seemed to die, no matter how long it had been. Spending everyday hoping for a miracle became increasingly more embarrassing when deep down I knew that it was, and always will be, biologically impossible. The unexplained question around whether the HRT I was put on at 18 was a contraceptive remained irrelevant but of course I still want to ask the questions and try to feel ‘normal’.

“The main biological difference between women and men is the ability to carry a child but that was something I had to accept I could never do.”

My mind began to hate my body for failing to produce the hormones I needed, and I started to question my identity. The main biological difference between women and men is the ability to carry a child but that was something I had to accept I could never do. Anyone close to me will know I have always wanted my own children; being a mother was something I felt I was ‘born’ to do, as cliché as it sounds. That ability was taken from me at an age when most girls usually begin their journey of understanding their bodies and their fertility. I found myself split between my friends at school bonding over periods and pads, and expectant mothers proudly showing off their ultrasound scans around the labour ward.

I had absolutely no control over the situation. There was nothing I could do, there was nothing the specialists could do, there was absolutely nothing anybody could do to change, remove or reverse my diagnosis.

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At university I lied to my mother and secretly refused to take my HRT medication. In my eyes I had no reason to, there seemed no point in taking medication that could not change the situation. The novelty of having a pill pack wore off and every time I had to turn that wheel and hear that click I was a reminded of my inactive reproductive system. I was caught out and a sense of regret started to overshadow the ignorance. I was immature, and I was angry. I couldn’t see that HRT was important to keep my body healthy, to keep my bones healthy and to relieve the menopausal symptoms I kept trying to repress. It was something I chose to deliberately ignore and looking back I am now embarrassed at my lack of appreciation of the incredibly versatile body I do have.

Fertility; described as the ‘natural capability’ affects us in all in one way or another but unbelievably, 1 in 6 couples have problems conceiving and 25% of these cases are completely unexplained. It seems for a lot of the UK’s population, it’s not quite as ‘easy’ as the birds-and-the-bees made out. Nearly ten years on, and as I write this blog post, I have finally embarked on a journey of true acceptance. I am now ready to face the impact of my diagnosis and finally see the positive within Premature Ovarian Failure.

Being told that I had experienced my menopause before I felt like I even had the chance to go through puberty was a devastating thing to process, especially as a teenage girl. However, over the years my attitude has changed and I have allowed myself time to process, understand and fully accept my diagnosis. With the alarming statistics of unknown infertility, I now feel blessed that I have been given the opportunity to prepare. I was told at an age when naturally I began to worry for my future. I worried about finding someone who could accept that I would never be able to carry their child, even though it is meant to be the most natural thing a woman could do. As the years have passed, I have matured and begun to see that actually I am in a position where I do still have a choice.

Anyone that has experienced infertility will explain that one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the diagnosis is the lack of choice, that the decision has been taken from you and usually before you knew there was even a problem. I have learnt that this is not the case. I now have time to choose what path I want to take in order to become a mother. It might not be in the most conventional way, but it will be my way, and even if my child doesn’t have 23 of my chromosomes, that will not define or lessen our bond. A mother is a mother regardless of whether the same genes are shared or not.

Menopause is final, there is no going back, and it cannot be undone but that doesn’t mean you will never become a mother if you choose that is what you want. You have options and you have this time to prepare and ready yourself. As much pain as my diagnosis has caused it has shaped the woman I am today. I am somewhat ‘lucky’ that I have had this time to grow and take back the control I once thought I had lost.  

Now at 24 and through a lot of conversation and guidance I can begin to plan what my next steps are. I can continue to educate myself in the options I have and spend the next few years hopefully tearing down the taboo of premature menopause and ultimately help other young girls see past the devastation of such a life changing diagnosis.

Annabel Oakley-Watson

October 2018

#positivepause

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